Burgundy – Our family’s ancestral homeland and one of the world’s greatest wine regions, with recent auction prices seeing bottles sold for six figures. Our family originates from the town of Beaurepaire-en-Bresse in Saône et Loire. This was the ancient frontline between the lands of Burgundy and the Holy Roman Empire, and most famous these days for the only appellation-controlled chicken in the world, Poulet de Bresse.
Culturally, Burgundy is called the stomach of France with many of France’s most famous dishes and techniques originating in its kitchens. A relatively prosperous region that enabled it to often tread an independent path to the rest of France. Its history of wine production dates to the Roman era, with some famous vineyards like Corton-Charlemagne being favoured by Charlemagne himself in the 8th century. Its famous for two varieties – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but historically other varieties were also planted including Gamay – now famous for Beaujolais and Provence rosé.
The 31st of July is famous for an edict banning Gamay by the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold in 1395 who called it the ‘Disloyal Variety’, due his great love of Pinot Noir and his view that Gamay ‘is full of significant and horrible bitterness’, and ordered its removal within 5 months. The vineyards of Burgundy were a source of great pride to the Duchy, and as such the quality of its wine was seen as a reflection on the Duke. So much so, that Henry V specifically demanded 200 casks of Burgundy pinot noir as part of the ransom of one of the French captives after Agincourt.
The vineyards of Burgundy were either tended by the local lords and Duke, or the Clunic monks whose severity of lifestyle left them not much to do other than record every minutia of every vineyard they owned. The result is hundreds of years of meticulous records that identified 1400 different ‘climats’ or individual vineyard terroirs (climate and soil). The records enabled very accurate identification of the best vineyards and what made them particularly special – the soil, the micro-climate and terrain.
Our search for something equivalent to Burgundy here in Australia took us from our extended family in Victoria, including winemaking in the Yarra Valley, to pioneering winemaking at Rylstone – an area near Mudgee and Bathurst in the Central Ranges Wine Region. Next to Rylstone is the little town of Kandos, famous for supplying the cement to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge and much of Sydney. Cement is effectively crushed limestone and not far from our back fence is the old quarry that was used to make Kandos cement.
Limestone-enriched soils are the main reason we selected Rylstone, as a glance at the map of France will see that Burgundy’s main wine region, the Côte d’Or is a long and thin valley. 60 kilometres long but in places as thin as half a kilometre for the really good wine. We often focus on climate as the driver of wine quality in Australia, but the limited plantings of Burgundy indicate another ingredient to great wine – soil. The Cote d’Or valley follows the ancient coastline of the Paris basin, that left vast quantities of shellfish 150 million years ago that turned into limestone.
The limestone makes the normally acidic soils, alkaline (or neutral). This in turn makes the micro-organisms residing in the soils more efficient at digesting and making available the trace minerals that make vines and grapes healthy (in the same way your gut biome operates with vitamins and minerals). Being more efficient means the soils don’t need to be as deep to provide the vines with nutrients, resulting in healthy vines growing in shallow soils. The side-effect of the shallow soils is there is less soil volume to store water when it rains making the grapes water-stressed and therefore smaller, resulting in more skin to juice which means more flavour and structure to the wines. The best vineyards are situated on the mid-slope where the soil depths are generally less than 1m and greater than 0.5m – think Domaine de la Romanée Conti which broke records recently with a bottle of 1945 sold for $558,000.