History of the Vigneron: Languages Part I: Patois de bourguignon

View of Paris by Pieter Casteels II (fl. 1673–1700)
View of Paris by Pieter Casteels II (fl. 1673–1700)

A thousand years of patois

by Dean Alexander

It is ironic that history speaks so little about language, because other than extreme weather, the issues of communication, miscommunication, and the lack of communication, have likely shaped history more any other single factor. Indeed, these issues of communication are often difficult to pinpoint and their consequences are often lost to history. However, this does not excuse histories which take slight note that on the eve of 1789’s French Revolution, eighty-eight percent of the population of France could not hold a conversation in French, nor did not know any French at all (slmc.uottawa.ca). Nor is it sufficiently impressed that there were dozens of different patois spoken across France.

Tower of BabelMany histories gloss over the issue of language with no more than an occasional reference to ‘terms’ which were “in the patois of the region. This leaves the impression that patois was no more than a colorful piece of slang, rather than itself being a distinct language or dialect. Such casual references do not convey any difficulty of communication within a population which had spoken an estimated six to seven hundred dialects (10th century), derived from three distinct mother tongues (slmc.uottawa.ca). Another (rather poor) estimate, was provided in a 1794 report by the revolutionary bishop of Blois, Henri Grégoire. He wrote that with “thirty different patois, we are still, as far as language goes, at the Tower of Babel“.  That the bishop underestimated the number of dialects so grievously, suggests how little he really knew about these languages and the people who spoke them. Some modern scholars estimate there were as many as fourteen patois in Burgundy alone.

Whatever the number of patois, it is staggering that percentage of the population which did not speak French, and it invites a number of questions when considering the history of the vigneron. What was the history of language within Burgundy, and why was the French language so slow to be adopted there (and across the country)? How did the monarchy effectively overcome linguist differences? When did the français language arrive in the Côte d’Or, and what was its societal impact? What do we know about the regional Burgundian language; and lastly, does the Burgundian patois survive today? 

Note: for the remainder of this article, I will refer to the language of French by its French name, français. The primary reason for this is français was simply just one of many languages spoken in France.  A secondary reason for this spelling is all of the other language names have no English equivalent, it seems natural that the French language should be represented in the same format. I reserve the right to use the word ‘French’ to represent the language, when refers to its current day usage, or it allows me to avoid an awkward sentence construction. Also challenging was the decision whether or not to capitalize all of the languages and titles. In English we capitalize everything, but not-so-much in French. I opted for the later if the term was in français, but I did capitalize if it was an English usage. I’m sure I did plenty wrong on this account. Editing is not a strength of mine.

Part three of this article will deal with the development and history of français – it is integral to the French story, but secondary to the story of Burgundy. 


Language and the Côte d’Or during the ancien régime and beyond

The patois of Burgundy has traditionally been referred to by French writers as“bourguignon-morvandiau”.  That bourguignon comes from the same mother tongue as français, the langue d’oïl, does not mean that communication was easy between those who were purely bourguignophones, and those who were purely Francophones.  How difficult was this communication? An indication may lie in the fact that someone who spoke both français and a patois was said to be bi-lingual.

Along with hundreds of words which were decidedly different from français, some of which can be viewed here, the pronunciation of the words common to both français and bourguignon-morvandiau could itself cause one to have to listen carefully. Speakers of bourguignon rolled their “r“s liberally when compared to that of the French speaker, and the “a”, “eu”, and “to” sounds are very marked, or exaggerated, in their pronunciation. The patios spoken from the Burgundy border north of Dijon, down through Nuits, and Beaune to the southernmost vineyard area of the Côte d’Or was a bourguignon dialect called chalonnaise (Léonard and Barot 2012).



The Morvan

Patois bourguignon-morvandiau

The name “bourguignon-morvandiau” suggests that the language originated in the hills Morvan Massif, lies roughly 40 kilometers west of the Côte d’Or. This implication can be quite misleading, but the Morvan is really not a such a bad place to begin this story.

It is a rugged region of wooded peaks and high valleys. With the quasi-isolation, the terrain presented in terms of accessibility, in both communication and trade in and out of the Morvan, has always suffered. This has meant that the population, in addition to being quite poor, has been correspondingly under-educated. These factors have made this one of the last places where the ancient patois of Burgundy is still being spoken.

The Dorsale boisée is in brown, with Chateau Chinon pop. in 1876 was 2668, today pop. 2086.
The Dorsale boisée is in brown, with Chateau Chinon pop. in 1876 was 2668, today pop. 2086.

The Morvan’s quaint villages and small farms dot the region’s meadows or were cut from its forests in an era of uneven logging regulation. As logging intensified to meet the nations demands for lumber, the population of various villages swelled by as much as forty percent between the years of 1840 and 1900.* The region’s resources, which included cheap, unskilled labor, were, as vividly described by Jean-Léo Léonard & Gilles Barot, absorbed “ruthlessly by the belly of Paris”.

It was from this poor and bloated population, which identified itself by its humble patois, that the daughters of the Morvan were sent to Paris to work as nannies and nursemaids. And over the decades, as thousands of young Morvan girls had worked in the capital’s wealthiest homes, awareness of the patois bourguignon-morvandiau grew outside of the region. It was only a matter of time before bourguignon-morvandiau would become synonymous with the patois of burgundy.

Over the centuries, it has been abundantly clear that the peasants of the Morvan have clung to their language as an integral part of their identity. And although morvandiau has been a long-established written language, only a minority of its speakers ever learned to read or write it. That français has finally supplanted the regional patois as the primary language was spoken is significant, but it is representative of the regression of patois all across France.

The biggest threat to morvandiau is the Morvan’s increasingly diminishing population. In some of its larger villages, the population is a third or less in number than its 19th-century levels. Because of this, it is impossible for “morvandiau” to retain the dynamic vibrancy which it displayed in the past.

(*) from levels established by the census of 1793

(**) 1793 was the first census by the new revolutionary government

(***) The population change shows the boom and bust economy during this period. Moux-en-Morvan in 1793 population was 1089, in 1872 the population swelled to 1688, and today (2013) Moux-en-Morvan has 564 people who live there.  Montreuillon lies along a feeder canal to the Canal du Niverais, allowed good transport for logging operations.  In 1793 had a population of 855, and it grew to a peak population of 1272 in 1976, while today it has shrunk to only 286 inhabitants in 2013.


ijon skyline, source planetware.com
The Dijon skyline. photo: planetware.com

Dijon and the wine villages of the Côte d’Or

Approximately 40 kilometers east of the Morvan, lies the Burgundian provincial capital of Dijon. As the provincial seat of government, and as a major ecclesiastical and intellectual center, it was necessary to speak français by anyone of social position during the ancien régime. This was also true for commoners who aspired to gain wealth, or rise to a position of prominence.* As such, by the early 18th century (if not before), the bourgeoisie of Gevrey, Vosne, Nuits, and Beaune, would have all spoken français. This was a nécessité in order to conduct business with the right people in Dijon, Paris, or to meet with merchants of the great trading cities along the Atlantic coast.

The arrival of the français along the route des grand cru indicated that a new stratification was occurring at a societal level. There had always been a class difference between the nobility and the common man, but now, the knowledge of français created a new and important social demarcation between members within the third estate (Forrest 1991). There were now two major classes of commoner, a group which includes peasants, laborers, and artisans on one side and the educated bourgeoisie on the other. One could easily tell them apart, if not by the clothes that they wore, but by the language they spoke.

 (*) This timing would coincide with the drive by Versailles to subdue the nobility and attain an absolute monarchy.


Across the Saône River: the Gallo-Romance language of Franco-Provençal 

Franco-Provençal or Arpitan. Difficult intelligibility among dialects was noted in the early 18th century. Wikpedia
Franco-Provençal or Arpitan. Difficult intelligibility among dialects was noted in the early 18th century. Wikipedia

For centuries, the Côte d’Or sat at a crossroads of two mother languages of patois: Langue d’oïl and Franco-Provençal (also known as Arpitan). In much of the three Burgundian departments of Yonne, Nièvre, and the Côte d’Or, patois in which the langue d’oïl was primarily dominant. But as one moved south and within Nièvre, and east within the Côte d’Or, the words and pronunciation typical of franco-provençaux became increasingly strong.  This was particularly true along the banks of the Saône River, which bordered the department of FrancheComté.

In the department of SaôneetLoire, which is home to the vineyards of Rully, Bouzeron, Mâcon, and Pouilly-Fuissé, the patois there are said to be transitional, conveying varying degrees of both the Langue d’oïl and Franco-Provençal. Nearby, just across the Saône River, in the Franche-Comté, Franco-Provençal was the primary tongue.   In 1807, one French linguist, Jean-Louis Grillet, wrote that communication between various Franco-Provençal dialects was “difficult” (Wikipedia). This comment instructs us on other linguistic challenges that at one time certainly existed within Burgundy, and across the realm.

Dissecting the ‘langues des bourguignons’

To study the dialects of a century ago requires that patois were literate, meaning there was a written version of them. As  James R. Lehning writes that the patois of the Loire had “apparently deteriorated in the course of the nineteenth century.” And in the arrondissement of Roanne,” patois existed in only an “attenuated” form (Lehning 1995). This is to be expected, as the use of français extended its reach into rural communities. But if this was already happening in the 1800’s, it is relatively impossible for us to know the extent of the changes which had already been made to patios by this period, and how much communication had already improved.

References to the patois of Burgundy is typically viewed as a single dialect. An example of this is found on the website of a group self-titled as Défense et promotion des langues d’oïl, – which interprets Burgundian patois as being bourguignon-borvandiau.

The English language pages of Wikipedia names the Burgundian patois bifurcates Burgundian patois into two dialects. The first is morvandiau which they define as a base of the “d’oïl of central France, but with stronger Germanic influences than standard français” and is peppered with hollandaise terms. These were no doubt picked up in trading wine with the Dutch. The second regional patois identified by the French language Wikipedia is a hybrid oïl-franco-provençaux language, which it terms charolais-brionnais. This is the patois the SaôneetLoire, which lies on the southern border of Chassagne-Montrachet. While this is a more complete explanation, the reality is yet more complicated.

However, the French language version of Wikipedia (fr.wikipedia.com) breaks down the languages of the Morvan Massif itself as four dialects.*  Dialect breaks between areas of the Morvan show in pronunciations such as “ç’ost” vs. “y’ost” to say “there is”.  Other differences: in the northern part of the Morvan water is pronounced as “gaujer,” while in the south it becomes “gauyer.”  For a speaker of français, who would say“prendre l’eau”, either pronunciation would be unintelligible.

This is not the only explanation, however, as linguists often do not necessarily agree. Some regional sociolinguists have replaced the overarching morvandiau designation with 13 distinct regional dialects, that stretch across the four departments of Burgundy (Léonard, Barot 2012). The northern and western patois are primarily oïl with varying amounts of franco-provençaux influences, but as one moves southward, particularly into the department of SaôneetLoire, the langue franco-provençaux becomes increasingly dominate.

A less obvious, due to its distance from Burgundy, are the influences of the Occitan languages, once called lenga d’òc (or langue d’oc in French). Occitan, along with the langues d’oïl and franco-provençaux, are France’s holy trinity of Gallo-Romance languages. This Gallic-Roman mother tongue forms the basis of many patois stretching from Spain’s Pyrenean Val d’Aran in the west, across the Languedoc, to Calabria Italy in the east. Although its area of use is separated from Burgundy by the Central Massif and the Limousin forest, there are numerous occitan words and inflections present in several of the southern bourguignon patois.

(*) No additional information is given regarding these divisions, however.

map adapted from: Jean Léo Léonard & Gilles Barot (Langues de Bourgogne)
map adapted from: Jean Léo Léonard & Gilles Barot (Langues de Bourgogne)

The following are the fourteen patois of Burgundy

  • Morvan-Autunois was the dialect spoken in north-western Morvan.
  • DB is the label given to long diagonal swath through the length of the province, running through the heart of the Morvan, and extending down into the department of Allier. This swath seems to run right through what is referred to as La Dorsale Boisée, the ‘Wooded Dorsal’ of the Morvan massif. This is a line of heavily wooded peaks (500m-900m) which makes up the spine of the mountain range (fr.wikipedia). To this day, there are very few roads through this region, and it is likely to be very sparsely populated. Léonard  & Barot give no other reference is given to DB in the text. Is DB an abbreviation for something, possibly “base de dispersion“? Basic dispersion, refers to is the measurement of the variability in the data. Or “base de données” meaning database? I can find no answer to this.
  • Bresse, BL and RV: Sitting along the banks of the Saône, these patois are primarily francoprovençal in nature. Each patois sits with very tight areas of use suggesting a rural, immobile peasant population, with little trade into or out of these regions. Like DB, there is no explanation for these apparently abbreviated BL and RV languages.  The nearby region of Savoy in the Franche-Comté has significantly influenced the coloring the Bressan character. These were patois which were retained longer than in other areas, probably due to an immobile peasantry. Despite the long history of these dialects, these patois have been strictly oral in use, with no written bresse language ever having been developed.  A phonetic version was sketched out in 2006 to attempt to record and retain the dialect. Bressian speakers today are accused to overemphasizing the uniqueness of their patois, in regards to others. Pronunciation shifts when moving from savoyard bresse in the north, to bresse louhannaise in the south, although the variance is not considered to be enough to “hinder mutual comprehension” (fr.wikipedia).
  • Bresse-chalonnaise was spoken east of Dijon. The name and regional position suggest this is a hybrid of Bresse patois and that of the chalonnaise.
  • Chalonnaise was spoken from the northern department of Haut Marnes, south through Dijon, and all through the Côte de Nuits into the Côte de Beaune. Perhaps somewhere near Chassagne,* the dialect was morphing to clunisois. 
  • Clunisois takes its name from the ancient Roman city, which lies on the southern-most portion of this patois‘ linguistic reach. The Patois is significantly francoprovençal in nature, the language which is spoken just across the Saône River. 
  • Mâconnais is the dialect that picks up south of Cluny, and to some extenis still being spoken within homes, in and around the city of Mâcon. Mâconnaise, like the Bressan areas which lie directly above it, is heavily influenced by the neighboring franco-provençaux. Mâcon, a city of 35,000, straddles both sides of the Saône River sits half in Saône-et-Loire, and half in Franche-Comté. Like chalonnaise, this is a patois with a long north-south area of use.  This is likely because a number good roads that ran parallel to the river, coupled with with river traffic, would have created continuity in the patois, over this elongated area. The shape of the area affected is determined by the direction of the movement of people and goods along these thoroughfares. 
  • Charolais dialect sits in a wide swath along south-eastern Burgundy east of the wine regions of the southern Côte Chalonnaise, and the dialects adjacent to the Mâconnais spoken there.  Charolais, according to charolais-brionnais.fr, is a language with a structure similar to the Oïl language yet laced with hints of Occitan (langue d’oc also lenga d’òc) and Latin. For example, the «a» sound replaces «e», while the «ts» is used instead of «ch». This region is noted for its massive coal mining operations in Montceau-les-Mines which pulled 2,000,000 tons from the ground per year, as well as its large iron, and steel industries based in the commune of Creusot. This industry was made possible by the opening of the Canal du Charollais (now known as Canal du Centre) in 1792.)
  • Brionnaise is typically associated with Charolais but is separated in the listing by Léonard and Barot.  The regional marketing efforts by charolais-brionnais.fr say that “efforts to promote the dialect are championed by local celebrities like Professor Mario Rossi, who in 2004 published an Etymological and Ethnological Dictionary of Brionnais dialects.” Note, that it is titled “Brionnais dialects“; plural.
  • Matour is named after a village which is in the hills south and a little west of Cluny. Termed as being in ‘Upper Cluny‘, Matour sits at crossroads between Charolais, Beaujolais, Cluny, and Macon. Like the other patois of nearby regions, this langue is transitional, part Oïl and part franco-provençaux.
  • Bourbonnaise: To the west and south of the Morvan, bourbonnaise was once spoken around the city of Nièvre (with a population today of 35,000). This area although technically part of Burgundy, it is separated from the Côte and Dijon by the Morvan. It a region which is influenced by nearby Allier, and patois of Langue d’oïl than the more Germanic franco-provençaux.
  • Roannais sit in the gap between the Morvan and the Central Massif, north of Lyon, along the southern Burgundian border with the departments of the Loire and the Rhone. Named for the department Roanne department of the Loire.
The roads across Burgundy in 1771. The map, which is labeled as "Carte itinéraire du duché de Bourgogne" is held by the National Library of France
The roads across Burgundy in 1771. The map, which is labeled as “Carte itinéraire du duché de Bourgogne” is held by the National Library of France

That there were multiple dialects, some of which were used within a very tight area, suggests that peasantry in these areas were relatively immobile. Intriguingly, a couple of patois had very long, vertical, north-south area of use, such as that of chalonnaise, which covered much of the department of the Côte d’Or. It is not a coincidence that this area of use should follow the path of the Burgundian wine trade, as it moves from Chassagne, up the path of the ancient the Via Agrippapast Dijon. The use of chalonnaise continued to the department’s northern border but is not clear if the dialect extended very far into the neighboring department of Haut Marnes.

MaconnaisThe economic situation of the chalonnaise speaking peasantry of the Côte d’Or, was not at all uniform. The very poor were likely to be immobile, while those with one or more holdings, particularly if one was in a renown cru, were likely wealthy enough to own a horse, and were able to travel to neighboring towns, perhaps to do business with their négociant, or their tonnelier (barrel maker), or to seek any other service or product that was not available in their own village. Those peasants who were able to travel, spread their sub-regional terms and pronunciations to other villages while bringing new ones back home. This process would have developed a uniform patois, that over time spread over a larger area of use.

The patois spoken within the SaôneetLoire are much more confined in their areas of use. The fact that patois of chalonnaise stops near the SaôneetLoire border, likely means that there was limited trade between these regions, both of which lay immediately south of Chassagne. Patois with such small regional footprint such as the industrial Charlolais and rural matour, suggests there was little trade done with the peasantry there. Again, any lack of trade suggests two things: that the region was quite poor, and that they lacked mobility. Despite the Canal du Centre (then known as the Canal du Charollais) having been built through these regions, the local paysans had little use for a commercial waterway. Even collectively, these small farmers had little or nothing to trade.  We also know that much of these areas south of the Côte d’Or was dominated by large farm properties, either capitalized, or private, which were controlled by less than one percent of the population, and this too created a population that was compartmentalized, as the small communities were separated from one another by very large farming estates.

(*) Unfortunately as is common with drawn maps, the two maps used are not of the same origin, and not accurate in configuration, lacking cities and other clearly identifiable markers. This makes precise identification of where these languages impossible. This imperfection of maps may be somewhat intentional since the authors of them might not want to be pinned down to a precise statement that ‘X’ language is spoken in ‘X’ location.


Up next: Part II, The war on Patois



References for  Français and patois Bourguignon, Parts I, II, & III


History of the French Language, https://slmc.uottawa.ca/?q=french_history

The Original Grand Crus of Burgundy, Charles Curtis, MW, Wine Alpha, 2014

Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914. Eugen Weber, Stanford Univ. Press. 1976.

Schooling in Western Europe: A Social History, Mary Jo Maynes, Suny Press 1985

Regional Dynamics Burgundian Landscapes in Historical Perspectiveedited by Carole Crumle

Languages and the Military: Alliances, Occupation and Peace Building, edited by H. Footitt, M. Kelly, Springer, 2016

Collective Action in Winegrowing Regions: A Comparison of Burgundy and the Midi – David R. Weir July 1976

Language or Dialect Shift? Shifting, Fading and Revival of Burgundian Gallo-Romance Varieties, Jean Léo Léonard  & Gilles Barot, 2012

End or invention of Terroirs? Regionalism  in the marketing of French luxury goods: the example of Burgundy wines in the inter‐war years, working paper Gilles Laferté Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique

Negotiating Territoriality: Spatial Dialogues Between State and Tradition, Allan Charles Dawson, Laura Zanotti, Ismael Vaccaro, Routledge 2014

‘Insofar as the ruby wine seduces them’: Cultural Strategies for Selling Wines in Interwar Burgundy,” Philip Whalen, 2009

The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism, Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, University of California Press, 2005

From Savage to Citizen: The Invention of the Peasant in the French Enlightenment, Amy S. Wyngaard, University of Delaware Press, 2004

Reshaping France: Town, Country, and Region During the French Revolution, Alan I. Forrest, Manchester University Press, 1991

Le patois bourguignon, patrimoine en danger, Arnaud Racapé, France Bleu Bourgogne, 2015

Peasant and French: Cultural Contact in Rural France During the Nineteenth Century, James R. Lehning, Cambridge University Press, 1995



Burgundy: The History of the Vignerons: The Villages part I

The wine villages of the Côte d’Or in the 18th Century

By Dean Alexander

PommardReflecting on it, I find it amazing that the descendants of so many old Burgundian families still farm the vineyards, and live in the same tiny villages of the gold coast as their ancestors. Many of these families have lived there for more than two centuries. The Roty’s of Gevrey-Chambertin arrived there in 1710, and have now lived in Gevrey for more than three centuries, and the Mongeard family arrived in Vosne in 1620, just shy of four centuries.

Consider further, for many generations, all but the most wealthy, rarely traveled much farther than the fields that they worked, none of which were very far away. They often did not know the families from two or three villages distant, because to get there, many of them would have had to walk. They lived and died in the houses in which they were raised, and that was often the same house that their mother or father was raised.(1) For most urbanites, this is kind of stationary life is unfathomable. But this long history of a family being precisely in a single place, for so many generations, can only be explained by these people having developed exceptionally strong emotional ties to their village, their family, and to their land.

While to outsiders, the daily life of the farmer can only describe as repetitious and mundane, in the long view, the changes that have occurred on the Côte can be fascinating. Over the span of the past two to three hundred years, these fermier families have had, along with a certain amount of luck, the ability to adjust and adapt at crucial times.

First and foremost, they were lucky. To have had built up enough assets to handle disasters as they came can be a matter of luck. Any ship can sink in the perfect storm. But beyond that, they tenacious, yet flexible enough to endure nature’s worst. Examples of adversity the families of the Côte would face included: multiple, several near-total harvest failures, and more than a couple vineyard losses due to vine killing winters, hail, and flooding. Then there were the major diseases such as mildew (oidium in 1854 and downy in 1887) not to mention phylloxera.

The image of a peasant girl resting, is from the Paris Salon circa 1893.
The image of a peasant girl resting is from the Paris Salon circa 1893.

The political and economic challenges were relentless, included the lengthy French Revolution, multiple governmental changes, and economic and the catastrophes of wars and occupation. Had these families not been lucky, not had assets when they needed them, and not made the right decisions at the right time, they would have left been forced to leave, as many did. (Garnot 2008) Most importantly, they had the ability to make the jump from being simple paysans, meaning the peasant-farmers, who only just subsisted on small plots land, to fermiers who not only owned the land they worked, and more importantly, owned enough land they needed to hire people to help work the land they owned.

Gone from the Gold Coast now are those paysans.  Their small plots absorbed by larger landholders and their labor replaced in the fields professional vineyard managers and workers and supplemented day laborers.

Throughout the late 19th and most of the 20th century, it was an idealized version of these very peasants, who had been economically pushed out of the Gold Coast, by which the French viewed their own national identity.  The French viewed itself as the peasant: a stout, strong, determined, rural proletariat, who farmed the land, feed the nation and were called to war. (Lehning 1995) It was generally felt that the peasants were the backbone of the country. As such, it was with a certainly irony, that much later, during the 1920 and 1930’s, the fermiers of the Côte would begin to market Burgundy and themselves as synonymous with the already existent folklore of the ‘peasant farmer’. (Whalen 2009) This would be their guarantee of quality, their simple honesty, steadfastness, and hard work.


print of Gevrey Chambertin from Dr Jules Lavalle's 1855 Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d'Or
print of Gevrey-Chambertin from Dr. Jules Lavalle’s 1855 Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d’Or

The growth of a village

In an isolated locale, like the wine villages of the Côte d’Or, a census is a very good barometer of the health of its economy. As the economy heats up, as financial folks like to say, the population increases. Conversely, as the economy slows, populations tend to contract accordingly. In 1793, toward the end of the Revolutionary period, the first census of the new republic was taken.  At this time, the population of Gevrey was only 1,193. Over the next two decades, Gevrey’s population would grow only incrementally until 1831, when it would begin to expand over the next 50 years.

Phylloxera, in its steady march across France, would finally reach the vineyards of the Côte d’Or in 1880. However, rather than the loss of production forcing the population to contract, -as those “in the margins” were indeed displaced by a lack of field work, new inhabitants were arriving, largely replacing their numbers. A whole new industry had sprung up surrounding the fighting of phylloxera. As that battle was gradually lost, these jobs would eventually be replaced by those who would plant the vineyards again. These were people who had trained in the new skills of grafting vinifera Pinot and Chardonnay vines to the hybrid American rootstock. This carousel of workers kept the number of people living in the village fairly constant, but generally, the fermiers, the landholding farmers, many whose family names we recognize today, remained.

The census of 1881 revealed a population of 1,868. Shortly after the turn of the century, economic instability, and low wine prices, and falling vineyard values, would cause the lowest number of inhabitants since the census had begun, with a mere 1,543.  Gevrey’s population would fall even further during the interwar years, for in 1936 Gevrey had a population only 1,486, the lowest it had been after one hundred years of growth. These were grim times, and the fermiers and concerned politicians sought new ways to produce and market wine independent of the negociants that had controlled the industry since the 1750’s. These efforts, coupled with the Europe’s general economic recovery after the Second World War, has sent the population dramatically upward, with new industries which supported the now profitable wine growers and bringing with them hundreds of new jobs. The censuses of 1962 and 1975 marked how dynamic the recovery had been. (census figures: fr.wikipedia.org)

Population of GevreyThe population of the larger town of Nuits-St-Georges, a center for negociant trade in the mid-1700‘s, has been more stable than Gevrey. Nuits expanded through pre-phylloxera times but then remaining fairly steady for almost a century between 1866 and 1954. The town’s population saw minor fluctuations of alternately adding and losing 100 to 400 people, through the end of the Second World War, but these changes were a much smaller percentage of the population than the swings seen in Gevrey-Chambertin. This is likely that because of the town’s size, there was far more business operating in Nuits-St-Georges beyond the direct cultivation of the vines. As an overview: in 1793 Nuits had 2,541 inhabitants. It peaked just before phylloxera 1881 at 3,727 people. Today, after steady growth since the end World War II, (3,285 in 1946), the population now sits at 5,516 in 2008. (fr.wikipedia.org)

Stepping farther back in time

The old villages, tranquil wine smaller villages of the Côte d’Or, with their narrow streets and quaint houses, are quite easy to envision two hundred fifty years ago, during the time of King Louis the XVI, for these are remain small, sleepy, villages. Vosne even today has a population of a mere 427 people, and only 307 people live in the nearby village of Chambolle. Even with the tourists that mill around and support the restaurants and inns of the old, more touristy section of Gevrey-Chambertin, this section of town could not be described as bustling. It would seem as though place must be quite unchanged over hundreds of years. In your mind’s eye, just exchange the slow trod of oxen pulling a cart along the graveled highway for the cars that now ply the paved RN74.  Upon the once cobbled streets of the better sections of the village, add in horses and the staccato of their hooves. Wood-smoke, billowing from the chimneys of a few dozen open hearths; the day crisp, with fall in the air, and the vision should be complete.

But things have changed in these villages. Perhaps the biggest paradigm shift took place when the vines of Pinot Noir won out over Gamay.

(*) larger is relative, but considering the value of the land, and the wine made from it, these are not poor men. (**)The increase of population in the larger towns and villages is best explained by more wealth is created by both vignerons and by the tourist industry, the there are more jobs available to service their needs today. 


French peasants depicted in "Fin du Travail" by Jules Breton (1887)
French peasants depicted in “Fin du Travail” by Jules Breton (1887)

Economic battle between of Pinot Noir and Gamay

Winter 1709For many centuries, there was an economic and ideological battle going on between those who were planting the vines that produced the more consistently ripening Gamay grape, and those who would have all vines in Burgundy planted only to Pinot Noir.

For some, the battle was societal. While certainly it was recognized that Gamay could produce a high-tonnage of fruit, while still maintaining acceptable quality (for the masses), the noblesse d’épée (noble of the sword), the noblesse de robe (magistrates and parliamentarians of Dijon), clergy officials, and most acutely, the invested haut bourgeoisie, felt the Gamay wines were coarse and undeserving vineyards of the Côte d’Or. Most importantly, they rightly felt Gamay pulled down the reputation of the Côte in general. Gamay certainly did not add to the noble reputation that the upper strata of society believed the region should be allowed to attain.  Social standing and reputation in the 18th century was hugely important to those in a position to affect it, and cannot be underestimated in the context of where some Gamay should and should not be planted in Burgundy.

For centuries there was a vocal pressure to eliminate Gamay, and although it was banished by Philip the Bold in 1395, peasants continued to grow on the slopes through the end of the 19th century. In Morey“Of the 160 hectares under vine,” Auguste Luchet wrote in 1858, “90 are planted to Gamay.” Later in the text, he would write: “Gevrey has about four hundred hectares of vineyards, half in Gamay and one in Pinol (Noirien) mixed with a little white.”

According to Marion Fourcade, an associate professor at UC Berkeley, there were “periodic local ordinances” eradicate Gamay in vineyards of the Côte d’Or. In her paper,“The Vile and the Noble” (2012), Fourcade briefly mentions that those who pushed to expunge Gamay alleged its cultivation promoted various unspecified “health dangers”. As an economic problem, Gamay’s critics charged that its cultivation contributed to an increase in the fraudulent bottling of Gamay as Pinot Noir, or alternately, it was accused that Gamay was illegitimately blended with Pinot Noir. This no doubt occurred. But, as previously believe in the preceding centuries, Gamay was, in general, unworthy of the region.

LavalleDr Jules Lavalle, in his 1855 book, “Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d’Or, which was revered by many, calls Gamay “common,” and “ordinary,” claiming Gamay had “invaded hilltops and flatlands all around”. (Forcade 2012)   “God knows how awfully active the vulgar plant has been in driving away the fine plant, and what progress it makes every day! Our ancestors would have been appalled!” As translated by Fourcade.  In Charles Curtis’s translation of Lavalle (in which I did not find the aforementioned quote) in his book the “Original Grand Crus of Burgundy”, Lavalle writes “The vines planted in Gamay cover more than 23,000 hectares,(1) which one meets under the name of plante Mâlain,  plante d’Arcenant plant de Bévy” Additionally Lavalle condemns that “The yield can often extend to 50 and even 60 hectoliters per hectare.”

The choice to plant Gamay was surely decided, however, not by the ideological mindset, or by social consciousness, but rather by the wealth of the vigneron. The poor farmer could simply not afford the high-stakes gamble of Pinot Noir presented, with its pitifully small production of 18 hectoliters per hectare (Lavalle 1855), and its inability to consistently ripen its fruit completely  The peasant could not afford a single failed vintage, that the high-risk Pinot Noir grapes delivered this result on a fairly consistent basis.*

Moreover, Pinot, with its thin skin was particularly prone to rot and disease, it was far more difficult to make into a competent wine. In some years, Pinot vines would produce a completely unsalable crop. The wealthy landowning farmer (a fermier – as opposed to a vigneron) could take such a gamble with virtual impunity, because when it the Pinot crop paid off, the dividends of producing a great wine, far outstripped the losses incurred by poor to very poor vintages. The incredible demand (and payday) for wines from great vineyards, in these great years, continues to this day.

(*) It is not without note that the little ice-age, (which dates are contested) is generally thought to have begun in the 1300’s, and ended around 1850. Additional weather variations occurred, with extremely low temperatures materializing with disastrous effect in 1660 1709, 1740 and 1794/1795 and the last in the year 1850.

Grains are still a major crop in the Cote d'Or
Grains are still a major crop in the Côte d’Or. Here, adjacent to vineyards that produce Bourgogne Rouge on the outskirts of Gevrey, wheat, rye, corn and barley are regularly planted and harvested. photo googlemaps.com

The paysan of the Côte, a poly-cultiveur

While we think of only vines on the slopes of the Côte d’Or, the vineyards of the early to mid 18th century, were typically a polyculture. It was common for the vines to share the slopes with animals, fruit trees, and vegetable plots, depending on the site. (Swann 2003) However, as the 18th century progressed, economics would begin to crowd out polyculture off of the slopes.

Below the vines of the great vineyard slopes, upon low-lying fields, grew all manner of foods, particularly grains. Rye which grew well on the poor soils of northern France, corn, wheat and barley were widely grown; and in personal gardens next to their houses, the peasants often grew vegetables. It is well documented that the lower third of Clos St-Jacques was planted to alfalfa until 1954, but it is likely that it had been home to many different crops over the centuries.

Very few ‘vignerons’ during the 18th century actually worked solely with the vine, and those that did, according to historian Benoit Garnot, were in decline in the 18th century. He laments bleakly that “the tired qualification ‘winemaker’ seems to be socially rewarding.” (Garnot 2008)

Busby wrote, in 1840, that in vignerons in Chambertin would rip out dying provignage vines (which only survived ten years or so), and let the land fallow while being planted to sainfoin, a cover crop that flourishes on calcareous (limestone) soils. Planting sainfoin had dual benefits: it not only would the crop rejuvenated the topsoil with an infusion of nitrogen but it also the sainfoin was a good feed for their grazing animals. Those vignerons that had a cow or two, had them tended by a communal herder who took them to field for the day and returned them to the owner at night.

Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), Vineyard laborer resting, 1869
Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), Vineyard laborer resting, 1869

The fall harvest season was unrelenting and well-reported as being extreme in the exhaustion it created.  By the end of August, all of the rye, which was an important crop in the poor soils of north-eastern France, and the summer wheat, had already been harvested. Also already harvested were the other major crops, which included barley, colza, which is also known as rape, or rapeseed, was grown for lubricants, and hemp  (not to be confused with its relative cannabis), was also grown for seed, oil, wax, resin, rope, cloth, pulp, paper and, in this north-eastern region. (U.S.Gov. Printing Office 1888) This would give the paysan a month for the grape harvest, before the planting of winter wheat, which would begin straight away in October, after pressing and barreling of the new wine.

Centuries of stagnant agricultural practices

It is widely accepted that during the ancien regime, few improvement in farming had come to France. The tasks of the cultiveur were done in the least expensive manner; just as their fathers and grandfathers, and as well their great-great grandfathers had farmed the same land.

To the English agronomist Arthur Young, who visited Burgundy and elsewhere in France on the eve of the revolution, the inefficiencies of French agriculture was “quite contemptible’. He was so critical of French farming methods as to say that even the large capitalist farms were “villainous cultivated’. As far as investing in capitalization farming given the French methods, he declared “If I had a large tract of this country, I think I should not be long in making a fortune’.(Swan 2003)

Change was painfully slow, despite attempts by Dijon to push the people to adopt them. The problem really came down to money, and the peasants had none to invest in the changes necessary. A Burgundian representative to the National Constituent Assembly, during the first stages of the Revolution, explained the failure of previous attempts at agricultural reform:

“Oh you who complain of the intractability of the peasant when he refuses to adopt your new ploughs, your new seed drills…your deep furrows, your doses of fertilizer that are four times greater than what he can afford, before tripling his expenses in the uncertain hope of a tripled harvest, begin by putting him in a state of being able to buy clogs for his children.”


wheat fields Van Gough

 Up Next: The Villagers of the 18th Century


Additional Notes:

(1) Life was short and death rates of children under the age of ten were high. Because of this, and the general lack of excess money homes traditionally multi-generational. There will be much more about life and death on the Gold Coast in upcoming chapters.

(2) Charles Curtis, in his book “The Original Grand Crus of Burgundy”, takes these hectare figures, printed in Lavalle, at face value, and proceeds to discuss how they might be accurate. However, I feel, that they are as just as likely, a misprint,  so far off from the hectares, as they exist today, even taking into consideration the loss of so much vineyard land, post-phylloxera, that was never replanted around Dijon. One might also view these figures to be considered a fabrication, as a call to action against the Gamay scourge. Words are weapons. Because there appears to be no other at the ready figures of Gamay and Pinot Noir acreage planted in the Cote d’Or to compare Lavalle’s figures with, I choose to bypass the issue altogether. It isn’t all that germane enough to the already too wide of a scope of these writings, to deal with something I can’t bring to an adequate conclusion about. There are other fish to fry.




Reference Sources for Burgundy: History of the Vignerons: The Villages parts I – IV 

La Côte-d’Or à vol d’oiseau: lettres écrites à M.L. Havin, après la récolte, Auguste Luchet 1858

Gevrey-Chambertin: notice historique, topographique et statistique, suivie de promenade à Fixin, by Henri Vienne 1850

Journal of a Tour through some of the vineyards of Spain and France, James Busby, Sydney 1833

Peasant Proprietors and other selected essays,  Lady Frances Parthenope Verney Longmans, Green, 1885 –

L’état de la recherche sur la vigne, le vin et les vignerons en Bourgogne au XVIIIe siècle, Benoit Garnot,  2008

The Peasants and the King in Burgundy, Hilton Root, University of California Press, 1992

Evolution du Métayage en France, L. Durousseau-Dugontie, Impr. Crauffon, 1905

Centre d’Histoire de la Vigne et du Vin, Charlotte Glain-Fromont,  Bulletin de liaison Bulletin 30 janv-fev 2012.pdf

 LES Climats du vignoble de Bourgogne Dossier de candidature à L’INSCRIPTION SUR LA LISTE DU PATRIMOINE MONDIAL DE L’UNESCO Janvier 2012

Communities of Grain: Rural Rebellion in Comparative Perspective Victor V. Magagna Cornell University Press 1991

Infant and Child Mortality in Eighteenth Century France: A Function of Income? Hajime Hadeishi,  Bureau of Economics Federal Trade Commission, cliometrics.org 2010

Harvest Failures, Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson, 2015 Alphahistory.com

Cattle and Dairy Farming Part 1 United States. Bureau of Foreign Commerce  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1888 –

The Peasantry in the French Revolution P. M. Jones, Cambridge University Press, 1988

Peasant and French: Cultural Contact in Rural France During the Nineteenth CenturyJames R. Lehning Cambridge University Press, 1995

Insofar as the ruby wine seduces them’: Cultural Strategies for Selling Wines in Interwar Burgundy,” Contemporary European History 18.1 Philip Whalen (2009)

The Vile and the Noble: On the Relation between Natural and Social Classifications in the French Wine World, Marion Fourcade,  Sociological Quarterly 2012

Aristocracy, Antiquity, and History: An Essay on Classicism in Political ThoughtA. A. M. Kinneging Transaction Publishers, 1997

Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment By Michel Delon, Routledge 2013

Provincial Power and Absolute Monarchy: The Estates General of Burgundy 1661–1790 Julian Swann, Cambridge University Press  2003

History and Climate: Memories of the Future? Phil D. Jones, A.E.J. Ogilvie, T.D. Davies, K.R. Briffa Springer Science & Business Media, Apr 17, 2013

The Decline of Childhood Mortality Kenneth Hill. Department of Population Dynamics School of Hygiene and Public Health Johns Hopkins University 1990

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography Graham Robb W. W. Norton & Company2008

Tasting Note: 2010 Domaine Laroche, Bourgogne “Tete de Cuvee”

imgresMichel Laroche is the fifth generation to run this highly regarded estate, that has grown to a very large 100 hectares since the Domaine’s founding in 1850.  While most of the wine produced comes from the family’s base of operations in Chablis, this comes from the Maconnaise  -physically about as far away from Chablis you can get and still be considered to be in Burgundy. This is a negociant wine; grown and fermented by 15 (or more) growers with long term contracts. Once fermentation is underway, the wine is transferred to the negociant (in this case Laroche) to be pressed and finished (95% malo) in their cellars.  This Chardonnay is aged only 2 months (on its fine lees) in stainless steel tanks before being bottled.

This Chardonnay has a rich nose, of like the Greek dessert Balaclava, full of lots of honey, nuts and butter and toasty filo dough, coupled with sage, chalk, and wet stones. The mouth is very dry and savory, rich and broad. The watering acidity (like biting into a crisp grape) is soften and rounded by chalky minerally, which is lemon and golden apple-tinged.  It is very good and quite complex, but its age has stripped it of much of its fruit, leaving the finish a touch bit drying and abrupt. Here is a wine that really would rise to its apex with some pure, but simple food. A roast chicken with wild mushrooms, or Swordfish with butter toasted almonds and fried sage.  This 2010 is very good wine, at the end of its run.  At this point it’s a food wine rather than an aperitif.  For something fresh, try the 2011 which should be out in the market now. 87 points.