Burgundy-RegionBurgundy has a rich history and has always been linked with agriculture and before the region was finally annexed to France in 1477, it was the richest of the ancient duchies of France. It has a 2000 year history of cultivating vines and making wine. The name Burgundy is interesting and it is said that the “Burgundii” that conquered the region in the latter part of the 5th Century AD thought to be from Savoy were originally from Scandinavia.

Whatever the history of the Burgundii, Burgundy wine existed in the region long before and enjoyed by earlier tribes settled in the region. What is clear is that with the invasion of Gaul by Julius Ceasar starting in 58 BC which to some degree was an attempt to try to prevent the region falling to Germanic tribes, came the cultivation of vines. Burgundy proved to be the decisive area in Ceasar’s conquest of Gaul where the Roman Armies met a combined force of Gaulish tribes under Vercingetorix at Alesia (about 60km north-west of Dijon) in September 52 BC and dealt a crushing blow bringing Gaul under Roman control.

At the end of the first Century AD Emperor Domitian created a famous edict to protect Italian wines by directing the destruction of all vineyards in the empire outside of Italy. This is how popular wine had become in Roman times and the trade was already building protectionist policies. There is a view that the decree amounted to a 50% reduction in vines outside of Italy and that Emperor Domitian’s rationale was a measure intended to improve quality.

What is clear is that with the invasion of Gaul by Julias Ceasar starting in 58 BC which to some degree was an attempt to try to prevent the region falling to Germanic tribes, came the cultivation of vines. Burgundy proved to be the decisive area in Ceasar’s conquest of Gaul where the Roman Armies met a combined force of Gaulish tribes under Vercingetorix at Alesia (about 60km north-west of Dijon) in September 52 BC and dealt a crushing blow bringing Gaul under Roman control.

At the end of the first Century AD Emperor Domitian created a famous edict to protect Italian wines by directing the destruction of all vineyards in the empire outside of Italy. This is how popular wine had become in Roman times and the trade was already building protectionist policies. There is a view that the decree amounted to a 50% reduction in vines outside of Italy and that Emperor Domitian’s rationale was a measure intended to improve quality.

The first actual evidence of vineyards in Burgundy comes from a petition signed by vineyard owners from Autun to Emperor Constantine in 312 AD asking that the taxes they pay be reduced due to the poor quality of their vines. Further evidence of the wines of the region comes around 600 AD, when Bishop Gregory of Tours provided a testimonial on the wines coming from the region just south of Dijon (Couchey, Chenove, Marsannay and Fixin). It is interesting that as the science of identifying and classification of grape varieties improves, the view that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay was brought to Burgundy from either the Greeks or the Romans is being challenged. There is a view that these grape varieties may well have been indigenous to the region.

Following the Burgundii, the Franks conquered a large area from what is now Provence all the way through to Northern Burgundy and thus started in the early 7th century the rise of the Church and its association with Burgundian vineyards.  The Dukes of Burgundy became generous patrons of the Church bequeathing land and vineyards to the church at Aloxe, Beaune, Vosne Romanée and most notably in Gevrey, land to the Abbey of Beze which was named the Clos de Beze and remains one of Burgundy’s greatest vineyards today. Perhaps the greatest contribution to Burgundy wine from the church came in 1100 AD when a Cistercian order created and built the Clos Vougeot (the wall around the vineyard was built later in 1336) which later became the largest Grand Cru vineyard in the region. It was perhaps the Cistercians who did more in terms of analysis than anyone in terms of the development of the wines of Burgundy.  Much of the early soil analysis and interpretation of the qualities of individual vineyards and the notion of “terroir” was undertaken passionately by the Cistercians.

Interestingly, the Church was seen to have the greatest vineyards, even better than those owned by aristocrats and the nobility in part because they had better record-keeping methods which provided invaluable information for successive generations of monks. All sorts of views on vineyard development, management and best practices were painstakingly recorded in journals. Another critical factor was the massive supply of free labour that the church could provide by means of monks and novices.  There was also a developmental freedom where wine was concerned insofar as any wine that fell short of the ideal quality was not lost as it was used for religious rites etc.

In 800 AD Emperor Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was crowned Emperor of the Romans and the Holy Roman Empire by Pope Leo III in recognition of Charlemagne coming to the Pope’s assistance defeating a rebellion against him. Charlemagne controlled a huge part of central, western and southern Europe and created standard weights and measures, customs duties and many policies and legislative processes that assisted commerce, uniting much of Europe. Charlemagne owned land in Aloxe and Pernand Vergelesses including the vineyards near the top of the hill and still known as Corton Charlemagne. He bequeathed these lands to Abbey of Saulieu augmenting the ecclesiastical holdings and domination of Burgundy vineyards. Two major additions to the Church’s dominance over vineyards and winemaking were the foundation of the Abbey of Cluny around 900 AD and right at the end of the 11th Century with the Cistercian monks building the Abbey of Citteaux planting vines widely in the Cote de Nuits.

Both the Cistercians and Benedictine orders were pioneers in making wine with the former cultivating vines in Chablis and the latter creating the Clos de Tart in Morey Saint Denis in the early 1100’s AD. The Church perhaps more so than noble Burgundian families dominated wine production from the 11th Century through to the start of the French Revolution of 1787.

Following the creation of the Duchy of Burgundy in the latter part of the 9th Century AD, corresponding to roughly the area we know today as the region of Burgundy, it was in 1364 when John II, King of France bequeathed the duchy to his son Philippe le Hardi (Philip the Bold) starting the line of the Valois-Bourgogne Dukes, independent of the Kings of France. This was the start of Burgundy’s so-called “golden” period where through a serious of conquests, treaties and marriages the Valois Dukes gained vast tracts of land including much of what would be today’s Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Alsace, Lorraine and other areas making them more powerful and richer than the Kings of France.

The wines of Burgundy were becoming prestigious, commanding high prices largely due to the quality and being enjoyed at court in Dijon by visiting royalty and dignitaries from all over the known world, served at sumptuous banquets that in some cases lasted for days (one can only imagine the foods, wines and frivolities at these events).  The Valois Dukes were assigned great names including Philippe le Hardi (Philip the Bold), Philippe le Bon (Philip the Good), Jean sans Peur (John the Fearless) and Charles le Téméraire (Charles the Rash) and so great was their period that in 1443 AD Duke Philippe Le Bon’s Chancellor, Nicolas Rollin and his wife Guigone de Salins created the Hotel Dieu known as the Hospices de Beaune. This is one of the great charitable institutions (and of the oldest) where wealthy nobles were encouraged to bequest tracts of land including vineyards to assist in the building and provision of hospitals and healthcare for the sick, poor and elderly. Since 1859, barrels of wine are auctioned every year from the vineyard holdings of the Hospices de Beaune raising major income for the charity (The Hospices have some 60ha of mostly Grand and Premier Cru vineyards throughout the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune along with more recently the Maconnais). It is somewhat paradoxical that a largely charitable nature that brought about the development of wine in Burgundy brought about such commercial success to the Church and Dukes.

The 15th Century was also a difficult time for Burgundy with the Hundred Years’ war between England and France that had started in 1337 AD and continued until the end of hostilities in 1453 AD. Such was the power of Burgundy at this time it was effectively an independent state and had allied with England during the conflict. Philippe Le Bon’s allegiance with England was less about any mutual love or understanding and more about his hatred of Charles VII of France, who he blamed for the murder of his father Philippe le Hardi (Philip the Bold), in 1419. The Treaty of Arrras in 1435 was intended to end hostilities between England and France and bring to an end the 100 years war. In reality, the treaty was a coup for the French who negotiated an end to hostilities with Burgundy reconciling the feud between King Charles VII of France and Philippe Le Bon. The alliance greatly benefited Charles VII by uniting France and eventually leaving Calais as England’s last possession in -France by 1453, thus bringing the Hundred Years’ war to a close.

The Valois Dukes were in many respects enlightened when it came to developing the business of wine and Philippe le Hardi (Philip the Bold) made proclamations such as forbidding the storage of any other wine than Burgundy to prevent the possibility of blending inferior wines with Burgundy.  Even before this, in the 12th Century an edict the “ban de vendanges” fixing the date harvests could start came into being. Those who ignored this and picked earlier would be fined or in the most extreme of cases, would have vineyard lands confiscated (by the 18th century the “ban de vendanges” became a political hot potato as it was seen as an instrument of dividing the classes i.e. the rich demand high quality wine and the poor want plenty of wine. Amazingly the “ban” was enshrined in law right until the end of the 19th century when it became optional).

In 1395 AD Philippe le Hardi forbade the planting of Gamay in his territories believing it to be inferior in quality to Pinot Noir. Gamay became important as an alternative to water (which was in most places unfit for drinking) and as a source of calories especially for the peasantry in general. Gamay had the advantage of being extremely prolific and its yields were in general three times greater than those of Pinot Noir.

A further problem came in the 15th Century with the arrival of an unwanted pest, the beetle, which ravaged a number of vineyards (interestingly Camille Rodier in his 1920 tome on wine and vineyards referred to this as phylloxera). Finally, the period of the Valois Dukes is brought to an end in 1477 with the death of Charles le Téméraire (Charles the Rash) and Burgundy is brought back into line by being annexed by the kingdom of France.

Although, the wines of Burgundy were popular in the regions under the control of the Valois Dukes, given the region’s land-locked nature, it was harder to transport wines significant distances as easily as say Bordeaux and Sherry which were shipped via sea-routes to various countries including England. Chablis fared a little better in the 16th Century as it was closer to Paris which became a major market for the wine and close to the Yonne river which connected with the Seine and allowed the wine to be loaded on to barges and smaller vessels. As a new part of France, Burgundy enjoyed some advantages where new roads were constructed along with canals that linked the Saône with the rivers Seine and the Loire thus providing a greater capacity for distributing the wines of Burgundy.

The wines of Burgundy began to gain in their notoriety with various French Kings patronising and ordering their favourite examples. Louis XI was said to favour the wines of Volnay and Louis XIV was supposedly prescribed Romanée Saint Vivant for his ailments.

By the early 18th Century wine was a major trade in Burgundy and in part due to the scale it was often uneconomic for small estates to make, bottle, market and distribute wines in small quantities.  This led to a new development and the rise of the “négociants” firm starting with Maison Champy in 1720. These “négociants” firms took some of the associated risks from grape growers and small wine estates by either purchasing grapes (and vinifying the wine) or the first fermented must (and undertaking the elevage) and in some instances the finished wine (aging the wine in their cellars), labelling, sometimes bottling, marketing and distributing the wine. Soon more “négociants” followed with Bouchard Pere et Fils in 1731, Louis Latour in 1797, Domaine Faiveley in 1825, Jadot in 1851 and Maison Joseph Drouhin in 1880. The distinction between a grower, domaine and “négociants” is not easily made as importantly, most of the famous “négociant” firms are also major owners of vineyards.

One of the most dramatic changes came to the vineyards of Burgundy from 1789 with the advent of the French Revolution where vineyard lands were confiscated from Church, aristocrats and many landed gentry and noble families and sold off often in public auctions known as “biens nationaux” (literally “for the good of the country”).  In truth, most were sold to rich merchants and the peasant classes gained less than 20% of the vineyards with almost all being less prestigious sites.

This helped sub-divide an already patchwork of ownership of Burgundian vineyards and further fragmentation occurred with the adoption of Code Napoleon in the early 1800’s which changed the inheritance law where land holdings had to be divided equally amongst all heirs. To a great extend this is how the “négociants” became so important to the Burgundy wine trade as it became impossible for many small vineyard owners to produce sufficient wine to make it financially viable. Interestingly, Napoleon was a great champion of the wines of Burgundy and his tipple of choice was Chambertin where he would take significant quantities wherever he was campaigning.

In the mid 1800’s odium was first seen in vineyards around Beaune, a fungus which presents itself as a powdery mildew that attacks the vines shoots and leaves and can cause serious damage savagely restricting yields. It took around 6 years to determine that powdered sulphur was the most effective treatment though, in some cases growers and estates were brought to ruin losing several crops and ultimately their vines and estates.  This almost seemed like the pre-cursor to something altogether more devastating that became an unprecedented crisis in French vineyards including those of Burgundy. Phylloxera Vastatrix a parasite that destroyed vines hit Burgundy from around 1875 onwards and for over 10 years of trying (it must be noted that at this time almost 15% of the French working population derived their income from the wine trade) to find a treatment that would destroy the bug, a novel solution was found. French vines were grafted onto American rootstock that was found to be resistant to Phylloxera and no negative consequences were associated to wines produced from the grafted vines.

There were a few major consequences of Phylloxera in Burgundy the first, many growers and winemakers went out of business bringing a level of poverty to some. A more positive legacy was that over time into the 20th Century, Burgundy was re-planted using the concepts of Dr Guyot by planting in rows and re-planting in the best sites. Previously, the vineyards of Burgundy were densely planted between 24,000-30,000 vines per hectare (now 9,000 vines per hectare is the norm). Dr Guyot’s system of training and pruning is still very much the standard used by winemakers in Burgundy today.

In part due to the ravages of phylloxera coupled with the economic depression following the First World War, small growers for the first time were able to get their hands on top tier vineyards. Many growers tried to get what they could for their vineyard holdings or as a last resort simply abandoned them. This was especially the case for the steep and difficult to work vineyards and parcels where the effort and cost of working the vineyard could not justify any fiscal benefit (interestingly, such hallowed vineyards including Cros Parantoux in Vosne Romanée and Les Folatières in Puligny Montrachet were by and large abandoned and only re-planted and worked again from the 1950’s).

In 1861, the first attempt at a classification system for Burgundy was produced by Dr Jules Lavalle in his “Histoire et statistique de la Vigne et des Grand Vins de la Cote d’Or”, who undertook a concerted analysis of Burgundy’s vineyards dividing them into 3 distinct categories. Classification was seen as an important issue and even in the early 15th Century King Charles VI stated that the term Burgundy could only be applied to wines produced in the area of Sens (20kms north of Auxerre) which included Chablis and the Auxerre down to the region of Beaune. Lavalle had based his work in part on two previous works “Œnologie Française” by Jean-Alexandre Cavoleau in 1827 and “Statistique de la Vigne en Cote d’Or” by Dr Denis Morelot in 1831. These works themselves based much of their thinking on the writings of the Cistercians.

The case for implementing an official classification system was gaining grounds in part because of the development of the railways which were connecting France especially north-south with the introduction of the Paris-Lyon-Marseille line. Following phylloxera, there was a shortage of good wines in many regions including Burgundy. This lead to a number of unscrupulous Burgundian merchants meeting their client’s thirsty demands by purchasing much cheaper wines from the Midi in quantity, judiciously blending them with Burgundian Pinot Noir and efficiently shipping the wines using the railway system. This helped to bring about a further major problem namely the increase in wine frauds.

As conditions became worse at the beginning of the 20th Century, the French Ministry of Agriculture realised that something had to be done to protect small growers and uphold the integrity of the wine by establishing physical boundaries. In the 1920’s Camille Rodier in his book “Le Vin de Bourgogne” took much of what Lavalle had done creating 1st, 2nd and 3rd cuvées and this principle was taken on by various commentators including Alexis Lichine and Andre Simon.

Finally, in 1935, the French created the “Institut National des Appellations d’Origine” (INAO) and it was starting in the summer of 1935 that Burgundy adopted the system of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). This first step essentially gave the consumer a guarantee of the wines place and authenticity and following this through 1936 and 1937, the classification of quality through Grand Cru, Premeir Cru and Village vineyards closely utilising element of Dr Lavalle and Camille Rodier’s analysis of Burgundy’s vineyards. In many ways the introduction in Burgundy of the AOC system resurrected the idea of quality  and re-applied the notion of terroir.

The 1930’s was another challenging period for Burgundy with the repercussions of prohibition in the USA followed by the financial crisis and the loss of many international clients for their wine as a result of the economic crash. There was also a battle quietly on-going between the large “négociants” houses and merchants against individual growers. Some of the powerful “négociants” were resistant to the initiatives resulting from the ideas being brought in by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Historically, the “négociant” or merchant purchased a range of wines from growers bulking them up (e.g. using a range of Échezeaux from various growers) and rarely included the name of the grower on the

subsequent labels. Some of the leading growers along with the likes of the Hospices de Beaune organised campaigns and tastings trying to re-assure buyers of the provenance of their wines in order to combat blended and fraudulent wines.

A consequence of the battle between powerful “négociant” and merchant interests against those of the independent grower lead to one of the most significant innovations for the region. Domaine bottling was pioneered by the likes of Domaine de la Romanée Conti and the Gros family in the latter part of the 19th Century and then augmented by a new band of independent growers from the late 1920’s including Marquis d’Angerville , Henri Gouges, Armand Rousseau, Ponsot, Comte de Vogüé Lamarche, Ramonet, Francois Jobard and others. This started to create a small revolution and soon internationally those growers bottling their own wines started to gain a major reputation.

Even by the 1950’s it was tough for the independent Domaines to make any money and in most cases the owners of these estates had to provide other means of income to simply allow their domains to survive. It must be remembered that prior to the 1970’s over 90% of Burgundy wine was purchased and bottled by “négociants” and merchants.  The transition for many Domaines was tough as hitherto most were not used to undertaking the elevage of their wines and keeping them in barrel for 12-24 months tying up large amounts of capital.

From the 1970’s to the 1990’s, the Domaines become more practiced in the art of bringing on their wines, bottling and distributing the wines and attracting new customers from all over the world. In many respects the general level of quality of the wines improved no doubt assisted by the growing incomes many of the Domaines were experiencing.  Although, today the “négociants” still bottle the majority of Burgundy’s wines, in the main the best wines are bottled by independent growers.

Perhaps the most significant result of Domaine-bottling is the development of the estate “brand”. Those considered as the best have none of the historic problems and in fact the biggest issue they have is reducing their allocations to long-established clients as the international demand simply cannot be met. Think Coche-Dury, Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Roumier, Rousseau and others. In these cases the demand far exceeds the supply and this has had such a major impact on prices.

A further impact and one that has perhaps had unforeseen consequences is the incredible increase in the value of Burgundy vineyards. Even since 2000, prices have increased sharply and Burgundy is by some distance the most expensive place to buy vineyards. The staggering prices in the Cote de Nuits and the Cotes de Beaune have resulted in even most of the top Domaines being thwarted in terms of growth by purchasing more vineyards.  Only the international mega-rich and large organisations such as LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) can afford to buy Burgundian vineyards. This in turn has lead to many Domaine’s creating their own micro-“négociant” arms where they either join the queue to buy grapes or purchased must or wine in order to try to further develop their businesses.  This phenomenon does not look likely to abate in the foreseeable future.