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.

Bibliography 

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.