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Beyond the Grape in Burgundy

Story by Laura Bradbury / Photos by Franck Germain
As published in France Magazine, Summer 1999

Jean-baptiste Joannet examines a freshly-pressed blackcurrant juice.

Many visitors to Burgundy are attracted by the dégustations (tastings) of its world-renowned wines, but locals enjoy a parallel realm of savours where the grape is not king!  Les petits fruits of Burgundy are the blackcurrants, redcurrants, strawberries and raspberries that are made into delectable jams, eaux de vie and crèmes.

Eaux de vie are strong, clear alcohols drunk as digestifs at the end of meals. Crèmes are creamy sweet, colourful liquors made by soaking fruit in alcohol and adding large amounts of sugar.

In an area known as the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, beyond the most prestigious vineyards, there are two petits fruits specialists in the villages of Arcenant and Concoeur-et-Corboin. Wine from the Hautes Côtes, while indisputably robust and delicious, has traditionally been less renowned than the wine produced from the lower altitudes. This meant that when phyloxera destroyed most Burgundian vineyards in the late 1800s, they were replanted much more slowly and less systematically in the Hautes-Côtes than on the more prestigious côte viticole. Many local farmers turned instead to the cultivation and sale of the petits fruits. Their most lucrative use was undoubtedly the sale of black- currants for the fabrication of the world-famous Crème de Cassis de Dijon.

The cassis (blackcurrant) fruit has the longest history in Burgundy of any of the petits fruits. It has been cultivated since the arrival of the Cistercian monks in the 12th century Inevitably the monks began to experiment, and ended up distilling a rudimentary strong alcohol, an early predecessor of today’s eau de vie.

Isabelle Olivier conducting a tasting.


It was Auguste Denis LaGoute, a café owner from Dijon, who first established the method for creating Crème de Cassis de Dijon, and his first successful batch was made in 1844. The recipe remains the same today—blackcurrants are soaked in alcohol to bring out their flavour and copious amounts of sugar are added.

For the past 30 years or so, because of cheaper imported fruit, many farmers have been replanting vines—a more prosperous venture since the wines of Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Nuits gained their appellation d’origine contrôlée in 1961. However some families, such as the Oliviers  of  Concoeur-et-Corboin, and the Joannets in Arcenant, decided to continue the family tradition of growing petits fruits.

They devised a clever solution to the problem of the lack of profitability of the petits fruits as a cash crop. Instead of trying to sell their fruits direct to manufacturers, they created secret family recipes which they use to make delicious jams, crèmes, and eaux de vie, selling them direct to the public.

Bottles of  crèmes and  eaux de vie are  lined up and ready to be put to use.

To enter one of these workshops is a delight for the senses—the beady aroma of fruit soaking in wine embraces you as you walk through the door If it is a jam-making day, fruit bubbles away 

in large brass bowls. Bottles of rich-coloured crèmes and potent eaux de vie are lined up on old wine barrels, and rows of dégustation glasses stand to attention ready to be put to use.

If you are lucky you might visit the Ferme Fruit rouge of the Oliviers on one of the many days when school groups come for a field trip. It is a vivid reminder that visiting such places is not only an enjoyable experience, but is also highly educational. The children are taken up to the rows of blackcurrant bushes to learn how they are grown and cultivated. Later they are shown how the fruits are steeped in wine for just the right amount of time in order to bring out their best flavours.  Then it’s down to the pressing room to see how the fruit is slowly squeezed in a manually operated oak pressoir. 

Isabelle Olivier introducing school children to the art of jams and fruit syrups.


The children’s favourite is tasting the nonalcoholic crèmes. Like true Burgundians they are already experts at swirling their glasses around and making astute observations about the colour and aroma of the crimson liquid inside.

The culture of cassis and the other petits fruits has suffered many setbacks in recent years. Nevertheless, it has managed to re-invent itself thanks to these two dedicated families of Arcenant and Concoeur~et-Corboin.Their products continue to contribute to the gastronomic wealth and diversity of Burgundy.

Next time you journey to Burgundy to pay homage at the altar of the noble grape. he sure to take the time to venture up into the Hautes-Cötes de Nuits. Here you will begin to discover as Sylvain Olivier and Jean-Baptiste Joannet put it, “les autres choses de Bourgogne".

© 1999, Laura Bradbury & Franck Germain - All Rights Reserved

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