Burgundy is clearly the region I have the more ties to. Half of my family is from Ladoix, in the Cote de Beaune and even though I never lived there and didn’t visit too often, it’s still by far the region whose wines I have tasted the most. Today I want to start with a little Burgundian history because, well I love history, and also because it has a significant impact on how Burgundy wines work.
First of all, Burgundy is named after the Burgundians, a German barbaric tribe that settled there in the late days of the Roman Empire before being assimilated into the Frankish (another German tribe) Kingdom. I always found it funny that the French are described as a Latin people when we have at least as much Celtic (the Gauls) or Germanic (Franks, Burgundians…) stock. But anyway, into the Frankish Kingdom goes Burgundy, the Frankish King Clovis converts to Catholicism and so do all his subjects. This is relevant because with Burgundy becoming catholic, two of the most important early Middle Ages monasteries are built in Cluny (in 910) and Citeaux (1098), right in Burgundy wine country.
Those two monasteries own and manage huge tracts of prime wine-growing country. Monks, being meticulous, started to notice that different parcels of land gave significantly different wines and so they decided to catalog those parcels, thus creating the notion of terroir which remains so important to Burgundy wines. Today there is roughly 1300 listed terroirs for Burgundy wines and it all started when those monks got bored and looked for a task to keep them occupied.
The next big break happens in 1363 when the King of France gives the Duchy of Burgundy to his youngest son, Philip the Bold. For all intents and purposes, the duchy then became a separate entity from France and one of its biggest rivals. The Burgundian court was one of the leading centers for culture and arts and became a major European power as the Dukes end up owning territories in what are today Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. It also created lots of trouble for the French Kingdom. And I mean real trouble : political assassinations, wars by proxy, kidnapping, extortion,… Oh and of course, the Dukes of Burgundy and the Kings of France were cousins, awkward…
In retrospect, those troubled times actually helped the wine industry. Why? Because Philip the Bold didn’t fuck around, that’s why. I mean he actually pulled the whole “The Bold” nickname, that’s pretty badass. In 1395, he published an edict banning the growing of the Gamay grape which he called “vile and disloyal” in order to protect the Pinot Noir grape and the higher quality wines it produced. The edict also banned the use of manure, in order to keep yields low, another move to improve wine quality. Philip the Bold was awesome. I wish I could just publish edicts like that, especially if I get to call other people vile and disloyal.
The problem is Philip’s great-grandson, Charles the Bold goes and gets himself killed while losing the Burgundian Wars to France and its allies in 1477, thus proving that there is such a thing as too bold. From this date on Burgundy has been part of France. So when the French Revolution seized and sold the estates belonging to religious orders, this decision applied to the wine growing lands of Citeaux and Cluny. They were bought by a multitude of middle-class producers, breaking down the big estates. A decade later, Napoleon imposed that all inheritance must be divided equally between children. That meant the already divided estates were divided further and further into smaller and smaller parcels. Even nowadays it’s not unusual for people to own just a row or two of vines. With people only owning small parcels it became necessary to gather grapes from different producers in order to have enough grapes to make wine. That need led to the appearance of negociants, wine producers who buy grapes from different owners in order to make their wines. Today’s negociants (many of whom are also owners) are the major players on the Burgundy wine scene.
So to sum up because I know I’m long winded when I talk about history, these are three significant history facts for Burgundy:
– Monasteries and the terroirs
– The independent Duchy of Burgundy and Pinot Noir protection
– The French Revolution, inheritance laws and the rise of the negociant