The Côte d’Or in Burgundy is the latest wine region to be recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, achieving that accolade in July. It is not the slopes but the climats—the precisely delineated parcels of vines, with their distinctive soils, micro-climates and traditions of human cultivation—that have been granted this status, and it is not hard to see why.
The gently sloping hills of the Côte d’Or—beginning just south of Dijon, skirting Beaune and continuing to Santenay—stand as part of nature, seamlessly connected to the rest of the landscape; and at the same time, exhibiting the clear marks of human endeavour, the centuries of viticulture that have preserved the neat ordering of vines. The landscape reflects the work of generations of careful winemakers, whose knowledge and traditions were themselves shaped by that landscape: its geology, its climate, and the possibilities of the vines.
By looking at the physical geography one comes to grasp the hierarchy of wine classifications by the position of the vines on the slopes: village wines on the plain, premier cru higher up the slope, affording good drainage but in the process losing some of the nutrients of the soil; and in the middle of the slope the best parcel of land given to producing grand cru.
Much is due to the Cistercian monks of the 12th century, who had the intelligence—and time—to experiment with existing viticulture: pruning, cutting and cloning to produce the highest-quality plants and wines they could. The exceptional results of their labour ensured that something of great value was passed on, so that the traditions of winemaking they created have been preserved and developed. When the vineyards were turned over to the people after the French Revolution, they were usually sub-divided as a result of Napoleonic equal inheritance laws, and smaller and smaller parcels were jealously guarded and meticulously tended. Marriage could increase the size of one’s holdings and we still see double-barrelled names among renowned winemaking families.
The signs of these continually developing traditions are all around us today, sustaining the extraordinary success winemakers have had here. The hallmark of the wines of the Côte d’Or is their celebration of the local. Differences are preserved and valued by makers who strive to express what nature gives them each year, reflecting the season and the subtle variations of place. Passing from one village,…