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Burgundy, France is arguably the absolute center of the wine world. With its many vineyards, this central region of France is known to produce the best wines made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Today, winemakers truly stand on the shoulders of great vintners of the past who had the curiosity and willpower to experiment and document their winemaking successes and failures. Without their meticulous documentation, Burgundy would not have the place of honor that it has in the history of viticulture.
Burgundy’s rich history can be traced back to the reign of Charlemange and Roman Catholic Church. Benedictine and Cistercian monks of the era wanted to have vineyards planted so they could nurture and preserve the rich natural world around them. They were fascinated by the unique growing features and produce of this particular region, and utilized their mastery of the written letter to keep careful notes and observations about their vineyard yields. In spite of centuries of turmoil in the late-Medieval period, the monks were able to preserve their records intact until the Valois Dukes could officially declare the region as a key cultural region prioritized for protection. For several hundred more years, the Burgundy region continued to be operated primarily by monk orders, though this would not last.
The 1700s brought dramatic change to France as a whole, and Burgundy in particular. The French Revolution led to the forced redistribution of the vineyards to French farmers, while the Napoleonic Code and its requirement to split all inheritable land into multiple parcels led to a fracturing of this once unified establishment. This vast upheaval in ownership, compounded with the ever-decreasing farm sizes led to vineyard chaos in the region. In fact, the parcel sizes got so small that some farmers only owned 1 row of vines, while different farmers tended to vines on each side of their row. In time, the vintners worked together, introduced vital innovations into the grape-growing process, and gained key support from the government of France, leading to thriving Burgundy wine industry we see today.
One of the key innovations developed in Burgundy during the early French Republic era was the formalization of the land classification system. Based on the observations of the early monks into Burgundy’s “terroirs,” or “land character,” French wine experts established a formalized way of determining which kinds of grapes were best suited to which particular regions, and what kind of farming practices would produce the finest possible quality of wines for each growing sub-region. Each of these have their own unique characteristics that influence the flavors of the grapes in each vineyard. 2% of the vineyards in Burgundy are rated as Grand Cru, the crème de la crème. Wines from these vineyards are priced the highest and treasured most highly by wine collectors. Premier Cru vineyards are still of higher quality but just a step down from Grand Cru. These constitute 12% of vineyards in Burgundy. Village Tier wines are made up of 35% of vineyards and are often made from grapes of several different vineyards in each village area. Bottles will often be labeled with 1 of the 42 villages for easy classification and provide a solid entry point into the “finer Burgundy wines.” The last tier are made up of the Regional Wines. These are mixed from grapes across a variety of vineyards, regions and villages. They comprise around 50% of burgundy wines, have the widest variety of flavor profiles and are the most accessible for everyday wine purchasers.
While this is only a basic introduction to the illustrious region of Burgundy, we hope that you will understand a bit more about the history of the region that produces some of the best glasses of wine in the world.