Terroirist Tuesday: Burgundy – Of Monks, Dukes, Bad Choices & Frickin’ Good Wine

Welcome to Terroirist Tuesday. As promised last week, today binNotes takes on Burgundy: Part 1.

Burgundy: Of Monks, Dukes, Bad Choices and Frickin’ Good Wine

by L. M. Archer, FWS

To understand Burgundy, you need to understand it’s history. Like many other wine regions, Burgundy’s history includes the usual suspects, with a few twists:

  • 52 BC: Roman conquest of native tribes by Celtic Eduens.
  • Surprise. Like most conquered regions, this one enjoys a strategic location – at the crossroads between Celtic and Roman empires, and along the travel-friendly Saône river.
  • The Roman Empire eventually crumbles,  leading to much sacking, pillaging, turmoil and hostile take-overs.
  • 450 AD: The Germanic tribe Burgondes arrive, settle and found the kingdom of Burgundia.
  • 534 AD: Germanic King Clovis incorporates Burgundia into his kingdom Frankland (today’s France).
  • 500-1500 AD: The Dark Ages unfold across Europe, including Burgundy. Much pestilence, famine, and gnashing of teeth.
  • Monks arrive during this time, bringing books, wine and prayers. It’s good to be good in the Dark Ages.
  • 909  AD: Benedictine monks found the Abbey of Cluny near Mâcon. Being good just got better.
  • 1098 AD: Splinter-group Cistercian monks found the Abbey of Citeaux between Dijon and Beaune.  (A habit (no pun intended) developed during the Dark Ages for wealthy landholders with guilty consciences to bequeath land (always their worst) to the Church as assurance of a place in Heaven. In the case of Citeaux, a marsh. The name ‘Citeaux’ refers to the cattails that grew there.)
  • 1114 AD:  The Cistercian Abbey of Pontingny founded in Chablis. More bad land gifted, another abbey built by industrious monks, more grapes planted. Lucky for grapes – they do best on poor soil!
  • 1363-1477: Dukes of Burgundy rule  the independent kingdom of Burgundy with an iron fist in a velvet glove. (Not to be confused with the Dukes of Hazzard…)
  • 1363-1404: Philip the Bold: Responsible for outlawing Gamay from Burgundy and touting Pinot noir as the ‘noblest’ of grapes. (Ok, so Phil the Bold  had a chip on his shoulder about lowly Gamay, but not the administrative resources to carry out this edict. Gamay continued on the DL as the grape of ‘commoners’ in Burgundy right up until the phylloxera epidemic of the 1800’s, when it succumbed an ugly death in this region, replaced by Pinot Noir.)
  • 1404-1419: John the Fearless.  Different Duke , new edict: This one solidifying the production zones of Burgundy between Sens to Macon in 1416.
  • 1419-1467: Philip the Good. There’s one in ever group. Not bold, not fearless…just Good. Good enough to build Beaune’s Hospices de Beaune in 1443. That’s more than good enough.
  • 1467-1477: Charles the Bold. ‘He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword’ – in this case, fighting against King Louis XI of France.  Bad choice. It’s a typical story of another bloody power struggle, this one resulting in Charles the Bold’s unfortunate death upon the battlefield, thereby ending the Dukes of Burgundy rule. The end of the Dukes, but not the region…

Thanks to the Dukes of Burgundy’s marketing skills, by the 17th century, Burgundy wines command ten times the price of other French wines. Sorry, Bordeaux. But wait…there’s more…

  • 1600-‘s-1700’s: French nobility and aristocracy take to strutting and fretting themselves across their newly built, opulent summer homes in the Loire Valley, choosing to inbibe the local wines as well. Burgundy wines take a tumble from their pedestal, and price points.
  • 1789: The French Revolution: Egalité, liberté, fraternité – and fractionalization of domaines once owned by aristocracy.
  • 1804: Welcom, Napoleonic Code: Further splintering of already shattered domaines by outlawing primogeniture.
  • 1847: First  double-barrelled Burgundy village Gevrey-Chambertin authorized,  beginning a marketing trend worth it’s weight in Corton-Charlemagne.
  • 1851: First Hospices de Beaune wine auction. Monies fund Hospices de Beaune charities, to make up for charitable contributions once provided by re-Revolution weathly domaines.
  • 1861: First Burgundy vineyard classification by the Agricultural Committee of Beaune. Pretty similar to the one today.
  • 1800’s: Phylloxera – more destruction of vineyards, this time physical, not legal.
  •  WWI (1914-1918) and WWII (1940-1945), decimate the labor pool. But not the country’s spirit.
  • 1936: AOC legislation formalized Burgundy’s climats.
  • 1986:  60% of Burgundy wine production = red wine.
  • 2000’s: 66% of Burgundy wine production = white wine. White wine sells. Just ask Chablis, Mâcon, and Côte de Beaune.

Today, Burgundy wines command breathtaking prices on the worldwide market. Is it hype, or deserved? Judging on my recent visit to Burgundy, while some domaines may rest on their laurels, most Burgundian wine growers, négociants and wine makers respect tradition, terroir, and take nothing for granted. The result? Some frickin’ good wine. In my estimation.

Oh, and just to repeat: Burgundians do not make Pinot noir. They make Burgundy.

Join me next Terroirist Tuesday as we drill down into each wine growing region within Burgundy, beginning with Chablis. Sante!

Copyrighted 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Previous Terroirist Tuesdays:

On Terroir

Bordeaux: Part 1 of 3: 2012 St.Émilion Classification Revision – WDIAM

Bordeaux, Part 2 of 3: There Will be Blood – and

Bordeaux, Part 3 of 3: Left Bank, Right Bank – WTBD

Corsica Part 1 of 2

Corsica, Part 2 of 2

Loire Valley: Part 1 of 3

Loire Valley: Part 2 of 3

Loire Valley: Part 3 of 3

Paso Robles: Of Outlaws, Outliers, and Old Vines

Paso Robles: Barking Up the Right Vine, Part 2

Willamette Valley: Something in the Soil

Woodinville Wine Country: Part 1 of 2

Woodinville Wine Country: Part 2 of 2

Ancient Lakes AVA – Cave B: A Tale of Terroir

Sonoma: Where Roots Run Deep

Sonoma: Part 1 of 3

Sonoma: Part 2 of 3

Sonoma: Part 3 of 3

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