Chances are you have heard of Burgundy wines but may have never heard stories of the Dukes of Burgundy. This article will explore this history to help you understand why Burgundy wines are such a fascinating subject in winemaking history.
The Region of Burgundy
The Burgundians were the Germanic people who settled in the western half of the Roman Empire after its collapse. In 411, they managed to cross the Rhine and establish their kingdom at Worms. In the heat of clashes between the Roman empire and the Huns, the kingdom of Burgundy encompassed what we know today as the borderland between France, Italy, and Switzerland. Finally, in 534, the Franks defeated Godomar (the last Burgundian king), and they added his territory to their empire.
Following the succession of the Burgundy dynasty in the 880’s the region was split into four areas all under different rulers. This included the kingdom of Upper Burgundy, which settled around Lake Geneva, and the kingdom of Lower Burgundy settled in Provence.
In 937, both the Upper and Lower kingdoms of Burgundy reunited and were absorbed into the Roman empire in 1032 under the reign of Conrad II. Eventually a new split appeared in Burgundy and again two distinct regions were formed, the Duchy of Burgundy and the County of Burgundy. After losing a war in 1477, the Duchy of Burgundy was split between France and the Habsburg Dynasty. The County of Burgundy eventually became part of France in 1678 after the Treaty of Nijmegen.
The Dukes of Burgundy and Their Impact on the Region’s Wine
Burgundy served as the seat for Western monasteries and churches for most of the Middle Ages — it was home to the Citeaux and Vezelay. During this era, Christianity thrived, and the religious heads and orders (the Cistercian and Cluniac) doubled as the “custodians” of winemaking and viticulture practices. Wine was regarded as a sacred drink, and was used to symbolize the blood of Christ. It was also essential in celebrations and played a central role in performing sacred proceedings and rites.
Alongside monks and bishops, the Christian orders did all they could to master the best winemaking practices; they improved and preserved knowledge and ensured it was passed down from generation to generation. Interestingly, their knowledge of winemaking transcended the practice itself. They possessed ample knowledge about selecting the best varietals and farming practices, like pruning and terroir.
Enter the Dukes of Burgundy
The Dukes of Burgundy also had a hand in the wine industry. Starting in the 14th century, they took charge of the industry. They owned many vineyards and passed laws to improve the quality of the region’s wine. Their reign and vineyard management brought economic and political prosperity to the region. Wine soon became a symbol of power and wealth. It was also used as a yardstick for people’s taste and class refinement.
In a bid to maintain the prestigious status quo that already surrounded wine, the Dukes of Burgundy rolled out wine-related policies (the first of their kind) with the primary intention of upholding quality wine production and protecting consumer health. These policies came in the form of edicts by Philip the Bold in 1395.
The Impact of the Dukes of Burgundy Wine Policies — Damnation of Gamay
The most important part of the edicts was the ban on Gamay and the recommendation to cultivate Pinot Noir. Even though Gamay was a common varietal in the Burgundy wine region, the Duke believed it made inferior quality wine. On the other hand, Pinot Noir, which offers less yield, made more complex, higher quality wines that can be exported outside the Burgundy region. And this fit perfectly into the dreams of the Dukes of Burgundy (especially Philip the Bold).
Did You Know: Many Burgundians still planted Gamay despite the ban. It was more popular compared to Pinot Noir because it was much easier to grow and produced a larger quantity of grapes.
This event led to a noticeable improvement in the quality of wines coming out of the region. It didn’t take long before Burgundy wines graced the tables of both the Pope and the King of France. These globally celebrated wines are still highly sought after to this day.
It is worth mentioning that people still defied the edict of 1395 to grow Gamay. This defiance continued until the Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system was introduced in 1935. The AOC system put in a set of rules to determine how grapes should be grown and how wine is made in the region. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay now account for over 80% of the vines planted in the Burgundy wine region. However, Gamay does still exist in the Burgundy’s most southern subregion, Beaujolais where the different terroir produces high quality wines.
This Day in Wine History
January 17, 1342: On this day in 1342, Philip II, also known as Philip the Bold, was born in Pontoise, France. He was one of the Dukes of Burgundy who ruled between 1363 to 1404. He was the youngest son of King John II and the regent for Charles VI. He passed away on April 27, 1404. In his time, he passed the first-ever wine-making policies that banned Gamay in the Burgundy wine region.
May 1784: Thomas Jefferson was appointed an ambassador to France. He arrived in France onboard a merchant ship in August of 1784. He explored food, music, architecture, and wine. In 1787, he visited the Burgundy wine region, and his influence led to the Whitehouse opening its doors to Burgundy wine.