by Dean Alexander
Limestone Formation and Types
As the Burgundy legend has it, it is the limestone that sets Burgundy apart, and makes the wine that comes from there so special. But what does all of this limestone really do? Does it impart flavor, as some people say, imparting a minerality, or does it create a perfect growing condition for the vines? How does it interplay with what is possibly the most important component of farming, the clay, and what is its relationship with the limestone? Then there is the scree, or gravel, intermixing with what geologists sometimes refer to as colluvium. Together this makes soil, but how it got there, and how it is changing perhaps most important. The forces of erosion that constantly tear down the geological structures with its wind and rain and freezing temperatures. This is where the rubber meets the road of terroir, and I will look at all of these factors quite carefully over the next few writings. But first, for Part 1.1, it’s all about the formation and types of limestone that makes up the escarpment.
From the beginning
We typically think of hillsides as being pushed up, and indeed the hills of the Hautes-Cotes de Nuits were formed by folds in the sedimentary bedding. But the Cote itself was formed when the Sôane Valley was pulled down and away from the Côte d’Or Burgundy 35 million years ago by a large fault that runs near the highway RN74, as the Saône Valley dropped away as a graben. The Côtes d’Or is actually the broken facewall of the horst. But before that, the story of Burgundy started with a sea, teeming with unbridled marine life.
Just how much marine life has impacted this planet is represented by the vast majority of limestone formations that have grown here, constituting 10% of the total volume sedimentary rock, which represents 75% of all geological formations. Most limestone is credited to biologically produced calcium carbonate that is naturally extracted from eroding shells sea animals. Shell production, for defense against predators, began in the Cambrian period (500 million years ago.) This occurred with a change in the ocean chemistry which allowed the calcium compounds to become stable enough for allow for shell production. While at the same time (give or take a few million years), the animals adapted through mutation, to produce the needed proteins and polysaccharides, and the ability to produce shells for protection against predators. The success of this new animal life led to an explosion of species, and the warm shallow seas that covered central France were densely populated. The seas of the Jurassic period were filled with calcium producing crinoids, ammonites, oysters, and as corals. As the exoskeletons of generations dead sea creatures accumulated on the seabed, eroding, the waters filled with high concentrations of calcite and (or) metastable aragonite, (depending on the water chemistry of the period), where it precipitated into a thick, jelly-like solution at the bottom of calm lagoons and shallow seas. Eventually, this layer would solidify and compression would indurate (or harden) the (CaCO3) into limestone. Non-marine limestone is less common, with calcium being deposited in a location by the water, or calcium carbonate can accumulate at the bottom of lake beds, forming limestone.
Calcium carbonate is soluble in groundwater containing relatively low acid levels and is responsible for the chemical weathering that forms limestone caverns and sinkholes. Interestingly, the calcium carbonate in limestone is more soluble in low-temperature environments than in warmer tropical climates that it began in. In a cycle that will likely continue during earth’s lifespan, limestone is formed, and then eroded (and been transported) by groundwater, to reform in another location. Limestones are sedimentary rock formations that contain at least 50% calcium carbonate in the form of calcite and or aragonite. The higher the percentage of calcium, the harder, the less porous, and more water-resistant the limestone becomes. Even the hardest limestone of Burgundy contain at least some silica, which after the chemical weathering of limestone becomes phyllosilicate minerals, the primary element in clay. However, the higher the percentage of silica and other impurities renders a stone that is more porous and more easily friable (the ability to fracture or crumble) It is my belief that it was these impurities that have allowed Burgundy to become the great growing region it is today. Had all the limestone been the pure hard Comblanchien that the region is so famed for, I suspect there would not have been enough viable, arable land to have any significant grape growing area. But that is supposition on my part. Back to more fact-based information.
There are a number of common limestones in Burgundy, each which contain varying percentages of calcium and differing levels of impurities. The harder limestones are typically named after the towns that they were quarried for building materials, while softer, non-commercial limestones can be named for their fossilized sea life contained in them, or by the shape of their construction. Don’t be confused by names like Bajocian limestone and Bathonian limestone: these are not types of limestone, rather they are periods of time within the Jurassic when the limestone was formed. It is easy to be confused. I recently read this snippet from a knowledgeable, professional wine critic trying to explain the geological differences between the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits. They wrote “…the Comblanchien limestone to the north and the Jurassic rock formation to the south…” apparently unaware that Comblanchien is a limestone formed during the Jurassic period. I mention this only because it highlights the confusion even highest-level of wine professionals have about terroir and the geology of Burgundy.
Limestone Types (that you may read about)
Calcaire: The fact that English speaking wine writers use the word calcaire, is simply confusing to almost everyone trying to actually learn something. Calcaire is nothing more than the French word for Limestone. We say limestone, they say calcaire.
Comblanchien is a name bandied often by wine writers as if it is an attribute in a wine’s character. But the facts point to this stone having a negligible if any effect on the vines grown directly above it. Comblanchien is 99% pure calcium carbonate, often giving the stone a white color. As a building material that is commonly referred to as Comblanchien Marble. It is so dense and fine-grained that it can be polished. It can be white (clair), beige, or slightly pink.
Comblanchien formed from still water lagoons that were hyper-rich in calcium, and relatively void of sea creatures that would cause impurities. Presumably, the calcium solution was so concentrated that sea life did not live there, and generally did not disturb the (CaCO3) sludge in the areas where Comblanchien was forming. The spots in Comblanchien are not fossils or impurities, but the trails of worms that wiggled through the thickening lime ooze. The hole made by the passing worm was then filled by pure, clear calcium carbonate, and like a glue, it cemented the whole into a solid, amazingly dense block of stone.
Most defining in its role in terroir picture is Comblanchien’s exceptionally low-level of porosity. The stone virtually does not absorb water so it will not crack when frozen. Vine roots cannot penetrate Comblanchien if it has not already been fractured, which tends not to happen since it is so water-resistant. Where a vineyard grows over Comblanchien, (1) there is a need for a deep layer of topsoil for the vine roots to inhabit. Where Comblanchien reaches the surface at the top of the vineyards in the Gevrey-Chambertin, no vines are grown (or can grow?) A strata of Comblanchien sit at the top of the Côte de Nuits‘ vineyard as a cap rock, and it’s hardness and resistance to decomposition keeps the hill above from eroding. The result kept the depth of vineyards there, (this is particularly evident above the grand crus of Gevrey) in a very narrow band An opposite example would be the Côte de Beaune. In Beaune the cap rock (if in fact there is one) is much softer. Because of that, the hillside is eroding at a much faster rate, a creating lower hill lines and much deeper (east to west) growing areas. Off topic, but not have to rehash this later, writers often contribute Beaune’s faster erosion rate to its younger limestone makeup (mid-Jurassic compared to upper-Jurassic which younger), but I believe it is the impurities or the porosity of the limestone, not the age (curing) of the limestone, are the factors of its faster erosion.
Comblanchien technical statistics: Water Absorption:% 0.49 Compressive Strength: 160.0 – 203.4 MPa (Comblanchien Clair: compressive strength 203MPa) Density:2660 kg/m3
Premeaux is another hard limestone used in construction, but it is not quite as hard as Comblanchien. I have not found any reference as to how much calcium carbonate is in Premeaux Limestone, but as evidenced in this photo, it does crack and fracture. This is due to the fact that it will absorb 12 to 18 times more water than Comblanchien, which when permeated, then frozen, will crack stone. Premeaux, unlike Comblanchien limestone, is found at very shallow depth under vineyard land, most notably the Grand Crus of Ruchottes and Mazy-Chambertin, where in places the vineyard was dynamited in order to allow the plants to gain a foothold.
Premeaux technical statistics: Water Absorption: 6-9 By Vol.% Compressive Strength: 120-180 MPa Density:2400 – 2500 kg/m3
Crinoidal Limestone is closely associated with the Bajocian period and is named for the Crinoids that team its construction. Crinoids are multi-armed sea creatures that are filter feeders. Anemones, starfish, and urchins are among the 600 species of Crinoids found in today’s seas, but during the middle Jurassic there were many times more species, and they densely populated the shallow lagoons of Burgundy. Crinoidal limestone is friable, meaning it can be broken or crumble, because of its heavy fossilization. The hillside of premier crus, including Lavaux, Estournelles and Clos St Jacques in Gevrey-Chambertin is entirely made of crinoidal limestone. This formation continues above the Route de Grand Crus, underneath Chapelle, Griotte, Latricieres, Charmes-Chambertin, as well as the lower half of Chambertin itself and Clos de Beze. To my mind, this is ample evidence that Crinoidal limestone is one of, if not the finest limestone for growing vines.
Oolitic Limestone formations are unique and fascinating composition. Oolites are formed of oval calcium pellets called ooids that gained their shape as they were rolled around by the wave actions the ancient Burgundian seas of the Jurassic that are super-saturated with calcium carbonate. The ooid spheres begin with as a seed, such as a very small shell fragment, and as this seed rolls around the ocean floor, it chemically attracts layers of calcium to it from the water. The size of the individual oodid corresponds to the amount of time they had to form before they were covered by dirt. While the word ooid typically refers to forms made from calcium carbonate and aragonite, the name means egg so the name ooids can be used to refer to other materials in the same small oval shape. These ooids bonded under a secretion of a calcium cement forming the stone. The grand cru Ruchottes-Chambertin is famous for the ooids found it its topsoil, and presumably oolitic limestone formations are there also along with the more prevalent Premeaux limestone.
Nantoux is an oolitic limestone is named by the late geologist James E. Wilson as being the stone that was once quarried in and above Meursault- Les Perrieres. Named after a village nestled in a valley above Pommard, it appears on Vannier Petit’s Pommard map, just north of the village, very low on the slope. She labels it as an oolitic stone, Wilson gave no details of the stone other than its former quarry location. I have seen no other reference to Nantoux other than these two brief references.
Other limestone types that rarely, if ever, appear in writings. Of the more common: Chassagne and Ladoix both appear on Francoise Vannier-Petit’s Pommard map, but there is little reference to them elsewhere. Both stones are available commercially as building materials, and both stones have pages dedicated to them on the Contactstone.com website, listing these stones density, strength, and water absorption similar to that of Comblanchien. However, they list Ladoix being an alternate name for Comblanchien limestone (as well as an alternate name for Corton Limestone), so it is not clear what the differences actually are at the geological level.
Argillaceous Limestone consists of larger amounts of clay, often making them quite soft and friable. In many ways, it is like a hardened version of marl. The stone may appear silvery due to the substantial amount of clay component. The vineyards of Chambertin and Clos des Beze both have sections in the heart of those vineyards that is made up of argillaceous material, as well as the lower third of Lavaux St-Jacques and Clos St-Jacques. Vannier-Petit labels these sections as Calcaires Argilleux (Hydraulique) on her Gevrey map which can be found at www.joyaux-cotedenuits.fr/
Bioturbated Limestone is not actually a limestone but a disturbance to the forming stone that before it completely set. Whether calcium deposit was disturbed by an animal, a wave, or geologic action, churns the curing material. This agitation, or Bioturbation, creates weakness in the limestone and can cause it to be quite friable depending on the impurities and the amount of disruption to its structure.
Travertine is not a maritime derived stone. It is a terrestrial calcium carbonate formation that is created by geothermally heated springs. Travertine is a very porous stone (that is filled and sealed by the stone industry for use in construction), and that porosity is caused either by calcium dioxide evasion or by organisms that have grown on the stone’s surface. As far as I am aware there are no Travertines in Burgundy.
Tufa is a calcium carbonate formation similar to Travertine, but Tufa is even more porous due to its large macro biological component. Tufa has no relation to the volcanic rock Tuff, which is often referred to as “tufa”. As far as I am aware there are no Tufas of either sort in Burgundy.
Marble is a limestone that has undergone a major geological event involving high pressure and or heat. In this process, limestone carbonate materials are recrystallized, very commonly calcite or dolomite. The colors in marbles are from the metamorphosed impurities in the stone that have become new minerals.
This hopefully gives a fairly detailed overview how limestone was created, and how susceptible it is to damage. In Part 2.2 I’ll look at how this limestone has been fractured and eroded, creating the basis for what would, over millions of years, become great vineyard land.
Up Next: Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy, Part 1.2 Limestone deformation and fracturing. (click here)
Previous: Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy, Introduction (click here)
Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy, Preface (click here)
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(1) This is suggested by examining the geological vineyard mapping, recently published by the geologist Francoise Vannier-Petit.
* Calcium bicarbonate is what forms stalactites and stalagmites in caves and caverns.