The Celts were already making wine in Burgundy when the Romans conquered Gaul in 51 BC. To supply their soldiers and colonists, the Romans propagated the vine all along the east-facing slopes of the Saône river valley. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the monasteries moved in and, through the gradual accretion of land, became the dominant force in wine making. Already in 591, Gregory, bishop of Tours and author of the History of the Franks, thought it apt to compare burgundy to the Roman Grand Cru Falernian.
The Benedictines, who founded the Abbey of Cluny in 910, and the Cistercians, who founded the Abbey of Cîteaux in 1098, became especially implicated in wine making. These brothers in God soon developed a subtle consciousness of the influences of terroir on quality and character, and began to document vineyard and vintage variations with the utmost care. In 1336, the Cistercians created the first enclosed vineyard in Burgundy, the Clos Vougeot. As their wine symbolized the blood of their Lord, they refused to dilute it, marking an important and long-lasting shift from Roman and ancient practices.
The proud monks invested so much time, effort, and skill into their wine that the Avignon popes soon began to take notice, purchasing vast quantities to ease the pangs of their Babylonian captivity. So as to hold on to papal custom and preserve the quality and reputation of burgundian wines, Philip II the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, banned the cultivation of the ‘vile and disloyal’ Gamay grape. He also banned the use of manure as fertilizer, which by increasing yields decreased concentration. Thenceforth, red Burgundy could only be made from Pinot Noir or, as it was then known, Noirien. As for white Burgundy, it was being made not from Chardonnay as today but, most likely, from Fromenteau, an ancestor of or the same thing as Pinot Gris.
In the 18th century, roads improved significantly, facilitating the export of wine out of landlocked Burgundy. The wines of Burgundy began to vie with those of Champagne—which were then predominantly still and red—for the lucrative Paris market. They acquired such a reputation that, in 1760, the Prince de Conti felt privileged to acquire the Domaine de la Romanée, appending his name to the already famous estate.
After the absorption of the duchy of Burgundy into the French crown in the late 15th century, the church began to lose ground, and in the case of its vineyard holdings, quite literally so. In the wake of the French Revolution, the church’s remaining lands were confiscated and auctioned off as state property. Over the course of several generations, these new, laical holdings became increasingly subdivided as a result of the Code Napoléon, which stipulates that any inheritance is to be shared equally amongst every child. As a consequence, the Clos Vougeot counts over 80 separate proprietors, some of whom own no more than a few rows of vines. One important effect of this parcellation was to encourage the development of négociant houses, the first of which were established as early as the 1720s and 1730s.
In 1847, King Louis-Philippe of France gave the village of Gevrey the right to append to its name that of its most famous Grand Cru vineyard, Chambertin. Not to be outdone, other villages quickly followed suit, whence all the double-barrelled—pun intended—names lining the Route des Grands Crus (the N5 and N6 roads).
In 1855, the same year of the famous or, rather, infamous Bordeaux Classification, one Dr Jules Lavalle published an influential book with the snappy title of Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d’Or. Dr Lavalle’s book comprised an unofficial classification of the vineyards of Burgundy that formed the basis of the official classification adopted by the Beaune Committee of Agriculture in 1861. After the introduction of the French AOC system in 1936, most of the vineyards in the top tier of this 1861 classification acceded to Grand Cru status.
Like other wine growing regions, Burgundy then started to suffer, first from the phylloxera epidemic (which arrived in Meursault in 1878), then from the Great Depression, and more recently from the Second World War. Upon returning to their land after the Second World War, the growers began to enrich their devastated vineyards with chemical fertilizers. This worked well at first, but over the years the potassium contained in the fertilizers accumulated in the soil, leading to a fall in the quality of the harvest. From the mid 1980s, the assiduous application of modern vineyard management techniques has, by and large, put an end to this tragic trend.
Neel Burton is co-author, together with James Flewellen, of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.