French petition for Burgundy World Heritage status

Burgundy has long championed the concept of "terroir," a term that refers to a unique combination of soil, site, climate and the hand of man to create a wine with signature characteristics that convey a sense of place.

It's a general concept that attempts to explain why the same plant expresses itself differently when grown in different places. These subtle location-linked variations in flavor, long attributed to the grapevine, are now being recognized in teas, coffees and cocoa beans in a globalization of the terroir manifesto.

And that's where the French want to draw the line.

Everyone is talking terroir these days, so the French are taking action to protect another aspect of their "soil is voice" credo. They want international recognition of their signature use of the term "climat." To that end, they have petitioned the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for World Heritage Status for their long-standing use of the term "climat" and everything that it represents.

Climat carries the notion of terroir one step further. In Burgundy, a climat is a specific plot of land that generates a wine with specific characteristics. It's a tessera to the terroir mosaic — a single piece to the terroir puzzle.

Each climat has a name, and this name identifies both land and liquid. Corton, for example, is a specific piece of earth; it is also the name of wine that comes from that spot.

"It's a mindset, a philosophy," stated Jean-Pierre Renard, instructor for the Burgundy Wine School in Beaune. "I was once stopped on the street by a lost American who was looking for the Alex Gordon winery. I didn't understand him at first. But then I realized that by 'Alex Gordon' he meant Aloxe-Corton. I told him to turn off his engine, because I knew that it was going to take me a while to explain that Corton was a plot of earth near the village of Aloxe.

"Many growing regions put the producer first, including the French wine region of Bordeaux," he continues. "In Bordeaux, on the label, you see the name of the chateau in big letters, their appellation or zone of production in small letters. In Burgundy, the appellation gets top billing, the producer's name is in small print."

It is this powerful link to "place" that sets Burgundy apart.

Thirty-six French geologists, historians, geographers, climatologists, linguists, sociologists, biologists and agricultural engineers have taken four years to build a case demonstrating that the climat philosophy represents the requisite "outstanding universal value from an historical, aesthetic, ethnological and anthropological point of view" required for World Heritage status.

The Burgundians can document use of the term back to 1584, but they started naming their parcels of land and remarking on their unique characteristics as early as the 7th century.

Is their position defendable in the eyes of the world?

They have certainly built a strong case, but ideas are intangibles.

Can an idea join such concrete UNESCO World Heritage sites as the Pyramids of Giza, Venice, the Great Wall of China and the Statue of Liberty?

The Burgundians certainly hope so. The decision will be rendered in June or July 2013.

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