France has long been considered home to some of the most reveled wines in the world. Even before the 1855 classification in Bordeaux created for the World’s Fair that year, people in the business knew what Châteaux always demanded the higher prices. Burgundy, with its monasteries and monks planting and maintaining vineyards from even before the Middle ages, was also well-known and commanded high prices in eastern France, and Northern Europe, since the Dukes of Burgundy also controlled Flanders and other parts of the Low Countries. Throughout the Rhône Valley, the Romans had planted vines well over 2000 years ago, with some vineyards and wines having renown since the time of Christ. Pliny the Elder wrote about the Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise in 97 A.D. All over France, generations of wine growers and winemakers have been able to perfect the art of winemaking from the work by the monks during the Middle Ages through the last 25 years or so, when the technology of winemaking became more affordable for most wineries. There are still great values in French wine, due to the land, skills, and knowledge being passed down from generation to generation.
Bordeaux has had a long history of wine growing and wine making, going back to before Roman occupation. It was the Roman’s laws that created the smaller estates, instead of very large feudal territories. These smaller estates each had their own economies, and sustained themselves with agriculture (the vine and crops) and animal husbandry (for use on the farm/estate). The estate would also have their own blacksmith, carpentry and a pottery kiln to be able to make tools, erect buildings, fabricate cabinets and furniture and produce dishes and vessels. The vineyard however was the main feature of these estates, and the wine, an important commodity.Charlemagne, in the eighth century, was the person responsible for forbidding the custom of carrying Bordeaux wine in leather bottles and required the use of hooped wooden barrels for its transport and storage. In the Middle Ages, Bordeaux came under British rule, and the Bordelaise realized that exports to Britain could be an important part of their economy, with the barrels making trade much easier and the wine more stable. After the reunion of the Aquitaine with France in the 16th century, and the English market gone, the Bordelais focused on exports to the rest of France and the continent. Leading up to the American Revolution, exports to that distant country and other European countries were an important trade until the Napoleonic wars put a stop to export and growth. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, after those wars, it was the English, Northern European and Scandinavian countries that saved Bordeaux’s wine trade and cemented their place as winegrowers and merchants, which continues to this day, with the Far East and their wealth becoming bigger Bordeaux classified wine customers. Everyday wines from Bordeaux still represent great values and are still very popular today.
Although there is no written account, it is commonly believed that long before the Christian era, there were wild vines growing throughout Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhone, Bordeaux, and Alsace. About the 3rd century B.C., the locals began to improve the quality of the grape. When the Romans came a little later and stayed for close to five centuries, their experience in the cultivation of the vine and in winemaking helped establish many of the wine areas we know today. By the fourth century, it was noted that the wines from this region were the subject of foreigner’s admiration. The ancestral Burgundian people arrived mid-fifth century, having been migrant people from the plains of Asia, and pushed out the Romans late in that century. The Franks defeated the Burgundians around 534, but these people stayed on, having already given their imprint to the character, customs, and habits of the land. Christianity arrived shortly thereafter and through the Middle Ages, the church influenced much of the life. The religious influence in life and in the vineyards continued until the French revolution. It was around the eleventh century that two monastic orders began to exert an important influence on all of Europe’s vineyards, their cultivation, and the winemaking process. It was at the Abbey of Cluny and the Bernadine monks of Citeaux that these methods were set to be more or less the methods we use today. After the revolution, the vineyards were democratized and fragmented by many owners having small plots. Further fragmentation came because of inheritance laws and the nature of the weather: hail could wipe out the wine from a single vineyard for a year or even longer. So many people exchanged one small plot for another nearby, so to as to diminish their exposure to ruin from a single, localized hailstorm. Many of the vineyards and ‘climats’ were established by the monks, and the hierarchy of the vineyards remains much the way they determined them. They also singled out certain plots as better than others by creating a wall around it, these vineyards are designated ‘clos’ as in enclosed or cloistered. Wines from Burgundy still can still capture people’s hearts as easily it did in the past. The Côte d’Or, Burgundy proper, is the origin of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes; one can only wonder what would so many people of the world drink if those grapes didn’t exist?
The Rhône Valley
The Rhône river, which begins in Alpine Switzerland, is best known for wine where it turns from west to south in Lyon and ends in the Mediterranean Sea. With most of the lower section of river navigable, it is believed that the Greeks may have first brought grapes to the lower Rhône around 700 B.C. The winegrowing area begins just below Lyon near Vienne, where the terraced vineyards of Côte Rôtie announce 125 miles of riverside vineyards heading downriver. The northern Rhône reds are made from the Syrah grape, with the Côte Rôtie allowing some Viognier to the blend. The whites are made Viognier in Condrieu, or Marsanne and Roussane. The southern Rhône reds can comprise up to 13 grapes of which seven are considered the major varieties and six others as minor varieties, with Grenache predominating, and Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault being the other red and rosé workhorses. As in other areas of France, much of the heritage and importance of the vineyards were due to the work of the church. Once the French-born Pope Clément V ascended to his papacy, he decided to remain in France, influenced by the French King Philip IV, and had his court at the papal enclave in Avignon where they built a new castle for him the ‘Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe’. The papacy remained in Avignon from 1309 to 1376, and greatly influenced cultivation and winemaking in the region. Once the wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe became more and more famous, the winemakers decided to try and protect the reputation of the wines. The discussions started prior to World War I, they set the an agreement down in 1923, and using that as a model, the French government created the first appellation for wine in 1936, and that appellation was Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe. The Rhône wines can produce both excellent value everyday wines and long-lived structured elegant and powerful wines. They are still a bargain compared to many Burgundy or Bordeaux wines.