The Good, the Bad & the Fearless
How some dubious-Dukes left a lasting impact and help to create some of the most wondrous wines in history.
You only have to be around wine for a short amount of time to know that there is something very deeply unique about Burgundy. One glance at the myriad of names, Puligny, Pommard, Chablis and Challonais, can be enough to send your head into a spin far before you’ve even taken a sip. No region takes quite such a devilish pride in it’s sense of place (or terroir) and as such every strip of land is important – but this is far from a modern fixation.
Burgundian wines have a truly superb pedigree. Even before the arrival of the Romans the Celts were putting the hilly forested landscape to the vine. In the so called Dark Ages the wine was gaining literary fame in the writing of Gregory of Tours. The monks of the Middle Ages continued the noble tradition – with the clear white wines made from Pinot Gris and Chardonnay highly prized in an age of murky water and stoggy reds.
But the characters I find truly colourful in Burgundy’s past are the immensely hazardous Dukes. It was they who helped to create a sense of independence and place that can only be matched by the gentle distinctions of soil, aspect and weather. The region in the late Middle Ages had strong ties to the French crown, and the first duke, the aptly named Philip the Bold, was the son of the King. Philip had a problem, and it was simple. For him, the wines of Burgundy were the Lords of the drinks world. And to preserve their status one grape had to be abolished – Gamay.
Today we best know Gamay as the grape of Beajolais, and is still sometimes used within Burgundy. Soft fruit, fine tannins and inoffensively easy drinking it’s hard to imagine someone taking up such a viscous quarrel with it. But Philip declared it “bad and disloyal” – banning it from all vineyards. In an age of plague and war, it was this that became the tipping point for civil unrest within the region. There were riots and street fighting and appointments of new majors.
His ancestors, John the Fearless and Philip the Good, continue this crusade against the grape. Philip (of giving Joan of Arc to the English fame) believes that Gamay presented a clear and present danger, not only to wine, but the the Dukedom itself. His aggressive promotion and defence of the wines was unbending, and any land unfit to grow the noble Pinot Noir became legally off-limits, which has been continued through to the present day.
The overarching authority of these charismatic, and often excellently named, Dukes had a clear and tangible effect on the history of Burgundian wine. The mediocre was not for them. Wine, or in this case Burgundian wine, should be set apart, something precious to be preserved and made above the norm at whatever cost. It was this same headstrong approach which would ultimately lead to the demise of the Dukedom when Charles the Bold, the fourth Duke, was manipulated by the ‘Spider-King’ to test his army in a costly war against the Swiss. The cost, in this case, being his head. Bringing to an end the era of independent wealth and power for Burgundy, but ensuring their reputation for whole-hearted brashness remained.