The Little Known 1855 Wine Classification Of Burgundy

In the year 1855, dozens of châteaux in the Bordeaux region of southwest France were classified according to the quality of wines they produced. Yet few wine lovers know that during that same year, soils of the Burgundy region of France were also classified according to the quality of associated wines.

Before the Universal Exhibition in Paris commenced in 1855 (organized by Napoleon III) a decision was made to classify the wine châteaux of the Bordeaux region. That classification still exists—reasonably intact. That same Paris exhibition also incited publication of a soil classification map from within the Burgundy region, as well as the 1855 book titled Histoire et Statistique de La Vigne et des Grand Crus de la Cote-D’Or [History and Statistics of the Grand Cru Vines of Côte d’Or] which was the basis for a more comprehensive wine classification published six years later.

The architect behind this Burgundy classification system was Dr. Jules Lavalle. In light of his multiple lifetime accomplishments, he was apparently both ambitious and energetic. His history today is both transparent and obvious, as well as both private and hidden. Lovers of Burgundy wines now clamor to learn more about Dr. Lavalle. They know that information about his heritage comes from two sources—one within the public domain, the other more guardedly private.

Dr. Lavalle had no children, so hunting for any direct descendants is futile. Yet the great-great-great-grand-nephew of Dr. Lavalle thrives today as a renowned French artist who has remained generally reluctant, though slightly more eager of late, to share tales of his boisterous ancestor.

‘I want to bring Dr. Lavalle back to the world,’ Lavalle’s descendant Olivier de Cayron told me during a recent dinner we shared in Paris. During November, we sat with renowned Chinese wine merchant Ting Ding, who organized our gathering. Years ago, as a student of wine, Ding had read of Burgundy’s history and became fascinated by the story of Dr. Lavalle and his breadth of accomplishments. In 2017 at a Paris event, she serendipitously met De Cayron—the descendent of Dr. Lavalle. During our dinner in Paris, both shared insights into Lavalle’s life, as well as into Burgundy’s foundational written wine classification.

De Cayron is a lean, humble man in taught control of emotions. Yet he is also a brazen lover of life, art and wine. His renowned 19th century ancestor’s repute remains incidental, rather than central, to his own trajectory through life.

Many individuals and press professionals, intent on learning more of the history of Dr. Lavalle (including French newspapers) often contact De Cayron. He respects their curiosity, but prefers to keep memorabilia of Dr. Lavalle private, rather than entrusting information wholesale to individuals or institutions. Of late, however, he is more ready to share information about the rich and varied life of his ancestor.

‘When I was young, my father spoke of Dr. Lavalle,’ said De Cayron. ‘The local library had a map with his 1855 Burgundy classification hanging on a wall. What he did was very, very important.

‘Burgundy produces only three percent of all French wines. Yet the wines of Côte de Nuits, for example, are very powerful and renowned.

‘Dr. Lavalle was a botanist, with a great interest in soils. He asked himself why Burgundy wines taste as they do. He realized that it is because Burgundy soils are like mille-feuilles.’ [This term, meaning ‘thousand leaves,’ refers to a popular French pastry with multiple layers].

As we spoke, Ding unscrolled a seven-foot-wide facsimile image of the original map produced by Dr. Lavalle. The map is titled Plan Topographique des Grands Vignobles de la Còte D’Or—par J. Lavalle—1855. This likely accompanied Lavalle’s book. The rendering reveals exquisite details of Burgundy’s famed Côte d’Or wine region—made up of Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune. This lithographic map was originally produced in three parts by the publisher Normand in Montrouge, Paris.

This delicately shaded black and white map has a ghostly quality. The plan view of Burgundy hills includes elegantly curved contour lines that resemble foam or fungi more than typical cartographic arcs. Roads and villages are meticulously penciled in; clusters of famed habitations associated with wine regions stand out, including such names as Pomard, Aloxe, Vougeot, Chambolle. The map stretches from the city of Dijon in the north to Chagny in the south. A heavy black line represents the train line running parallel to, and east of, the golden hills of Burgundy. This map, together with Lavalle’s book, formed a backbone to a more comprehensive four-level wine classification system that was completed in 1861.

Lavalle based his work on predecessors, including Jean-Alexandre Cavoleau (who in 1827 published French Enology, or Statistics of All French Vineyards) and Dr. Denis Morelot (who in 1831 published Vine Statistics of the Cote D’Or). These men, in turn, gained insights regarding Burgundian vines and soils from the writings of Cistercian monks.

Today, Lavalle’s map is displayed at the National Library of France in Paris, and at the Athenaeum across from the Hospices of Beaune in Burgundy.

Today, Burgundy’s wine classification system is based on two pillars—according to Camille Rodier, who co-founded the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin in 1920. One pillar is Dr. Lavalle’s work (after publishing his map and book in 1855, Lavalle and a group from the city of Beaune collaborated to create the tiered Burgundy classification system). The other is an 1860 classification of the Committee of Agriculture and Viticulture of the Arrondissement of Beaune.

Jean Lavalle was born in Dijon in 1820, and became known as Jules in school. Today the region around Burgundy is renowned for a history of wines and monasteries. Yet it was also once a renowned center for producing porcelain and ceramic pottery, or fayence. In the 16th century, the Carthusian monks of Dijon owned a glazed roof tile factory in the ancient commune of of Premières—located today about a half hour drive southeast of Dijon. Jean Lavalle’s grandparents—the Pignant family—purchased that factory. They extracted their source clay from adjacent woodlands of Mondragon. Eventually, the couple passed this factory to Jules Lavalle as an inheritance. When he worked there, Lavalle even created a special blue cobalt color which is still named after him. At one time some 280 staff worked at this factory. British author Frederick Marryat wrote of the work:

‘We cannot ignore the monochromes of Jules Lavalle. Lavalle seems to be the first to have developed a ceramic pencil and specific modern processes to create certain decorations close to photography.’

Ceramics from Lavalle’s factory became so renowned that they were noticed at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in Crystal Palace in London, U.K., in 1851. This incited several established artists to visit the Lavalle factory, including Italian Giussepe Devers and Louis Boulanger—a friend of author Victor Hugo (with whom Lavalle later corresponded).

Lavalle next gravitated toward science, gaining a medical degree and a doctorate in natural science from Dijon and also becoming a professor of botany. He worked tirelessly, becoming the director of the Arquebuse botanical gardens in Dijon, editor of a local horticultural publication, author of books on plants and mushrooms, urban planner for the expansion of Dijon and a colonel in charge of military defense against Prussians for the Côte d’Or. He finally returned to the commune of his grandparents—Premières—where he became mayor before he passed away in 1880. Today his statue stands in the center of the local cemetery.

‘He went out with a horse and carriage and checked the soils of vineyards,’ De Cayron explained. As Dr. Lavalle was exploring vineyards and categorizing the soils of Cote d’Or, he also maintained close relationships with local winegrowers and frequently sampled their wares. His study of vines was recognized and rewarded with a first-class medal at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1855.

In the introduction to his book, Lavalle writes [translated from published French]:

‘Everyone, in France or abroad, talks about Côte d’Or wines. Everyone knows the most popular names; it is both the glory and the wealth of our department and of the entire country; and yet there is no complete history of these great vineyards. Amateurs or traders ask in vain where to find the most essential information: Burgundy has only been able to offer them so far some general data and vague indications…

‘The basis of any conscientious study should be a topographical plan executed on a large enough scale to enable the reader to find there without difficulty the least extensive climats, and sufficiently exact to serve for serious research.’

[Note that in Burgundy, the word climat refers to a specific vineyard site.]

‘His house still exists, with one hectare [2.5 acres] of land and trees,’ De Cayron explained. ‘The house is like it was before; today it is a house of spirits.’

Curiously, De Cayron had little interest in wine and scant appreciation of his own history until his meeting with Ding in 2017. This encounter in Paris resulted in the two eventually forming L’Association Internationale des Vins Rares et Vieux Millésimes (International Association for Rare and Old Wines), which organized its first tasting at the Lavalle house in the town of Premières, Burgundy. Together, this pair, as well as a few others, also produce a cuvée wine from Morey-Saint-Denis—a Clos des Ormes 1er Cru. Production named Dr. Jules Lavalle Réserve Héritage. Production is limited to 400 bottles.

De Cayron studied psychology, then began his own career producing abstract art. He now lives and works in southern Paris and his output includes photography, digital productions and microperforations. He recently opened a contemporary art gallery in Le Mans named MixtaMediart, which includes artists involved in the Transfiguring Movement and optico-narratives. He also displays his work at the Galerie Valérie Eymeric in Lyon, and has exhibited his art in New York, Chicago, Washington DC, Miami, Strasbourg, Rotterdam, Sao Paolo, Istanbul, Moscow (before the war with Ukraine), Bangalore and other cities. He also takes pride that his daughter, perhaps inspired by her ancestor’s association with Victor Hugo, is a published romance novelist based in Paris.

‘Burgundy is our passion,’ Ding said. ‘Olivier believes it is not the winemaker but the soil, the terroir, that makes good wine.’

‘Wine is also art,’ De Cayron admitted. ‘Frankly, wine is a benediction. A grace. Together, a good wine with a good meal and good ambience help to provide a good life.’

We toasted. To Dr. Lavalle, and his success in making the world of Burgundian wines easier to understand—for everyone.

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