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What is Burgundy? Part one: The Dark Ages


Anyone who works in the wine trade and a very large number of people who don’t will know about the viticultural region that is Burgundy (or ‘Bourgogne’ in French).

In its broadest sweep it extends from Chablis in the north, down past the city of Dijon into the Côte d’Or with its hugely famous vineyards of the Côte de Nuits and then, around the old town of the same name, the Côte de Beaune, down through the Châlonnaise and towards Mâcon.

Then, while geologically and historically distinct, the region of Beaujolais north of Lyon has been attached to the ‘greater Burgundy’ vineyard since the 20th century.

Outrage was recently sparked by the decision of the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) to decide which parts of the region can and can’t use the AOC ‘Bourgogne’ label.

To many growers’ consternation, the communes the INAO decided to strip this right from were 64 communes covering the whole of Chablis, six communes around Dijon and 23 communes in Châtillonais, an area northwest of Dijon which is largely devoted to producing Crémant de Bourgogne. All communes considered very solidly, historically ‘Burgundian’.

By contrast, 43 communes in Beaujolais would have been given the right to label their wines ‘Bourgogne’ and may still be able to once a period of consultation has been conducted.

In the event, the INAO seemed to back down from the decision about the northern communes and said any future decision on the matter would take into account historical and cultural considerations but it opened up an old debate into just how ‘Burgundian’ Beaujolais’ really is and, whether the outraged growers realise it or not, even just what the geographical entity we call ‘Burgundy’ really is.

Just what, therefore, is Burgundy and who are the Burgundians of yesteryear and does understanding that help solve the knotty problem of this geographical, political, cultural and ever-shifting entity we all think we understand so well?


Celtic past

When the wine trade discusses Burgundy it essentially is referring to the viticultural idea of Burgundy that lies in eastern France, and spans the départments of the Yonne, Côte d’Or and Saône-et-Loire. The latter two departments created in the 1790s following the French Revolution, in turn correspond to the medieval Duchy of Burgundy that had existed for several centuries before.

But let’s go back much, much further and build our way forward from there in order to discover just how many places have borne the name ‘Burgundy’ in the past.

As with much of ancient France, the dominant people who inhabited the area before the Romans came were Celts.

Archaeological findings, especially at the hillfort ‘oppidum’ at Vix north-east of Dijon, show that during the late Hallstatt (12th to 8th centuries BC) and early La Tène periods there was a thriving Celtic presence in this region with strong trading links with Greek and Etruscan merchants to the south.

The ‘Vix krater’ (pictured), discovered in the grave of a wealthy Celtic noble lady, and dating to 500BC was discovered by archaeologists in 1953. Made of bronze, it stands 1.6 metres high and could carry over 1,000 litres of wine. The work of Greek craftsmen, it includes a frieze of hoplites around the rim which is a rare extant example of ancient Greek relief work in bronze. It is the largest known metal vessel from Western classical antiquity that exists today.

The people that lived in this part of France were collectively referred to as the Aedui or Haedui, a large tribal confederation that incorporated a number of other tribes stretching down as far south as modern Lyon (the Segobriges), as far east as the fringes of modern Jura (the Mandubii), as far west as Bourges (a branch of the Bituriges) and up to Paris and Sens in the north (the Parisii and Senones respectively). The Aedui proper had their ‘capital’ at Bibracte near modern Autun.

Initially friendly with the Romans, to the extent they were known in Rome as ‘kinsmen’ of the Roman people, they nonetheless – apparently unwillingly so perhaps through coercion – joined with the famous chieftain of the nearby Arverni, Vercingetorix, to oppose Caesar. Vercingetorix and his campaign came to grief at Alesia (which is in the Côte d’Or department 50km northwest of Dijon) after a great battle in September 52BC.

The emperor Augustus in his rearranging of Gaul – the first in what will prove a long, long line of boundary redrawing – placed the majority of the lands of the Aedui Confederation inside the province of Gallia Lugdunensis, with its capital at Lugdunum, modern Lyon. Bibracte was abandoned meanwhile and its people rehoused in a new settlement called ‘Augustodunum’, today’s Autun, which became another important civic centre. It is also at this time that the town of Divio (Dijon) begins to develop.

As with the rest of Gaul, the inhabitants over time became progressively more ‘Romanised’ until a distinctly ‘Gallo-Roman’ culture and society developed.

And so it seemed it would remain, if the Roman Empire hadn’t fallen apart.


Enter the Burgundians

Little is known absolutely about the Germanic people called the Burgundians. Lost deep in the great, misty vastness of ‘Germania’, their early history in the written Roman records is patchy at best. It seems most likely that they originated around the Baltic, possibly in Sweden, and then migrated across the sea via the island of Bernholm before residing for a time between the Oder and Vistula rivers in modern Poland.

And this is entirely normal as many ‘uncivilised’ societies at this time were semi-nomadic, settling for a season or even a couple of generations before moving on again.

This combination of itinerancy, a series of bad summers or harsh winters and inter-tribal warfare likely caused the Burgundians and other peoples such as the Rugii, Vandals, Goths and Gepids to begin mass migrating in the mid 2nd century AD.

The domino effect of this great upheaval began pushing other peoples outwards, inevitably butting up against the Roman Empire to the west and south.

This was the beginning of the ‘Barbarian Invasions’ that would continue for the next few centuries and which were to contribute to the weakening and eventual fall of the Roman Empire.

The destruction of the Burgundian kingdom on the Rhine in the 5th century was almost certainly the inspiration for Norse/German epic, the Nibelungenlied.

The Burgundians were part of the movement that headed for the Rhine and took part in the Germanic incursions in the 3rd century AD. In 297AD they are reported as being one of the tribes crushed by the Emperor Probus. The same emperor, incidentally, who overturned Domitian’s decree banning the spread of viticulture in 92AD.

Their record becomes even spottier for the next century but it seems likely that they, as with many other Germanic peoples, were enlisted by the Romans as mercenaries against other tribes – when they weren’t raiding Roman territory themselves.

From the early 5th century however, their appearance in the history books becomes more frequent and dramatic. Not least a description of them by the Gallo-Roman Sidonius who talks in appalled tones of their long hair which they greased with “rancid butter”, their huge physical size (very barbarian), guttural Germanic speech and, amusingly, their smelly breath after breakfast, with the “reek” of “garlic and foul onions”.

In 406AD the Burgundians were part of a renewed and large scale Germanic assault on the west alongside the Vandals, Alans and Suebi.

The Roman Empire, now definitively split between East and West, was undergoing yet another bout of turbulence, with warlords periodically declaring themselves emperor iniating a series of civil wars.

In 411AD, the Burgundian king Gunthar (or Gundahar) and Goar, king of the Alans, set up a man named Jovinus as a puppet emperor and used his authority to seize land for themselves.

The Burgundians settled on the left bank of the Rhine, with the Nahe as their western border. They established a capital at Borbetomagus (Worms) and with other important settlements at Speyer and Strasbourg – today’s Rheinhessen wine region in effect.

When the Western Emperor Honorius finally dispatched the various usurpers, faced with this fait accompli he grudgingly acknowledged the land grab and made the Burgundians foederati – official federal forces within the empire.

The Burgundians, however, made for unruly subjects and their raids into Gallia Belgica, today’s Low Countries, soon wore the Romans’ patience thin.

In 436-37AD, the great warlord Flavius Aetius, called in Hun mercenaries to crush the Burgundians which they did with great brutality. As many as 20,000 are thought to have perished in the cataclysm and this destruction of the Rhenish Burgundian kingdom and the death of their king Gundacar (the legendary Gunther) is almost certainly the source of inspiration for the later Nibelungenlied epic.

The surviving Burgundians were relocated further south into the area around Lake Geneva. Despite this violent backlash against them, the Burgundians nonetheless joined the Germanic alliance that fought with Aetius against Attila the Hun and defeated him at Châlons in 451AD.

BY 455AD Roman control in its old Gaulish provinces was so eroded as to be virtually non-existent and after the murder of Valentinian III in that same year there would be a succession of claimants whose reigns were short and whose authority barely extended beyond Italy.

Settled in the Alps in the second half of the 5th century, the Burgundians took advantage of the crumbling Western Roman Empire to expand their new kingdom to cover the majority of southeastern France and western Switzerland.

In this time the Burgundians took the opportunity to take more land for themselves and they established a kingdom that in the south stretched down the Rhône Valley to Avignon and across to the modern Italian border, then reached out to Nevers in the west, with Langres at its northern tip and Lyon as its central capital. In terms of modern winemaking regions it covered the majority of the Rhône, Burgundy, Jura and Savoie and the Vaud in Switzerland, as well as parts of Provence and the Languedoc.

Interestingly enough, Burgundian law codes from this time do include penalties and punishments relating to vineyards, specifically for theft and trespassing so there’s no doubt that the Burgundians, like all barbarians who settled in the ruins of the Roman Empire, were enthusiastic promoters of viticulture.

For a while stability returned but the Franks in the north were growing in power and conflict between them and the Burgundians was not far off.

In 493AD king Chilperic II of Burgundy was assassinated by his brother and co-ruler Gundobad (the Germanic rulers followed a pattern of splitting their kingdoms among their sons which usually led to intrigue, murder and civil war until one came out on top). One of Chilperic’s daughters was sent to a convent but the other, Clotilda, escaped to her uncle, Godegisel, another co-ruler in Geneva.

She was then courted by and married to Clovis, king of the Franks, and it is she who is said to have converted him to Christianity – which he undertook at Reims, where French kings would continue to be crowned for over 1,000 years afterwards.

In 507AD the Franks defeated the Visigoths at Vouillé and conquered Aquitaine, driving the Visigoths into their Spanish domains, where they ruled until the Islamic invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries.

With that powerful enemy defeated in the west, the Merovingian Franks soon turned their attentions on the Burgundian kingdom and Clotilda – very much in the vein of the vengeful Kriemhild – encouraged her sons to war against the new Burgundian king, her cousin Sigismund.

Sporadic campaigning in the 520s produced no decisive result (though Sigismund was assassinated by another rival) but in 532AD, a more determined campaign by Clotilda’s sons Childebert I and Clothar I led to the battle of Autun where the last Burgundian king, Godomar, was killed and his lands conquered in a second Götterdammerung – the one Wagner didn’t put to music.

The first kingdom of Burgundy was subsumed within the Frankish fold but while this marks the end of barbarian, Germanic Burgundy, it is only the beginning of Burgundy’s story.

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