Burgundy – life in the vineyards

Every morning as the sun rises in the east, there’s an exodus from this small village in rural France. Every man of a certain age, heads out of town on a bike, scooter, motorbike or tiny 3-wheeler van. Some even have ancient white vans dating from the 1960s. They are all heading for the vineyards – small fields that cover the hillside. In each field there are vines planted in neat rows. In the summer months, the plants are leafy and about to fruit. The vignerons (wine growers) tend the vines daily, pruning and trimming their prize plants with the loving care of a doting mother.

The land ownership pattern in Burgundy is what you might call fragmented. A family might own a hectare, half a hectare or even a quarter of a hectare. Some own just a few rows of vines. Numerous generations have inherited small parcels of land, passed down from father to son and occasionally father or mother to daughter. The position of the land is vital, which way does it face, what is the quality of the soil. The unique qualities of the land, soil and aspect create the ‘terroir’. This is a combination of land and location which influences the quality of the wine produced. The terroir and its position is vital. Higher up the hill the land is drier and there are more stones in the soil, the environment is more difficult for the vines. Closer to town the water table is higher and the soil is richer – more fertile, although it can be too wet in rainy years.

From the start of the growing season in March to the vendage (harvest) in late September the vignerons tend their vines with paternal dedication. Every morning there is a post-dawn inspection. There is pruning, trimming and training to be done. Chats with fellow vignerons are essential. The hillside is littered with huts and sheds that provide the ideal focus for vineyard conversations, storage of tools and a little gossip too. The dress code is casual – the uniform of the day is often a white vest (singlet) of a well-used disposition, baggy, grey and in need of repair. Trousers are held up around the waist with a thick ill-fitting belt or a piece of baling string. Blue or orange, the colour is immaterial.

At 12 noon the cavalcade heads back into town for a home-cooked lunch and a little post prandial repose. Then at 5 pm the same thing happens again, it is a re-run of the dawn chorus. Out to the vines for a final inspection prior to bidding them good night. Safe in the knowledge that the vines have potentially, the capability to survive the night. Early morning frost is a constant concern – an optimistically early budding vine can be wiped out by an aggressive spring frost. Later in the season pests and flies must be kept at bay. Many vignerons plant roses at the end of each row of vines. Aesthetically it looks wonderful – but more importantly the roses tend to succumb to various pests before the vines and thus act as an early warning system for ‘les cultivateurs’ (the growers). Tending a vineyard is effectively farming – except the crop being grown is incredibly delicate, flighty and inconsistent. A bit like a ‘too handsome’ man or woman with whom you get involved knowing all along it is a bad idea. They have to be humoured, pampered and flattered constantly. As the vines bloom and then fruit, the vigneron must select, carefully, which grapes to leave and which to prune. This process is crucial to the success of the vendage. Too many grapes and the vendage might be inferior – too few and the vendage might be too sparse. The vigneron must select the right number of grapes to ripen maximising the quality to volume ratio. Fewer grapes of higher quality are better than more grapes of poorer quality.

The vigneron must consistently tend the crop, nurture, encourage and gently bring it to fruition. Then and only then, can the grapes be sold and made into wine. Farming of grapes that’s what it is. Which makes it all the more ironic when you consider that some of these Burgundy wines sell for astronomical prices at international wine auctions and even more astronomical prices in the fine restaurants of London, New York and Paris. But then your average Pierre Le Notre would just scratch his head, adjust his trousers and say, ‘on fait qu’est’ce qu’on doit faire…c’est tout..” We do what we have to do…that’s all.

In other words, this is what you do if you are born in Burgundy and inherit a small parcel of land, you tend your vines to the best of your ability. As Jean Jacques Rousseau, philosopher and writer, frequently observed, the only legitimate occupation in life, is to tend the land, farming, in other words.

  • Notes:
    Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault are tiny villages in Burgundy producing fine wines and numerous grand crus and premier crus between them.
  • The villages are dominated by wine production and vines surround the little towns.
  • The Educated Traveller writes extensively on France, Italy, The Alps and the people that live in these fascinating places.
  • 10th July 2017
  • 24th October, 2018
Le Montrachet Hotel, Puligny Montrachet, Burgundy
Le Montrachet Hotel, Puligny Montrachet, Burgundy
Cote de Beaune, Burgundy - complicated land ownership patterns
Cote de Beaune, Burgundy – complicated land ownership patterns
Burgundy 'Premier Cru' First growth wines are exported globally
Burgundy ‘Premier Cru’ First growth wines are exported globally
Cote de Nuits - similar complicated patterns of land ownership
Cote de Nuits – similar complicated patterns of land ownership

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