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"Fertile en toute sorte de grains, embellie de vastes prairies": The Burgundy region today (photo: Pascal, CC BY-SA 3.0)

One aspect of the province of wine and literature is the use that writers have made of wine. Another however is the literature which wine has more directly inspired, for there is a particular fascination attaching to early writings about wine — its production, the trade it supports, and the culture that surrounds it.

One such book is Claude Arnoux’s short account of the wines of Burgundy, Dissertation sur la Situation de Bourgogne, published in London in 1728. Arnoux was a teacher, based in London, who wrote a series of aids to the idioms, spelling and pronunciation of French for the “English learner”. But Arnoux did not confine his role of cultural go-between to the realm of language. French wine, though greatly esteemed by the English, was perhaps as much of a closed book to them as the language of the people who made it. Hence Arnoux’s Dissertation, which promised to describe the geography of Burgundy, the wines it produced, how the vines were cultivated, and how the wine was made. Arnoux also undertook to describe the quality, finesse, colour and capacity for ageing of the different types of burgundy, and his book was illustrated with a map on which all the best vineyards were located and named. Finally, he also went on to show how fine burgundy could be easily and safely imported to London without adulteration or spoilage and at the best possible prices. All this in fewer than 60 pages!

Arnoux’s Burgundy is a centaur-like place. On the one hand it is an ideal country of the mind, a cornucopia of everything that pleases man. It is “fertile en toute sorte de grains, embellie de vastes prairies, ou mille ruisseaux se jouent par leurs differents dètours, ornées de belles forêts habitées de cerfs de sangliers & sur tout de chevreuils qui y sont delicieux, ce qui foürnit agréablement aux Seigneurs le divertissement de la chasse.”

But this Elysium is also recognisably the Burgundy of today. Nomenclature has shifted a bit. Meursault was then “Mulsault”; Volnay was “Volnet”; Montrachet was “Morachet”; Aloxe was “Alosse”; and the nobler of the two red grapes of Burgundy was then the “Noirins”, not the pinot noir.

In terms of perceived quality, there are both continuities and changes. Arnoux’s list of the best vineyards in Beaune — Fèves, Cras, Grèves, and Clos du Roi — corresponds pretty well with today’s ideal shopping list. On the other hand, his singling out of Commaraine as unquestionably the best wine of Pommard does not square with the quality of the wine it currently produces. Today it is an under-performing premier cru. Surprisingly Arnoux says nothing about the wines of Vosne, which now include the most sought-after of all red burgundies, and which by the end of the 18th century had been recognised as producing “un vin de fantaisie”.

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