Jefford on Monday: Burgundy’s great question

Jefford on Monday: Burgundy’s great question

 … and Andrew Jefford asks it (eventually)…

A word of advice, first: if you are bored by matters of detail, skip the next 12 paragraphs to go straight to the ‘great question’.

Pure-hearted students of burgundy (those who have started this second paragraph) quickly learn that the individual vineyard provides a key point of focus in this prized region.

You’ve learned that the word for an individual vineyard here is a climat.  This term, now part of the UNESCO World Heritage list, refers to “a vine plot, with its own microclimate and specific geological conditions, which has been carefully marked out and named over the centuries” (See the official definition here).

You’ve also learned that something called a lieu-dit or a ‘named place’ also exists.  In practice, most wine-lovers come across these when we buy village-level wines from a single, unblended site – like Meursault Le Limozin, for example (a village vineyard just below the Premier Cru of Génévrières Dessous); or Gevrey-Chambertin En Champs (below the Gevrey Premier Cru of Champeaux).

Dangerous assumptions follow.  We may conclude, not unreasonably, that a lieu-dit is what we call a climat which is neither a Grand Cru or a Premier Cru.  We may, indeed, go further and conclude that the two terms are interchangeable and synonymous.

Wrong.

They mean different things.  The climats are perhaps best seen as historical vineyard names which have congealed slowly out of 2,000 years of history, viticultural work and wine tasting in Burgundy.

The word itself was first used in 1584, at a time when differentiation rarely went beyond the village level.  By the eighteenth century, some individual climats were common currency (Champans in Volnay, Fèves in Beaune, or Montrachet itself), and this process reaches its climax with the definitions contained in the appellation decrees held by INAO and overseen by the growers’ Organismes de Défence et de Gestion (defence and management organisations).

Each appellation and its rule book (the Cahier des Charges) thus constitute the ultimate reference for Burgundy’s climats.  They are intended, according to Sylvain Pitiot, the leading authority on these matters, to be entités organoleptiques or ‘organoleptic entitities’ — though he stresses that “you shouldn’t be too purist about this, since these entities are also marked by the influence of people, historical precedent, economic factors and so on”.

The lieux-dits, by contrast, have a different origin: France’s cadastre or land register.  A comprehensive, single, centralized land register was a dream of successive French kings, but it went unrealised prior to the Revolution.  It took form and passed into French law afterwards, in 1807, and now constitutes the basis of all land transactions and taxes.  When I bought a piece of land on which to build the house we now live in, the land registry entry described it as ‘Section Ay, number 129’ in our Hérault village, though I have never seen that (oddly Champenois) name used in any other way here.  Everywhere in France is a lieu-dit, but only Burgundy’s vineyards lie in or constitute a climat.

A climat can be smaller or bigger than a lieu-dit, it can include parts of several lieux-dits, or it can be an ensemble of lieux-dits in whole or in part.  Some 78 lieux-dits are available for service as Chablis Premier Cru — but only 40 climats (which are then further simplified down to a list of 17 ‘flag-bearing’ climats): probably the most complicated instance in the whole region.  More typical is the climat of Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Pucelles, which includes the two lieux-dits of Les Pucelles and Clos des Meix; or the Pommard Premier Cru climat of Clos des Epeneaux, which is formed of part of the lieux-dits of Les Grands Epenots and Les Petits Epenots.

A famous example is the Grand Cru climat of Echézeaux, which includes 10 different lieux-dits in whole or in part (or 11, since one lieu-dit has two alternative names: Les Cruots is also known as Vignes Blanches).  It is, by the way, illegal to use the name of lieux-dits on Grand Cru labels, though the law is flouted in Clos de Vougeot and one or two other Grands Crus to consumer-friendly ends.

If you want to understand all this, seek out a (rather expensive) book called The Climats and Lieux-Dits of the Great Vineyards of Burgundy: An Atlas and History of Place Names by Marie-Hélène Landrieu-Lassigny and Sylvain Pitiot.  I have written a Preface to the English edition (unpaid, and I have no financial interest in the book).  The book contains separate maps of both climats and lieux-dits for each village, as well as scholarly descriptions of the origin of these names. Sylvain Pitiot tells me that a new bilingual Côte Chalonnaise book of identical scope is in preparation.

So what’s the ‘great question’?  It’s coming.

Climats have evolved over the centuries.  They became legislatively fixed at the point at which their appellations were decreed, arresting their evolution.  This was, in the main, in the 1930s: a wretched decade for wine production, characterised by poor weather, global economic crises and the looming certainty of war.

Global warming has comprehensively altered the possibility of grape ripening up and down the Côte d’Or.  A single example among many: the Côte de Beaune harvest will almost certainly begin in August this year, for the second year running.  October harvests were the rule when the appellations were created.

The economics of wine production in Burgundy, too, have changed to an extent which wine growers alive in the 1930s would hardly have believed possible.  Grand Cru land sells for multiples of millions of euros per hectare.  Burgundy wine prices have spiralled.  The most assiduous vineyard efforts, undertaken by growers far better educated than their forebears, find ample reward.

It is certain, therefore, that the ripening potential of the Côte d’Or has moved upslope and sometimes downslope, too, and that both climate and culture mean the vineyard hierarchies of the 1930s are open to disruption.  Even if we allow the possibility that the potential of a particular vineyard is primarily governed by its soil (a questionable assumption from the scientific point of view), there must be existing lieu-dit village vineyards of far greater potential than many Premiers Crus had in the late 1930s, and there must be forest or scrub land above the existing vineyards with compelling viticultural potential in 2018, even if it had no history of viticultural use in 1938.  (And that land, to finish our terminological discussion, will have a lieu-dit name, even if it doesn’t yet exist as a climat.)

“All the producers are discussing this among themselves,” says Jacques Devauges of Clos de Tart.  “The classifications were all made in the last century,” says Romain Taupenot of Taupenot-Merme, “when the climate was much colder.  If it was done now the results would be very different.  Bel-Air [Premier Cru and Village land above Chambertin] is now a great small Chambertin.”

The great question, therefore, is this: is it time for Burgundy to allow the resumption of evolution in the way its climats are defined?

The implications are dizzying: dozens, perhaps hundreds of hectares of completely new village land in the Côte d’Or, and numerous adjustments to existing Premiers Crus and Grands Crus.  The financial stakes are colossal; delimitation of new climats would be a nightmare; the whole process would be endlessly chewed over in the courts.  That’s why I have yet to meet a grower who believes that it will ever happen.

The question, though, deserves to be asked.  And to do nothing, faced with such a comprehensively changed scene, is to betray Burgundy’s potential and to turn our back on the spirit, enquiry and energy of those who worked these slopes in the past.  It was all forest once, remember.


Read more Andrew Jefford columns on Decanter.com

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