Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Burgundy vs. Champagne

Burgundy and Champagne are engaged in a genteel public relations battle right now to be France's next candidate to be a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The impetus actually comes from Bordeaux, where the government fought to run a highway through several famous vineyards, including some of Chateau Margaux's. That plan is shelved for now, but it sent a chill through vineyard owners across France.

The petitions for both regions are ambitious: the idea is to declare all the vineyards a World Heritage Site. While Champagne is not small, Burgundy represents nearly 5% of France's land.

France, like all countries, is only allowed to nominate one place per year. France already has 33 World Heritage Sites, and it's about time for a wine-related one. The question is, which one? It's only a decision between the world's best sparkling wine region and a region on the short list for the world's best still wines.

Corrected: Currently Unesco has three vineyard areas listed as World Heritage Sites. Two are not known for their wine. One is in Pico Island, Portugal; the other is in Lavaux, Switzerland. St. Emilion in Bordeaux is also a World Heritage Site, but the historic "churches, monasteries and hospices" in the town were used as a qualification; this might not be the case for Burgundy or Champagne.

Several other regions have applications pending before Unesco, and they're a step up wine-wise: the Cape Region of South Africa, the Italian regions of Langhe, Roero, Monferrato and Valtellino, and Valle Calchaqui in Argentina.

It's interesting that only the Cape Region could be said to produce that country's best wines. Unesco generally goes for buildings and landscapes and history, not wine quality. Adding Burgundy or Champagne, which are pastoral but nowhere near as pretty as, say, Central Otago, might change the way Unesco thinks about its World Heritage Sites, and as a wine lover, I approve of that idea.

The leaders of the movements in the respective regions talk about increasing tourism, but I think that's silly. Most people don't need the UN to tell them Burgundy and Champagne are famous, and Burgundy in particular probably can't handle much more tourist traffic than it gets now. In fact, doubling the number of tourists would create strains on the infrastructure that would defeat the purpose of being named a World Heritage Site in the first place.

I wonder about unforeseen consequences like these. Would wineries have difficulty upgrading their facilities? This would be a hassle in both regions, especially for small vineyard owners who are, for example, making their own grower Champagne for the first time.

I'm glad I'm not the French bureaucrat making the decision between the two regions. It's tempting to penalize Champagne for its greed in expanding its area, but no wine region in the world has more interesting history. And Burgundy is just so big -- but it's probably the mecca for wine lovers, even more so than Champagne.

The decision is due at the end of the year. Uncharacteristically, I'm going to take a pass on making a choice for now, but I'd like to read what you think.


Sam Goth said...

Easy choice for me-Burgundy.
Why? Terrior is prized above all. Champagne and Bordeaux are more about blends that while fascinating and delicious, just don't bring forth that extra level of individuality Burgundy provides.

Just my 2 cent's worth.

King Krak, I Drink the Wine said...

I'm going off the board and voting for the vineyards of the Chateau Chalon appellation in the Jura.

W. Blake Gray said...

Interesting suggestion, King. Want to make the case? Believe it or not, some people in the French government related to wine read this blog.

Tyler said...

Hi Blake,

Just a heads up that Saint-Emilion already holds that distinction:

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks, Tyler. Here's a case of thinking you know something you don't: when I was in St. Emilion last year, the vintners all told me the town, not the vineyards, were the Unesco site. Looking at the petition it seems that both are part of it.