Burgundy Overview : Wine History -Blame the Monks!


Map of Burgundy. Image Courtesy of: Wine Folly

The Quick Sip on Burgundy:

Location: East Central France

Climate: Cool - Continental

Area: 140 miles from north to south

Soil: Limestone - Marl and Kimmeridgian (north) and granite (south)

Top Grapes: Chardonnay (white) and Pinot Noir (red)

Major Regions: Chablis, Côte d'Or (Côte de Nuit and Côte de Beaune), Côte Chalonnaise, and Mâconnais

Classifications/Hierarchy: 24 regional AOCs, 44 Village AOCs, 635 Premier Cru Vineyards, 33 Grand Cru Vineyards AOCs

What is the Big Deal with Burgundy?

There have been few wine growing regions in the world that command the respect and price that many Burgundy wines do. Burgundy not only sets the standard for terroir influenced wines, but also is the culmination of thousands of years of history, where events in history have directly affected the region and the way the grapes are currently planted, how the wines are produced, and who owns them.

A Brief History of Burgundy

After occupation by the Roman Empire, then barbarian tribes, the Germanic Burgondes settled in the area in 450 AD calling it Burgundia. In 534 Clovis, king of the Franks absorbed Burgundia and the barbaric tribes of Gaul and voila: France was born. When Clovis converted to Christianity, Burgundy became the epicenter of Catholicism and monastic power.

Blame the Monks

There was a thousand year period where much of Burgundy was under the control of the Benedictine and Cisterian monks. These literate, systematic, and patient monks began the process of classifying the land that was bestowed upon them. These monks studied and tended to limestone slopes of the Côte d'Or growing vines and comparing the wines made from each site--many of the most famous vineyards were named by the monks during this period. The monks studied the land so thoroughly, they established the importance of terroir of viticulture. The intimate relationship between the monks and the "pious" nobility (i.e. those seeking pardons) saw the proliferation of Burgundian wines in the chalices of popes, French kings, and the nobility.

Takeaway: Monks classified the soils of Burgundy, determining the best plots of land, the current Grand Crus and Premier Cru sites

This utopia of growth under the monastic orders came crashing down with the French Revolution of 1789, which saw the confiscation of lands from the Church and its distribution to the farmers who worked the vineyards. Burgundy vineyards were further fragmented by the Napoleonic code of 1804, which required all children, upon their parents' demise, to inherit equally. The fragmentation of lands saw the rise of negociants (e.g. Louis Jadot), who would buy grapes from vineyards and make wines under their own label. The current trend are for each landowner of Burgundy to make their own wines under their own label, aided by importers, such as Kermit Lynch.

Takeaway: Fragmentation of vineyards means multiple owners of different parts of vineyards, some growers own parts of multiple vineyards. Fragmentation also means the rarity of the monopole - vineyards with only one owner.

Epitome of Terroir

The monks were the first pioneers of defining what terroir is and what its true importance is to viticulture.

The beauty of Burgundy is the different types of limestone that have been layered after each geological period--each layer is different, dictated by the dominant sea creature of the time. The youngest deposits are in Chablis, whereas the oldest (exposed) soils are in the Mâconnais. The Alps and the slopes were created by continental shifts, thereby exposing a millions of years' worth of soil at one time. Each soil type imparts different characteristics on the expressive Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.

Terroir is not, however, just soil type, but also sun exposure (aspect), rainfall, and drainage, all which affect the quality of grapes. The monks, in their meticulous studies of the land, had identified where the best vines flourished, where the Grand Crus are currently located (mid slope).

Burgundy Classifications According to the Monks

Grand Crus - Pope wine - mid slope - moderate amount of topsoil and sufficient rain (i.e. good drainage and enough topsoil)

Premier Crus - Cardinal wine - top of the slope - thinnest topsoil and least rain & bottom mid slop - moderate topsoil and heavier rain

Village Wines - wines for Monks - bottom of the slope - heaviest soils and most rain

Burgundy + Pinot Noir & Chardonnay = Match Made in Heaven

Burgundy's cool climate allows pinot noir and chardonnay to slowly ripen over time, giving these nuanced and complex wines an elegance without being overburdened by a heavy body. The diversity of limestone is what gives Burgundy wines their unique vivacious minerality.

However, the erratic weather patterns of Burgundy give no guarantee of quality, despite location. Burgundy suffers from late frost and late rains that have growers biting their nails about the survival of their harvest, thus vintages matter. A very cool year with minimal sun exposure results in wines that are thin and bland, late rains could lead to waterlogged fruit and possible rot, decreasing the quality of juice.

A Burgundy in a good year, however, is not an experience to be missed, but sipped and savored. A year in the life of grapes.

For further exploration of terroir, read my friend Matthew Forgey's (CS) post about California Terroir here.

Writing this and future posts about Burgundy took a lot of effort and resources, including, not only Internet sources, but also GuildSomm, Wine Folly, The Wine Bible, Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World : Complete Wine Course, Nancy Milby's French Wine Class(es) at LCA Wine, and Mitchell (FWS) - who let me bug him constantly.

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