Religions, wars and the nobility are intertwined with one another throughout the long and rich history of Burgundy and its wines. For many centuries, it was the religious orders of the monks in France who held the land and tended the vines around their Abbeys. Some Abbeys gave their names to foods including cheeses, like Citeaux. Many of the best known and most loved wines today are ancestors of the vines on their plots, and some still bear their names (such as Gevrey Chambertin, or quite literally ‘the field of the monk Bertin’). Nowadays though, you don’t need to be a monk to enjoy these wines; you can find them on the BurgundyWine.com site by Elden Selections.
By learning more about the people who shaped Burgundy, its lands and people, we come to understand more about the wines we have today. From the 14th century onwards, the nobility became much more prominent, and it was the famous Dukes of Burgundy who owned and profited from the vineyards in the Bourgogne region. From once being a sacred symbol of the blood of Christ, wine now signified prosperity, good taste—and power.
In those days it was customary to add a soubriquet after your name if you were a Duke, and so it was with the Dukes of Burgundy. There was Philip the Good, Charles the Bold, Philip the Bold (again, boldness was clearly the smart choice in those days) and John the Fearless.
Philip the Bold was so bold, in fact, that he issued a decree as to which grape varieties should be grown in Burgundy, for ‘the good of the consumer’. He was a big fan of Pinot Noir but wasn't fond of Gamay. Nowadays, Gamay is used in Beaujolais to great effect, but Philip declared in 1395 that the ‘base and unfaithful Gamay’ should be kept south of Mâcon. And right he was - not that Gamay is base, but that it should be grown on the type of granite soils that start to appear just to the south of Mâcon. Planted there and nurtured in the warmer climes, Gamay produces a wine that is very complementary to the Burgundy style. But the Duke believed the cultivation methods used in raising Gamay were damaging the reputation of Pinot Noir, though even then it was a highly controversial decision.
The wines flowed copiously under the Dukes, spreading in renown and becoming a significant political asset. The Dukes continued making their names through history; John the Fearless fought bravely in battle and expanded the Duchy of Burgundy, but he was ultimately assassinated. The line of the Dukes ended in 1477 as Charles the Bold was attempting to further expand Burgundian territories by taking over Nancy.
If you’re lucky enough to be visiting Burgundy this year, the Domaine de Cromey—a baronial manor house, home of Elden Selections and certainly fit for any Duke—is a unique place to stay and explore the region. Why not visit a symbol of the powerful but compassionate Dukes at the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune, known as the famous ‘Hospices de Beaune’? This beautiful building, with its famous glazed roof tiles, was constructed in 1443 by the Chancellor to Philip the Good to make life easier for the locals in periods of war and sickness. Of course, it also had its own vineyards. Every November, on the third Sunday of the month, a wine auction is still held here to raise money for good causes. Dennis Sherman of Elden Selections visits every year, and you can read about previous auctions and purchases here, and sample Hospice de Beaune wines for yourself here.
While you’re in the region, why not also make a pilgrimage to Dijon, one of the Dukes’ most favorite towns and today a vibrant hub of fine food and wine? The Cathedral and the monastery known as the Charterhouse of Champmol are both linked closely to Philip the Bold, who did so much to spread the word—and the wines—of Burgundy.
Have you joined our Burgundy Wine Club yet? Become a member and enjoy unique wine experiences and gifts. If you’re interested in reading more great articles about the Burgundy region, then head over to our Burgundy Wine blog page, where you can find fascinating articles and some great guides. And whether your tastes lean more towards monks or Dukes, there’s something to be found for everyone using our Palate Advisor tool.