A watch once owned by Paul Newman, has just sold for 18m dollars. It may be a good watch, or even an investment, but on the face of it, a poor advertisement both for responsible capitalism, and telling the time. In Burgundy, wealthy wine lovers are willing to pay inflated prices, to own or consume the wines produced by Burgundy’s big names. This in turn has created vast fortunes for those who own the best plots. How will Burgundy’s wine colossi of today, fare before the judgement of tomorrow? Aubert de Vilaine, Lalou Bize-Leroy, and Eric Rousseau? This precious land that has bestowed upon them such good fortune. The spotlight is shining on Burgundy, and the current trustees of its heritage.
So in a roundabout way, this leads us to Stephen and Bernard, upon whom judgement was passed when they were cannonised for their good works some years ago! And one of their contributions to Burgundy’s heritage, is the magnificent Abbey of Fontenay.
In the 12c there was a greater rapprochement between England and Burgundy than exists today. There is a route down the middle of France, passing Dijon and Gevrey Chambertin, and leading to Santiago de Compostella in Northern Spain. It is known as ‘The Way of St James’, or the ‘Pilgrims Way’. The vineyard Clos St Jacques, one of Gevrey Chambertin’s most important plots, and in which Domaine Rousseau has a major stake, is named after it. 1,000 years ago, you were as likely to hear English spoken in the towns and villages of Burgundy, as you were French. Now you are as likely to hear French spoken on the streets of London, as you are English! A Bishop of Norfolk is buried in the Abbey of Fontenay, having paid for part of its construction; and there is a small church in the hills just behind Gevrey, where the graveyard is full of Knights Templar.
However, what was English monk Stephen Harding, from Sherborne in Dorset, doing at Molesmes monastery north of Dijon, at the end of the 11c? Robert of Molesmes was a Benedictine Monk, who had become disenchanted with the mother ship at Cluny. He felt that caprice and moral laxity had inveigled its way into the higher echelons of the Order. So with a few of his followers, and not a lot of support, he founded his own Abbey at Molesmes. The buildings were created from the branches of trees, and Robert and the followers lived in extreme poverty and discomfort. However news of the rigour of the new foundation, and the holiness of its members, attracted aspirant fellow masochists like a magnet, and this is almost certainly what brought Stephen (who although English, could converse in four languages, including French) to this Holy, but desolate place. While Stephen and Robert were willing to practice what they preached, many of the new monks joining the order were left in a state of shock, and opted out. So in 1098, Robert and Stephen left Molesmes to set up another order of deprivation, this time at Citeaux. They called it the Cistercian Order, and their motto was ‘to work is to pray’. And work they did. After something of a rocky start, when they almost starved and worked themselves to death, the Cistercian Order was saved by the arrival of the swashbuckling Bernard, and 30 of his fellow not so very merry men. The recipe for success however, was in the pot.
On the wine front, one of the early achievements of the Cistercians was to identify that the slope behind Vougeot was the best land for their vineyards. They also however worked out that the soil conditions were not uniform across the plot, and to get the wine that they wanted, they would make a number of different wines from land with similar characteristics, and then blend them to create one wine of superior quality. This is a concept that is now fundamental to an understanding of the complexities of Burgundy wine. The Cistercians were exceptionally gifted wine makers, and Stephen’s capacity for hard work, attention to detail, and administration, were just what was needed to get the show on the road.
While Stephen was a gifted administrator, Bernard’s strength was oration and powers of persuasion. He came from an aristocratic family, and had a black book full of contacts who were willing to finance this impressive demonstration of commitment to the Christian Faith. In 1115, Bernard left Citeaux to start a new Abbey at Clairvaux, still as a part of the Cistercian Order, and 3 years later, at Fontenay. The Abbey at Fontenay was in a remote valley, near to Montbard, where the TGV now stops on its way from Dijon to Paris, but which at the time was owned by Bernard's family. It is as peaceful, tranquil a location now, as it was almost 1,000 years ago. Fontenay, is quite simply, a work of art.
Bernard wanted as much light a possible to enter the Church, and the building, which otherwise followed a standard format for Cistercian abbeys, was designed accordingly. It was also considered that perfect proportions could be achieved through music, and when designing the windows, numerical ratios corresponding to music were applied, so the seven windows in the west of the interior, were distributed according to a musical ratio of 3/4.
That we should now be able to appreciate it in all its majesty, is entirely due to the commitment and devotion of the Aynard family. In 1791, following the Revolution, the site was turned into a Paper Mill - would you believe? Well I suppose better than dismantling it for the stone, as they did with The Abbey of Cluny! However in 1906, Edouard Aynard, a banker and saviour from Lyon, purchased the site and buildings, and his family remain the owners carrying on his good works to this day. They are responsible for its present wonderful state of preservation and upkeep. A rarity in France, it is open to visitors 365 days a year, and can also be hired for functions. The Abbey has had Unesco World Heritage Status since 1981.