Cut into limestone rock, Burgundy’s hillside vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see from Dijon almost to Lyon, neatly lined up along the Saône valley.
They’re actually made up of several ‘côtes’ or slopes/hillsides: the côtes de Nuits Saint-Georges and Beaune on one hand; the côtes chalonnaise, mâconnaise and beaujolaise on the other; the first two, the most famous, making up the Côte d’Or, where, on slopes covered with chalk and stone rockfall, the Romans built these celebrated vineyards and introduced a grape variety from the neighbouring Alps: the one and only Pinot, with small almost black berries.
The Côte d’Or’s vineyards extend across a southeast facing slope, heated up by the rising sun from the morning onwards and cut up by small valleys called coombs (like a glen), which other minor coombs also open up on. The slope’s contour is thus reproduced giving the vines varied aspect from southeast to west, but never north facing.
Above the slope, i.e. the ‘Côte,’ a limestone plateau spreads out with poor soils and now covered with boxwood, thorn bushes and dry grassy ground, alternating with murgers (old walls), piles of elongated pebbles and traces of what was grown here in olden times, the ‘mountain’. In addition to the west, after a series of parallel coombs on the main slope, a sheer limestone cliff marks the limit for vineyards.
It’s a geological fault system that created this formation setting apart two entire vineyard areas, the Côte and Hautes Côtes, bordered to the north by part of the Côtes de Nuits. Indeed, since the dawn of time, the most highly rated wines have always been from the Côte, with its distinguished names such as Chambertin, Romanée Conti, Vougeot, Corton, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault or Montrachet; the Hautes Côtes’ vineyards have recently witnessed a renaissance placing its wines alongside Burgundy’s best sites.
From the outset, these vineyards make their mark and show their unique nature with those cramped parcels of land meticulously looked after - mostly with no cover vegetation between low vines and occasionally separated by little dry stone walls, the famous ‘Clos’. The acutely narrow pathways, which here and there on the off-white ground make way for manoeuvring high-clearance tractors, or anold wall covered with brambles.
A sea of vines dotted with little islands
Henri Vincenot, the well-known Burgundy writer, author (among other things) of ‘La Billebaude’, describes the Côte as ‘a sea of vines’ in which the villages and hamlets, made up of old winegrowers’ houses and bourgeois homes huddled together as if trying not to encroach on the vines’ sacred earth, could be lots of islands and isles. Countless ‘island’ entities, all at least 2 to 3 kilometres away from each other. Here the surroundings are seething with history. A few volcanic rooftops, stones extracted from the flaked mountain limestone, remind you of Medieval times, just like the 12th and 13th Century churches, certain old winegrowers’ houses gathered around a courtyard, which in the old days were used for preparing the harvest before the winemaking. The way in to each house is a small stone staircase with the cellar entrance underneath, two thirds buried to maintain consistent temperature.
Local historians have long been asking themselves about the origin of these ‘murgers’. Everybody now agrees these are the end result of removing stones from the fields. In a landscape that gives you the impression, in summer, of being covered in vegetation, as the vines are fully in leaf even if trimmed as straight as a die, stone has an important role. The limestone which forms the vineyards’ substrata provided stone for the construction of cellars and houses, churches, walls, walled plots, many windmills – at a time when vines weren’t the only thing grown – were used to grind wheat and rye, press nuts for their oil and the hemp grown in hemp-fields near streams…
In winter, the bond between buildings, walls, vineyards and the black lines traced by the vines, conjures up a vivid image, heightened by snowfall. It’s a living landscape, especially during winter pruning as the vines come to life from the smoke of burning shoots, or at harvest time.
The Hautes Côtes’ vineyards differ from those on the Côte by sometimes ‘high trellised’ vines to lift the buds away from the colder ground and avoid spring frosts; by a more distinctive topography and a wider variety of crops, the villages also looking different thanks to countless old winegrowers’ houses rather than less common bourgeois homes. Certain villages, nestling against the cliff face of the ‘Hauts de Côte’ even have some troglodyte dwellings.
Enlightening history of a wine region
The history of the ‘wine slope’ is a bit vague about when the vineyards were built, no doubt stamped by the Roman occupation if you refer to certain growers occasionally digging up the odd remnant (pieces of mosaic, implements including glassware, dated coins) in specific spots while working or replanting vineyards; and that it’s now known the main Rhône-Saône road, which guided the Roman legions from Provence to Flanders, played a key role in expanding Burgundy’s vineyards.
It was later on, in the Middle Ages after a troubled period following the collapse of the Empire, when vines seemed to shrink in favour of fallow land and woods as mentioned by Gregory of Tours, that the vineyards were restructured by the nobles, bishops and abbeys. They of course owned the best land on the hillsides, such as at Cîteaux Abbey where each parcel of land in Meursault is very accurately mapped out in the famous Cîteaux Atlas, kept in the Dijon Archives. The Bishop of Autun was also a prominent landowner in the Côte de Beaune, in the same way as the town’s Hospices who kept the tradition alive of selling their wines in auction in the autumn for the benefit of sick people staying there. The Dukes of Burgundy were dynamic landowners too, particularly, following Philippe-le-Hardi’s ruling in 1395, in defending noble Pinot against the evil Gamay, productive grape of the poor who were looking for quantity over quality from vines planted on hills or plain. The decree emphasized the ban on use of animal manure in the vineyard, suggested building low walls around the ‘clos’ to stop goats devouring the vines and sheep getting lost in vineyard pathways.
In the 14th Century, which signalled the first rift in this property-owning structure, the Dijon Middle Classes became interested in investing in vineyard land and selling the wine. But the second upheaval came during the French Revolution which put an end to property owned by the clergy and nobles. This was the time when certain well known names appeared: Vougeot, Conti, names of well-off middle class Dijon families.
So the vineyards were restructured around property, merchants and small growers, and the wines sold in northern France, Paris and surrounding area (fine wines from especially Gevrey-Chambertin and Pommard were already sought after by royalty in the Middle Ages), but also to Flanders, Belgium and Germany.
The phylloxera pest caused the third upheaval, which pushed many Dijon wine merchants and landowners to give up the idea of one day witnessing the rebirth of a totally destroyed vineyard. Such defeatism in the face of this destructive plague would be the opportunity for small growers, cultivating a variety of food crops alongside vines (mostly made up of Gamay, more resistant to morning frosts and higher yielding), to purchase a chunk of the hillside vineyards, where they’d remain in the majority throughout a bitter battle against successive privileged landlords not inclined to share. The outcome explains the tiny size of each vineyard and why there are so many parcels.
The bond between grape variety, terrain and landscape
As a result, the Côte de Beaune and Nuits vineyards today come across as a distinctive mass of little parcels of land that form a kind of intricate mosaic viewed from the hilltops, effortlessly reflecting the huge diversity of wine flavours, yet united in an orchestra of taste so typical of Burgundy. Each ‘climat’ – the name of a vineyard site – yields a one-off wine, as the growers say, so before buying a plot, they ‘taste the earth’ to identify the future wine’s flavour that’s likely to be made here.
A clever hierarchy could therefore be established between the various appellation districts - generic, village, ‘Premiers Crus’ and ‘Grands Crus’ or First and Great Growths (the latter corresponding to a ‘climat’ or site) – which on tasting clearly display distinct flavours even if they were produced on neighbouring plots by the same winegrower; and even more marked if by different winemakers.
Often characterized by red fruit flavours, it’s nevertheless relatively easy for a fairly experienced palate to distinguish between wines from Côte de Nuits Saint-Georges – well structured - and Côte de Beaune – a little lighter.
Two grape varieties are authorized by the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, the government body controlling AOCs): Pinot Noir for red wines and Chardonnay for whites, both perfectly well adapted to soil type to offer sought after and internationally famous names. Burgundy’s inherent and commanding fame is part of the region’s image for good food, where tasty wines go very well with the traditional, no less sought after cuisine. A cuisine that’s allowed great chefs to set up shop, who knew how to innovate with original recipes based on bourgeois country cooking.
The image of Burgundy’s vineyards is certainly hallmarked by its wine and cooking. But the neighbouring landscape also strongly adds to this, which goes back to this quality of food and wine: Auxois and Charolais country in particular – their green farmland criss-crossed by low cut hedges, where the white cattle transform into the universally acclaimed beef – and similarly is a factor in this culture where quality of terrain and quality of land go hand in hand.
Yves-Eric Remy ¦
Ref. Prof. Yves Luginbühl, CNRS, France