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02. History: The Long View

The history of ‘Burgundy’ is not just about the people who decided where to clear the land and what they should plant, it is equally about why the land should be so suited to the product of their labours. Hence, we can subdivide our history of Burgundy into two categories; geological history, and social history. The first is the shaping and formation of the land, the second is the development of that land.

Geological History

It is from the Jurassic time to the present day that has shaped the land – geological history if you like – but what does Jurassic mean? Jurassic is a ‘chronostatic’ term, one of many that have been coined following the classification of geological strata, it is possible to align these with certain ‘ages’ – ‘chronometric’ measures – e.g 144 – 65 million years ago (chronometric) is classified as the Cretaceous (chronostatic) period…

Phanerozoic Eon
543 Million Years
(M.Y.) to present
Cenozoic Era
65 M.Y. to today
Quaternary, 1.8 M.Y. to today
    Holocene, 10,000 years to today

    Pleistocene, 1.8 M.Y. to 10,000 yrs
Tertiary, 65 to 1.8 M.Y.
    Pliocene, 5.3 to 1.8 M.Y.
    Miocene, 23.8 to 5.3 M.Y.
    Oligocene, 33.7 to 23.8 M.Y.
    Eocene, 54.8 to 33.7 M.Y.
    Paleocene, 65 to 54.8 M.Y.

Mesozoic Era
248 to 65 M.Y.
Cretaceous, 144 to 65 M.Y.
Jurassic, 206 to 144 M.Y.
Triassic, 248 to 206 M.Y.
Paleozoic Era
543 to 248 M.Y.

Permian, 290 to 248 M.Y.
Carboniferous, 354 to 290 M.Y.
    Pennsylvanian, 323 to 290 M.Y.
    Mississippian, 354 to 323 M.Y.
Devonian, 417 to 354 M.Y.
Silurian, 443 to 417 M.Y.
Ordovician, 490 to 443 M.Y.
Cambrian, 543 to 490 M.Y.
    Tommotian, 530 to 527 M.Y.

Our geological history of the region starts somewhere between the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods:
Cretaceous – derived from the Latin word for chalk (creta) and was originally applied to the chalk deposits that work their way from in the white cliffs around the English Channel, through the hills of Champagne.
Jurassic – Named after the Jura mountains, a large base of limestone where Switzerland, Germany and France come together.

  • 200 million years ago – The region was a tropical sea, full of shellfish and other tiny animals that were deposited layer upon layer – for millennia – on the sea bed. Animals that can easily be seen today in the limestone rocks in the vineyards.

  • 30-5 million years ago – The sea had retreated, and during this geologically unstable epoch the large mountain ranges of Europe were formed. Not just the Alps, but also the Jura, the hills of Beaujolais and the hills of the Côte d’Or.
  • 20,000 years ago – Europe has seen cycles of glaciation with ice sheets advancing and retreating on 40,000 and 100,000 year time cycles, in-between with temperate, even tropical periods. The last glacial period ended about 10,000 years ago and was responsible for dramatically re shaping the peaks and valleys of Europe which we see today.
  • 10,000 years ago – As the glaciers retreated, the land warmed. Slowly, save for the tree-line of the mountains and above, Europe became a giant forest.
Social & Winemaking History
  • 125 BC - Little is known of the pre-Roman times of France (Gaul), but certainly at this time, the cultivation of the vine was already well-known on French soil and was moving throughout Europe – usually directly behind the ‘Legions’.
  • Year Zero? - Our earliest evidence of vines actually comes from excavations in today’s Gevrey-Chambertin; ‘Gallo-Roman’ remains were un-covered that took the form of over four hundred ditches aligned into twenty-seven rows, whilst clearing the ground for a new housing estate in the village. Closely aligned rows like this dovetailed with the recommendations of how best to grow grapes for wine in Roman texts of the time. It is estimated that these remains date from somewhere in the first century – and who is to say they are the first plantings(?) Study was swift as this evidence now lies below the new housing.
  • 312 AD – The first written evidence of vineyards planted in the modern-day Burgundy. Here is a petition to the Emperor Constantine by vine owners in Autun – they were asking to pay lower taxes due to the poor quality of the vines.
  • 630 AD – The Dukes of Burgundy, who were (for a period) to become the richest nobles in Europe, ceded to the Abbey of Bèze an estate in Gevrey. This was named, and remains, the Clos de Bèze. This was the (recorded) start of the ecclesiastical association with the vineyards, an association that was to inspire many of the vineyard boundaries that we see today.
  • 775 AD – Charles the Great – Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne – bequeathed to the Abbey of Saulieu a piece of land on the hill of Corton between Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton that still takes his name – Corton-Charlemagne.
  • 1000+ AD – Here was the real beginning of the ‘power’ of the church. The abbeys of Cluny, Citeaux and Maizières became the economic power-houses of the region, and were to retain this power – more-so even than the nobility – until the revolution of the 1790’s.
  • 1443The Hospices de Beaune was invested by Nicolas Rolin (1380-1461), the chancellor to Philippe le Bon, Duke of Burgundy.
  • 1720 – Maison Champy was formed, the the earliest négociant company that is still in existance.
  • 1790 – Following ‘The Revolution’, 1790 marked the start of the selling of confiscated property – confiscated from both the aristocracy (absent or without head) and the church. In the region of Burgundy, where not too many Châteaux could be found, this predominantly meant vineyards. The buyers were ‘second tier’ aristocracy and wealthy merchants classes rather than the workers.
  • ~1850 – Odium, was first identified in the Côte de Beaune. Attacking the shoots and leaves, and eventually causing a drastic reduction of yield. It took about 5 or 6 years to find that powdered sulfur was a suitable treatment, though this was too late for many vignerons.
  • 1860 – Pre-dating the AOC (Appellation Origine Contrôlée) by 75 years, the first classification of the wines of Burgundy was published by Jules Lavalle – rather than ‘Grand Cru’, the highest mark was ‘Têtes de Cuvée’. This was updated in the 1892 by the work of Danguy & Aubertin who used the same classifications.
  • 1878 – The first appearance of mildew in France
  • 1880+ – Effectively a second revolution, this was the arrival of the vine pest – phylloxera-vastatrix – nicknamed the devastator. A second revolution because so many owners went bust and few wanted to buy the land, very often it was left to the people who tended it – perhaps a more democratic revolution. From the early 1890’s after the trialing of many chemical treatments, American rootstocks and grafting were the chosen solution.
  • 1923 – Re-introduction of the Paulée de Meursault.
  • 1934 – Birth of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin in Nuits St.Georges.
  • 1935 – Appellation Origine Contrôlée was established; regional, villages, premier cru and grand cru labelling was born – and people had to stand by it. At last there was some rigor brought to the ‘old practices‘.
  • 1945 – After a harvest of only 2.5 hl/ha that yielded just 608 bottles, the last ungrafted ‘pinot fin’ vines of Romanée-Conti were uprooted.
  • 1947 – The last ungrafted ‘pinot fin’ vines of the Côte d’Or were uprooted – some vines in DRC’s Richebourg.
  • 1960s – The beginning of the new chemical revolution; enabled by eliminating pests with pesticides, increasing yields with fertilisers and reducing the amount of ploughing (labour) with herbicides – life was good, unlike the wines!
  • 1989 – Creation of the BIVB (Bureau Interprofessional des vins de Bourgogne)
  • 1996Something changed with the ‘oxidation potential’ of white Burgundy.
  • 1997Jean-Marie Fourrier looked at his barrels of reds and decided he didn’t need to rack the wine until it was time to bottle. Was he the first(?), certainly there are now many who avoid racking – the ‘label’ of reductive winemaking seems to have ‘stuck’, even if many are not reduced…
Burgundy – but who were the Burgundians(?)

The scholar/historian Norman Davies seems to provide the best explanation of who the Burgundians were – he also offers a chronology of exactly how many (and there were many!) Kingdoms of Burgundy have been extant between c.411 & 1795 A.D.

  • Bornholm is a Danish island (since 1523, but later often overrun by Swedes, Germans and Russians), despite sitting roughly equidistant between Germany, Poland and Sweden. The island’s name in ‘Old Norse‘ was Burgundarholm. It is here that our mobile tribe of Burgundians stayed long enough that their name remains ascribed to the place.
  • Between 411 and 437 AD, there was a concentration of the Burgundians in modern Germany – bordering the Rhine, north of Strasbourg, and centred on today’s Worms – the heart of today’s German wine-producing area, though there is little to link the Burgundians to the vine at that time. Like other tribes who had originated in Scandanavia, the Burgundian’s language was Germanic. Their relatively short stay was terminated by the Romans, aided by Atilla the Hun – Davies described it as a ‘massacre’.
  • It took a few years for the ‘Burgundians’ to reappear, this time as allies of both the Huns and the Romans – the latter faction under King Gundoic. Gundoic was granted a kingdom by the Romans, around 451 AD, that initially centred on Geneva, incorporating half of modern Switzerland, later extended both to the west and the south to include Langres, Dijon, Lyon, Avignon and finally to the Mediterranean coast. Larger than modern Burgundy, and for the first time incorporating the land of modern Burgundy, there was no link at all to the first Burgunian kingdom based around Worms. The Burgundian Kings during this time were noted as:
    • Gundoic (r.437-474)
    • Chilperic (r.474-480)
    • Gundobad (r.480-516)
    • Sigismund (r.516-523)
    • Gundimar (r.523-534)
  • Following the death of Gundimar, from the 534 onwards, for at least the next three hundred years, the ‘Kingdom of Burgundy’ was subserviant to the ‘Frankish’ kings. Such was this length of time that the distinctions that ‘differentiated’ a Burgundian from a Frank were largely faded. Charles the great – Charlemagne – was part of this line.

3 responses to “02. History: The Long View”

  1. ralph

    add Dom Pierre Pérignon, O.S.B., (c. 1638–14 September 1715) into your chronology, based on his advances in vineyard management for quality

  2. Staffan

    When did the pinot noir come to burgundy and where did it come from?

Agree? Disagree? Anything you'd like to add?