How have Bordeaux châteaus remained large while Burgundy's vineyards have been divided into tiny parcels?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

We have learned that the Napoleonic Code, which laid down the rule of equal share among descendants, is responsible for the small plot size, down to a couple of rows of vines, in Burgundy. Why is it not the same case in Bordeaux, where there are still many family-run vineyards?

—Welland, Hong Kong

Dear Welland,

You’re correct that Burgundy and Bordeaux are very different in the way they’ve evolved, just as they are very different in the types of wines they make, which I’ve previously discussed. Most Bordeaux vineyards have single owners, while Burgundy vineyards are very fragmented and divided among several owners. To understand how this happened, we have to go back to the French Revolution.

Before the French Revolution, most land, including vineyards, in the Burgundy region was in the hands of the Catholic church or the nobility. After the Revolution, the Church lands were confiscated, sold off and divided. The Napoleonic Code, which was drafted in the early 1800s, includes an inheritance law that required landowners to divide their holdings equally among their heirs. Generation after generation, the land was further subdivided. One example is the grand cru Clos de Vougeot, which was owned by a single group of monks until the late 18th century. It is now broken up into more than 80 different parcels, some just a few rows of vines each, as you point out.

There was a different result in Bordeaux. Many Bordeaux châteaus were owned by wealthy families, who decided to eliminate the issue of heirs by incorporating their estates. Ownership became a matter of shareholders, and shareholders weren’t subject to the same succession laws as familial landowners. As a result, many Bordeaux châteaus remain large and have even grown over time.

—Dr. Vinny

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