Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy: Part 3.2 The lower slopes

by Dean Alexander

° of Slope =  Soil Type + Soil Depth  → Wine Weight

In Part 3.1, I covered how the position and degree of slope determined the type of topsoil that lies there. In the next two sections, I will talk about how the position on the slope not only greatly influences topsoil composition but independent of winemaking decisions, is a significant determiner of the weight of the wine. In this section I will discuss this concept, focusing primarily on the vineyards below the slope, the flatlands vineyards most burgundy aficionados have traditionally ignored. This disdain for these lower-lying vineyards is changing because massive improvements in wine quality have made them relevant, and equally massive increases in wine prices have left them as the only wines tenable to those without the deepest of pockets. Additionally, sommeliers looking for high-quality wines of relative value, have begun to much more closely examine the wide-reaching Bourgogne appellations and the village level wines of the Côte d’Or. These are wines that fit price points and quality standards premier cru vineyards used to fill and often fill that void admirably.  


 The relationship of slope to wine weight

Soil depth and type can greatly determine wine weight and character

Soil depth and type can greatly determine wine weight and character

It has become increasingly apparent over the past decade, that there is a direct connection between the depth and richness of soil, to the weight of the wines produced from those vines. Vineyards that have a modicum of depth, and at least a fair amount of clay or other fine earth elements, coupled with a fractured limestone base, produce weightier wines. These vineyards typically exist from quite low on the slope to roughly mid-slope. The higher up the slope one goes, the more crucial it is that the stone below is well-fractured to be easily penetrated by vine roots. Softer limestone bases, like the friable, the fossil-infused crinoidal limestone, which is weakened by the ancient sea lilies trapped within it, or like clay-ladened argillaceous limestone, makes it possible to produce great wine from the steeper, upper-slopes. Examples of these vineyards include the uppermost section of Romanee-Conti and all of La Romanee, which sits above it. These appear to be rare exceptions, however.

Most wines produced from the steeper, upper slope vineyards, with shallower, marly-limestone (powdery, crushed-stone with low clay content) soils, lie over harder, purer limestone types like Comblanchien, Premeaux, and Pierre de Chassagne. These limestone types must have at least moderate fracturing and a high enough degree of ductile strain to plant above them. Wines from these types of vineyards are, without question, finer in focus and have greater delineation of flavor. It is not unusual for these wines to be described as spicier, more mineral laden, and have greater tannic structure. The short explanation is the upper-slope wines have less fruit to cover up their structure, while the wines from more gently sloped vineyards have more weighty fruit.  This fruit provides the gras, or fat, that obscures the structure of these weightier, more rounded wines. The upper slope vineyards will be covered in greater depth in the upcoming Part 3.3.

Because of the weathering of limestone on the upper slopes, and subsequent erosion, the soils, and colluvium collect on lower on the slope, making the topsoil there both deep and heavy. They are full of a wider array of fine earth fractions, and more readily retain water and nutrients necessary for the vines health and propagation of full, flavorful, berries.  On the curb of the slope they do this splendidly, with an excellent mix of clay and colluvium, giving the proper drainage for the typical amount of rainfall, yet retaining the right amount of water most times of year when rain does not fall.

The last vineyard before the pastures begin. The village of Puligny Montrachet is in the distance

The last vineyard before the pastures begin. The village of Puligny-Montrachet is in the distance. source: googlemaps.com

The “highway” and the low-lying vineyards below

For decades we have been told that the low-lying vineyards of Burgundy, were too wet to grow high-quality grapes, and we could expect neither concentration nor quality, from these village and Bourgogne level vineyards. The reason, we were told, was grapes grown from these flat, low-lying vineyards became bloated with water, and the result was acidic, thin, and “diluted” village and Bourgogne level wines. Alternately we were told the wines from lower vineyards were too “flabby”, as James E. Wilson ascribes on in his groundbreaking book Terroir published in 1988 (p.128). Thusly, an entire swath of vineyards, from below the villages of Gevrey and Vosne, all along the Côte, all the way to down to Chassagne, were dismissed as thin and shrill, lacking both character and concentration. These wines were generally considered by connoisseurs to be unworthy of drinking, much less purchasing.  At that time, given the poor quality being produced, that seemed perfectly reasonable.

This set in motion a series of generalizations and biases, many of which remain to this day. “The highway”, as Route Nationale 74 is often referred, became the demarcation between the possibility of good wine and bad. The notion that this roadway, something that is built for the sole purpose of moving from one village to the next, had become an indicator of wine quality, is so pervasive, that the grand crus with N74 at their feet, such as MazoyèresChambertin and Clos Vougeot, have been cast in a bad light simply due to their proximity to it. It has colored perceptions so much, that many people, to this day, equate being higher on the slope with being “better situated”. The fact that there are grand crus and premier crus on the upper slope, but none on the lower slopes only buttressed this idea.  However…

We now know this is not true.

Puligny Folatieres after a rain

The road below Paul Pernot’s Clos des Folatières, filled with water. However, this water is not allowed to enter the 1er Cru of Clavoillon below. This is an example of containing and redirecting excess water coming down the hillside, into noncrucial areas. click to enlarge photo source: googlemaps.com

There are many Bourgogne level vineyards that are more than capable of producing wines with good concentration, so long as the vigneron sought to produce quality over quantity, and the plot is not in an excessively poor location. So why were these myths that Bourgogne level vineyards could only produce light, thin, acidic wines, propagated by winemakers, wine writers, and importers?

The optimist would point to a lack of technical knowledge in the field and cellar made this true. The optimist would also say that the long tradition of creating simple, inexpensive, quaffing wine made it acceptable.

But there were other factors. Cold weather patterns from the mini ice-age, which ended in the 1850s, certainly set up long-standing expectations of wine the wine quality that was capable from various vineyards. These expectations were absolutely cemented in after the widely influential book by Jules Lavalle, Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d’Or was published in 1855. In this revered reference, Lavalle classified the vineyards of Burgundy the same year the French Government classified the chateaux of Bordeaux. No doubt the timing of this gave Lavalle’s unsanctioned work credence. After the first half degree average temperature increase which occurred around 1860, the climate in central Europe only gradually grew warmer over the next 135 years until 1990 when global warming really began in earnest. Before that, the weather would not allow the consistent ripening patterns that routinely we see today.

Another major factor was that there was not a complete understanding of how to control and divert runoff. Nor, prior to 1990, was it likely the villages along the Côte wealthy enough to make the large-scale improvements that were necessary to control rainwater runoff. Until the prices of Burgundy began to rise, overall the region was experiencing some economic depressed. This economic struggle, coupled with the inevitable political obstacles required to spend sparse civic funds, could delay improvements a decade.

On the other hand, the skeptic would point to the problems of greed, and it’s accomplice, over cropping. Vignerons could achieve 3 to 5 times higher production levels from the same vines, which was profitable, and required far less knowledge, less diligence in the field, and other than taking up more labor in bottling and space in the cellars, far less work in the cellars. It was not only the Bourgognes that fell into this net of profit over quality, but the village level wines were often fairly low in concentration, with under-ripe fruit, and low in quality. Even now, a producer that has reduced yields by a division of 3 in order to make a quality village or Bourgogne, is making less money per hectare than they would if they still over-cropped – and working harder in the field to do it.

Overcoming wet soil issues

Water features below Puligny Les Pucelles. Controlling and redirecting water away from lower vineyards is a major key to improving quality there. photo: googlemaps

Water features below Puligny Les Pucelles. Controlling and redirecting water away from lower vineyards is a major key to improving quality there.  click to enlarge  photo: googlemaps.com

Excess water in lower vineyards is a serious issue, and each vineyard is not equal in its ability to contend with heavy rainfall. Although flat is the quickest descriptor, the topography of each vineyard varies, as does the bedding (layers of soil) of each vineyard. These variances can dramatically determine the challenges presented to each grower in each day, season, and year, be it rain storm or drought.

In farming, an infiltration rate of roughly 50mm of rainfall per hour is considered ideal. That is precisely what a well-structured loam can typically absorb at normal rainfall rates, without significant puddling and runoff. Clays, however, drain much more slowly, with an infiltration 10-20mm per hour.  These optimal figures can all be thrown out the window, however, if the soil structure has been degraded through compaction or farming practices that commonly degrade the soil. Poorly structured clay soils can drain as slowly as 5-8-10mm per hour.

Alluvial soils, with their graded bedding, created by heavier gravel and sand falling out of water suspension before silt and clays, typically have good infiltration rates. Loam soils that have moved in from the Saône Valley pasture lands, and have weaved themselves into the fabric of the lower vineyards, have ideal infiltration rates. Sandy sections are likely to exist in some vineyards, will have very rapid infiltration and drainage, 150mm to 200+ mm per hour. Where solid layers of transported clay, in thick slabs have formed, drainage can be severely affected.  These plastic-y clays may repel water as much as they slowly absorb it. I wrote a much more complete examination of soils in Part 2.2.

What is important to consider, is that in all but the upper-most vineyards, soils are layered in horizons of soil types. It is normal, around the world, that there are typically 5 horizons of soil and subsoil layers in any given place, although there may be more, or as on slopes, fewer. Each horizon will affect the drainage of the plot, depending on its soil makeup. Geologist Francois Vannier-Petit presided over an excavation of Alex Gamble’s village-level Les Grands Champs vineyard in Puligny-Montrachet. In this vineyard, she records two horizons within the 80 cms that they dug, and she noted most of the vines roots existed in this zone. At the time of the excavation, she noted the soil was damp, but not wet, with good drainage.

The calcium, which is freed from the limestone rubble with weathering on the upper slopes, is not as prevalent and effective in the farther-flung Bourgogne vineyards. The calcium which helps disrupt the alignment the clay platelets, and aiding is drainage, may not be carried far enough by runoff to sufficiently strengthen the soils of these more distant vineyards.  Certainly, most of these vineyards are located beyond the Saône Valley fault, and the continuation of limestone that virtually sits on the surface of the Côte lays buried by at least a hundred feet of tertiary valley fill and has no effect on wine quality there, other than by its remoteness.

flooding

Turbid flood waters carry away gravel, sand, and fine earth fractions. These will be redeposited as alluvial soils, created graded bedding and clay minerals will flocculate onto, or into, other transported clay bodies. photo: decanter.com

The most severe problems revolve around the maximum amount of water the soil or clay can hold and fail to drain quickly enough through to the unsaturated/vadose zone, through capillary action to the water table below. With clay, this is called the plastic limit, or the point just before the clay loses its structure and becomes liquid. Flooding would ensue, and large volumes of soil would become suspended in turbid flowing waters, causing massive erosion, particularly from vineyards up-slope. This would truly be the worst case event, and I won’t say it doesn’t happen.

Another, significant problem, at least for vintners, although less apparent to the wine drinking public, is less wet soil is that it causes the vines to have difficulty acclimating to colder weather, and affects their hardiness if severe weather sets in.

However, in many vineyards, the wet soil has now been addressed by investments in drainage. Large yields are eliminated and concentration is gained by pruning for quality, coupled with bud thinning or green harvest. Vigilance against rot is key in these lower vineyards, as well as odium, and other mildews, which thrive in humid wet vineyards. This is a key element in quality since rainfall during the growing season is very common in Burgundy. With all of these precautions, there are now many producers who now make excellent Bourgogne level wines. And despite the tripling and quadrupling of the prices of Bourgogne, they are now well-worth drinking – often equalling  the premier cru wines of yesteryear in terms of quality.

It is often cited that Puligny-Montrachet has no underground cellars because of the high water table there. Yet Puligny is arguably the finest region for growing Chardonnay in the world. I submit that much of the success Puligny has enjoyed, is in part because the water table is high, coupled with the fact that the village and its vignerons have invested heavily in water control features to channel and redirect excess runoff.

Reshuffling the wine weight matrix

The revelation that well-concentrated wines can be produced from these “wet” vineyards, has thrown slope position into a far clearer focus. No longer did we have lighter-to-medium weight wines on the upper slopes, the heaviest wine on the curb of the slope, and the very lightest wines coming from the lowest and flattest areas of Burgundy. Now it was clear: the areas with deeper, richer soils, particularly those with clay to marl soils, can universally produce richer fuller-bodied wines. This increasing quality of Bourgogne and the lower-situated village wines has dramatically raised the bar of expectations of wines across the Côte d’Or. With Bourgogne’s challenging the more highly regarded village-level vineyard in terms of quality, and village wines posing a challenge in regards to quality to many of the premier crus, lackluster producers were now put on notice to raise their game in terms of coaxing harmony and complexity out of their wines. Now that wine weight can be achieved in vineyards all across the Côte, despite a low slope position below the highway, expectation that Bourgognes are the simple, light and often shrill wines of yesteryear has been largely shattered.

Additionally, there is adequate evidence that deeper soils, particularly those with moderate-to-high levels of clay (or other fine earth fractions), can be a positive factor, for their ability to retain water and nutrients for the vines. This allows them to develop anthocyanins and other flavor components within the grapes. The challenge in these low-lying vineyards is controlling, and dealing with excess water.  In wet years, vignerons have demonstrated that adequate investment to direct and control runoff, even most lower vineyards will not be too wet to grow good to high-quality fruit. Examples abound of village crus, from top vignerons, costing more than many grand crus; and these producers Bourgognes are not far behind in price. It’s not magic; it’s investment and hard work, in a decent vineyard, that makes this kind of quality possible.

Author’s Note: To avoid misunderstanding, this is a discussion of wine weight and concentration, not wine quality or wine complexity. Too often these things are confused, along with the notion that increased enjoyment equals increased complexity or quality. The goal is to understand and appreciate the differences and nuances that each vineyard provides by its unique situation, not to make it easier to find the most hedonistic wine possible.
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