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.

 

Upcoming:

Burgundy: l’Histoire des Vignerons, Part 1

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Saumaize-Michelin: A First Look at Roger Saumaize’s Intense 2012 Chardonnays

An Antique Map of Pouilly Fuisse. Vergisson is the Northern-Most of the five villages that make up the appellation.

An Antique Map of Pouilly-Fuisse. Vergisson is the Northern-Most of the four villages that make up the appellation.

Saumaize-Michelin is a top-flight small biodynamic grower-vigneron who is making some beautiful wines from his cellar in Vergisson.  Pouilly-Fuisse, unlike the appellations such as Chassagne and Meursault, is not centered around a single village, but rather four separate villages, Vergisson and Fuisse being the most renown. Vergisson sits in a valley below the massive limestone monolith of  La Roche de Vergisson, and some of its vineyards climb up and around the backside of this behemoth. Vergisson, the northern-most village, is the coolest in the appellations, and because of that, it is reputed to have the highest levels of acidity. In 2011, I would not have been so sure, but with these 2012s, the acidity and concentration of these wines (particularly with the Macon) are jaw dropping.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

Roger Saumaize on a newly plated, steep-sloped vineyard that he thinks has tremendous potential.

Roger Saumaize on a newly plated, steep-sloped vineyard that he thinks has tremendous potential.

2012 Pouilly-Fuisse “Vignes Blanches”

While the 2011s were a bit fat in Maconnaise, this, the first of the 2012 Pouilly to be shipped from Saumaize is sensational in zingingly crisp acidity, with lots of chalky minerals in the nose and the palate: round river stones, apple, lime peel, some nice weight, and modest viscosity. The wine is long and fresh, there is also a waft of balsa and mahogany sawdust. While there are many inexpensive Pouilly-Fuisses on the marketplace, this is definitely not one of those. This is a big step up in quality and verve, and it should improve as it puts on weight and gras with a couple years of age. A fantastic Chardonnay that is comparable in style and quality with a fine St-Aubin. This is drawn from several of his Pouilly-Fuisse Vineyards around Vergisson.  $32.00   92 points

 

Outside the green line that demarcates the Pouilly-Fuisse appellation, are vineyards that must be labeled as Macon or Macon-Vergisson depending on their location.

Outside the green line that demarcates the Pouilly-Fuisse appellation, are vineyards that must be labeled as Macon or Macon-Vergisson depending on their location.

2012 Macon-Vergisson “La Roche”

Everything about this wine is intense, including its nose of cooked cream, lemon, lime peel and butterscotch. In the mouth there is ripping acidity, etching and intense in its attack, pushing the wines concentrated size and weight to their limit to hold this all together. This is a very powerful wine, that has both ripeness and fresh lemon and lots of lime peel flavors, some interesting twig/stem-like flavors, and finally, it gains some breadth in the back of the mouth, with fresh, yeasty bread dough flavors, and finishing with frothy cream, and toasty notes.  Impressive for its concentration and fierce attack, but it is almost difficult to drink.

“Roger Saumaize is swinging for the fences with this daring attempt to totally re-write what Macon village-level wine can be.”

Vergisson in the foreground and La Roche de Vergisson towering above. The vineyard Les Crays, one of Saumaize's top plots can be clearly seen (the area of the tan vineyard block

Vergisson in the foreground and La Roche de Vergisson towering above. The vineyard Les Crays, one of Saumaize’s top plots can be clearly seen (the area of the tan vineyard block

I fear this will turn to all lemon curd as it matures, but I’d like to see this mellow just a bit. For now, it really wants to be paired with some fatty food to tame it a bit.  Wow. That’s a mouthful. It is difficult to judge at this stage. Will it come into balance? Time will tell.  If it can broaden out and sufficiently cover the fierce acidity, this could be a 91 or 92 point wine. But if the lemon flavors overwhelm the other fruit as it matures, this will ultimately fail for me, getting a low 80s score.  Either way, Roger Saumaize is swinging for the fences with this daring attempt to totally re-write what Macon-Village level wine can be.

This Macon-Vergisson vineyard had a particularly small crop, and we got half of the wine we received in 2011. Only 10 cases were imported.

 

Vergisson has various soil types, and Saumaize’s vineyards various vineyards represent this.

Ronchevats sits in deep, younger, Triassic era soils of non-calcareous clay, meaning there is no limestone present, although there is a significant amount of magnesium present.

The Les Crays vineyard, at the foot of La Roche de Vergisson, as well as Courtelongs to the south of town has soils that are made up of white Marl (a mix of clay and decomposed limestone) with a high percentage of limestone in the mix.

Croinoids, a multi-armed sealife that feeds through a center mouth were abundant in huge numbers during certain periods in the prehistoric seas

Croinoids, a multi-armed sealife that feeds through a center mouth, were abundant in huge numbers during certain periods in the prehistoric seas.

The top of Sur La Roche vineyard has shallow soils with Crinoidal Limestone (limestone full of Crinoidal fossils) from the Bajocian era limestone from the middle Jurassic 170 million years ago to 168 million years ago. This period is associated with the development of ammonite biozones  While lower on the hill has shallow soil over limestone from the Bathonian stage 168 million years ago to 166 million years ago. It is interesting to note that the older limestone sits above the younger limestone on the slope. What major upheaval of the earth resulted in that?

Argh! Too Many Spritzy Wines!

Roche de Solutré in the heart of Macon, and above the Pouilly-Fuisse village of Vergisson

Roche de Solutré in the heart of Macon, and above the Pouilly-Fuisse village of Vergisson

Having a recurrent fascination with Burgundy, and an unfortunately small budget, I went to the closest store to work to pick up some Macon whites. Macon, as Neal Martin pointed out in a recent article, was the area that had made the most remarkable strides, and was still affordable, even at their very most expensive. Indeed, I’ve had a number of Pouilly-Fuisee’s that were better than a lot of Pulignys and Chassagnes, and even a cru vineyard from Domaine Ferret that was not unlike Batard-Montrachet.

This particular wine merchant has grown to be one of the big boys on the internet, and does a lot of direct importation – which is cool, I figured. There are something like 4500 producers in Burgundy, and only a small portion of them are imported. If his retailer imported the best of these unknowns, this could be my Shangri-la.  Terrific wines for $12.99. Could it be that I could have a terrific source only blocks away?

“Once in a great while, you find wine from the Mâcon so good…”

The write-ups sounded fantastic. One had the following sign attached it:

“Once in a great while, you find wine from the Mâcon so good that when tasted blind you are forced to apply some much higher (and more expensive) appellation to it. Often, such a wine comes from hillside vineyards with better drainage and cooler nights. This is such a wine, from the slopes below the giant monolith of rock that is Solutré. Domaine Renaud is a small domaine, making Mâcon, Pouilly-Fuissé and St. Veran from 12 hectares of estate vineyards. Their cellar is modern, and they use upright ovals for many of the wines, and stainless for others.”

Along with that sign, I asked the clerks: “Which would you recommend: This 2012 Macon, or this 2011 Macon-Villages?” The answered “They are both good, if you like crisp, minerally chardonnay. And who doesn’t like that?”

So I bought both, plus a really cheap bottle of  Chardonnay from the Loire – which I didn’t have very high expectations for but how bad could it be. But for $6.99 I wasn’t really going to complain. As it turns out, I’m complaining.

Bottle one:2011 Bernier, Chardonnay Val de Loire $6.99:    Spritzy.  Really Spritzy.  After I knocked the gas out of it (which took quite a bit of effort, it was fine, and simple apple fruit, and the Loire’s characteristic limey-ness that you see in so many wines from the region. Fairly solid, pretty much what I would expect, though it could have been much worse.

Bottle two: 2011 Domaine des Niales, Macon-Village Vieilles Vigne $12.99:  Spritzy, Really Spritzy. This too took quite a bit of doing to get the gas out of. Underneath it was a fairly simple wine with apple, and while it still had CO2 trapped in it, minerality. But once the CO2 was gone so were the minerals. Relatively light in weight for Chardonnay, and very representative of what has been made in Macon for the past two decades. Not special in any particular way. I was certainly hoping for more given the quality strides made in the region.

Bottle Three:  2011 Domaine Renaud Macon-Solutré $12.99: Spritzy, Really Spritzy! Underneath all the spritz was a lightly concentrated, very traditional Macon, much like the Niales. It was fine, but seemed a little bit simple, with all the minerality disappearing with the spritz.Ok, what’s going on here? Three bottles in a row? Seriously?

“these were near sparkling levels of CO2 – totally unacceptable levels”

Argh! More Spritzy Wines! My Grapes of Wrath!

Argh! More Spritzy Wines! My Grapes of Wrath!

OK, I’m losing my patience here a little.  This Renaud was the wine I’d had the most hope for. Solutré is shared by Pouilly-Fuisse Vergisson, and the surrounding Macon-Solutré.  I picture a small producer, working the land, probably a husband-wife team which is common in Macon.  This was the story of hard-working artisanal  farmers in a majestic location like Macon-Solutré. That is the romance of wine. This just tasted like all the cheap Macon’s I’ve ever had, without ever stepping outside-the-box.  AN it was the third spritzy wine in a row!

Maybe all the spritzy bottles made me feel a little negative toward this and the others wines. I’m well aware that crisp, steel-raised whites can be bottled with a little CO2 to help protect them, as they have short life spans.  And it is true, that any wine can have an occasionally spritzy bottle.  But these were near sparkling levels of CO2 – totally unacceptable levels if done to protect the wine.  Recently I’ve had increasing numbers of spritzy bottles, to the point where maybe a full third of the wines I buy in stores have this problem. Granted my budget precludes me from buying expensive wines, but really, this is not acceptable.  I don’t return them, because they are not ruined, they can be de-gassed, but it is disappointing nonetheless.

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.

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