The march to UNESCO world heritage status was a little more nail-biting for Burgundy than Champagne, writes Jane Anson, who goes on to examine why Bordeaux isn't the only region to celebrate the year 1855.

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Back in May, the region was given six weeks to tighten up its pitch before the UNESCO World Heritage committee voted on new inclusions to the list of protected cultural and natural sites at the 39th session in Bonn, Germany.

The six weeks between the request to submit clearer explanations and the final agreement must have been tense.

Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, co-president of the world heritage committee in Burgundy along with Guillaume d’Angerville, called the requested changes ‘minor’, and underlined that they were only to one part of the dossier. But there was inevitably a worry behind the scenes that things might not go their way, despite the bravado and vast amount of dedication.

The Burgundy team knew that their dossier was both complicated and intricate, as it was seeking recognition not just for mosaic of vineyard plots known as ‘climats’ but also the historic centre of Dijon that embodies, as UNESCO recognised in its decision, ‘the political regulatory impetus that gave birth to the climat system’.

In the end, the patchwork of individual terroirs along the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune made it to the finish line alongside ‘the entire Champagne production process’ from the vineyards of Hautvilliers, Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, together with the Champagne houses and their underground cellars along the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay and Saint Nicaise Hill in Reims.

It could have been no other way. Dijon’s inclusion was essential – not least because it was here that a man integral to the UNESCO World Heritage success was born and lived. Jean Lavalle died 135 years before the Côte d’Or was signed into UNESCO recognition, but his work helped create the first official ranking of Burgundy vineyards. This would eventually lead to the 1936 classification system that turned the idea of the climats of Burgundy into the 400-plus appellations of the Côte d’Or.

Jean Lavalle was born on 6 May, 1820, at 21 rue Chabot-Charny in Dijon. Although the reasons why are not exactly clear, Jean became known as Jules by the time he started senior school, and went by Jules for the rest of his life. His family was originally from the tiny commune of Premières, one of the oldest villages on the Côte d’Or where his grandfather had been a brickmaker before establishing a porcelain and pottery workshop – reportedly after an encounter with a travelling Italian monk called Leonardo who taught him the art of fayence.

Lavalle (by this time Dr Jules Lavalle) continued his grandfather’s work ‘in a more artistic style’ according to William Chafers in his book on pottery and porcelain. He seems to have enjoyed painting ornate line markings on his pottery, one of the most notable according to Chafers being cupid holding ‘a cornucopia of flowers’. He even invented a blue cobalt colour that is still referred to as ‘Lavalle blue’.

Pottery, however, was only one of Lavalle’s hobbies. After studying at Dijon’s Lycée Carnot, he went on to become a doctor in medicine and natural sciences – with both doctorates achieved by the age of 26 – and later a professor at the Dijon medical school and director of the city’s botanical gardens. By the time he died he had been a member of the Geological Society of France, of the agricultural committee of the Cote d’Or and editor of the Revue Horticole de Dijon. He wrote various botanical books, like the beautifully illustrated Practical Treaty on Edible Mushrooms, and a book on Dijon’s Arquebuse botanical garden. In 1870, at the outbreak of the Prussian war and after the capitulation of Strasbourg, he was named head of the military defense committee for the Côte d’Or, given the title of colonel, and led the (unsuccessful) advance against the Prussians with 10,000 men.

But it was his Histoire et Statistique de la Vignes des Grands Vins de la Côte d’Or, published in 1855, that would go on to cement the importance of the Burgundy climats. In it, he formed a classification of the terroirs of Burgundy in the same year that Bordeaux’s own 1855 classification was being presented to the Exposition Universelle in Paris. But where Bordeaux’s ranking went on to gain world renown, the importance of Lavalle’s work has been far less celebrated beyond the winemakers of Burgundy and a small circle of experts. In terms of effect on an entire region, however, it is Lavalle that takes the crown. A few years after his book – which was itself an expansion of an 1831 dissertation by Denis Morelot – Lavalle went on to head a group in Beaune that pieced together the first comprehensive classification of vineyards in the region.

As you would expect, the book itself has become increasingly hard to find, particularly the topographical map that was published with it, but you can find a copy online, and I spent several very enjoyable days this week reading through its incredibly detailed and often very beautiful descriptions of the treasures of the Côte d’Or. Lavalle puts the focus on the importance of chardonnay and pinot noir and how each is expressed through the different soils of countless tiny corners of the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, and produced a detailed map of every vineyard from Santenay to Dijon, grading them Tête de Cuvée, Première, Deuxième and Troisième Cuvée – equivalent to today’s grand cru, premier cru, village wine and generic Bourgogne.

‘The spirit of the land, and the methods of agriculture, are still recognisable today from Lavalle’s writings,’ de Villaine told me this week. ‘He showed a modern eye – underlining the importance of establishing vineyards in neat rows and of using specific forms of viticulture. His name remains a reference today; although many people are not quite aware of the true extent of his influence.’

Lavalle left Dijon after the Prussian war, returning to Premières as mayor of the commune, and is buried there. Eight years after his death, in 1888, the town of Dijon recognised his importance by naming a road after him in the Fauberg Sud district, not far from the Boulevard de l’Université. Today it’s a pretty non-descript one-way street lined with small town houses, but I hope the residents of Rue Docteur Lavalle raised a particularly interesting glass from the Côte d’Or to him on the day that UNESCO finally gave the nod to the climats of Burgundy that he had spent his life defining.

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  • Charles Curtis

    Thank you, Jane for the recap of this historic UNESCO designation and a very interesting overview of Dr. Lavalle!