World Heritage Site

The Next UNESCO World Heritage Site: Burgundy’s Pinot Noir Country?

The Burgundy winegrowers are on a mission, one that’s lasted seven years: to become an official World Heritage Site. They have the history, the culture, and some damn fine wine.

Fernand Ivaldi/Getty

Seven years ago, a small group of Burgundian winegrowers began a quest to formally recognize and protect a prized portion of their historic land. And, if all goes well, the World Heritage Committee will vote June 2015 on whether to approve their mission to become a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite Burgundy’s extremely long, influential, and well-documented history in the wine industry, the region’s path to recognition has been fraught with challenges.

A team of sponsors, led by proprietors of two of Burgundy’s most legendary domains—Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, in Vosne-Romanée, and Guillaume d’Angerville of Domaine Marquis d’Angerville, in Volnay—has worked tirelessly to assemble evidence and support from geologists, archeologists, and historians to make the case that the region carries outstanding universal value and deserves to be among the world’s elite.

UNESCO sets a high bar for inclusion. The group defines heritage as “our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations,” and it considers cultural and natural heritage “irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.” World Heritage Sites are those that have “outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view.” The venerable list includes such important and awe-inspiring sites as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, China’s Great Wall, and Egypt’s Pyramid Fields.

The wine-makers of Burgundy strongly believe that their beloved region meets these high standards. In their application for recognition of the Climats de Bourgogne, they explain, “The quest for a relationship between wine and the natural environment where it is produced has existed for centuries in many places. But Burgundy alone has pushed the desire to identify a wine by its terroir to such extremes.”

Burgundy’s climats, or named individual vineyard parcels, have long informed our collective understanding of terroir. Nowhere else has the study of wine been so long respected and so complete. The climats date back to the Middle Ages and were determined by environmental criteria that separate each parcel’s identity from the others. These tiny differences are reflected in the wine produced from grapes grown on each one. This history dates back to the monks at the Cluny Abbey (founded in 910) and the Citeaux Abbey (founded in 1098) who began the culture of vineyard delineation that still holds today in Burgundy, and that has spread to other celebrated wine region’s including the Mosel, in Germany, and the Piedmont hills, in northwestern Italy.

In addition to providing context for consumers, Burgundy’s climats provide a rare and direct link to the past. These sites bear the same names today that they did hundreds of years ago and play an important role in protecting and transmitting snippets of Burgundy’s history to present day. Allegedly, Emperor Napoleon’s favorite wine was from the Grand Cru vineyard “Chambertin.”Champ refers to a field, Bertin was likely the original owner of that field, and the name still holds today.

One of Burgundy’s most famous climats for Pinot Noir is a hallowed parcel in Volnay called the Clos de Ducs, owned entirely by the Domaine Marquis d’Angerville for the past two hundred years. The parcel is 2.15 hectares (about 5.3 acres) and has been mapped out and delineated in this exact size since the year 1507. The powerful Burgundian Dukes noticed that this parcel made particularly elegant wine each year. They built a wall around it and made it their clos (walled-in vineyard), reserving it for their personal consumption. Today, we know this vineyard’s unusual elegance is a result of several factors including an underground artisanal spring that mitigates vine stress in drought vintages, dual aspect (the vineyard slope faces both south and east), a relatively high elevation and specific limestone bedrock that lends the grapes a freshness, and protection from vicious hail storms by the small forest above.

“We are not applying to further promote Burgundy wines,” d’Angerville explains. “We are applying to protect our history, our traditions, our viticulture model, our landscapes and to share all of these with the world.”

In order to gain more insight into Burgundy’s quest for official recognition, I spoke with Guillaume d’Angerville about his region’s mission to prove what wine lovers have known all along.

JS: Are you able to share some of the findings that the geologists and historians uncovered? What did they find that differs from other regions?

GD: The main difference between Burgundy and other regions is that Burgundy has a thousand-year history of linking the wine to the place where it is produced. Nowhere else in the world has this philosophy of winemaking been taken to such a level of detail. This is what has created the mosaic of plots that we know today, and that was pretty much already in place a thousand years ago. The history of Burgundy is much longer (two Roman vines dated 100 [years] after Christ were found in [the villages] Gevrey and Savigny), but starting around year 1000, local winemakers started identifying the wines with the place. Historians found that the word "climat" has been used since the 15th century to describe the terroirs or appellations as we know them today.

JS: What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome in this quest to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

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GD: Many challenges indeed. The process is extremely complex and needs total commitment of a very large team. The very first step is establishing the Outstanding Universal Value of the site. More than 30 scientists, historians [and] geologists helped us work on that. Then, there are those who view the application and the listing as a reason to worry about more constraints in their day-to-day life: we worked on explaining why it is not the case, and we now have more than 55,000 individual supporters. And of course one needs to convince the French Ministries of Culture and of Ecology that the application makes sense. Finally, there [are] tiny technical details that can make a difference: our dossier was deemed incomplete once because of an inconsistency between two maps of the site. Overall, the biggest challenge is to keep everyone motivated over seven years. Now of course, we all see the light at the end of the tunnel and everyone is pulling in the same direction. The next and final challenge is the visit of the Climats by Unesco-named experts [in the fall].

Are other sites required to wait seven years for the World Heritage committee to make a decision? How long does the process usually take?

In a nutshell, the Outstanding Universal Value comes from the fact that in this particular area, man has worked with nature to start the production of wines that are unique in that they come from a single vine (pinot for red and chardonnay for white) yet show incredible diversity. This is combined with outstanding buildings that housed the monks and the dukes of Burgundy, very typical small stone-made sheds in the vineyards, and small walls surrounding the vineyards. Overall, 2000 years of history have created a viticulture model that is unique and perceived as such, worldwide. Altogether, the monks, the Dukes, and the winemakers created a microcosm the influence of which can still be felt today.

Can you describe the process you and your team are going through in order to solidify the Climats of Burgundy as a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

The process is usually very long. Most sites need 10 years from start to finish. This is because establishing the OUV is a complex process, as is determining the exact perimeter of the site that is proposed from listing. Then the sponsors of the project need to convince their own country that the site is worthy of such listing as it is the country where the site is located, not the site itself, that applies formally to UNESCO. Overall, if we are listed next year, we will have done well. [Our team] has benefited from the support of many scientists and historians to start building our case. And we also benefit from several hundred volunteers who help us with the many events we organize around the candidacy, not to mention celebrities including Yannick Noah, a singer and former tennis player, and Bernard Pivot, a famous writer.

How can we support your cause?

The best outcome is for the readers to apply on our website to become supporters. They can contribute financially if they wish, but one can become a supporter without any financial contribution.

What inspired you to become involved in this quest?

Many things encouraged me to become involved. It is a worthy cause, and the fact that I realized how little I knew about my own history really was a great incentive. The more you learn about Burgundy’s history, the better off you are, I believe, to understand how to make the most out of what looks like a quite hostile environment for growing grapes (rocky soil, the mother rock close below, etc.). The more you discover about our rich history, the more you want to learn. And of course, Aubert’s [de Villaine] personality, his own dedication to the project, and the prospect of working closely with him were a huge encouragement. When he asked me for help, I did not hesitate.

His famous words to me were: "Guillaume, Burgundy has been good to your family, it is now time for you to be good to Burgundy." How can you resist that?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.