The Aligoté grape and Felix Kir

Some would say that describing the aligoté grape as chardonnay’s poor relation, is an insult to chardonnay!

Felix Kir - Mayor of Dijon 1945 to 1968

Felix Kir - Mayor of Dijon 1945 to 1968

In the 8c white wine grapes were reputedly introduced to the Hill of Corton, just to the north of Beaune. It was upon the insistence of Luitgard, the fourth wife of the Emperor Charlemagne, after she tired of seeing his white beard repeatedly stained by red wine. These vineyards are now planted with chardonnay, and a large holding is in the hands of biodynamic estate Domaine Bonneau du Martray, a favourite producer of Queen Elizabeth II

Aligoté and Chardonnay were both indigenous grape varieties of Burgundy. However Chardonnay was the easier grape to grow, and deemed more appealing to popular taste. In the same way that the Pinot Noir grape, (which had the support of the Dukes of Burgundy) replaced Gamay, to become the predominant red grape variety in the region, so the Aligoté vines were moved out onto low lying areas where the grape was never going to give of its best.  When poor location is combined with ‘traditional’ farming techniques, (no ploughing, artificial fertilisers, pesticides etc), the results can be poor indeed.

Felix Kir was a Catholic priest with character, and a prominent member of the French Resistance. After the war in 1945 he was made the Mayor of Dijon, a position he held until his death in 1968. As Mayor, he would serve his guests an aperitif, mixing a small quantity of Creme de Cassis de Dijon (blackcurrant liquor), with the local white wine aligoté. The drink went down so well, it became world famous, and is now named after him – Kir. The acidity of the Aligoté grape is countered by the sweetness of the liquor, which makes it well suited to serving with ‘amuse bouches’ or ‘canapes’. 

Of late we have been tasting a number of Aligotés from biodynamic producers, where the vines are more than 60 years old and still remain in prime sites. The results have been a revelation. In fact there is nothing second rate about this grape at all, and in the hands of a good winemaker, it is capable of producing a wine that can easily hold its own with  chardonnay. It is also considerably better value. It goes well with food, and particularly with cheese.

Jean Fournier, who is producing some beautiful wines in Marsannay, makes a balanced, fruit filled biodynamic aligoté from 80 year old vines on the western side of the 974 heading towards Dijon from the south.  It is one of our favourite wines, and can be purchased from the Wine Club together with the other wines from this estate.

The Different Faces of the Burgundy Vineyards

Slumbering in the hazy winter sunshine of a mid January Sunday afternoon, is the wine village of Vôsne Romanée.  This mythical place, rich in history, blessed with a unique terroir, is the birthplace of some of the world’s most sought after, and correspondingly expensive wines.

The winter months are an interesting time to walk the vines.  In the summer months there is green foliage, whereas in the winter, all is laid bare.

The winter months are an interesting time to walk the vines.  In the summer months there is green foliage, whereas in the winter, all is laid bare.

Winemaking in Vôsne was founded by the monks of St Vivant in the 12C. The monks lived on the Hill of Vergy, 10km from Vôsne, and the route they followed is now marked out and known as the ‘Chemin des Moines’ ‘The Path of the Monks’. There is a plaque on the property where they took their harvests, paying homage to this illustrious history.

The vines of Romanée-Conti

The vines of Romanée-Conti


Many of the vineyards in Vôsne are farmed biodynamically.  This immaculately tended vineyard of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has furrows between the vine rows. They were ploughed in December.  The soil is piled up against the base of the vine to provide additional protection to the root system for the cold winter months. Ploughing aerates the soil and encourages the decomposition of inert matter, which in turn provides nutrients to feed the vine. At the same time, lateral roots are severed by the plough, encouraging the main roots to go deeper into the strata, contributing depth, originality and complexity to the wine.

A chemically farmed vineyard in Vsne Romanée

A chemically farmed vineyard in Vsne Romanée

At the other end of the spectrum, are the acres of vineyards still farmed in what is euphemistically described as a ‘traditional’ manner, but 'chemically' would be a more apposite description.  The use of herbicides has killed off vegetal growth between the rows.  Tractors have compacted the ground, and instead of ploughing, artificial fertilisers are spread on the surface, which discourages the roots from penetrating deeper, and further damages the micro organisms in the soils where the roots are feeding. The immune system of the vines is weakened, so protection from pests and fungi is obtained by the use of pesticides and fungicides, adding more chemicals to the soils.  The wines produced from such a vineyard tend to be lacking in fruit and vitality, with no individuality or connection to the terroir.

Vineyards like this can sadly still be seen all along the Côte. It just seems more striking when the plot happens to be alongside the ‘Chemin des Moines’!

The Burgundy of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon awakening to immortanlity - Parc Noisot, Fixin

Napoleon awakening to immortanlity - Parc Noisot, Fixin

Clos Napoleon in Fixin

Clos Napoleon in Fixin


Napoleon Bonaparte (or Buonaparte), was born in Ajaccio, Corsica on August 15th 1769.  After his defeat at the battle of Waterloo on 30th of March 1815, Bonaparte was forced to abdicate.  He was exiled to the Island of Saint Helena and died there on May 5th 1821.

In 1778, as a boy of nine, Napoleon left his native Corsica with his father and his brother Joseph, and travelled to the French mainland to attend school in Autun (Saône et Loire). Joseph remained there for the duration of his studies, but Napoleon stayed just long enough to learn to speak, read, and write French, under the watchful eye of the Abbot Chardon. He left after three months, having been admitted to the School of Brienne (Aube).  At school Napoleon excelled in mathematics, showed a great interest in geography, but history remained his favourite subject. He was judged capable of entering the Corps of Cadets-Gentilhommes at the military school in Paris.

Between 1788 and 1791 he trained at the Auxonne Artillery Academy.  It was supposedly during this stay in Burgundy that Bonaparte acquired a taste for Chambertin wine. Already in the 7th century, the Monks of the Abbey of Bèze produced a high quality wine within their Clos de Bèze in Gevrey. Their peasant neighbour, Bertin, produced a fine wine as well, and at his death, the Monks from Bèze acquired his land called the ' Champ de Bertin' (Bertin's field). Thus the Chambertin wine got its name.  Bonaparte is said to have drunk half a bottle (cut with water) with every meal.  The wine merchants Soupé et Pierrugues made an agreement with Bonaparte that he would always have a bottle of Chambertin available, even in the midst of battle.

After taking up the position of commander-in-chief of the Italian army in 1796, Napoleon arrived in Chatillon-sur-Seine with his brother Louis.  They stayed with one of his school friends, Auguste-Frédéric-Louis Viesse de Marmont (later Marechal Marmont) and his family, at their chateau called “Chatelot.”  A young lady, Victorine de Chasteny played the piano, and sang at his request. She was more than surprised at his sudden departure for Chanceaux, where he spent one night. He had already met Marie Rose Josephine Tascher de la Pagerie (Josephine de Beauharnais), and perhaps she was on his mind instead.

When Napoleon returned from Egypt in 1799, he headed for Paris by way of Chalon-sur-Saône and Nevers. This same year, he was voted Premier Consul of the Republic and stayed in Dijon.  In May of 1800, Napoleon settled at his Dijon headquarters for a few days in the Bouhier de Lantenay Town-House (the current Prefecture).  This same year, Napoleon created the Bank of France, the Prefects, established the Senate, the Tribunal, the new constitution, and escaped an assassination attempt.

Encouraged by Napoleon's desire for the re-establishment of Roman Catholicism as the state religion in France, Pope Pius VII negotiated the celebrated Concordat, which was signed in Paris on the 15th July 1801, and ratified by Pius on the 14th August 1801.

Between the 9 and 11 January of 1802, Napoleon travelled to Lyon to be elected President of Italy. On his way, he spent the night in Lucy-le-Bois, passed through Saulieu, ate dinner in Autun, slept in Chalon-sur-Saône, and had lunch in Tournus. With all this travel, Napoleon still had time to restructure the French educational system, sign the Treaty of Amiens with England, and create the Legion of Honour. His reforms were so popular that he was proclaimed First Consul for life on May 18th 1804. Shortly after this event, Napoleon opened negotiations with Pope Pius to secure his consecration as Emperor. The Pope conceded and Napoleon Bonaparte was subsequently crowned Emperor in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris on December 2nd 1804.

On his way to Italy in 1805, Napoleon stopped in Chalon-sur-Saône with his entourage. At exactly the same time, Pope Pius passed through Chalon with his train of 16 cardinals and church dignitaries. It was out of the question that either the Emperor or His Holiness stay at an inn, so an appeal was made for a house that could accommodate 106 people in total. The widow, Madame Chiquet, offered her grand residence, one of the biggest and most comfortable in Chalon,.

 Visits of this house can be arranged through the Service Animation du Patrimone in Chalon-sur-Sâone 03 85 93 15 98. The monumental stairway, which occupies one third of the structure, is a classified historical monument.

Napoleon, who relied heavily upon horses to conduct his empire’s battle campaigns, ordered the creation of 30 breeding farms across France. These stud farm and stallion deposits were installed in former religious buildings, including the former abbey of Cluny. The abbey of Cluny was founded in the 10th century and grew to be the centre one of the largest and most important monastic movements in the Middle Ages. It's twelfth century church, known as Cluny III, was the largest church in Christiandom until the building of Saint Peter's in Rome in the 16th century. The abbey church and it's surrounding buildings were tragically demolished at the time of the French revolution, and the stone was used for building other structures in the town, including the stud farm.

 In summer, the National Stud of Cluny offers horse shows or events, and visits for individuals and groups at certain times of the year.

Haras National de Cluny 2, rue Porte des Prés
Cluny 71250
tel: 03 85 59 85 19


Napoleon continued to wage war on England, but after a massive naval defeat at Trafalgar, he turned his attention toward Austria and Russia. He won a decisive victory at Austerlitz, but his invasion of Russia in 1812 was catastrophic for France.

In January of 1814, European sovereigns invaded France. Mâcon (Saôn et Loire) had been taken by the Austrians, who were now advancing north toward Tournus. Some 300 soldiers and peasants from Tournus, Chalon-sur-Saône and Saint Jean de Losne (Côte d'Or),  marched south to lend a hand, and they managed to liberate Mâcon. On the 22nd of May 1815, Napoleon decided to honour and thank the trusty band by awarding the towns with the Legion of Honour (which he himself had created in May 1802). Tournus is one of the few towns to have the distinction of displaying the symbol of the legion of honour on its town crest.

Napoleon surrendered on March 30th 1814, and went into exile on the island of Elbe. However he then escaped the island, and returned to power and to war mongering.

In March of 1815 Napoleon travelled to Auxerre, to the Prefecture of the Yonne, where he received Marechal Ney. After Napoleon's exile, Ney swore allegiance to King Louis XVIII, but he turned coat in Auxerre, and later fought once more beside Napoleon. His actions at the battle of Waterloo were greatly criticised, and he was tried and executed, and Napoleon exiled this time permanently, to the Island of Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.

However even after the death of the Emperor, his faithful soldiers of Burgundy continued to honour him.

The oldest café in Burgundy was founded in 1830 by one of Napoleon's “grognar” (soldiers of Bonaparte's Old Guard – the most faithful as well as the most experienced). It still exists today – heading towards Dijon from Gevrey, it is on the right hand side of the Route National – it is painted pink, the entrance surrounded by a peculiar rock structure, and looks as if it would be more at home on a beach in Brittany. It was first called 'le relais du soldat de Napoléon', then the 'café du Rocher 'to become the ‘Table du Rocher’. It is so named because of the decor of rocks, combined with the original wall paintings from the 19th century depicting Napoleon's various campaigns. The entrance to one of the rooms has been carved from rocks in the shape of the island of Corsica.  It presently serves traditional Burgundian fare using fresh, seasonal ingredients.

 La Table du Rocher, 58 Route de Beaune, 21160 Marsannay-La-Côte

Tel: 03 80 52 20 75.

Claude Noisot, a Burgundian born officer of Napoleon's Imperial Guard (another grognard), followed Napoleon into exile on the Island of Elbe. After returning from Elbe and retiring to Fixin (Côte d'Or), Noisot decided to honour his leader by creating a park and a musuem. The park was planted with laricio pines from Corsica between 1830 and 1840, and 100 steps were cut into the rock to commemorate the 100 days of Napoleon's return to power between the 1st of March and the 18th of June 1815. Noisot, a native of Auxonne, commissioned a bronze sculpture called “Napoleon Awakening” (to immortality) from his friend and well-known Dijon sculptor, François Rude. Then he created the Napoleon Bonaparte museum building which is modelled on Napoleon's house of exile on Elbe. The musuem contains momentos from the Napoleonic period. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, future president of the Republic and future emperor, Napleon III, inaugurated the museum in 1847.

Parc Noisot c/o Mairie 21220 Fixin

Tel. 03 80 52 45 62 and/or 03 80 52 45 52
Fax. 03 80 51 09 64

Apparently on Saint Helena Napoleon said to his valet Marchand, “Believe me Marchand, when I'm no longer of this world, buy a piece of land in Burgundy, it's the land of the brave. I am loved there and you shall be loved there too because of me.”

The vineyard 'Le Clos Napoleon' is a monopole of Pierre Gelin, winemaker of Fixin, and just opposite the vineyard is the restaurant 'Au Clos Napoleon' Rue de la Perriere, 21220 Fixin Tel 03 80 52 45 63

By Kelly Kamborian and Paul Thomas

See our article in the November 2015 issue of Wine Connoisseur magazine

Burgundy - The Wine - Guest Blog by Kelly Kamborian

Kelly has Master's degree in Classical Archaeology from Brown University, United States. She has been a resident of Dijon for the last 20 years and has an in-depth knowledge of the history of Burgundy. 

It was in the early part of the first millennium that the Romans decided that the the strip of land between Beaune and Dijon was particularly well suited to vines. The wines produced were exported to all parts of the Roman Empire, including back home to Italy.  This perhaps was the start of the rivalry between French and Italian winemakers, because in 92AD Emperor Domitian decreed that vine growing outside of the Italian peninsula was forbidden.  He even ordered that foreign vine plants be dug up!  This somewhat extreme reaction to the arrival of quality wine from Burgundy, was soon replaced by a more measured approach, and the culture of vine and wine in Burgundy developed a new momentum.

The name ‘Burgundy’ comes from the Burgondes, a tribe who arrived in about 413AD  from west of the Rhine and the Savoy.  They established the kingdom of ‘Burgundia’ which marked the start of a fractious period in Burgundy’s history, with bloody territorial battles between the Burgondes and the Franks.  However at the same time Christianity was gaining a hold in the region, in particular after Burgundia came under Frankish rule when Clovis, king of the Franks, defeated Gundobad, and married his niece Clotilde. Shortly after his marriage, Clovis converted to christianity, which opened the door to an influx of religeous orders. The monks were also keen viticulturalists.  Wine was a part of their religious ritual. There are many references to wine in the New Testament, and during the first half of the third and into the fourth century, the Eucharist, the expression of transubstantiation –wine into the blood and bread into the body of Christ– became an important part of the liturgical ceremony.  The expansion of religious orders in Burgundy therefore fostered  the cultivation of vines - first for its mystic aspect, and then simply to fulfill a basic precept of the Benedictine rule, that of working the land.

Wealthy Lords of Burgundy, who had acquired their lands and posessions by the sword, often sought to appease their consciences by gifts to the religious orders. In 587, Gontran, King of Burgundy, donated his vast territory, including his vineyards, to the Abbey of Saint Benigne in Dijon. At the beginning of the 7C, Amalgaire, Duke of Lower Burgundy, founded the Abbey of Bèze, and granted it all his vineyards in Chenôve, Marsannay, Gevrey and Vosne. The Clos de Bèze  in Gevrey Chambertin was one of the lands donated, and is the oldest known and recorded land transfer in the region. The size and shape of the vineyard now is exactly the same as it was then in 636AD.  The payback for this aristocratic largesse, was absolution, and the grant of a safe passage to the after life in accordance with newly found Christian beliefs.

The monks turned out to be assiduous and skilled vigneron. They are responsible for the classification system of vineyards that still exists in Burgundy today.  The Benedictines were the first to define the choice of parcels for planting grapes, and it was the beginning of a heirarchical classification system which has led to the notion of “climats”, which now forms the foundation of the Côte d’Or’s application for Unesco World Heritage status- a remarkable historical heritage.

Both the Abbey of Cluny, founded in 909,  and the Abbey of Citeaux, founded in 1098, played an important part in developing wine making techniques. The two orders had a virtual monopoly on the vineyards in Burgundy until the fifteenth century when there was a decline in the number of monks and the financial standing of the monasteries. During the Enlightenment, several works on Burgundy wine were published describing the winemaking, planting, harvesting or growing methods, and just what it is that gives each “cru” its specific character, flavor and quality. The Revolution was the final chapter of the supremacy of the religious orders in the business of wine making, but their legacy is present in every Domaine producing wine in Burgundy today.


Philips, Rod. A Short History of Wine, Whitecap Books, Ltd., 2015.

Scherb, Madeline. A Taste of Heaven: A Guide to Food and Drink Made by Monks and Nuns, Tarcher, 2009.

Seward, Desmond. Monks and Wine, Mitchell Beazley, 1979.