The limestone and clay of Burgundy’s winegrowing areas
The soil was built up from the sediment of tropical seabeds. Burgundy's limestone contains countless fragments of fossilised shells and the small limestone concretions (oolites) are a reminder of tropical marine life at that time. In many ways, these Jurassic landscapes are comparable to the white sandy shorelines and lagoons seen in the Bahamas and the Persian Gulf today. The alternating layers of marl and limestone (Comblanchien stone, Corton stone etc.) are reminders of successive rises and falls in sea level.
A beneficial fault
Like the great East African Rift Valley, which is currently breaking down, the valley that ran from Alsace through Burgundy to the Beaujolais area thirty million years ago collapsed, leaving behind the future east-facing vineyards overlooking the Rhine and Saône plains.
Stony materials: reminders of the low temperatures of the last Ice Age
When glaciers ran from the North Pole down to London and Brussels, Burgundy was a land of cold steppe and permafrost similar to that of Lapland or Siberia today. In summer, melting snow formed torrents of water that gouged out the corries that now cut into the vineyards on the hillsides, carrying with them blocks of stone and pebbles which created wide debris cones.
The creation of today’s landscapes
After the last period of climate warming ten thousand years ago, the bare countryside was initially carpeted in forests of pines, followed by hazelnuts and lime, then beech and oak. From then on, the soil gradually built up at the expense of the limestone rocks by integrating the organic matter produced by the breakdown of leaf litter caused by the ongoing action of micro-organisms. The photo shows a contemporary mixed forest of conifers and deciduous trees similar to the original forests, before Man intervened. These hillsides are ready to be planted with vines.
The emerged tip of the iceberg
A closer look reveals that the geological skeleton of the Côte reflects the true meaning of the word "mosaic", because of the numerous secondary faults surrounding the main fault line that separate and juxtapose geological layers of different ages or types. These "subsidiary faults" add diversity to the landscape and this diversity has been further underlined by the division into enclosures and walled areas that are a specific feature of the Climats in the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune areas. There may have been a fault in the Côte area but it was a very beneficial fault!
1st traces of Gallo-Roman vines
Wine cultivation has been established in Burgundy since Greco-Roman times. From as early as the end of the 1st century AD, the existence of viticulture provides the physical proof of the spread of Roman culture over the whole of Northern Gaul (the Roman name for France). An ancient vineyard was discovered in Gevrey-Chambertin in 2008 during a preventive archaeological dig. It proves the existence of wine production in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. at the foot of the Côte de Nuits, in a relatively damp plain far from the locations of today's vineyards.
312 A.D.: Eumenes’ oration
Eumenes, a literary master from Autun, provided the earliest description of Burgundy’s vineyards in an address to Emperor Constantine in Autun.
The Burgundian Law
Until the 7th century, most of the vines were planted on the plains. However, in the 6th century, the Burgundian Law, or lex gundobada, indirectly encouraged the planting of vines on the hillsides that were not prime agricultural land. The law provided the first elements of legal protection for the vines and showed the importance of wine production in Burgundian society.
Two leading monastic orders in the Middle Ages
There is no doubt that the history and spread of Burgundy’s wines were linked to the founding and later expansion of the Cluniac and Cistercian orders. They originated in Burgundy and both Cluny (founded in 910 A.D.) and Cîteaux (founded in 1098) had a significant influence on the vineyards.
Preponderant influence on the vineyards
It was the presence of the monastic orders that shaped the area through their strong influence on wine production methods, the construction of specific buildings, the gradual introduction of land division, the quality of the wine and its marketing. The investments made by the religious establishments in financial and human terms undoubtedly shaped the countryside and the winegrowing and wine production businesses.
Self-sufficient production by Cistercian abbeys
The Cistercian communities’ self-sufficient production contributed to the founding of vineyards of outstanding quality – which would become the Climats of Burgundy – based on the model of the Cistercian cellar and enclosed plot. The Clos de Vougeot marked the invention of this model in the 12th century. Although production reflected the self-sufficiency of monastic communities, this type of wine production was widely circulated in Europe, serving as the basis for abbey vineyards in Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal etc.
A State with European influence: the Duchy of Burgundy
In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Valois dynasty of Dukes of Burgundy set the standard for art and taste throughout Europe, giving the vineyards considerable economic and cultural influence along the road north to Flanders and south to Avignon and the papal court. In terms of commercial networks, the towns of Dijon and Beaune had considerable importance as wholesale markets for the export trade.
1395: Ordinance of Philip the Bold, the Valois Duke of Burgundy (1342-1404)
Philip the Bold banned the growing of Gamay grapes on his lands. Although more productive and cost-effective, they were to be replaced by the better-quality Pinot noir. The wines were then considered as the best in Christendom, to use Philip the Good’s words. n,
Ownership changed in the 16th century
The old ducal estates won by the King of France in 1477, and some of the religious estates, were subdivided, a process that continued over several centuries. Some of the land was purchased by parliamentarians and the middle classes in Dijon. At that time, Burgundy wine was acknowledged by the Faculty of Medicine in Paris as “the most agreeable and the most beneficial to health”.
1584: Written use of the word, “Climat”
In a document about the Clos de Bèze written in 1584, the canons of St. Mamet’s Cathedral in Langres talk about “the vines belonging to this farm [Gevrey-Chambertin] located in the place called ChamptBretin” and “another parcel of vineyard situated in the so-called Climat of Champt Berthin”.
It was at this point, and in the 17th century, that the word fell into general use in legal documents referring to property.
The tibériades of Dijon
Just when the term "Climat" began to be used as word in its own right and was applied to certain plots of vineyard, vineyard Climats were mentioned in two exceptional documents called the "tibériades" of Dijon. The first, "La petite (small) tibériade" dates from 1550 and the second, "La grande (large) tibériade", from 1567-1571.
A "tibériade" is a type of map which originated in Italy during the mediaeval period, drawn up for Court cases regarding neighbourhood or other boundary disputes to show the judges the relevant geographical areas.
The reputation for excellence
The fact that these two Climats in Gevrey emerged thanks to their reputation for excellence is symptomatic of the permanency of the Burgundian Climat vineyard model. From the second half of the 17th century onwards, a vineyard’s proximity to the town of Dijon, which had been the benchmark reference, was no longer sufficient to ensure supremacy in the classification of the region’s wines. There was a trend towards a steady depreciation of the wines produced to the north of Dijon in favour of the vineyards stretching from Gevrey to Marsannay-la-Côte (the northern Côte de Nuits) and the first “vins de Nuits” appeared in 1680. Later, in the 18th century, all the other Climats were located in this same area.
The introduction of Climats wines
Between the end of the 17th and 18th centuries, the wine market changed as a result of economic deregulation. Instead of wines from Dijon and Beaune (or the surrounding areas), the market began to see wines from specific Climats which took the names of places that are now the best-known in the Côte region (Clos de Bèze, Corton etc.) and are more and more expensive.
A journey through time
It was during the 18th century, at precisely the same time as the Climats and their distinguishing characteristics were becoming widely known, that the concept of vintage wines made its début. With the dawning of the Enlightenment, the Côte decided to divide the vineyard areas into Climats and establish a timescale for vintages.
Wine merchant houses were set up by professional traders (who sold cloth or ironwork for example), or craftsmen (bakers, coopers). Beaune’s merchants bought wines, stored and aged them in cellars, then put them on the market, often despatching them far afield. This meant that the merchants had to develop vast commercial networks, which included various forms of transport, intermediaries and depots in French and European towns, especially in the north and the east.The commercial success of its wines made the Burgundian method of differentiating and appraising territories according to the wines they produced to become the benchmark across France and Europe.
The French Revolution confiscates vineyards belonging to the nobility and clergy
The vineyards were bought by rich merchants, traders and other wine producers. This did not fundamentally change the overall subdivision of the land but the new owners improved the quality of the wines. In fewer than three hundred years, most of the vineyards had changed hands.
While the Climats were being more and more differentiated from the 16th century onwards, the specific characteristics of the various wine-producing areas, including the Climats themselves, were being recorded, analysed and promoted through a growing naturalistic, medical, academic and scientific culture that was particularly active between the 17th and 20th centuries. Discussions reverberated throughout the province of Burgundy and much further afield.
The oldest and most famous charity wine auction in the world
The first Hospices de Beaune wine auction was held in 1859. Ever since then, the event has taken place on the third Sunday in November. This ancient hospice owns nearly 60 hectares of vines and has a long-held tradition of selling its wines for the common good, using different methods (for example, sale by agreement until the Revolution, or by written bids in the early 19th century).
Since 1959, the sale has taken place in the covered market. Previously, it was held in the King’s Bedchamber (until 1925) and following that, in the cellars.
The vines were hit by two diseases - phylloxera (1875) and mildew (1879)
These diseases wiped out French vines. The phylloxera problem lasted for some fifteen years and phylloxera-resistant graft stock was imported from America (1885). The need for grafting required the development of new expertise and techniques, leading to a significant change in winegrowing.
Recognition and guarantee of winegrowing expertise
The winegrowers themselves joined forces to combat fraud in an organised manner. In the 1920-1930 period, for example, some vineyard owners in Côte-d'Or refused to sell their wine in bulk. They decided to bottle it themselves, without increasing its price, to guarantee its provenance.
From 1936 until the present day, the introduction of Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC, controlled designation of origin)* has resulted in new standards which highlight the particular features of each plot of vines, expressed mainly in the landscape that makes up the Climats mosaic.