Wine History: #1 Chateau du Clos de Vougeot …. it’s not about the wine!

Burgundy, the most evocative word and place in any wine lovers lexicon. Chateau de Clos de Vougeot, the most revered building to wine officianados and undoubtedly the most famous wine chateau in the world. To begin, take a quick peek at this short video which will give you an “atmospheric flavour” of this historic place. It doesn’t matter whether you like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay or not, nor whether you dislike or can’t afford Burgundy wines. This is also the most famous vineyard in the world and one that produces wines sold at staggering prices.

“Jamais en Vain, Toujours en Vin” : bande annonce from Château du Clos de Vougeot on Vimeo.

The most famous vineyard in the world, Clos de Vougeot, also known as Clos Vougeot, is a wall-enclosed vineyard, a clos, in the Burgundy wine region of France. An essential pilgrimage for wine lovers if ever there was one. It was created by Cistercian monks of Cîteaux Abbey only a few kilometres away. The land making up the vineyard was purchased by the Cistercians, or donated to them, between the 12th century to the early 14th century and was completed with a wall built around it, by the year 1336. It served as the flagship vineyard of the Cistercians, and has been a highly recognised name for centuries, probably the most famous in the whole world today.

But what many people won’t know, and it isn’t noted on their website (!) is that the Clos de Vougeot was created by an Englishman, a Saxon, Stephen Harding who was the Abbot of Citeaux for 25 years from the year 1108! The history of Clos de Vougeot is therefore closely connected with that of Citeaux Abbey for the first hundred years or so of its existence, and this needs to be understood before its current “rock star” status can be appreciated. So here’s a little history we hope you enjoy:

Cistercian monks of Citeaux Abbey

Medieval Vougeot

In 1098, a Benedictine abbot, Robert of Molesme, left his monastery in Burgundy with around 20 supporters, who felt that the various communities of monks had abandoned the rigours and simplicity of the Rule of St. Benedict. The monastery church of Cluny Abbey, the largest in Europe, had become wealthy from rents, tithes, feudal rights and passing pilgrims, and despairing of this Robert and his small group acquired a plot of marshland just south of Dijon called Cîteaux (Latin: “Cistercium”. Cisteaux means reeds in Old French), given to them expressly for the purpose of founding their Novum Monasterium.

Robert’s followers included Alberic, a former hermit from a nearby forest, and Stephen Harding, a member of an Anglo-Saxon noble family who had been ruined as a result of the Norman conquest of England. During the first year, the monks set about constructing lodging areas and farming the lands of Cîteaux. In Robert’s absence from Molesme, however, the abbey had gone into decline, and Pope Urban II, a former Cluniac monk, ordered him to return.

The remaining monks of Cîteaux elected Alberic as their new abbot, under whose leadership the abbey would find its grounding. If Robert had been the idealist of the order desiring to return it to austerity and personal labour, then Alberic was their builder. Alberic now moved the site of the fledgling community near a brook a short distance away from the original site. He discontinued the use of Benedictine black garments in the abbey and clothed the monks in white habits of undyed wool. He fully returned the community to the original Benedictine ideal of manual work and prayer, dedicated to the ideal of charity and self sustenance. Alberic also forged an alliance with the Dukes of Burgundy, working out a deal with Duke Odo of Burgundy concerning the donation of a vineyard (Meursault) as well as stones with which they built their church.

On January 26, 1108, Alberic died and was soon succeeded by Stephen Harding, the Saxon, and the man responsible for carrying the order into its crucial phase. The order was fortunate that Stephen was an abbot of extraordinary gifts, and he framed the original version of the Cistercian “Constitution”, The Carta Caritatis (Charter of Charity). Although this was revised on several occasions to meet contemporary needs, from the outset it emphasised a simple life of work, love, prayer and self-denial. Cistercian abbeys also refused to admit boy recruits, a practice later adopted by many of the older Benedictine houses.

Stephen Harding served Cîteaux Abbey as abbot for twenty-five years and during this time he acquired land for the abbey to develop to ensure its survival and ethic, the first of which was Clos Vougeot! While no single person is considered the founder of the Cistercian Order, the shape of Cistercian thought and its rapid growth in the 12th century were arguably due to Harding’s leadership. Insisting on simplicity in all aspects of monastic life, he was largely responsible for the severity of Cistercian architecture and the simple beauty of the Order’s liturgy and music. He was an accomplished scribe for the monastery’s scriptorium; his highest achievement is considered to be the Harding Bible, famous among medieval manuscripts. In 1133, he resigned as head of the order because of age and infirmity. He died on 28 March 1134 and was buried in the tomb of Alberic, his predecessor, in the cloisters at Cîteaux.

Clos de Vougeot

Modern Vougeot

The Château building of Clos de Vougeot, situated inside the original wall, was added in 1551 by enlarging a small chapel and some other buildings previously existing at the site. From 1945, this building has served as headquarters of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.

In the French Revolution, all vineyard possessions were taken from the church by the French state, and sold off to private buyers. Following this, in 1818, the château and vineyards of Clos de Vougeot were bought by Julien-Jules Ouvrard, who also bought the Romanée-Conti vineyard the following year, which for those of you less well versed in wine culture …. is now THE most expensive wine in the world. After Ouvrard’s death, Clos de Vougeot passed to his three heirs, but continued to be operated as a single property until 1889, when the heirs put it up for sale. It was bought by six Burgundy wine merchants, leading to a subdivided vineyard for the first time since its creation more than 700 years earlier. After that, the holdings have been progressively subdivided by inheritance and land sales. At present the Clos de Vougeot vines are split between more than 80 owners.

The chateau is currently leased to the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. The Fraternity of Knights of the Wine-Tasting Cup is an exclusive bacchanalian fraternity of Burgundy wine enthusiasts. It was founded in 1934 and has chapters worldwide. The primary aims of the organisation are “to hold in high regard and promote Burgundian produce, particularly her great wines and regional cuisine, to maintain and revive the festivities, customs and traditions of Burgundian folklore,” and “to encourage people from all over the world to visit Burgundy.”

The organisations activities are generally scheduled around elaborate chapter dinners and other culinary events, at which Burgundian wines are served. At these events, it is customary for members to comment in detail about the history and characteristics of each wine or dish that is served, in order to promote “viticultural and gastronomic education”.

In my next post I will describe to you the morning we spent here one misty and bone chilling day and when the ground was covered with frost.

Categories: Burgundy, Wine, Wine with History

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. The building is lovely! And thank you for the history lesson. I do not drink any alcohol, but I hope we can still be friends.


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