Why a good burgundy comes from further north than you might think

PUBLISHED: 13:00 07 November 2017

Gillian Cox, vine keeper at Hampton Court Palace, cuts down grapes

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PETER TRUDGILL on the Nordic roots of a French wine

The word burgundy has a number of different meanings. It can refer to a particular dark red colour. It can apply to certain kinds of wine. And it can signify an area of eastern France. These meanings are of course all linked. Burgundy – in French Bourgogne – is the area of eastern France where Burgundy wines are made; and the colour is named after the red wines of that region.

The valley of the Saône, the home of red and white burgundies, is a long way from Scandinavia, but that is where the story of Burgundy begins. The original Burgundians were a Germanic people who lived in southern Sweden.

At some point they migrated to the island of Bornholm (now part of Denmark), which lies in the Baltic Sea about 20 miles off the coast of southern Sweden. In Old Norse, the island was known as Burgundarholmr, ‘isle of the Burgundians’. The Saga of Torstein Vikingsson (who came from Sogn in western Norway) also mentions an island called “Burgenda Land”.

The Burgundians later crossed the Baltic Sea to what is now Poland, and it is believed that by the 300s AD they were living by the River Vistula, which flows through Torun, Bydgoszcz and Warsaw. They spoke an East Germanic language which was closely related to the languages of their neighbours to the south of the Baltic Sea, the Goths and the Vandals.

By the early 5th century, at least some of the Burgundians had travelled from there far towards the west, into the territory of the West Germanic-speaking Swabians and Franks, and were occupying land in the Rhine Valley on the borders of the Roman Empire. Later in the 400s, they crossed the Rhine into Roman territory and formed a kingdom at the western end of the Alps.

We know that at some point after that they gradually abandoned their East Germanic tongue and started speaking a language which was descended from the Latin of the Romans.

The Burgundian kingdom occupied an area in which Latin subsequently developed, not into French or Italian, but into Franco-Provencal (or Arpitan); and it has been argued that this is not a coincidence.

Some linguistic scientists have suggested that Franco-Provencal developed as a result of the learning of Vulgar Latin by East Germanic-speaking Burgundians, just as French resulted from the learning of Vulgar Latin by the West Germanic-speaking Franks.

Until the 19th century, Arpitan was spoken throughout the western Swiss Romandie, in the area around Lausanne, Neuchatel and Geneva, as well as in the adjacent regions of eastern France, including Lyon, St Etienne and Grenoble. It now survives most strongly in the Val d’Aosta region of northwestern Italy.

This kingdom of the Burgundians was then swallowed up into the kingdom of the Franks in 534. Part of it later re-emerged as an independent entity in the 800s, as the Duchy of Burgundy. The area of modern France now known as Bourgogne or Burgundy coincides fairly well with the area of that Duchy.

Red wines from the vineyards of modern Burgundy – the wines associated with the colour burgundy – are made from grapes which are known to us by the French name Pinot Noir, ‘black pinot’. The word pinot comes from the French word pin ‘pine’, referring to the fact that the grapes typically grow in tightly clustered, pine cone-shaped bunches.

The German name for the pinot noir grape is Spätburgunder, ‘late burgundy’. The other types of pinot grape are also overtly recognised in the German language as having an association with Burgundy: the pinot gris grape (Italian, pinot grigio) is known as Grauburgunder ‘grey burgundy’, and pinot blanc (pinot bianco) is called Weissburgunder ‘white burgundy’.

Sweden is not world-famous for its wines, but it is where the name of all these Burgundy wines originally came from.

Peter Trudgill is professor emeritus of English linguistics at the Université de Fribourg/Universität Freiburg, Switzerland

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