The Discreet Charm Of Burgundy

The wine region in the 18th century was a cornucopia of delights but still recognisable as the Burgundy of today

France History Literature Wine
"Fertile en toute sorte de grains, embellie de vastes prairies": The Burgundy region today (photo: Pascal, CC BY-SA 3.0)

One aspect of the province of wine and literature is the use that writers have made of wine. Another however is the literature which wine has more directly inspired, for there is a particular fascination attaching to early writings about wine — its production, the trade it supports, and the culture that surrounds it.

One such book is Claude Arnoux’s short account of the wines of Burgundy, Dissertation sur la Situation de Bourgogne, published in London in 1728. Arnoux was a teacher, based in London, who wrote a series of aids to the idioms, spelling and pronunciation of French for the “English learner”. But Arnoux did not confine his role of cultural go-between to the realm of language. French wine, though greatly esteemed by the English, was perhaps as much of a closed book to them as the language of the people who made it. Hence Arnoux’s Dissertation, which promised to describe the geography of Burgundy, the wines it produced, how the vines were cultivated, and how the wine was made. Arnoux also undertook to describe the quality, finesse, colour and capacity for ageing of the different types of burgundy, and his book was illustrated with a map on which all the best vineyards were located and named. Finally, he also went on to show how fine burgundy could be easily and safely imported to London without adulteration or spoilage and at the best possible prices. All this in fewer than 60 pages!

Arnoux’s Burgundy is a centaur-like place. On the one hand it is an ideal country of the mind, a cornucopia of everything that pleases man. It is “fertile en toute sorte de grains, embellie de vastes prairies, ou mille ruisseaux se jouent par leurs differents dètours, ornées de belles forêts habitées de cerfs de sangliers & sur tout de chevreuils qui y sont delicieux, ce qui foürnit agréablement aux Seigneurs le divertissement de la chasse.”

But this Elysium is also recognisably the Burgundy of today. Nomenclature has shifted a bit. Meursault was then “Mulsault”; Volnay was “Volnet”; Montrachet was “Morachet”; Aloxe was “Alosse”; and the nobler of the two red grapes of Burgundy was then the “Noirins”, not the pinot noir.

In terms of perceived quality, there are both continuities and changes. Arnoux’s list of the best vineyards in Beaune — Fèves, Cras, Grèves, and Clos du Roi — corresponds pretty well with today’s ideal shopping list. On the other hand, his singling out of Commaraine as unquestionably the best wine of Pommard does not square with the quality of the wine it currently produces. Today it is an under-performing premier cru. Surprisingly Arnoux says nothing about the wines of Vosne, which now include the most sought-after of all red burgundies, and which by the end of the 18th century had been recognised as producing “un vin de fantaisie”.

Perhaps the most significant difference however relates to the keeping qualities of burgundy. Arnoux divides the red wines of Burgundy (he says little about white burgundy, aside from praising Montrachet) into “vins de primeur” and “vins de garde”. The former include Volnay and Pommard, and according to Arnoux can be kept for about 18 months at the outside. The vins de garde come from the côte de Nuits, further north. Chassagne from a good vintage can be kept for four years, Chambertin for as long as six. Opinions today vary concerning how long one can or should keep burgundy; the French often disparage what they see as the necrophiliac appetite of the English for old wine. But now most growers of Volnay would, I suspect, hope that their wines even in light years might remain in good condition for a decade.

Arnoux also gives us a fascinating insight into the wine trade of early 18th-century Burgundy and the lives of those it supported. In explaining how English gentlemen can obtain the best burgundies Arnoux refers to those whom he calls “commissionaires”, who were evidently negociants acting as a link between the producers and their clients. The commissionaires were experts, who from father to son had handed down knowledge of the best vineyards and the best producers, and who — provided they were paid upfront — would ensure that their foreign clients got what they had paid for.

The commissionaires acted together with another, rather shadowy, group of experts whom Arnoux calls “courtiers”. The courtiers were given the orders for wine that the commissionaires had received. They then took samples of the young wine from the producers, and subjected these samples to a variety of tests to form a judgment of its likely future development. One of their experiments is curious. They would put blotting paper over a glass, form it into the shape of a bowl, and then pour some wine into it. As it gently filtered through the paper and collected in the glass below the courtiers would come to “conjectures solides” on how the colour and taste of the wine would evolve, and on the date of its likely maturity.

All these intermediaries taking their cut would surely drive up the price of burgundy. But Arnoux is adamant that this is not the case. The Parlement of Burgundy, he slightly pompously assures his reader, has passed a law to ensure “la fidelité du commerce des Vins”. Any commissionaire or courtier who was caught levying anything more than a very modest charge on top of what the wine cost at the cellar door would be immediately hanged “sans remission”.

Is this credible? It would be interesting to know how many commissionaires and courtiers were actually prosecuted and put to death under this tremendous law. One is reminded of Tocqueville’s shrewd insight when contrasting French and American penalties for the abuse of political office. In America the penalties for political malfeasance were much milder, and as a result these laws were invoked much more often:

    In Europe, political tribunals are vested with terrible rights that they sometimes do not know how to use; and it happens that they do not punish for fear of punishing too much. But in America they do not recoil before a penalty that does not make humanity tremble: to condemn a political enemy to death in order to take away his power is a horrible assassination in the eyes of all; to declare one’s adversary unworthy of possessing that same power and to remove it from him, leaving him his freedom and his life, can appear the honest result of a conflict.

The magnificent “arrêt du Parlement de Bourgogne” against excessive profit-taking is surely similar. The outrageously disproportionate punishment it prescribes for what is little more than a human foible tells us that it was framed with a view more to external consumption than to internal application. The message it sent to the commissionaires and the courtiers of Beaune was that they should take their profits in a discreet and prudent fashion. Like Conrad’s Nostromo, when he has found the hidden silver, they must be content to grow rich slowly. Any visitor to Beaune today who sees the handsome houses the commissionaires and courtiers of the 18th century built for themselves can be in no doubt that this law was well understood by those whose work brought them within its scope.