Badass Beverage: Burgundy, Bordeaux And The French Revolutions

In LES MISERABLES, the French Revolutions meant a lot of heartache. But they also meant a drastic and permanent change to the vineyards of France.

For Jean Valjean and much of the cast of Les Misérables, the June Rebellion of 1832 was the beginning of the end of all things. In many ways, this was true throughout all of France as well. It was the last bloody act of the July Revolution, and paved the way for the third and final French Revolution in 1848. This would put an end to over a century of revolt and strife.

And it would leave the most famous vineyards in France changed forever.

Burgundy and the Church.

The Roman Catholic Church had a tremendous influence on the vineyards of Burgundy, going back as far as the 6th century. Cistercian and Benedictine monasteries, with their long history of winemaking, spent hundreds of years purchasing and establishing wineries throughout the Côte d’Or. And the wines from Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy, were long held to be the finest available, and were prized by the Papal court.

For good reason.

Beaune provides the purest, most classic expression of the Pinot Noir that grows throughout Burgundy. More delicate than its neighbors to the north in the Côte de Nuits, the wines of Beaune nevertheless display a remarkable elegance and a sense of almost weightless power. Beaune wines are incredibly graceful, and it’s little wonder that they are so prized, then and now.*

Over the centuries, the Church’s power grew throughout Europe, and the Vatican’s influence was keenly felt in the courts of France. As such, it became increasingly popular for the French aristocracy to purchase the Burgundian châteaus that were not owned by the Church. By the time of the revolution of 1789, Burgundy was wholly the wine of nobility, and Champagne’s only true rival in the courts of Paris and Versailles.

Then the monarchy collapsed. As the aristocracy began to lose power (and heads), the Church pulled out of France and sold the remaining land in Burgundy. With little choice, the (surviving) nobility began to follow suit, selling their vineyards one parcel at a time. The subsequent inheritance laws, which required that all holdings be evenly split between surviving heirs, meant that the vineyards would then be split into smaller and smaller sections, smaller and smaller parcels, to be squabbled and fought over.

Bordeaux and the Common People.

Bordeaux, on the other hand, fared much better in these troubling times. Since the 17th century, trade with the Dutch had dominated the wines from Bordeaux. The famous love the British Empire held for these wines was only exacerbated at the turn of the century, as continuous wars between England and France led to a scarcity of the wine on the British side, which only served to increase demand.

Where great Burgundy was seen as a luxury to be enjoyed at court, Bordeaux was the sign of independent success. The wine was seen as a lucrative business, and vineyard land in Bordeaux was purchased by wealthy merchants looking to capitalize on its success. Lynch-Bages, Cantenac-Brown, Boyd-Cantenac…there is a reason that so many wineries in Bordeaux bear English and Irish names.

Unlike in Burgundy, vineyards in Bordeaux are owned entirely by the estates that run them precisely because their owners were not seen as the corrupting aristocratic influence. Bordeaux continued to prosper throughout the 18th century and into the 19th century, despite the internal turmoil that ravaged the rest of France.

Ripples and Waves.

The results of the French Revolutions (there’s a good name for a band) are still felt today. The vineyards in Bordeaux are still owned and operated by their respective estates. And, as wealthy Chinese have started to invest heavily in Bordeaux, it’s plain to see that commerce is still king. These days, Bordeaux can command astronomically high prices.**

Burgundy is another matter.

The fragmenting of the vineyards means that there are dozens of stakes to smaller and smaller plots of land. As a result, the vineyards of Burgundy are owned by dozens of different producers. It’s not unusual to see one winemaker owning just two or three rows of vine along a slope. Occasionally, one house will own an entire vineyard site (called a Monopolé), such as Bouchard’s Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus, but this is exceedingly rare.

Right now, I’m staring at a score of labels from the Les Lavières vineyard in Savigny-les-Beaune, all small parcels of the vineyard owned by different houses. And this is a smaller vineyard in a lesser known appellation. Things really get complicated when we look at the Grand Cru vineyards like Clos Saint-Denis and Corton-Charlemagne.***

This turned out to be a blessing, as smaller and smaller plots of land allowed winemakers to take advantage of Burgundy’s microclimates. The term terroir, meaning a sense of place, carries more weight here than anywhere else in the world; two wines made from grapes grown a hundred yards away can taste completely different.

And so turmoil and chaos served to strengthen the two great wines of France. Adversity gave way, and for two hundred years we’ve enjoyed some of the most magnificent wines the world can offer.

I’ll drink to that.

*By the way, a good Beaune or Côte-de-Beaune Villages would be a great choice for Christmas dinner, especially if you’re serving ham or goose. 2009 and 2010 are exceptional vintages, and should be easy to find, but keep an eye out for a less expensive 2008. These guys are in a beautiful spot right now, with the ripe fruit just starting to recede and let the secondary flavors come forth. It’ll also get you into the appropriate Revolutionary spirit before heading off to Les Misérables.

**Though you can find great value in the little $10-$20 Grand Vin de Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur (look for '09s and '10s here as well). You’ll also find excellent wines that are much less expensive than some of their $100+ brethren, like the criminally underrated Château Gloria. If you’re patient, spring for a bottle of Sociando-Mallet and squirrel it away until it’s seen about ten years in the bottle. It’s a wine that matures slowly, and the wait is worth it.

***There’s a cool story about Corton-Charlemagne. Supposedly, Napoleon Bonaparte’s favorite wine was the white produced from the Corton vineyard. When he rose to power after the Revolution, a section of the vineyard was walled off and the name Charlemagne was appended, in honor of Bonaparte’s hero.