The ultimate vintage? Burgundy's bid to make history

As the area's ancient vineyards hope to win Unesco protection, John Lichfield explains why the groundbreaking accolade could receive a sour reception in rival regions

Picture a vineyard about the size of one and a half football pitches, surrounded by narrow roads and dirt tracks.

The vines and the lumpy red soil form a ragged square with a piece of extra land added at one end, like an afterthought.

A sign tells visitors that they are welcome to look and marvel but they must not touch or enter. Otherwise, there is nothing to tell you that you are in the presence of greatness – no hint that this is Romanée-Conti vineyard, which produces the most expensive wine in the world.

Across a narrow track is another legendary vineyard, Richebourg. Its red wine sells for a modest €500 (£440) to €1,000 a bottle. Romanée-Conti, whose 16 acres of vines start, confusingly, just on the Richebourg side of the track, sells for between €7,000 and €13,000 a bottle.

Both are part of a patchwork of 1,000 mostly small vineyards which make up the Côte d'Or in central Burgundy. Why should wine from the left-hand side of a track be worth 10 times as much as wine from the right-hand side? Who drew these boundaries in the first place?

The shape of the small Romanée-Conti vineyard, including the afterthought at the southern end, has existed for at least 600 years, probably much longer. The same is true for the neighbouring vineyards, whose boundaries take even odder shapes, like shards of broken wine-glasses.

All of them produce celebrated "grand cru" red burgundies: Richebourg, La Romanée, La Grande Rue, La Tâche, Romanée Saint Viviant. Six of the 32 "grands crus" of Burgundy cluster here in one village. All use the same Pinot Noir grape variety. All are superlative. All are subtly different – or, to experts, radically different. None, except maybe La Tâche, consistently reaches the sublime and magical levels achieved by Romanée-Conti.

Roald Dahl wrote in My Uncle Oswald: "Sense for me this perfume! Breathe this bouquet! Taste it! Drink it! But never try to describe it! Impossible to give an account of such a delicacy with words! To drink Romanée-Conti is equivalent to experiencing an orgasm at once in the mouth and in the nose."

In local wine terminology, the small, oddly shaped vineyards of Burgundy are known as "climats", a word first recorded in legal documents in the 16th century. The boundaries are believed to have been mapped out much earlier, by Cistercian monks from the 4th century onwards. By trial and error – and large and attentive consumption over many years – the monks discovered that wines from closely adjoining plots could have different qualities and tastes.

A campaign has now started to have the "climats" declared a Unesco world heritage site. The campaign will be dismissed by some as another attempt to restate the traditional French view that "real" wine can only come from a particular region. In other words, real wines are not developed, or blended, in factories but are the product of micro-climate, soil and sub-soil, summed up in the untranslatable French word "terroir".

The campaign may also irritate wine-producers in that other great French wine-producing region Bordeaux, which cannot trace its oenological ancestry as far back as Burgundy. Why just celebrate the Burgundy vineyards? Why not also Bordeaux, or Champagne, or the Loire? The Burgundians insist that their campaign is not merely a question of local pride. They say that their vineyards offer the clearest, and oldest, example of how human ingenuity, applied over many centuries, can work with the infinite variety of nature to transform something functional (booze) into something sublime (great wine).

In an age of uniformity and global brands, the Burgundy vineyards are, they argue, a reminder that true authenticity and true quality must be rooted in tradition and locality.

You can hardly get more "local" than the hotch-potch of leading Côte d'Or vineyards, which, in the space of 20 miles, produce hundreds of excellent wines, using only two grape varieties: Pinot Noir for red wine and its cousin Chardonnay for white. Not all are as forbiddingly expensive as Romanée-Conti. A bottle of the local village "appellation" Vosne-Romanée, can cost as little as £20.

Aubert de Villaine, joint proprietor of the Romanée-Conti domaine, is the president of the campaign to have the "climats" of Burgundy declared part of the "world heritage of humanity". In a rare interview, Mr de Villaine, whose family has owned Romanée-Conti for seven generations, told The Independent why the campaign went beyond old French arguments about local wines, or "vins d'appellation", versus New World wines "blended" to suit consumer taste.

"What we are talking about here are human qualities and achievements, not just qualities of nature," Mr de Villaine said. "We are saying that, over many centuries, these seemingly random boundaries between vineyards were worked out and then engraved in marble by our ancestors. They realised that, by doing so, they could capture something unique and wonderful. That ceaseless search for quality, and for difference, tells you something about mankind. It also tells you what can be possible if we work with, rather than against, the extraordinary variety that can be found in nature."

Yes, but how can it be possible that so much variety, in taste and quality, is produced from the same kind of grapes in such a small area? Mr de Villaine stood up and went to the window of his office, from which he can look out over all the "grand cru" vineyards of Vosne-Romanée.

He pointed out how these cluster at the foot of the first slope, just before it flattens out towards the plain – the "piedmont" in local terminology. Here the soil is relatively deep and rich with sediment washed from above but not so deep as to make the roots of the vines lazy. Vines grown further down the slope have more soil but produce grapes of lesser intensity and complexity.

Here, at the concave foot of the first slope, the roots search far into the limestone bedrock, fractured in bizarre ways under the surface. Because the roots go deep into the different formations of rock, they supply different combinations of minerals – and subtly different tastes – to vineyards only a few yards apart. The monks who owned all this land in the Middle Ages knew nothing much about geology. But they did notice that by selecting grapes from specific parts of the slope, they could produce differing qualities, and styles, of wine.

"Look at Richebourg," Mr de Villaine said. "It stretches up the slope, while Romanée-Conti remains in the piedmont. Why were the boundaries arranged in that way? And when? We know that Romanée-Conti was already defined, almost to the last metre, within its present boundaries when it was sold by the monks in the 15th century. We can only assume that the boundaries were the result of careful tasting and experimentation over many centuries before that."

Why is it that Romanée-Conti – and La Tâche, also owned by the Romanée-Conti domaine – are prized above their marvellous neighbours? There must be something about their site, suggests Mr de Villaine, which provides an especially complex and rich "terroir" for the vines.

Others would add that these vineyards are tiny (yielding only 6,000 bottles of Romanée-Conti in 2009) and have been in the same hands for decades. This has ensured continuity of quality and intensity of demand.

In the middle-market for wine, France seems to be giving up its belief in "terroir". It was announced last year that the country's new official wine-marketing body would try to rebuild French sales abroad by imitating the approach of the Australians and others. "Blended" French wines, using quality grapes brought from different areas, or within one region, are to be marketed under simple, recognisable labels.

Is this the death of "terroir"? Many purists fear so. But Mr de Villaine points out that more and more wine-growers in Australia, New Zealand and the US are searching for the best "terroirs" or "climats" in their own countries to boost the quality and distinctive taste of their wines.

"There are two parallel developments in the wine market," Mr de Villaine said. "There's a desire for uniformity and reliability and simple recognisable brands. But there's an increasing desire on the part of some producers and consumers for something more authentic and special."

All the more reason, he argues, to celebrate the "climats" of Burgundy – a search for quality and authenticity rooted in "locality" which began 1,500 years before niche-marketing was invented.

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