First there was Rome
The history of Burgundy as a ‘wine region’ dates back two millennia to the Roman conquest of Gaul (roughly modern-day France) in 52 B.C. The Gaul’s were already producing wine and the Romans quickly recognized the region as highly suitable for grape cultivation. The following centuries saw scores of vineyards planted all across Gaul - including on the sunlit slopes of Burgundy. These same hills have been covered in grapevines ever since, an unbroken line stretching two millennia to the present day.
When the Roman Empire collapsed around the year 500, care and administration of the vineyards passed on to the “Barbarian Kings” who lived in the area, and formed the basis for the kingdoms of the Middle Ages to come. These “barbarians”, many of which were quite Romanized, maintained many of Rome’s agriculture and traditions even after the central government fell.
(Fun fact: It was the Gauls who invented the wooden barrel that came to replace the ceramic amphorae borrowed from the Greeks. In a strange twist, some modern winemakers have returned to concrete amphorae for some wines where the maker prefers the liquid to avoid any contact with oak.
Kings and Monks of the Middle Ages
The rise of Christianity in the dark and middle ages resulted in lots of land gifted by kings to the church, who used them for a variety of purposes. Among these gifted lands were those that make up modern-day Burgundy, and for the next several centuries the vineyards and wine production were managed by monks, most notably those of the Benedictine and then Cistercian orders.
These religious orders combined work with prayer, worshiping god through manual labor and nurturing their vineyards. Not only was wine considered very important in religious ceremonies (representing the blood of Christ), it also provided much-needed income.
The monks followed an almost scientific approach to planting, pruning, picking and pressing, and meticulously recorded all their findings and passed on their knowledge to successive generations. Over time, the monks noticed that certain sections of their vineyards produced better or different wines, marking them off by stones or small walls. It was through this practice that the monks developed the concept of terroir, the influence of the earth and climate on the wine. Through them, the cultivation and preparation of wine was kept alive throughout the Middle Ages.
(Fun fact: Cistercian monks were principally based around the Cote d’Or region, and were hugely influential to the development of Burgundian winemaking. It was they who built the first enclosed vineyard in Burgundy (the Clos Vougeot in 1336), which still produces Grand Cru red wine to this day. Perhaps it is the influence of the Cistercian monks that explains why the Cote d’Or has a reputation for producing the best wines in Burgundy.
1400s - The Dukes of Burgundy
The Dukes of Burgundy benefited greatly from the Burgundian vineyards, wielded as tools of power and prestige as well as sources of income. The finest wines were given as gifts to favored nobility and other important people. By the late middle ages, Burgundy wine was being served at the tables of the Pope and the King of France.
In an effort to preserve the quality and prestige of the wine, Duke Philip of Burgundy banned the use of manure as fertilizer, which increased yields but had a negative impact on the quality of the resulting wine.
For similar reasons, the Duke also banned Gamay grapes, a high-yielding variety perfect for inexpensive table wine, but less-suited to the refined tastes of European nobility. Instead, he opted for the use of Pinot Noir, a lower-yielding grape that produced wines of great complexity and sophistication.
To this day, Pinot Noir makes up the great majority of red wine produced in Burgundy, save for some of the southern regions that were not part of Burgundy at the time of Phillip's decree.
(Fun fact: Gamay is the principal grape used to make Beaujolais, the fresh, fruity wine of southernmost Burgundy.
The French Revolution and private ownership
By the late 1700s, Burgundy had been incorporated into the Kingdom of France, and the patriotic fervor of the French Revolution saw the Church’s assets seized and sold off to pay down the accumulated debt acquired by successive generations of French Kings.
This had the effect of breaking up some of the enormous wine estates in Burgundy and across France, as well as transferring ownership of the vineyards to private citizens. Napoleon’s inheritance laws, which decreed that children must receive a portion of their parent’s assets upon death, meant that successive generations had to agree to run their wineries jointly, buy each other out, or start their own wineries with the vines they inherited.
Combined with the Monk’s practice of dividing vineyards, Napoleon’s inheritance laws are the reason that Burgundy has relatively few large estates, and is mostly composed of small plots of only a few rows of vines each, with numerous domaines run by members of the same family line. It is also the principal reason that a designated vineyard with only one owner (known as a monopole) is a relatively rare find.
The World Wars to the present
The World Wars resulted in extended periods of neglect for French vineyards, as workers and producers left to fight on the front. When the vignerons returned to their vineyards, the vines were nearly wild, overgrown and choked with weeds. Nevertheless, workers rolled up their sleeves and got back to work. And as international trade grew, foreign markets began to have access to and appreciate Burgundy. With rising demand for ever higher quality wines, modern day winemakers further honed their craft, blending tradition and know-how with new technologies and techniques to create the exceptional product we enjoy today.
A two thousand year history
The Burgundy we know and love today is the combined result of thousands of years of history, and the contributions of different generations over that period. The Romans planted the first vines, while the Benedictine and Cistercian monks nurtured them and kept the art of wine cultivation alive through a dark period in European history. The Dukes of Burgundy for their part protected, promoted and refined the production of Burgundy wine.
Finally, the French Revolution and Napoleon’s inheritance laws passed ownership of the vines away from the church and into the hands of hundreds of small family winegrowers, who passed on their skills, knowledge, and experimentation from generation to generation to produce the world class wines for which Burgundy is famous.