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Le Clos de Vougeot: A Château Among Burgundy's Vineyards

Published on , by Anne Doridou-Heim

Listed as a historic monument in 1949 and open to the public all year round, for nearly a thousand years the Château du Clos de Vougeot has been a symbol of history and culture in Burgundy, even if it no longer produces wine.   

The Château du Clos de Vougeot in its vineyard setting.© Bénédicte Manière Le Clos de Vougeot: A Château Among Burgundy's Vineyards

The Château du Clos de Vougeot in its vineyard setting.
© Bénédicte Manière

The Château du Clos de Vougeot is never more stunning than in autumn when the surrounding vineyards are decked out in crimson and gold. In the middle of fifty hectares (123.5 acres), enclosed by a three-kilometer-long wall, its silhouette stands out in all its authentic majesty. During the medieval period, Cistercian monks and wine-producing land went together, and abbeys acquired huge cellars. As nature always does things right, Burgundy was both home to the religious order and excellent wine-growing territory. But when the Cistercian abbey of Cîteaux was given some "uncultivated, even overgrown land" in 1110, and half a century later, the Benedictine monks of Vergy sold the abbey their age-old rights over their vineyards, no-one would have guessed that the long, long history of Le Clos de Vougeot had only just begun. The monks, who lived by the ascetic rule of St Benedict, turned into land-clearers, builders and winemakers. They extracted stones from the former Vougeot quarry for the farm buildings, and cut down oaks in the flourishing Morvan forest for the frames. It all began as a spacious, semi-underground cellar, which expanded to accommodate two thousand bottles, with an impressive attic space above used as a dormitory. Understanding the importance of aeration for fermentation, the monks included ten lancet windows that provided filtered light and cool temperatures, and gave the whole building a truly architectural character. Next, they built the winery, designed as a cloister around a central courtyard and accessed through a carriage gate with a low arch. This housed four monumental winepresses with capstans, reputedly unique for their extraordinary size, the largest being 10.5 meters long (34.4 ft long) and the oldest dating from 1476-1477. It took six to eight men to drive the screws.

Le Porteur de Benaton (The Grape Basket Carrier) by Henri Bouchard (1875-1960), in the small courtyard.© Serge Chapuis

Le Porteur de Benaton (The Grape Basket Carrier) by Henri Bouchard (1875-1960), in the small courtyard.
© Serge Chapuis

Initially, the wine had little body or taste. But its quality gradually improved as the estate steadily prospered, and it was championed by the Dukes of Burgundy, who quickly caught on to its economic impact and the prestige they could derive from it. Monks and laymen developed a unique viticultural expertise based on considered attention to pruning, the selection of grape varieties and the storage of the precious nectar. They also established the identity of the local terroir by defining the "climats" (plots that give wines a different character depending on the soil type), and by building enclosures to protect the vines from animals. This was a rare instance of comprehensive vineyard management in the late Middle Ages.
Times changed with the Renaissance when the monastic spirit was more open to cohabiting with a certain lifestyle. In 1551, Dom Jean Loisier, the 48th abbot of Cîteaux, decided to add a mansion to the austere wine production buildings. Built in the period's purest style, it consisted of two main buildings set at right angles, with mullioned windows, pilasters and delicate sculptures on the courtyard side. Le Clos de Vougeot with its fine silhouette became the jewel of the Burgundian Renaissance. Despite a few upheavals, it remained in Cîteaux's hands until the Revolution, but the land was then worked by laymen. Then the Bastille was captured, and the site was confiscated and declared a national asset on February 13, 1790. The Château underwent various vicissitudes for nearly a century, with a series of owners and the division of the estate, before being bought with its adjoining vineyards in 1889 by a dealer from Nuits-Saint-Georges, Léonce Bocquet. He saved the building from certain destruction, restored it at considerable expense and embellished the first-floor rooms with monumental fireplaces in the fashionable neo-Renaissance style.

"Jamais En vain, Toujours En Vin": "Never a Whine; Always a Wine."

In the 1930s, after the Wall Street crash of1929 and thirteen years of prohibition, Burgundy wines were no longer selling despite some magnificent vintages. In this context, a small group of dedicated winegrowers decided to join forces and formed the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin (Brotherhood of Knights of the Tastevin): a title inspired by the cup used for tasting wine (a tastevin). They reveled in its Bacchic character: "If our cellars are full, we must empty them, and invite our friends to help us. And to ward off bad luck, we shall adopt Rabelais's colorful good humor and Molière's cheerful philosophy and good sense." On November 29, 1944, Étienne Camuzet, the owner since 1920, sold the château without the vineyards to the non-trading company Les Amis du Clos de Vougeot, which granted a ninety-nine-year lease to the managerial members of the Confrérie. They spared no efforts in writing a new chapter in the history of the Cistercian residence, perpetuating its traditions and restoring its grandeur. Burgundy is now celebrated there in all its generosity as a hospitable region imbued with human culture "au large"—a regional expression meaning "in the broadest sense", which takes on its full significance here. Being inducted as a Chevalier du Tastevin during one of the famous "chapters" (assemblies) held in the various seasons is a unique moment for everyone, and these "knights" include countless famous figures like General de Gaulle, Grace of Monaco and actors Fernandel and Catherine Deneuve.

View of the château's Renaissance façade.© Serge Chapuis

View of the château's Renaissance façade.
© Serge Chapuis

Here, the soul of wine, a gift from heaven and the fruit of human labor, which brings people together and celebrates brotherhood and the joy of living, has been glorified since November 16, 1946, the date of the first Chapter—the one aptly named "Resurrection". The Rabelaisian spirit is alive and well here. Twice a year, out of seven hundred of the most promising crus selected anonymously by a panel of well-known tasters, nearly two hundred and fifty are awarded the "Sceau du Tastevin", an internationally recognized quality label. On July 4, 2015—the year of a great vintage—the Climats du Vignoble de Bourgogne was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, after ten years of bitter struggle. And though the château no longer owns the vines, now spread over 134 plots belonging to eighty winegrowers, it has become a natural headquarters.

Wine is Culture

However, the Clos de Vougeot possesses several collections, always with links to vineyards and local roots, which are constantly enriched through an acquisition policy. Le Porteur de Benaton, the last sculpture by Burgundian artist Henri Bouchard, and two tapestries by the master weaver from Beaune, Michel Tourlière, have now been added. In December 2012, members of the Confrérie also spotted a painting by Maurice Utrillo at an auction in Austria. The artist depicted Vougeot as he did the hill of Montmartre, under a blanket of snow... But his connection with Le Clos is not certain, as there is no trace of the artist on-site, and the work could well have been inspired by a postcard. It is now enthroned in the former cellar. Some thematic folk-art based collections have also been assembled, and part of them are shown to the public every year, swelled by loans from mainly regional institutions.
In Gabriel Axel's 1978 film Le Festin de Babette (Babette’s Feast) (1987), the enchanting Babette (played by Stéphane Audran) replies to her mistress, who is worried about the pile of bottles in the kitchen and hopes it isn't wine: "Oh no, Madam, it's not wine. It's Clos-Vougeot 1846."

Château du Clos de Vougeot, Vougeot (Bourgogne).
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