The drystone walls of Burgundy

The drystone walls of Burgundy are as ancient and as complex as the vineyards they divide, as Jasper Morris MW discovers

Words by Jasper Morris MW

Photography by Michel Joly

Contrary to rumour, I don’t spend my entire life with my nose in a glass of wine or a reference book, teasing out some complicated aspect of Burgundian history. My leisure moments are spent taking down the relics of drystone walls – collapsed by age, weather, errant animals or passing motorists – and reassembling them in the prescribed manner, without cement, mortar or other external aid. It’s a deeply rewarding activity that keeps me in touch with the core of Burgundy.

Is it an art, or a science? I’m not really sure, any more than when the same question is applied to winemaking. The optimum result comes from a blend of the two. Both require an infinite capacity for taking pains. Both also rely on intuition, knowing by sight that this stone in the pile will fit just there in the wall. I do something very similar when looking through my cellar to decide what to drink: I gaze at various bottles until one of them tells me it is their turn tonight. Unless the bottle is faulty, or the stone is cracked, it usually turns out to be a good choice.

The key principle in building a drystone wall is to let the stones support each other. Each divide between two stones should be covered by a stone in the layer above; the two sides of the wall have a layer of minor stones between them, but they should not be free-standing: at intervals, they must be connected with an interlocking stone.

Corton-Charlemagne vineyard in Burgundy
Starlings take flight above 
the hill of Corton in Burgundy
Starlings take flight above 
the hill of Corton

My building blocks are the fractured, fissured, fossilised stones that have come out of some part of the Burgundian landscape at some point in the past century or two.

The stones are made up of the same sort of variations on a clay-limestone theme as constitute the mother rock of the Côte. It is not simply a question of clay or limestone – or indeed marl, which is the intermediate structure between clay and limestone, found in various strata throughout the Côte and usually well suited to white wine production.

Equally important is the particular nature of the rock. Comblanchien, Prémeaux or Chassagne limestone is particularly hard and is frequently quarried for building blocks and marble. Dalle nacrée translates as pearly flagstone, while Ostrea accuminata is full of little oyster shells. Calcaire à entroques (crinoidal limestone) entombs fossilised marine plants, and white oolite has egg-shaped stones. Annoyingly, it is rare that any one vineyard sits squarely on a single type of rock so that the wines therefrom can suggest a definition of what that individual rock type can bring. The concept of ‘minerality’ in wine needs to be taken as a metaphor rather than as evidence of the uptake of any specific minerals from the subsoil. Even if we could see a connection, it’s another big step to understand causation. The ability of soil or rock to impart texture or flavour to wine is a subject that will be debated for decades to come.

Ladoix-Serrigny from the hill of Corton in Burgundy
Ladoix-Serrigny from the hill of Corton

The vineyards themselves form a magical mosaic patchwork. The individual plots follow the topography, while the viticultural choices of the vigneron help pick out one patch from another. The variety seems without end in Burgundy.

Even the word for a vineyard offers multiple options in Burgundian French. You might hear cru, climat or lieu-dit, the subtle differences between which are often smudged. Cru, or ‘growth’, connotes a vineyard with a classification, as in premier cru or grand cru, the top of the hierarchy. Lieu-dit reflects the English ‘place name’ and refers to any named patch of ground, whether vineyard or not. By usage, it tends to refer these days to a named vineyard that does not have a cru classification.

The buzzword, however, is climat. Dating from the 16th century, this word of Greek origin was revived to add gravitas to the (successful) application to Unesco to classify the Côte d’Or vineyards as a World Heritage Site. ‘Each climat is a vine plot, with its own microclimate and specific geological conditions, that has been carefully marked out and named over the centuries,’ according to Climats du Vignoble de Bourgogne, the official body responsible for securing the Unesco listing. There are well over a thousand different vineyards within the classification, but it’s more than just the vines that count. All the cultural aspects of this famous wine region have helped seal the deal, including, indeed, the drystone walls that frequently divide one vineyard from another – walls that were often built from stones pulled out of the soil to enable the land to be cultivated and planted with vines.

There are well over
a thousand different vineyards within the classification, but it’s more than just the
vines that count

How do you make sense of 1,247 different vineyards? They don’t all have separate names, and that tells us something, too. In fact, certain names reappear in most villages and can give quite an indication of what to expect, especially where they have been formed by words denoting a particular soil type or rock formation.

Les Argillières and Les Argillats refer to vineyards with a high clay content, so expect deeper-coloured red wines with a solid, tannic structure. In contrast, across many villages there are frequent references to Les Cras and Caillerets, the former denoting limestone rock; the latter, the small stones that have been chipped off into the soil. Whether or not we should treat minerality in wine as a metaphor, there’s little doubt that wines from stonily named vineyards tend to be chiselled in style.

Les Perrières also appears to reflect stones in the soil, though actually this was the name used in the Middle Ages for a quarry producing limestone blocks for the local houses. Doubtless some of the offcuts went into the drystone walls.

Louis Latour Corton Grancey cuverie at Aloxe-Corton in Burgundy
The Louis Latour Corton Grancey cuverie
at Aloxe-Corton
Stars over the hill of Corton in Burgundy
Stars over the hill of Corton

Sometimes there was so much to clear out that the stones were just heaped up in banks known locally as murgers – a name that surfaces in Nuits-St-Georges and in St-Aubin, where the stones often form the shape of canine teeth, hence the premier cru Les Murgers des Dents de Chien, produced by domaines Hubert Lamy and Jean-Claude Bachelet & Fils.

There are some inelegant names scattered around the Côte. They rarely feature on labels – not only for their lack of euphonious harmony but equally because the wines from those corners are the least enjoyable of their communes. It’s not an accident. Have you ever seen, let alone enjoyed, a bottle of Meursault En Gargouillot? Are you surprised to discover that the least attractive terroirs of Aloxe-Corton can be found in Les Citernes and Les Crapousuets? Not far away, in Savigny-lès-Beaune, Les Ratausses and Ez Connardises somehow fail to thrill.

Better to search out vineyards such as Les Joyeuses in Ladoix or Les Amoureuses in Chambolle-Musigny, if you can afford the latter. Is it any surprise that wines in Beaune or Corton from Les Bressandes, a word that caresses the tongue, slide silkily down the throat?

Certain vineyards intrigue: where exactly did these names come from?

Certain vineyards intrigue: where exactly did these names come from? When I come across Derrière Chez Edouard in St-Aubin, I want to know who Edouard was and why he was famous enough to have the vineyard behind his house named after him. And here’s a bottle of Sous le Bois de Noël et Belles Filles, in Pernand-Vergelesses: what were the daughters-in-law getting up to in the Christmas Wood, and didn’t they get rather cold? Nor do we know how and why premier cru Clos de la Maréchale in Nuits-St-Georges got its name. It once belonged to Delphine Marey-Monge, sister-in-law of the unmarried Maréchal Stanislas Marey-Monge, a Marshal of France. Might she have kept house for him and so been nicknamed Madame La Maréchale? Searching for these answers is like gazing at a pile of stones to find the perfect one to fit the precise hole in a layer of your drystone wall. The solution is in there somewhere; you just have to wait for it to reveal itself.

Drystone walls in Burgundy France
In March 2016, the normally sepulchral surroundings.

All these vineyards are gloriously intertwined in the mosaic that causes so much pleasure to the eye of the drystone-waller. Sometimes they cross commune borders, and you find spelling varies between the two halves of the vineyard. Thus Frémiets and Fremiers (Volnay/Pommard) or Encegnières and Enseignières (Chassagne/Puligny), though this does not stop recalcitrant growers from choosing yet other variations for their own labels. Producers can’t always remember how they spell a particular vineyard, so it can vary from one vintage to another.

We can’t all be perfect – not even Burgundian winemakers. Subtle flaws shouldn’t stop us enjoying the view of a drystone wall, though it might be fractionally less than perpendicular, nor the taste of a bottle of Burgundy with a tiny imperfection due to vintage variability or human foible. I love them for what they are.