Frédéric Villain: "In Burgundy, it was all about the 19th century"
Updated: Feb 23
The Guide des meilleurs Crus et Climats de Côte d'Or au XIXe siècle, published by Terres en Vues, has just been awarded the OIV prize (International Organisation of Vine and Wine). A very detailed work, which defeats many clichés on this land of great wines that is the Côte-d'Or. Interview with Frédéric Villain, who wrote the book while working as a pharmacist.
In your book, we learn that the Côte d'Or vineyards - Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits - were classified in the 19th century, like the 1855 classification for Bordeaux. Are they so important?
They are fundamental because they will inspire the Inao later on. From these classifications stems the one we know today: the "Burgundy", "Village", "Premier Cru" and "Grand Cru" levels. The 1861 classification, carried out by the Beaune Agricultural Committee, is the counterpart of the 1855 classification in Bordeaux. At the time, Burgundy wines were distinguished by a 1st class, 2nd class or 3rd class mention.
Hadn't this work already begun with the Burgundian monks in the Middle Ages?
There is a great deal of legend in the history of Burgundy wines in the Middle Ages. Of course, there were the monks, who cultivated and studied the vine. A lot has been said about this, and it is an excellent choice, which saved Burgundy. But in reality, everything was laid down by 19th century scientists. They were the first to classify all the fine wines of Burgundy on the basis of - partly - objective criteria, such as soil and exposure. It was at this time that the notion of "Climats de Bourgogne" was truly born.
What happened before these classifications?
Practices in winegrowing Burgundy were very different at the time, as we tend to forget. The parcel-based cuvées that make up the identity of the Côte d'Or today are not at all the norm: we work with brand equivalents, and we find, for example, "Beaune wines" whose grapes come from Pommard or Gevrey... The grape varieties are not at all the same either! Gamay was widely cultivated, and complantation was practised: red and white grapes in the same parcel, then in the same wine. It was thanks to the thinking of 19th century scientists that it was decided to replant almost exclusively pinot noir and chardonnay after phylloxera. In Burgundy, everything was decided in the 19th century! It was then that a culture of fine wine emerged.
Are there any notable differences between the practices of the 19th century and those of today?
Since the end of the 19th century, the major change in Burgundy has been in the colour. The fine wines of the Côte d'Or were red, perhaps 95%. Today, Chardonnay dominates.
Were some wines better perceived in the 19th century than today?
There are some differences, such as wines classified at the highest level in the 19th century, and excluded from the list of great growths today. I am thinking of "Saint-Georges" in Nuits Saint-Georges, or "Vergelesses" in Savigny-lès-Beaune. On the other hand, the famous "Cros Parantoux" was badly classified. And it is one of the most sought-after wines today, thanks to the work of Henry Jayer. Just goes to show that location is not everything!
All the authors of the time gave the wines of Volnay the following characteristics: "finesse, purity of taste and bouquet". Morelot praised them: "All the wines that are harvested on this part of the Côte are excellent. They have a finesse, a bouquet, a delicacy, a suave taste which cannot be found in any other wine. Also, when they are neither too new nor too old, that is to say, when they are at their best, one could say that they are better than all the other wines. But unanimity was not the order of the day. Lavalle, who willingly relied on Morelot's writings, and even regularly confirmed them in his work, expressed clear disagreement on this point. According to him, his predecessor "exaggerates the praise", adding that "it would be both a mistake and an injustice to accept in its general form the opinion expressed by M. Morelot". One can sense in this rhetoric the emergence of a "palace" quarrel which is still going on today. Do the reds from the Côte de Beaune outshine those from the Côte de Nuits or vice versa? Between a Dr Morelot, making the reds of Volnay "his" Burgundian reference, and a Dr Lavalle, bringing the "Chambertin" to the pinnacle, appears here all the subjectivity of a classification and its criteria of judgment.