A Brief History of Burgundy Wine

The chateau of the Clos Vougeot

The Celts were already making wine in Burgundy when the Romans conquered Gaul in 51 BC. To supply their soldiers and colonists, the Romans propagated the vine all along the east-facing slopes of the Saône river valley. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the monasteries moved in and, through the gradual accretion of land, became the dominant force in wine making. Already in 591, Gregory, bishop of Tours and author of the History of the Franks, thought it apt to compare burgundy to the Roman Grand Cru falernian.

The Benedictines, who founded the Abbey of Cluny in 910, and the Cistercians, who founded the Abbey of Cîteaux in 1098, became especially implicated in wine making. These brothers in God soon developed a subtle consciousness of the influences of terroir on quality and character, and began to document vineyard and vintage variations with the utmost care. In 1336, the Cistercians created the first enclosed vineyard in Burgundy, the Clos Vougeot. As their wine symbolized the blood of their Lord, they refused to dilute it, marking an important and long-lasting shift from Roman and ancient practices.

The proud monks invested so much time, effort, and skill into their wine that the Avignon popes soon began to take notice, purchasing vast quantities to ease the pangs of their Babylonian captivity. So as to hold on to papal custom and preserve the quality and reputation of burgundian wines, Philip II the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, banned the cultivation of the ‘vile and disloyal’ Gamay grape. He also banned the use of manure as fertilizer, which by increasing yields decreased concentration. Thenceforth, red Burgundy could only be made from Pinot Noir or, as it was then known, Noirien. As for white Burgundy, it was being made not from Chardonnay as today but, most likely, from Fromenteau, an ancestor of or the same thing as Pinot Gris.

In the 18th century, roads improved significantly, facilitating the export of wine out of landlocked Burgundy. The wines of Burgundy began to vie with those of Champagne—which were then predominantly still and red—for the lucrative Paris market. They acquired such a reputation that, in 1760, the Prince de Conti felt privileged to acquire the Domaine de la Romanée, appending his name to the already famous estate.

After the absorption of the duchy of Burgundy into the French crown in the late 15th century, the church began to lose ground, and in the case of its vineyard holdings, quite literally so. In the wake of the French Revolution, the church’s remaining lands were confiscated and auctioned off as state property. Over the course of several generations, these new, laical holdings became increasingly subdivided as a result of the Code Napoléon, which stipulates that any inheritance is to be shared equally amongst every child. As a consequence, the Clos Vougeot counts over 80 separate proprietors, some of whom own no more than a few rows of vines. One important effect of this parcellation was to encourage the development of négociant houses, the first of which were established as early as the 1720s and 1730s.

In 1847, King Louis-Philippe of France gave the village of Gevrey the right to append to its name that of its most famous Grand Cru vineyard, Chambertin. Not to be outdone, other villages quickly followed suit, whence all the double-barrelled—pun intended—names lining the Route des Grands Crus (the N5 and N6 roads). In 1855, the same year of the famous or, rather, infamous Bordeaux Classification, one Dr Jules Lavalle published an influential book with the snappy title of Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d’Or. Dr Lavalle’s book comprised an unofficial classification of the vineyards of Burgundy that formed the basis of the official classification adopted by the Beaune Committee of Agriculture in 1861. After the introduction of the French AOC system in 1936, most of the vineyards in the top tier of this 1861 classification acceded to Grand Cru status.

Like other wine growing regions, Burgundy then started to suffer, first from the phylloxera epidemic (which arrived in Meursault in 1878), then from the Great Depression, and more recently from the Second World War. Upon returning to their land after the Second World War, the growers began to enrich their devastated vineyards with chemical fertilizers. This worked well at first, but over the years the potassium contained in the fertilizers accumulated in the soil, leading to a fall in the quality of the harvest. From the mid 1980s, the assiduous application of modern vineyard management techniques has, by and large, put an end to this tragic trend.

Adapted from the newly published Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Olympics Medal Count Reflects World Order

All talk so far—at least on this side of the Atlantic—has been of the stellar rise of the United Kingdom, or Team GB, to the third place in the medals table. Many Americans, counting by total number of medals, might argue that the UK is in fact fourth. But the IOC counts by number of gold medals, and this is the measure that I have preferred in this article.

With only a few hours and a few medals to go before the closing ceremony, team GB has taken 28 gold medals, considerably more than the 19 it took at Beijing four years ago. In fact, this is our greatest medal haul since the first London Olympics in 1908. To put things into perspective, the USA with six times our population pulled in ‘just’ 44 gold medals, and China with 20 times our population pulled in just 38.

This is not in any way to diminish the achievements of the USA and China, which, until recently, had been fighting neck and neck for pole position. Of course, purists will argue that this is not what the Olympics are about: unlike, say, the World Cup, it is not a national team or a country that ‘wins’ at the Olympics, but only the individual athletes. Nevertheless, it remains that many countries see the medal count as indicative of their status in the world. And based on precedent, they are right to do so.

Excluding London 2012, there have been 26 modern Olympic Games, starting with Athens in1896 and ending with Beijing in 2008. There would have been 29 if three (1916, 1940, and 1944) had not been cancelled for cause of war. In 1896, 241 athletes came to represent 14 countries; by 2008, 10,500 athletes represented 204 countries. But the modern Olympic Games have been almost entirely dominated by the 20th century’s two great superpowers: out of 26, the USA topped the medals table 16 times and the USSR seven times. The USSR only came top in and after 1956, that is, during the cold war period when it’s rivalry (not to say enemity) with the USA was at its most virulent.

In other words, there have only been three Games that have not been ‘won’ by the USA or the USSR: London 1908, Berlin 1936, and Beijing 2008. In all three cases, the winner was the host country, Great Britain in 1908, Germany in 1936, and China in 2008—each at a time when it aspired to be top dog in the world (and, no doubt, invested in sports accordingly).

Until the very last few days of London 2012, it seemed that China could, once again, come first (but this time outside home turf), which, in many people’s eyes, would have marked or confirmed a seismic shift in the world order. Of course, the USSR no longer exists. It’s heir, Russia, is nonetheless fourth in the medals table with 21 gold medals, and countries which used to be part of the USSR, in particular Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus, have done rather well, with 14 gold medals between the three. A culture and legacy of athleticism is hard to break. Another surprise, at least to me, is Korea with 13 gold medals, eclipsing both Germany with 11 and France with only 10—almost three times fewer than its best friend and arch nemesis, the United Kingdom.

All this muscle flexing is not only beautiful to watch, but also considerably healthier and cheaper than a nuclear arms race or out-and-out war. Britain invested only £125 million in its athletes, which means that each medal cost the British tax payer about three pence.

As a psychaitrist, I am bound to say that the Olympic Games are a prime example of the sublimation of the war instinct.

But I think the real lesson here is this: that success is the result of how you see yourself.

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