The Abbey St Vivant
On the little hill of Vergy behind Gevrey Chambertin, in the Hautes Côtes de Bourgogne, events took place which you would never guess when looking at the hill from below. The story includes the downfall of one of the most influential and powerful families in France; the construction and destruction of an impregnable fairytale chateau with 14 towers; the origins of Romanée Conti and Romanée St Vivant; and the first appearance of the Turin Shroud. And all on this little hill!
From about the 7c, the Vergy family lived in a fairytale chateau on the top of the hill. The chateau had 14 towers from which there were views in every direction. In uncertain times, Popes sought safety there. It dominated the skyline and was so secure, that a siege lasting 18 months failed to breach its defences. However, having survived the siege, and almost 1,000 years of history, the entire château was dismantled stone by stone on the orders of Henry IV in 1609 following the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants.
With some vigilance, it is possible to discern here and there the remains of the battlements. But walking through the trees along the footpath where the château once stood, it is hard to imagine what it would have been like all those years ago.
In the Middle Ages, the monasteries that sprung up across Europe, played an important role in wine making and the development of wine theory and practice. Nowhere more so than in Burgundy. Monasteries needed vines – to produce wine for the Eucharist, to serve to visiting dignitaries, the sick and the poor, and for daily consumption by the monks.
In 1232 Alix de Vergy donated vines owned by the family to the monks who in the 9c had built the Abbey St Vivant at the foot of the château. The vines included the vineyards Romanée St Vivant and Romanée Conti.
In the 12c, on the other side of the hill, a small church was constructed, known as Saint Saturnin. It still serves the local community today, but viewed from a distance (it can be seen on the brow of the hill to the left in the photo), gives little clue to the dramatic history from which it escaped largely unscathed.
And the Turin Shroud? Jeanne de Vergy presented the shroud for its first public exhibition in 1357.
The most romantic site in Burgundy? It looks just like many other hills in the Haute- Côtes (the area immediately behind Gevrey Chambertin at the top of the Côte). However this hill has something of a history attached to it.
Half way down the brow of the hill on the left, can be seen the 12c Church of Saint Saturnin which is part of the commune of Reulle-Vergy. At the foot of the hill on the right hand side is the commune of Curtil-Vergy. On the top of the hill, used to stand the Château of Vergy, with 14 towers, and the home for hundreds of years of one of the most powerful and influential families in all of Burgundy and France. The family followed the path (which still exists) down the hill to the Church. The Chateau was entirely dismantled on the orders of Henri IV in 1610 following the wars between Huguenots and Catholics. Until then it was considered to be one of the most impregnable in all of France, and dominated the skyline.
In among the rocky outcrops at the top, it is possible to discern here and there the remains of the Château, and there is a part of one tower still standing, called St Denis (the Patron Saint of Paris, part of whose remains were moved from Paris to Vergy in or about the 12c). There are apparently three lower floors which still exist beneath the rocks, but the access has been blocked and they are not now accessible.
The Vergy family were the first owners of the Turin Shroud, and their ancestry is traceable back to Geurin, who came to an untimely end in 681 AD, when some discontents stoned him at the foot of the cliffs! In later years the family produced Bishops of Autun, Mâcon, Paris and Besançon.
Just below the (now imaginary) Château on the Curtil-Vergy side, stands the remains of the Abbey St Vivant de Vergy. Founded in 890 AD this was one of the most important and highly regarded Priories of Cluny, in line with the standing of the House of Vergy. The Abbey owned vines including Romanée St Vivant. The Priory submitted to the authority of Cluny from 1087. It was the monks from the Abbey who delimited most of the Grands Crus wines of Vosne Romanée. According to Aubert de Vilaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the monks from St Vivant should be regarded as responsible, alongside the Cistercians, for the notion of ‘climats’, the foundation of the present model of winemaking in Burgundy. The Abbey suffered damage at the time of the French Revolution, but parts remain, including a grand cave at first floor level. Fortunately some steps have been taken to preserve and safeguard what is left– see http://www.saint-vivant.net/ , although much work remains to be done.
And of course no fairytale is complete without some treasure! Walking from Reulle-Vergy up the hill towards the church, on the left hand side an unexptected find is the artisan jeweller Firouza, a charming young couple who trained at Cartier. Their atelier is part of the shop, and they are pleased to give demonstrations of their art, which can be arranged by the reception of Les Deux Chevres.
In the village of Curtil-Vergy there is a small restaurant which is popular with our guests, Au Petit Bonheur Tel 00 33 (0)3 80 61 31 03.
Château-Villars Fontaine is 3km from Curtil-Vergy on the D116.
In the 12C the vines at Villars Fontaine belonged to the House of Vergy. The Château at Villars-Fontaine is of comparatively recent construction, but on the site are 15C cellars which are still used today. The estate produces red and white wines. The whites can be kept for many years, and are popular with our guests. The Château is owned by Bernard Hudelot, and he and his team make charming bi-lingual hosts for tastings.
From Villars-Fontaine to Arcenant is 6km and takes 10 mins.
In 1188 the Church of St Martin and the ownership of the vines in the area of Arcenant was given to the Abbey St Vivant de Vergy, which by then was attached to the Abbey of Cluny.
These days the village is known for its production of red fruits which are favoured by the soil and the exposition. In 1972 the village was recognized as the European capital of the raspberry. Since 1984 Gilles Joannet has been producing fruit liqueurs, and his drinks win prizes throughout France. Tastings can be arranged Tel 00 33 (0)3 80 61 22 80.