The Dukes of Burgundy and the Implications Today
Chances are, you have heard about burgundy wines but have never heard stories of the Dukes of Burgundy. This article will explore that history to help you understand why “burgundy wines” are such a fascinating subject in winemaking history.
Philip the Bold
The Burgundians were the Germanic people who settled in the western half of the Roman Empire after its collapse. They were said to have crossed the Rhine to establish the Burgundian kingdom amidst the repeated clashes between the Huns and Romans in 411. The resilience of the Burgundians earned them a large expanse of land between present-day Italy, France, and Switzerland.
They occupied and controlled that region until the Franks absorbed the area after defeating the last Burgundian king, Godomor, in 534. Today, Burgundy lies within the French empire. Following the succession of the Burgundy dynasty, four groups of Burgundians emerged in the 880s, including the kingdom of upper Burgundy, which settled around Lake Geneva, and the kingdom of lower Burgundy settled in Provence.
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.
In 937, both the upper and lower kingdom of Burgundy reunited and was absorbed into the Roman empire in 1032 under the reign of Conrad II. The French throne annexed the duchy of Burgundy in 1477, while the Burgundy county maintained a close but brief relationship that ended in 1678 after the Treatise of Nijmegen — when they ceded to France.
The Dukes of Burgundy and their impact on the region’s wine
Bourgogne (French for 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. The wine was regarded as a sacred drink, and it was used to symbolize the blood of Christ. It was also essential in keynote celebrations and played a central role in performing sacred proceedings or rites.
Alongside monks and bishops, the Christian orders did all they could to master the best winemaking practices; they improved and preserved the 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
When the reign of the Dukes of Bourgogne came to the fore in the 14th century, they took charge of the vineyards. 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 and chose the best vines to be planted in the Burgundy wine region.
The impact of the Dukes of Burgundy vine policies — Damnation of Gamay
The most important part of the edicts was the ban on Gamay and the recommendation for cultivating Pinot Noir. Even though Gamay was the common varietal in the Burgundy wine region, the dukes worried that it would compromise their wine quality. On the other hand, Pinot Noir, which offers less yield, could be used to make complex wines that can be exported outside the Bourgogne region. And this fits perfectly into the dreams of the Dukes of Burgundy (especially Philip the Bold).
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 the Pope and the King of France. These globally celebrated wines are still highly sought after to this day, and they are mainly ordered for significant events, such as diplomatic meetings.
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. This development restored order and compliance to set rules on burgundy winemaking and propelling Pinot Noir and Chardonnay into the global spotlight. Both now account for over 79% of the vines planted in the Burgundy wine region.
On this Day
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 vine-making policies that banned Gamay in the Burgundy wine region.
May 17, 1784 — Thomas Jefferson was appointed by the confederation Congress to travel to France, later becoming the senior Minister of the United States in France. He arrived in France onboard a merchant ship on July 5, 1784. He explored food, music, architecture, and wine. In 1787, he visited the Bourgogne wine region, and his influence led to the Whitehouse opening its doors to Bourgogne wine.
- 1.”1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Burgundy – Wikisource, The Free Online Library”. 2022. En.M.Wikisource.Org. https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Burgundy.
- “Burgundy Region Of France – History”. 2022. Regions Of France. https://www.regions-of-france.com/regions/burgundy/history.