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Dear Dr. Vinny,
Was Burgundy the only wine region impacted by Napoleonic Code?
—Jessica, Sydney, Australia
Let me start with a quick history lesson for those who aren't familiar with the Napoleonic Code and how it shaped the wine regions of Europe. Most French land, including vineyards, was in the hands of the Catholic Church or the nobility prior to the French Revolution, which resulted in the confiscation of much of the land belonging to those institutions. Most of the vineyards were divided up and sold off. The Napoleonic Code of the early 1800s, which spread well beyond the modern-day boundaries of France under Napoleon's French Empire, required landowners to divide their holdings equally among their heirs. So generation after generation, the land was further subdivided.
Why does this matter to wine? It’s one explanation for how complicated Burgundy has become. For example, the grand cru vineyard Clos de Vougeot, which was owned by the Cistercian monks until the late 18th century. It's now broken up into more than 80 individually owned parcels, some comprising just a few rows of vines.
This practice happened all over, but not every region went the way of Burgundy. Some Bordeaux châteaus were owned by wealthy families, who decided to eliminate the issue of heirs by incorporating their estates. They developed a system of shareholders for their estates, and shareholders weren’t subject to the same succession laws. As a result, many Bordeaux châteaus remain large and have even grown over time.
The Napoleonic Code took its toll on other wine regions around France (and in Germany). But some properties were pieced together with trusts and other shareholder-type systems. There is a lot of emphasis on the Burgundy's history vineyards, which is why the Napoleonic Code is most often cited in reference to Burgundy, but if you look carefully, you’ll find evidence of it’s influence elsewhere.
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