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How American Dining Empowered Burgundy's Wine Ascendancy

Why Burgundy, not Bordeaux, is on the up and up.

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Burgundy wines.
Burgundy wines.
Levi Dalton

In most instances, when people think of fine wine, they think of Bordeaux. The elegant château, the old vintages, the historic classifications, the prestige. But in recent years Burgundy has attacked Bordeaux's top rank in the world of wine. Burgundy has gained ascendancy over Bordeaux and other wines today, and this shift upward is as striking for its dominance (39 of the world’s 50 most expensive wines are currently Burgundy, including the top three) as for how recent of a phenomenon it is.

Bordeaux ruled the wine market as recently as 15 years ago, and for most of the preceding one hundred years. Today, vineyard prices in Burgundy are at an all time high and still rising, while the Bordeaux market is so flat that English wine writer Jancis Robinson, who has covered the wines of Bordeaux for close to four decades, recently summed up the region's limp sales by noting that "the last four en primeur [Bordeaux] campaigns have been damp squibs." Robinson went on to opine that "too many Bordelais seem not to care that their wines are currently out of fashion with so many of the world's wine drinkers and, significantly, the opinion-forming sommeliers."

There are many reasons for Burgundy's dominance over Bordeaux ... But what has received little attention in the context of Burgundy is the changing nature of restaurant cuisine in America.

There are many reasons for Burgundy's dominance over Bordeaux, including a shift in the relative power of influential wine critics, the smaller production and rarity of certain Burgundy, and a reordering of emphasis from wine consumers less interested in star winemaking than in star vineyard sites. But what has received little attention in the context of Burgundy is the changing nature of restaurant cuisine in America.

In recent times, Burgundy has been championed in particular by American sommeliers working in restaurants, like Daniel Johnnes, who introduced Wall Street financial managers to Burgundy at the lower Manhattan restaurant Montrachet, Rajat Parr, who showcased Burgundy on the west coast while working for the Michael Mina restaurants, and Robert Bohr, who compiled a huge cache of Burgundy and developed a following for it at Cru, also in New York. When you examine the important changes in how people in America have decided to dine in restaurants and what chefs have chosen to serve, the stage set for Burgundy becomes more apparent. Burgundy has become the gold standard as a result of new decisions in dining.

4 X 2 and How People Eat in Restaurants

For many years, writers have observed that sommeliers are usually excited about different wines than the general population. Sommeliers today often like high acid, savory wines, while in the broader market the sales numbers show that many consumers prefer softer, fruitier wines. These figures are often cited by detractors as evidence that sommeliers are doing something wrong in choosing wines too much to their own taste, or by fans in support of sommeliers as champions of the new. In reality, sommeliers are responding to a different set of conditions than diners at home. In a home setting families generally share the same set of dishes. They eat the same menu together at dinner. But in restaurants people act differently. Parties want to try many different dishes.  So pairing a wine in a restaurant is a totally different proposition. This might be referred to as 4 X 2 wine pairing challenge: each of the four people at an average table order different entrées and share small amounts around the table or with their spouse, but they also order different appetizers. If one person chooses scallops for their starter, they might not want seafood for their entrée, they might want to vary their menu with red meat and get the beef. Their spouse is thinking similarly, but also with the knowledge that they can sample from the scallops or beef of their partner, so they might instead opt for the fluke and the duck, so that they can try several tastes throughout the meal. People often dine together as couples, and so this effect multiples in that an average table may be ordering eight different dishes between appetizers and entrées, but crucially, only want to start with one bottle of wine. It is common for diners to think that planning for one bottle of wine is a safer bet than expecting that everyone will drink so much that they will need two or more bottles.

When sommeliers discuss wine with tables, diners often ask them to pair one wine with eight different plates. This is referred to in the restaurant trade as a "bridge wine," a wine that pairs moderately well with a number of different foods and for that reason it's important to sommeliers and their wine programs. The benchmark bridge wine is a lighter red Burgundy and, in fact, when someone describes a wine as "Burgundian," they are generally referring to a more elegant flavor profile that can probably pair well with different foods. These kinds of wines are a solution for pairing both meat and fish with one wine. Diners at home don’t face this same pairing challenge, and are sometimes surprised that sommeliers are so fond of Burgundian wines. In fact, in American restaurants where diners might be expected to all have a similar kind of food, like in a steakhouse, the Cabernet heavy wines of Bordeaux are still very popular, as opposed to Burgundy.

Burgundy has become the gold standard as a result of new decisions in dining.

No More Heavy Sauces

American consumption of wine has been tied into thoughts about healthy dining since at least 1991 when a 60 Minutes report implied that red wine might contribute to less incidence of heart disease, at which point red wine sales amongst Americans skyrocketed. But what is less discussed is how plating has affected decisions about wine pairing in restaurants. As diners elected to move away from heavy, traditional sauces for their food with the aim of eating healthier, American chefs embracing the principles of nouvelle cuisine (which included rule number seven from the famous Ten Commandments of Nouvelle Cuisine: "Thou shalt eliminate rich sauces") began offering lighter infusions, and vegetable and fruit sauces instead of thicker, creamier dressings. Chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who opened his first New York City restaurant in 1991 and has been referred to as the person who "invented America’s answer to nouvelle cuisine," Charlie Palmer, who originally opened Aureole in 1988 and integrated fruit sauces into his dishes there, and David Bouley, who "wanted to get away from butter and cream and build a cuisine that was clean and full of energy" when he opened Bouley in 1987, ushered in a style of food that left cream off the plate. That ingredient shift encouraged diners to think about less tannic wines, as the effect of the traditional cream sauces was to coat the mouth and make tannic wines seem more appealing. Without those heavier sauces, ordering wines with softer tannins made sense, whether they be fuller bodied or lighter bodied.  America's shift toward healthier eats ultimately played into the hand of Pinot Noir and the Burgundy that is derived from it, as Pinot Noir is not in itself a tannic grape variety.

Fatty Proteins

As chefs thought about new ways to bring flavor to the table without heavy sauces, some eventually gravitated towards using fattier proteins in their dishes. Think about what New York chef David Chang did for the popularity of pork belly, for instance. Americans had indicated that they did not want creamy sauces because they believed the cream contained large amounts of fat, yet diners had less aversion to fatty cuts of meat. Sommeliers often found that higher acid wines could "cut" through the fattiness of such dishes to act as a pairing and, in fact, this was exactly what they proposed doing. Burgundy, as a higher acid red, benefited from this further change in culinary trends. Just as it benefited again from the backlash against those fatty proteins in the form of chefs working more with vegetables, as the lighter and mineral style of Burgundy is a match for many lighter vegetable preparations.

Higher Acid Food

When New York chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park recently noted that "Acid just makes food better," he was summing up a new trend of chefs working in the French idiom to cook with more acid. This was not lost on Humm or many of the other chefs who have introduced higher acid food to their menus, and it has not been lost on stalwarts of more traditional French cuisine, who often make the comment when tasting higher acid food that it is not wine-friendly. What those commentators often have in mind is in fact the red wines of Bordeaux, which are often built on tannins instead of acid. As chefs have recently moved towards higher acid in their cuisines, the higher acid wines of Burgundy have also become restaurant darlings in America, often displacing those Bordeaux listings.

As chefs have recently moved towards higher acid in their cuisines, the higher acid wines of Burgundy have also become restaurant darlings in America ...

More Sparkling Water Consumption, Few Soft Drinks

As Americans consume more bottled water and specifically more sparkling water, they may be priming their palates for a more high acid wine. Annual bottled water consumption for Americans reached 34 gallons per person in 2014, which is an 11 gallon lift from the 23.2 gallons consumed per person in 2004. Sparkling bottled water consumption also grew at a rate faster than any other type of water, and carbonated soft drinks declined in volume consumed in the United States in 2014, as they have done every year since the mid 2000s. The rise in the popularity of sparkling water is notable because carbonated water has a higher level of acidity than regular tap water.

Burgundy is Restaurant Service-Friendly

Burgundy can be served at a younger age than Bordeaux, and this has been helpful in an era where restaurant wine cellars have often shrunk, and restaurant owners are hesitant to sink money into wines that cannot be sold for many years. In addition, Burgundy rarely needs to be decanted, and so service is more straightforward and takes up less of the sommelier's time and fewer pieces of restaurant crystal.

Wine is Bought at Big Tastings

One fact that differentiates professional restaurant buyers from normal wine consumers is that sommeliers taste in large scale trade tastings, where a 100 or even a thousand wines may be lined up to try side by side. For many years these large-scale tastings were believed to contribute to the high sale of bold wines: big wines were more obvious standouts to tasters trying many wines at once. But the inverse is also true: high acid flavors also become easily recognizable in large tastings, where the bracing sensation of the acid can set a wine apart from its neighbors. As the flavor cues that sommeliers were looking for changed, their system of tasting continued to be just as helpful, and actually directed them toward higher and higher acid versions of Burgundy.

All in all, the changes in what restaurants serve have impacted the wines poured alongside. And ultimately, this has accounted for a rise in the fortunes of Burgundy.