The History of Wine Making in Burgundy

For more than 1,000 years the fine wines of Burgundy have been consumed at the tables of the world’s decision makers, in large part due to the work of the monks. Their categorisation of the land according to the quality of the wine produced, still exists today.  It is a unique aspect of French and European history and culture.

When the Roman Empire came to and end in the 5c,  the Roman's role in winemaking was taken up by various orders of monks who were arriving in Burgundy to spread the Christian faith.  The Benedictine Order were the followers of the Rule of St Benedict, and in the 10th century they established their Abbey at Cluny in the south of Burgundy. In the 11c, a small number of monks, including an Englishman by the name of Stephen Harding, formed a splinter group - the Cistercians. They founded their Abbey in marshy land at Citeaux, 13km to the east of Nuits St Georges.  Here they almost worked themselves to death and extinction, changing the flow of the watercourse around the Abbey over a distance of several kilometres, and planting their vines.  The ones that survived, went on to spread the Order throughout the whole of what is now western Europe. Their study of the soil conditions and analysis of where the vines would best prosper, form the foundations of today's system of quality controls.

Excavations in and around Gevrey Chambertin have found vines planted from the 1C.  In order for viticulture to flourish, a relatively stable geopolitical environment was needed, and this arrived in the area with the Romans. Vines were planted all along the Cote, and in AD 312, vigneron from Autun asked the Emporor Constantine to lower their taxes due to problems in their vineyards around the town of Beaune, another Roman enclave, (the remains of Roman walls in the old centre of Beaune can be seen in the cellars of Joseph Drouhin).  

The vineous interests of the monks developed as aristocratic families of the day founded, supported and donated land to the monasteries, seeking atonement for excesses, and a safe passage to the afterlife!  The ancient scripts of the Romans and Greeks, gave explicit instruction on how to care for the vines, and with the benefit of this direction, and their lifestyle of self-sufficiency, the Monks became adept at making wine.  The monks were interested in wine from the religious perspective – for use in the Eucharist, also to serve to visiting dignitaries and guests, for their own consumption, and to provide to the poor and sick. In 630 AD Amalgaire, Duke of Burgundy, founded the Benedictine Abbe of Beze (a village to the North West of Dijon), and donated land to the monks which he owned to the south of Gevrey Chambertin, which is now the world famous vineyard, Chambertin Clos de Beze.

In 775 Charlemagne (leader of the Franks from 768, King of Italy in 774, crowned Emperor by the Pope in 800, and a champion of fine wine and good food!) bequeathed vineyards on the hill of Corton to the Abbey of St Andoche in Saulieu, in compensation for the destruction of their Abbey by the Saracens.   Charlemagne was a uniting force after the troubled times that followed the demise of the Roman Empire, and it is to Charlemagne that are attributed the words  ”Build churches and plant vines!” The Corton vines remained in the ownership of the Abbey St Andoche for the next 1,000 years.  The first mention of a ‘Clos de Charlemagne’ is in 1375, and later the white wines produced in this area became known as Corton Charlemagne.

The gift in 910 of a small villa at Cluny (owned by Charlemagne until 802) to the Benedictines, laid the foundations from which the Benedictine Order would spread across the entirety of Western Europe.  (Lest anyone should think the production of wine in England is a recent phenomenon, by the 13C there were 300 Monastic vineyards in production in England and Wales!) - Cluny, Le Vignoble Invisible by Edward Steeves p 54.   The valley of the Grosne in which Cluny sits, was already producing wine, and had been since the 3C.  However the arrival of the Benedictines, and further gifts of land from other local nobles, set in train a real momentum for expansion of the Order, the Abbey, and the associated requirement for wine.

Between 1060 and 1150 the number of monks in residence at Cluny increased from 80 to 300.  In addition there would be those supporting the work associated with the Abbey – tending the animals, the crops and the vines.  An almost continuous presence of builders until the completion of Cluny Mark III in about 1120.  Visiting Royalty and Popes would have had their own travelling entourages, and would expect to be royally looked after in food and wine.  The Abbey received the sick and the poor, who were given a daily ration of bread and wine without charge.   11C tourists were there to view the munificence of the Abbey, and also pilgrims seeking shelter while visiting the Abbey, or en route to Rome or Saint Jacques de Compostelle.  All together, total daily visitors could be as many as 2,000.  When the need to provide room for the monks and their principal activities of prayer and study is also taken into consideration, the grandiose scale of the buildings starts to make some sort of sense - as does the need to expand the wine making activities of the Order.  In 1321 the Abbey was consuming the equivalent of some 150,000 bottles of wine a year as part of its ordinary activities.

With the expansion in size and activity, came the obvious need for larger accommodation, the proportions and adornments of which were increasingly representative of the Order’s power and influence.  Over a period of 200 years, skilled builders and architects developed a series of new buildings.  The final development, Cluny III, at 187 metres long, remained unsurpassed in size for 400 years from the date of its completion in 1120, until the construction of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome in the 17C.  A remarkable archeological study conducted over 40 years by the American Medieval Academy and Kenneth J Conant led to the publication in 1968 of a detailed reconstruction of Cluny, allowing anyone interested to wonder at the achievement, (and how anyone could think of demolishing it!) –  the History of Romanesque Cluny Clarified by Excavations and Comparisons - K J Conant . (http://www.international.icomos.org/monumentum/vol7/vol7_2.pdf)

However, inadequately funded ambitious building projects ran into the same problems in the 12C, as they do today.  The Order incurred debts.  Part of the Order revolted.  At the same as Cluny III was being constructed, a group of disaffected monks, unhappy with the profligacy and abandonment of traditional monastic values, left in 1098 to form a new Order – the Cistercians. To distinguish themselves from the Benedictines (who wore black), the Cistercians wore a white habit.  They returned to a more frugal and penitential lifestyle and constructed an Abbey on marshy land some 12 kms east of Nuits St George, a gift from the Vicompte of Beaune.  The new Abbey became known as Citeaux.

The first transfer of vines to the new Order came in 1098 from Eudes 1, Duke of Burgundy. The vines were in Mersault, some 40 km from Citeaux.   This would appear to be the founding gift which enabled the Order to commence their usual monastic activities. 

The expansion of the Cistercian Order came under the guidance of the third Abbott from 1109 – Stephen Harding, an Englishman from Dorset who in 1131 founded the Abbey de la Bussiere in the Ouche Valley. The Order required a degree of prosperity to enable it to attract new recruits, and began an active and successful campaign of encouraging donations.  There followed gifts of vines from the Seigneurie de Vergy (Hautes Cotes) – an important and powerful presence in the region, then under the control of Elizabeth de Vergy.  In 1110 the Order acquired land at Gilly (Gilly les Citeaux) – from different sources, but including the monks of St Germain-des-Pres in Paris, a Benedictine Abbey which controlled the Priory at Gilly (in 1300 the Priory at Gilly would be acquired by Citeaux, which brought with it the parishes of Morey, Chambolle and Vougeot, together with vines in those communes).  Other gifts of land followed at Chambolle, and vineyards at Vosne, again from Vergy, which together came to about 9 hectares, and constituted the kernel of what was to become Clos de Vougeot (today some 51 hectares).  The wall of enclosure was built some time in the early 13C, and a text in 1228 talks of the ‘Grand Clos de Citeaux’ Beatrice Bourely –Vignes et Vins de L’Abbaye de Citeaux en Bourgogne.  In the 14C the Cistercians sub divided the vineyard Clos du Vougeot into three separate ‘climats’, in order to create a ‘cuvee du Pape’ for Pope Clement VI (1342 to 1352). By 1140 the Cistercians were the proprietors of the vineyard Musigny.

The Benedictines also established themselves all along the Cote. The Abbey of Cluny was responsible for the construction of the Chateau of Gevrey, built in the 12C and 13C, as an abbey for the monks, and to protect the vinous interests of Cluny and the local inhabitants from marauding invaders. After the French Revolution, the Chateau remained in the same family until a few years ago when it was purchased by a Chinese national, who is painstakingly restoring the buildings in a manner consistent with their significance and historical value. 

Until the time of the French revolution, the ownership of the vines by the monasteries continued relatively undisturbed, although with many further acquisitions, dispositions, and changes of ownership. The monks were diligent and skilled winemakers.  Their contribution to the categorisation of land according to the quality of the wine produced is still broadly the same today.  Their work established the reputation of Burgundy and its wines throughout the world.  

It was in 1395 that Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, decreed that henceforth the Cote de Nuits was to be planted to pinot noir, in place of the Gamay grape variety.

The French Revolution

What to say?  The vineyards owned and managed by the monasteries over centuries were expropriated and sold off, giving rise to a whole raft of new interests, (multiplied further since the revolution by the French laws of succession), creating the fractured structure of vineyard ownership (and resultant differences in style and quality) that we know today.  Clos de Vougeot is perhaps the prime example - now subject to no less than 80 different ownerships -what would the monks say?

The Abbey of Cluny was sold off to quarry merchants, and almost entirely dismantled, the ancient stones being used to build elsewhere. What would anyone say?

Those now making wine in Burgundy, continue the tradition of centuries past, but the custodian nature of their ownership, is elegantly expressed on the web pages of Domaine de La Romanée-Conti, a Domaine, (but by no means the only one), which can trace its antecedents back over a period of more than 1000 years to the early activity of the monks.  "Producing wines of a quality that strive of their potential and reputation - respect for the soil and a keen awareness of a precious but fragile patrimony of natural conditions the balance of which alone can express this gift; the selection and propagation of Pinot Noir 'tres fin' inherited from the old Romanée-Conti vineyard, an incomparable genetic legacy;  the quality of the team of men and women to whom have been entrusted the work and whose key words are : thoroughness, attention to detail, control of the practices, precision, patience, and possibly above all, humility".  Bravo!

After some dark years in the 20C when the use of chemicals and insecticides damaged the vineyards, there is now substantial recognition of the need to look after the land in a manner that preserves its value for future generations.  Horses are back in the fields for the ploughing, and an increasing number of Domaines are adopting organic or bio dynamic practices and certifications.  By and large the Monks would probably now approve of the efforts being made to ensure that their cultural legacy is cared for in a manner commensurate with the reputation which they established!