Burgundy: the History of the Vignerons, Preface

by Dean Alexander

The research for the series Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy led me to some very unexpected places, and that path was far longer and much more circuitous than I ever could have imagined when I first began. My trek of discovery led me to write in a “knee bone is connected to the leg bone” kind of way, and I found that the subject matter began directing me onto a decidedly historically driven path. I realized that I had a completely new series of articles before me: to piece together how the families lived and farmed the Côte d’Or lived before the dawn of the twentieth century.

Vineyard workers with oxenI immediately realized that this history of Côte d’Or would prove to be difficult extract. There is little that is written directly about life in the Burgundian villages. Clive Coates’ work detailing various famous properties ownership, is well established, but beyond that, little seems to be written. If this history has been written, and it is out there, it may not have been digitized, it probably is only in French,(1) but in any case, it has been exceptionally difficult to locate.

There are a number of reasons for this lack of information.

The first is Burgundy (as we are interested in the region as it pertains to the wine), comes a small ribbon of hillside in rural France. And despite Burgundies production of one of the world’s great luxury products, it was something of a rural backwater. National politics did not originate from Burgundy; it was not a financial center, nor did great historical events take place there.

While we generically referred to the wine of the Côte d’Or as Burgundy, in reality, Burgundy a much larger area covering four departments of rural France. In fact, the Côte d’Or was fairly isolated, with most of its trade moving upon the most improved roads, which were to the north. The wines were traded to the Netherlands, and then across the Channel to England, or to a lesser extent northwest to Paris. Even then, these roads were extremely poor by today’s standards. This trade in a single direction indicates that the Cote d’Or was pretty much the end of the line in terms of travel. Yes, there were roads to Jura and of course the Maconnaise, but those roads were poor, and those trade routes meant the wines of Burgundy would need to compete with the inexpensive wines of Beaujolais and Macon that Paris consumed in large quantities. This meant that along with a direction of trade, came an equally limited flow of information out of Burgundy, something that recorded history requires. This would continue until wider networks of roads and rail lines were developed in the mid to late 1800’s increased travel and trade elsewhere in France and elsewhere in Europe. All of these factors makes finding and compiling information about this narrow strip of land in the countryside of France all the more difficult.

The history of the vignerons of Burgundy may not be important in the context of the larger issues of the times, but to those of us Burgundy lovers with the rare ‘historian’ gene within our makeup, are curious about this place where the great wine has been made for centuries. There may only be one or two of us out there who doesn’t say “who cares?” Yet I continue undaunted.

This new, yet to be written, series of articles really began as I wrote about erosion in Vosne-Romanee Les Damaudesin Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy.  I was struck by so many questions regarding this place and the people who farmed it.  Who were these small landholders, and what happened to them? What was their life like? Was their life in the Côte d’Or different from other peasants in the rest of France?  Was there economic security? How did the Revolution affect the Côte d’Or these people? How was life different for the people who farmed these vineyards before and after the revolution? What happened to the local nobility? What was their relationship to the peasants that worked for them? What were the real effects of phylloxera in Burgundy? How did phylloxera and the economy effect vineyard ownership and the peasants of Burgundy?

What we do know is that the families that farm Burgundy today, are, for the most part, the same families that farmed Burgundy in the 1700’s. Their history forms the basis of the wines that they produce today, and that makes their history important. Most of the people who farmed these famous vineyards were virtually invisible even as they lived and others would only gain even a footnote in history after they bought a parcel of a world-renown vineyard. All told, this is a scant bit of information.

But this is a period of time (I will cover 150 years between 1750 and 1900) that should be revealed, and not forgotten to history. As it is, it virtually only exists today as footnotes in scholarly texts, in support of some other broader historical exploration. I set out on with a goal to collect these widely spread granules of information and assemble them into something meaningful. I want to illuminate the story of these people, who as individuals, that from the moment they died, there was no trace of their existence.

Searching for Burgundy-related history via the internet is itself problematic.  The word Burgundy, in a web search, is first most closely associated with the color, especially in terms fashion, and then it is most closely associated with the Duchy (kingdom) of Burgundy which ruled much of the French interior before the middle ages until 1525. This was at least 200 years before the period that I considered would be relevant to the vignerons of Burgundy today. Gradually I learned how to tease out pieces of information using the internet, and one tidbit of information would lead to a keyword, with which I could find more.

HistorianWithout the internet, google search, and control+F, this research would not be possible, particularly in the short amount of time as I have compiled it. I must also credit amazon, which puts substantive previews of thousands of scholarly books, each which might only have one or two mentions of Burgundy within their pages. This feature this allowed me to search for information with a simple find command.  Without this resource, to write something like this would require access to a major university library, and possibly years of free time. But even if I had access to the physical books, without a search function, it may have been very difficult to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Even with the internet’s incredible search power at my fingertips, I never did find a history of the people of the of the Côte d’Or. At this point, I have 10,000 words of notes compiled (roughly 22 pages in 12 point font), and I think I have a well-rounded enough set of information to begin writing about Burgundy. My hope is that I can paint a picture of what it was like for the families that have lived there since at least the beginning of the 18th century, if not long before.

The story of the vignerons of the  Cote d’Or develops against the backdrop of France as an emerging superpower. This is a national history that is remarkably character rich, full of intrigue, drama, betrayal, and of course war, revolution, and for a couple of years, the heavy use of the guillotine. Comparably, the history of the rural Côte d’Or is somewhat sleepy, but it is these series of stormy, almost operatic, political events of the national stage, looms as an important Burgundian back story. The happenings in Paris, like a giant roulette wheel, changed the cast of moneyed, powerful characters who owned the great vineyards, and to various extents, dictated the quality lives of those who lived there. The one constant was that the peasants and most of the lower-cased Bourgeoisie continued on like they had for centuries.


(1) I have done many searches for untapped information in French, but it has not yielded much more information than English scholarly writings have since presumably those sources have already been mined.



Burgundy: l’Histoire des Vignerons, Part 1







3 thoughts on “Burgundy: the History of the Vignerons, Preface

  1. Dean:
    Actually, much exists re: the history of Burgundy. Burgundy, in fact, was a power center for centuries, thanks to the Dukes of Burgundy who ruled there in the Middle Ages. Trade guilds, wine in particular, played a huge role culturally during this time. The Revolution irrevocably impacted the region, since the majority of domaine owners at that time were either the church or nobles. The Napoleonic code further parcelated the region when inheritance laws changed from primageniture to equal inheritance by all siblings.
    So many great books exist that illuminate this great region, including Charles Curtis MW’s book “The Original Grand Crus of Burgundy.”
    Burgundy, her history and culture encompass, and deserve, far more than a google search. If you need any more information, please feel free to contact me: binnotes@gmail.com


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