In working on a new, in-depth project about the geology of Burgundy, I stumbled upon this site this morning – The Global Carbon observatory. Their brief article pretty fascinating.
A Note of clarification before the article: a subduction zone is a location where two of the earth’s plates collide and one plate is forced to slide in subduction (beneath) the other. While this did not happen to the Burgundian Platform, this article gives an interesting view into temperature increases during the Jurassic. The relevance of carbonate platforms to wine drinkers is in the fact that the Burgundian carbon platform developed from a ramp sea floor setting during the middle Bathonian. It was this reefal platform which allowed the Comblanchien limestone to develop. This massive coral platform (the residual of which became Comblanchien stone some 70 meters thick) stretches in a 100 to 130 km swath, from the foot of the Morvan Massif to well into the Swiss Jura and southern German. Dean
Global Temperatures Rise When Ancient Reefs Encounter Subduction Zones
When the movement of tectonic plates pushes buried ancient reefs into contact with subduction zones, it liberates the carbon in the reef, which escapes through volcanoes. These interactions send carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it impacts the global climate, and may have contributed to warm spells during Earth’s history.
19 JULY 2018
Carbonate platforms are ancient reefs that build up over millions of years, composed of the carbon-rich skeletons of coral and other tiny sea creatures. When these reefs get swallowed up by a subduction zone, where one tectonic plate sinks beneath another, the buried carbon can be remobilized and released to the atmosphere through volcanoes lining the subduction zone.
A new study by DCO members Jodie Pall, Sabin Zahirovic, Sebastiano Doss, and Dietmar Müller (all at University of Sydney, Australia), and colleagues, finds that the remobilization of reef carbon through volcanoes can have a measurable impact on global climate. The researchers modeled the intersection of carbonate platforms and subduction zones during Earth’s history since the Devonian period, 410 million years ago. By comparing the total length of these intersections to estimates of historic atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, they could pick out periods when liberated reef carbon contributed to warmer temperatures, including during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), about 55 million years ago. They report their findings in a new paper in the journal Climate of the Past .
Carbonate platforms and subduction zones
Researchers modeled the intersection of carbonate platforms and subduction zones during the last 410 million years of Earth’s history to see if the release of carbon dioxide through volcanoes impacted global climate. Credit: Image courtesy of Pall et. al
Reefs can be both a source and sink for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Corals capture carbon dioxide and incorporated into reef structures over time, but that carbon can be rapidly released again to the atmosphere via volcanoes when it collides with subduction zones. “The most notable example is Mt. Etna,” said Pall. “The volcano intersects with a huge carbonate platform and currently emits 20 percent of global volcanic carbon dioxide emissions each year.”
The researchers wanted to know if volcanic release of carbon dioxide from carbonate platforms had impacted Earth’s climate in the past. They assembled previously published data on the location of carbonate platforms since the Devonian period, mapped them onto tectonic plates, and estimated how much carbon the platforms accumulated over time. The researchers could then see how often a carbonate platform came within 500 kilometers of a subduction zone, using the software program GPlates. This open-source software tool, developed by Müller’s EarthByte group and several international collaborators, reconstructs the movement of tectonic plates throughout Earth’s history.
Next, the researchers calculated the total length of carbonate-intersecting subduction zones (CISZs) and compared them to estimates of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over 410 million years. They used wavelet analysis, which is a statistical test that identifies relationships between two data sets over time. Through the analysis, the researchers could pick out certain periods when peaks in CISZs corresponded to upticks in atmospheric carbon dioxide. “This suggests that there might have been tectonic-forced climate behavior,” said Pall.
Their analysis showed that these interactions played a role in the temperature spike during the PETM, when global surface temperatures increased by 5 to 9 degrees Celsius within a few thousand years. Carbonate platforms also may have contributed to the warmer Cretaceous-Jurassic climate that occurred about 200 to 100 million years ago. Pall notes, however, that it was difficult to tell if CISZs caused this temperature increase, or if they were simply part of a global increase in subduction zones that occurred at that time.
All of the models and data from this research are open-source and available to the public. This work is part of the “subduction zone analysis toolkit” developed by researchers at EarthByte, which also includes a model of carbon accumulation in carbonate platforms, the lengths of all subduction zones, and the carbon dioxide content of ocean crusts throughout the past 410 million years. The EarthByte group hopes that these resources will be useful to other researchers interested in modeling the paleoclimate and the global carbon cycle.
The wine villages of the Côte d’Or in the 18th Century
By Dean Alexander
Reflecting on it, I find it amazing that the descendants of so many old Burgundian families still farm the vineyards, and live in the same tiny villages of the gold coast as their ancestors. Many of these families have lived there for more than two centuries. The Roty’s of Gevrey-Chambertin arrived there in 1710, and have now lived in Gevrey for more than three centuries, and the Mongeard family arrived in Vosne in 1620, just shy of four centuries.
Consider further, for many generations, all but the most wealthy, rarely traveled much farther than the fields that they worked, none of which were very far away. They often did not know the families from two or three villages distant, because to get there, many of them would have had to walk. They lived and died in the houses in which they were raised, and that was often the same house that their mother or father was raised.(1) For most urbanites, this is kind of stationary life is unfathomable. But this long history of a family being precisely in a single place, for so many generations, can only be explained by these people having developed exceptionally strong emotional ties to their village, their family, and to their land.
While to outsiders, the daily life of the farmer can only describe as repetitious and mundane, in the long view, the changes that have occurred on the Côte can be fascinating. Over the span of the past two to three hundred years, these fermier families have had, along with a certain amount of luck, the ability to adjust and adapt at crucial times.
First and foremost, they were lucky. To have had built up enough assets to handle disasters as they came can be a matter of luck. Any ship can sink in the perfect storm. But beyond that, they tenacious, yet flexible enough to endure nature’s worst. Examples of adversity the families of the Côte would face included: multiple, several near-total harvest failures, and more than a couple vineyard losses due to vine killing winters, hail, and flooding. Then there were the major diseases such as mildew (oidium in 1854 and downy in 1887) not to mention phylloxera.
The political and economic challenges were relentless, included the lengthy French Revolution, multiple governmental changes, and economic and the catastrophes of wars and occupation. Had these families not been lucky, not had assets when they needed them, and not made the right decisions at the right time, they would have left been forced to leave, as many did. (Garnot 2008) Most importantly, they had the ability to make the jump from being simple paysans, meaning the peasant-farmers, who only just subsisted on small plots land, to fermiers who not only owned the land they worked, and more importantly, owned enough land they needed to hire people to help work the land they owned.
Gone from the Gold Coast now are those paysans. Their small plots absorbed by larger landholders and their labor replaced in the fields professional vineyard managers and workers and supplemented day laborers.
Throughout the late 19th and most of the 20th century, it was an idealized version of these very peasants, who had been economically pushed out of the Gold Coast, by which the French viewed their own national identity. The French viewed itself as the peasant: a stout, strong, determined, rural proletariat, who farmed the land, feed the nation and were called to war. (Lehning 1995) It was generally felt that the peasants were the backbone of the country. As such, it was with a certainly irony, that much later, during the 1920 and 1930’s, the fermiers of the Côte would begin to market Burgundy and themselves as synonymous with the already existent folklore of the ‘peasant farmer’. (Whalen 2009) This would be their guarantee of quality, their simple honesty, steadfastness, and hard work.
The growth of a village
In an isolated locale, like the wine villages of the Côted’Or, a census is a very good barometer of the health of its economy. As the economy heats up, as financial folks like to say, the population increases. Conversely, as the economy slows, populations tend to contract accordingly. In 1793, toward the end of the Revolutionary period, the first census of the new republic was taken. At this time, the population of Gevrey was only 1,193. Over the next two decades, Gevrey’s population would grow only incrementally until 1831, when it would begin to expand over the next 50 years.
Phylloxera, in its steady march across France, would finally reach the vineyards of the Côted’Or in 1880. However, rather than the loss of production forcing the population to contract, -as those “in the margins” were indeed displaced by a lack of field work, new inhabitants were arriving, largely replacing their numbers. A whole new industry had sprung up surrounding the fighting of phylloxera. As that battle was gradually lost, these jobs would eventually be replaced by those who would plant the vineyards again. These were people who had trained in the new skills of grafting vinifera Pinot and Chardonnay vines to the hybrid American rootstock. This carousel of workers kept the number of people living in the village fairly constant, but generally, the fermiers, the landholding farmers, many whose family names we recognize today, remained.
The census of 1881 revealed a population of 1,868. Shortly after the turn of the century, economic instability, and low wine prices, and falling vineyard values, would cause the lowest number of inhabitants since the census had begun, with a mere 1,543. Gevrey’s population would fall even further during the interwar years, for in 1936 Gevrey had a population only 1,486, the lowest it had been after one hundred years of growth. These were grim times, and the fermiers and concerned politicians sought new ways to produce and market wine independent of the negociants that had controlled the industry since the 1750’s. These efforts, coupled with the Europe’s general economic recovery after the Second World War, has sent the population dramatically upward, with new industries which supported the now profitable wine growers and bringing with them hundreds of new jobs. The censuses of 1962 and 1975 marked how dynamic the recovery had been. (census figures: fr.wikipedia.org)
The population of the larger town of Nuits-St-Georges, a center for negociant trade in the mid-1700‘s, has been more stable than Gevrey.Nuits expanded through pre-phylloxera times but then remaining fairly steady for almost a century between 1866 and 1954. The town’s population saw minor fluctuations of alternately adding and losing 100 to 400 people, through the end of the Second World War, but these changes were a much smaller percentage of the population than the swings seen in Gevrey-Chambertin. This is likely that because of the town’s size, there was far more business operating in Nuits-St-Georges beyond the direct cultivation of the vines. As an overview: in 1793 Nuits had 2,541 inhabitants. It peaked just before phylloxera 1881 at 3,727 people. Today, after steady growth since the end World War II, (3,285 in 1946), the population now sits at 5,516 in 2008. (fr.wikipedia.org)
Stepping farther back in time
The old villages, tranquil wine smaller villages of the Côted’Or, with their narrow streets and quaint houses, are quite easy to envision two hundred fifty years ago, during the time of King Louis the XVI, for these are remain small, sleepy, villages. Vosne even today has a population of a mere 427 people, and only 307 people live in the nearby village of Chambolle. Even with the tourists that mill around and support the restaurants and inns of the old, more touristy section of Gevrey-Chambertin, this section of town could not be described as bustling. It would seem as though place must be quite unchanged over hundreds of years. In your mind’s eye, just exchange the slow trod of oxen pulling a cart along the graveled highway for the cars that now ply the paved RN74. Upon the once cobbled streets of the better sections of the village, add in horses and the staccato of their hooves. Wood-smoke, billowing from the chimneys of a few dozen open hearths; the day crisp, with fall in the air, and the vision should be complete.
But things have changed in these villages. Perhaps the biggest paradigm shift took place when the vines of Pinot Noir won out over Gamay.
(*) larger is relative, but considering the value of the land, and the wine made from it, these are not poor men. (**)The increase of population in the larger towns and villages is best explained by more wealth is created by both vignerons and by the tourist industry, the there are more jobs available to service their needs today.
Economic battle between of Pinot Noir and Gamay
For many centuries, there was an economic and ideological battle going on between those who were planting the vines that produced the more consistently ripening Gamay grape, and those who would have all vines in Burgundy planted only to Pinot Noir.
For some, the battle was societal. While certainly it was recognized that Gamay could produce a high-tonnage of fruit, while still maintaining acceptable quality (for the masses), the noblesse d’épée (noble of the sword), the noblesse de robe (magistrates and parliamentarians of Dijon), clergy officials, and most acutely, the invested haut bourgeoisie, felt the Gamay wines were coarse and undeserving vineyards of the Côted’Or. Most importantly, they rightly felt Gamay pulled down the reputation of the Côte in general. Gamay certainly did not add to the noble reputation that the upper strata of society believed the region should be allowed to attain. Social standing and reputation in the 18th century was hugely important to those in a position to affect it, and cannot be underestimated in the context of where some Gamay should and should not be planted in Burgundy.
For centuries there was a vocal pressure to eliminate Gamay, and although it was banished by Philip the Bold in 1395, peasants continued to grow on the slopes through the end of the 19th century. In Morey, “Of the 160 hectares under vine,”Auguste Luchet wrote in 1858, “90 are planted to Gamay.” Later in the text, he would write: “Gevrey has about four hundred hectares of vineyards, half in Gamay and one in Pinol (Noirien) mixed with a little white.”
According to Marion Fourcade, an associate professor at UC Berkeley, there were “periodic local ordinances” eradicate Gamay in vineyards of the Côted’Or. In her paper,“The Vile and the Noble” (2012), Fourcade briefly mentions that those who pushed to expunge Gamay alleged its cultivation promoted various unspecified “health dangers”. As an economic problem, Gamay’s critics charged that its cultivation contributed to an increase in the fraudulent bottling of Gamay as Pinot Noir, or alternately, it was accused that Gamay was illegitimately blended with Pinot Noir. This no doubt occurred. But, as previously believe in the preceding centuries, Gamay was, in general, unworthy of the region.
Dr Jules Lavalle, in his 1855 book, “Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d’Or, which was revered by many, calls Gamay “common,” and “ordinary,” claiming Gamay had “invaded hilltops and flatlands all around”. (Forcade 2012) “God knows how awfully active the vulgar plant has been in driving away the fine plant, and what progress it makes every day! Our ancestors would have been appalled!” As translated by Fourcade. In Charles Curtis’s translation of Lavalle (in which I did not find the aforementioned quote) in his book the “Original Grand Crus of Burgundy”, Lavalle writes “The vines planted in Gamay cover more than 23,000 hectares,(1) which one meets under the name of plante Mâlain, plante d’Arcenant, plant de Bévy” Additionally Lavalle condemns that “The yield can often extend to 50 and even 60 hectoliters per hectare.”
The choice to plant Gamay was surely decided, however, not by the ideological mindset, or by social consciousness, but rather by the wealth of the vigneron. The poor farmer could simply not afford the high-stakes gamble of Pinot Noir presented, with its pitifully small production of 18 hectoliters per hectare (Lavalle 1855), and its inability to consistently ripen its fruit completely The peasant could not afford a single failed vintage, that the high-risk Pinot Noir grapes delivered this result on a fairly consistent basis.*
Moreover, Pinot, with its thin skin was particularly prone to rot and disease, it was far more difficult to make into a competent wine. In some years, Pinot vines would produce a completely unsalable crop. The wealthy landowning farmer (a fermier – as opposed to a vigneron) could take such a gamble with virtual impunity, because when it the Pinot crop paid off, the dividends of producing a great wine, far outstripped the losses incurred by poor to very poor vintages. The incredible demand (and payday) for wines from great vineyards, in these great years, continues to this day.
(*) It is not without note that the little ice-age, (which dates are contested) is generally thought to have begun in the 1300’s, and ended around 1850. Additional weather variations occurred, with extremely low temperatures materializing with disastrous effect in 1660 1709, 1740 and 1794/1795 and the last in the year 1850.
The paysan of the Côte, a poly-cultiveur
While we think of only vines on the slopes of the Côte d’Or, the vineyards of the early to mid 18th century, were typically a polyculture. It was common for the vines to share the slopes with animals, fruit trees, and vegetable plots, depending on the site. (Swann 2003) However, as the 18th century progressed, economics would begin to crowd out polyculture off of the slopes.
Below the vines of the great vineyard slopes, upon low-lying fields, grew all manner of foods, particularly grains. Rye which grew well on the poor soils of northern France, corn, wheat and barley were widely grown; and in personal gardens next to their houses, the peasants often grew vegetables. It is well documented that the lower third of Clos St-Jacques was planted to alfalfa until 1954, but it is likely that it had been home to many different crops over the centuries.
Very few ‘vignerons’ during the 18th century actually worked solely with the vine, and those that did, according to historian Benoit Garnot, were in decline in the 18th century. He laments bleakly that “the tired qualification ‘winemaker’ seems to be socially rewarding.” (Garnot 2008)
Busby wrote, in 1840, that in vignerons in Chambertin would rip out dying provignage vines (which only survived ten years or so), and let the land fallow while being planted to sainfoin, a cover crop that flourishes on calcareous (limestone) soils. Planting sainfoin had dual benefits: it not only would the crop rejuvenated the topsoil with an infusion of nitrogen but it also the sainfoin was a good feed for their grazing animals. Those vignerons that had a cow or two, had them tended by a communal herder who took them to field for the day and returned them to the owner at night.
The fall harvest season was unrelenting and well-reported as being extreme in the exhaustion it created. By the end of August, all of the rye, which was an important crop in the poor soils of north-eastern France, and the summer wheat, had already been harvested. Also already harvested were the other major crops, which included barley, colza, which is also known as rape, or rapeseed, was grown for lubricants, and hemp (not to be confused with its relative cannabis), was also grown for seed, oil, wax, resin, rope, cloth, pulp, paper and, in this north-eastern region. (U.S.Gov. Printing Office 1888) This would give the paysan a month for the grape harvest, before the planting of winter wheat, which would begin straight away in October, after pressing and barreling of the new wine.
Centuries of stagnant agricultural practices
It is widely accepted that during the ancien regime, few improvement in farming had come to France. The tasks of the cultiveur were done in the least expensive manner; just as their fathers and grandfathers, and as well their great-great grandfathers had farmed the same land.
To the English agronomist Arthur Young, who visited Burgundy and elsewhere in France on the eve of the revolution, the inefficiencies of French agriculture was “quite contemptible’. He was so critical of French farming methods as to say that even the large capitalist farms were “villainous cultivated’. As far as investing in capitalization farming given the French methods, he declared “If I had a large tract of this country, I think I should not be long in making a fortune’.(Swan 2003)
Change was painfully slow, despite attempts by Dijon to push the people to adopt them. The problem really came down to money, and the peasants had none to invest in the changes necessary. A Burgundian representative to the National Constituent Assembly, during the first stages of the Revolution, explained the failure of previous attempts at agricultural reform:
“Oh you who complain of the intractability of the peasant when he refuses to adopt your new ploughs, your new seed drills…your deep furrows, your doses of fertilizer that are four times greater than what he can afford, before tripling his expenses in the uncertain hope of a tripled harvest, begin by putting him in a state of being able to buy clogs for his children.”
Up Next: The Villagers of the 18th Century
(1) Life was short and death rates of children under the age of ten were high. Because of this, and the general lack of excess money homes traditionally multi-generational. There will be much more about life and death on the Gold Coast in upcoming chapters.
(2) Charles Curtis, in his book “The Original Grand Crus of Burgundy”, takes these hectare figures, printed in Lavalle, at face value, and proceeds to discuss how they might be accurate. However, I feel, that they are as just as likely, a misprint, so far off from the hectares, as they exist today, even taking into consideration the loss of so much vineyard land, post-phylloxera, that was never replanted around Dijon. One might also view these figures to be considered a fabrication, as a call to action against the Gamay scourge. Words are weapons. Because there appears to be no other at the ready figures of Gamay and Pinot Noir acreage planted in the Cote d’Or to compare Lavalle’s figures with, I choose to bypass the issue altogether. It isn’t all that germane enough to the already too wide of a scope of these writings, to deal with something I can’t bring to an adequate conclusion about. There are other fish to fry.
Reference Sources for Burgundy: History of the Vignerons: The Villages parts I – IV
La Côte-d’Or à vol d’oiseau: lettres écrites à M.L. Havin, après la récolte, Auguste Luchet 1858
Gevrey-Chambertin: notice historique, topographique et statistique, suivie de promenade à Fixin, by Henri Vienne 1850
Journal of a Tour through some of the vineyards of Spain and France, James Busby, Sydney 1833
Peasant Proprietors and other selected essays, Lady Frances Parthenope Verney Longmans, Green, 1885 –
L’état de la recherche sur la vigne, le vin et les vignerons en Bourgogne au XVIIIe siècle, Benoit Garnot, 2008
The Peasants and the King in Burgundy, Hilton Root, University of California Press, 1992
Evolution du Métayage en France, L. Durousseau-Dugontie, Impr. Crauffon, 1905
Centre d’Histoire de la Vigne et du Vin, Charlotte Glain-Fromont, Bulletin de liaison Bulletin 30 janv-fev 2012.pdf
A historical explanation for Les Damaudes’ retention of clay
Changes in parcel division and parcel orientation
While there is no specific information regarding the history of Les Damaudes prior to 1952, the cadastre map of 1827* indicates that the vineyard was planted to vine at that time and that it’s division and orientation was very different in 1827 than it is today. This map indicates that at some point between 1927 and 1952, there was a total reorganization of both parcels and ownership. This reorganization also suggests that the owners of the parcels had abandoned this land. Had there been a continuity of ownership, there would be at least some continuity of plot divisions. Instead, the study plot cleaves through multiple plots shown in the 1927 cadastre.
The Ouvrée, the balk, and soil preservation
Many of the plots indicated by the map, were very small. The size itself is indicative of ownership by peasant farmers. These small parcels were the remnants of the ancien régime; the open field system that created and dictated the agricultural fabric of France for over seven centuries. At the time of the revolution, a full third of Burgundian agricultural land was farmed under the manorial system and was converted to peasant ownership. (Loutchisky 1911)
Additionally, some of the larger parcels of Les Damaudes were oriented horizontally to the slope, so the rows followed the hillside. These parcels were large enough and long enough to suggest they may have been plowed. These larger plots were traditionally sized by the amount land a man could work in a day with a pair of plow animals, were measured in ouvrées.(1) These larger plots, with their long, narrow horizontal orientation would not have allowed nearly the high rate of erosion as similarly sized vertical plantings of today do. Secondly, because these horizontal plots were relatively narrow, erosion was again curtailed, as storm water runoff would have been slowed by these closely spaced divisions.
All across Europe, serfs and villeins (freeman tenants) (2) tended their plots, known as selions, just as they had for over seven centuries. Selions were traditionally divided by a raised, strip of fallow land called a balk indicating the end or beginning of one man’s plot and the beginning of another. The word balk (to pause or not proceed) originated from this practice of plot division.
Any break in vineyard planting, like plot divisions, roads, and walls, all have been shown to slow runoff by diminishing its velocity, thus easing the pressures of erosion. So the small size of these parcels alone would have deterred erosion, but if these plots were additionally bordered by any kind of balk,these would obstacles would have minimized the velocity of the runoff. There is evidence that balks did exist in Burgundian vineyards, as Jim Busby Esquire. describes walking along “grassy footpaths” while visiting the vineyard of Chambertin in 1840. It is reasonable to conclude the small parcel divisions of Damodes, each likely separated by a balks or footpaths, were huge contributors to the fact that such a high percentage of clay was retained in this steep vineyard.
One foot in feudalism
At the time of the Revolution, feudalism, although waning, still existed in various forms. So on the heels of the French Revolution in 1789, when the National Assembly released all of the demesne (domaines) of King Louis XVI, the serfs and freemen tenants who farmed these lands were given the title of the plots they had farmed before the Revolution. This action would affect a quarter of the farmland in France, although in Burgundy this figure was higher. The royal demesne constituted 35% of the agricultural land in Burgundy at the time of the revolution, while it is estimated that church held the title of an additional 11% to 15% (Loutchisky 1911). This acts also released France’s 150,000 serfs, almost all of which had belonged to the Church. (Sée 1927)
Initially, the peasants were to pay for the release of seigneurial dues, but as the peasants could not pay with money they did not have, these release fees were withdrawn by the National Assembly in 1793. With a mere 38 years separating the revolution and the production of the 1827 cadastre map, it is likely that some of the owners of these plots had been former villien (freeman tenants) and were still working plots they had gained because of the revolution.(3)
Although they were now landowners, rather than landholders, the peasant’s lot had not significantly changed. The wealthiest of them could earn a living off of the land as farmers, either on their own or in co-op with others as métayers. Many continued to struggle for sustenance, working also as day laborers, or worked a side trade (Henri Sée 1927).
In some ways, many of farmers were to be worse off for it for the dissolution of the feudal system, which through its evolution, had allowed significant freedom, and did not generally entail servitude. Additionally, the dues owed by the tenant farmers were far less burdensome than they had been in the middle ages, consisting of rent and a few days of compulsory labor on the nobles demesne (Sée 1927). Within this feudal framework, the Seigneurprovided communally shared horses and plows, which all laborers used to make the work their fields.
With the removal of the feudal system, the peasant needed to provide his own tools, and that included the use of any plow animal.
A pair of oxen cost 300 to 400 francs at the time Busby visited France in 1840, and for all but the wealthiest peasants, this was an unfathomable price to pay for an animal. Plows were also an expensive piece of equipment. Since a man with a pair of plow animals could work roughly six to eight times the area, than a man without one,the loss of access to a horse and plow predictably would have significant implications for the peasant farmer. They now must attempt to use a shovel and hoe to try to farm the same area of land they had as a villein using the seigneur’s horse and plow. This loss of productivity (in terms of area) would require the peasants to either hire workers to help work their fields or sell (or lease) land they were not physically able to work by hand. If there was a positive side to this, having to hand-work these small plots was an additional factor in the preservation clay in the vineyard of Les Damaudes.
24,000 or more vines per hectare
It was either the small size of plots or the inability to buy plow animals (or both), that encouraged Burgundy’s farmers to literally fill every empty space of a vineyard with vines. It was common at the time, for Burgundian vineyards to achieve planting densities of 24,000 to 30,000 vines per hectare.
When visiting the great vineyard of Chambertin, James Busby recorded that in the half-hectare plots there, a mere 15 inches of spacing existed between each vine. This was true not only between plants within a single row but between rows as well. Busby wrote that “The plants were literally crowded to such a degree, that it was almost impossible to set down the foot without treading upon some of them.” It would be seemingly impossible to plow a vineyard with such spacing, which meant all vineyard work would have to be accomplished with a hoe.
The peasant would achieve this enormous number of vines, essentially for free, by a technique called layering or provignage. This was the poor man’s answer to using cuttings, which were by then, being bred in nurseries from clones scientist had discovered to be resistant to various diseases. The cuttings were however very expensive and often used sparingly even by more wealthy land owners, only one cutting used for every three vines established. The other vines would be grown via provignage from the purchased cutting.
To perform layering or provignage, a trench was dug from a healthy plant to the location where the farmer wanted to establish a new plant. He would then bury a cane or shoot of the vine into the furrow he had dug, with a layer of manure and then cover this with soil. Over the course of the next year, the buried cane (shoot) would develop roots of its own, and the vigneron would separate the two vines by cutting off the cane that started the new plant. Alternately, the two vines could be left adjoined, and in many places, there could be several of these Siamese vines connected to one another. The vineyardist would attempt to regulate the rows to be as straight as possible, but layering created such irregularity that Busby recalled that “it would have been very difficult to point out which way the alignment lay. For this purpose, the stocks and roots were twisted, and the different plants laid across each other in every possible direction.”
“for a poor man, the game, or, as it was generally called, the large plant, was undoubtedly the best kind of vine,the quantity it yielded was so much greater than the other; and, to a poor man, the quality was not so much an object, for the large proprietors and merchants would never acknowledge his wine to be a fine one, and it was very difficult to sell it for a high price, however good.” Journal of a Recent Visit to the Vineyards of Spain and France, James Busby Esq. 1840
According to Busby, a plant grown by provignage would produce grapes in its first year. However, the vines would become weak in 10 to 15 years time and would need to be replaced. This meant the 19th-century vineyard was in constant state tearing out and replanting. In vineyards such as Chambertin, which produced exponentially more expensive wine, the vineyard owner could often afford lay fallow sections in which vines were removed. These fallow areas were then planted to sainfoin, a cover crop that could be used to feeding horses, while simultaneously rejuvenating the soil with nitrogen that had been depleted by overcrowding the field (domaine in French) with vines. This alternate use would last for four years, and represented a significant cost, and could only be sustained by a vineyard that produced a wine that fetched high prices in the marketplace. This would not have been true of a vineyard such as Les Damaudes.
It is clear, that as of 1860, there were many vineyards in which the soils were still in relatively good shape, because of the farming methods of the time. There has been some historical record of vineyards, as early as the 1600’s, that required their soils to be replaced, (presumably due to rill and gully erosion) to cover exposed base rock. The tremendous expense of bringing in soils indicates that this erosion occurred in larger vineyards owned by a wealthy marquis or another nobleman, the church, or later, a member of the growing bourgeoisie, who would dominate the
This set the stage for the introduction of phylloxera to France and Burgundy. It would be too simple of a story to phylloxera wiped out the vineyards of France and eventually the vineyards were replanted with root-stock from American hybrids. While most accounts of the phylloxera blight in terms of total dollars lost and businesses going under; as in all economic downturns, there are those who lose everything, and those losses create opportunities for others. And that is the story of Les Damaudes. We know there was a wholesale change of plot ownership and re-organization parcel disbursement in the vineyard, that occurred sometime between 1827 and 1952. While precisely when and how remains a mystery, but there is no doubt that phylloxera played a large role in this story.
When phylloxera arrived on the doorstep of the Côte d’Or in 1775, it was clear that a peasant would not be able to withstand the loss of their vines. The peasant, who depended on every Franc for their day-to-day survival, could not afford the chemicals to treat the vines. They could in no way spend a year’s labor tearing our their vineyard. This was an impossibility. And they certainly could not afford the 3000 Francs per hectare it cost in 1880 to replant the vineyard. It almost seems silly at this point to mention they would not be able to afford to labor in the vineyards for the four years that the young vines would produce no fruit. If they were lucky they would own other plots of land that produced produce or wheat that could sustain them. Otherwise, these peasants were likely many of the 1 million Frenchmen who would emigrate to Algeria or America in the 1870’s through 1900.
Ironically, as the grape growing peasantry was forced to leave their land in phylloxera affected areas, economically, in France, things were improving. For the unskilled worker, wages increased 2/3’s between 1850 and 1910. During the same period, GDP doubled, despite France’s involvement in the Crimean war and the disastrous Franco-Prussian war of 1870 which saw the fall of the Napoleon III and the second Republic. Likely, it was France’s continued imperial pursuits of colonizing parts of Africa and Asia artificially buoyed they French economy, but whatever the reason, the economic up-turn caused a growth in demand for wine and rising prices, and this promise of demand would justify replanting the most profitable of vineyards immediately.
Hopefully, this long, historical explanation of why the soils of Les Damaudes (and likely those in Cros Parantoux) retained their natural levels of clay, may seem reasonable. In my view, the retention of clay was two-fold. Number one: the vineyard was farmed in small divided sections, and farmed by hand. Additionally, the larger parcels were oriented horizontally, limiting the distance between plots on the vertical axis. These larger plots or may not have been plowed in the 1800’s; but if they were, because of the plot shape, could only have been done across the slope, following the curve of the hillside. This would have limited erosion. Secondly, like Cros Parantoux, this vineyard likely lay abandoned for a lengthy enough period that ownership of the vineyard was reapportioned. The most obvious period for this to have happened was from the early 1880s when phylloxera struck to 1952 when this parcel was planted.
I defer to SteenÖhman author ofwinehog.org, who has carefully researched the available history – primarily ownership – of Cros Parantoux . Read his article here.
(1) The Burgundy Report has a breakdown of land that is significantly different than found in the book, Measures and Men Witold Kula Princeton University Press (1986). Bill Nasson reports that an “Ouvrée is 4.285 ares; the area one man could work in one day” and a “Journal equals 8 ouvrées, or 860 perches, or 81.900 ares and was the area one man could work in one day with a horse and plough.” This is very different than Kula’s writing that an ouvrée was a vineyard specific measurement that Burgundian used for the area that a man could work with a pair of plow animals, and a journeaux in Burgundy referred specifically to the size of a cornfield a man could work with a pair of plow animals. I was unable to find further supporting evidence for either account.
(2) Serfs of France had largely been “enfranchised” over the course of the middle ages. But this varied on where and when since control of France was spread over various Duchies. To give a general time frame when enfranchisement was occurring, Charles the Fair emancipated the serfs of Languedoc in two letters from 1298 and 1304. Upon gaining freeman status, serfs became villeins (this is where the word villain came from, meaning: scoundrel or criminal). They may have been enfranchised but in many ways, their situation had not changed all that significantly. As tenant farmers, they were still legally bound to the manor where they were tenants. They paid ‘rent’ either in the form of money or produce, and owed the noble of the manor a certain number of days of unfree labor each year, referred to as Corvée. This was simply a form of barter between the tenant and the nobleman. A similar arrangement is the sharecropping agreements referred to as métayage, meaning half. This is another form of barter agreement, where the lease payment is in the form of a percentage of the product of the vineyard, in either grapes or wine.
(3) The life expectancy in France in 1828 was 37 years, thanks in part to the smallpox vaccinations that began in 1810. Earlier, in the 18th century half of all children died before the age of 10 years old, lowering the average life expectancy in the 1700’s to only 25 years. The period of the Napoleonic Wars, 1803 to 1815, saw a drop in average age to below 30 years. This happened again in 1870 following the disastrous (for France) Franco-Prussian, when the Napoleon III was captured, and Paris would later fall Germans January of 1871, in Bismark’s successful bid for German unification.
A History of French Public Law, Volume 9, Jean Brissaud p. 317-318 Ulan Press (1923)
Economic and Social Conditions in France During the Eighteenth Century Henri Sée Professor at the University of Rennes 1927
Erosion is constantly changing the terroir of Burgundy, and in turn, it is altering the weight and character of the wines from virtually every vineyard on the Côte. How significant is erosion in Burgundy today? As mentioned in Part 4.1, a study during the late 1990’s measured the soil loss in unspecified vineyards of Vosne-Romanée to be 1 mm per year, and the same erosional levels were measured off of the vineyards of Aloxe-Corton. Ath that alarming rate, losses over the next century would have averaged 10 centimeters or almost 4 inches of topsoil if corrections were not taken. On the even steeper slopes of Monthelie, a study measured almost twice the erosion at 1.7 mm (± 0.5 mm year), with sections of the vineyard which measured a shocking eroded up to 8.2 mm (± 0.5 mm) erosional rate. Luckily, many growers have improved their farming practices, particularly since 2010, and these figures should be lower today. Only future studies can tell us what improvement has been made.
For centuries the solution for this problem was to bring in soil from outside areas to replace what was lost on the slopes of the Côte d’Or. However, in the name of terroir, this is no longer allowed. Current law allows growers to redistribute only the alluvium that comes to rest within appellation boundaries. One can imagine that the laborious process of shoveling out the alluvium from the toe of the plot and redistributing higher in the vineyard is a yearly chore. What earth escapes the appellation lines however, is gone to that appellation forever.
The intention of preserving the purity Burgundy’s unique terroir by forbidding introduction of exogenous soils is somewhat paradoxical, since it is only attempting to preserve the terroir à la minute. While in reality it is ultimately is failing at that – due to erosion.
A positive, unintended consequence of this inability to replace soil is that growers have finally realized that soil conservation is now more critical than any time in Burgundies’ 1500+ year-old viticultural history. They now know that they must fully understand the factors of soil structure and erosion, while at a municipal level, their villages must invest in effective storm water management; both of which are in various states of development or improvement.
While the best modern practices are stemming the tide of erosion, vineyards still can be threatened. Even great vineyards on the mid-slope, like Les Folatières in Puligny-Montrachet, which have long, open stretches of vines without significant breaks in planting, are prone to extensive erosion. While soils are depleted not only in terms of depth, they are changing in terms of particle size and makeup. Erosion most easily targets fine earth fractions, detaching them from their aggregate groupings, and sending them into vineyards farther down slope. Light to medium runoff acts like a sieve, carrying away only the smallest particles, leaving behind material with of larger particles sizes. This in a very real way changes the vineyard’s terroir, and in turn, the wines that are grown there. Wines from vineyards that retain only course soils of large particle size (1) tend to produce wines with less fruit the and less weight, and by consequence revealing a more structured, minerally character.
Even more critical is that soil loss can threaten the vitality and health of the vines, as the soil is literally carried away from beneath them. A vine’s main framework roots is said to require a minimum 11-13 inches to anchor itself to the earth and survive. The problem arises when a section of vineyard does not have extensive fracturing, and the soil level begins to drop below that one foot level. To address this, various growers have responded by “reconditioning” their land. By using a back hoe to break up the limestone below, this can give new vines planted there the living space so the vineyard can continue. Does this change the terroir and the future wine more than inputs of exogenous soil? I should think the answer is yes, significantly.
Rainfall and rain strike: the first stage of erosion
Rainfall is measured by its size and velocity. A raindrop from a drizzle is typically .5 mm in size, and has a terminal velocity (the maximum speed the drop can reach) of 2 meters per second, or 4.5 miles per hour, in still air. The speed it falls, with no assistance from the wind is determined by its ratio of mass to drag. Large raindrops of 5 mm, have more mass in relationship to its drag and accelerate to 9 meters per second, or 20 mph.
Rainfall, meaning the actual physical strike of each drop, can break down soil aggregates (fine sand, silt clay, and organic materials) and disperse them. Splash erosion has been recorded to drive particles of earth up to 60 cm into the air, and 1.5 m from its point of origin.
Once their limited bonds are broken, the ensuing runoff can carry these materials downslope. Runoff, the most obvious form of erosion, occurs when rainwater cannot infiltrate the soil quickly enough, and exacerbated by the lack of cover crop, lack of organic material, lack of soil structure and negative effects of soil compaction. Of course, this process is most noticeable during high-intensity rainstorms, the amount of soil lost during longer but low-intensity rainfall can be significant. This slower erosion can go largely unnoticed until most of the productive topsoil has been removed by what is referred to as sheet erosion.
Seasonal protection from rainstrike
Compared to most growing regions, the Côte d’Or has a very wet growing season. Storms during this period can bring irregular and unpredictable rain events that can be heavy and long in duration. The winds during harvest tend to be westerly, with warm humid winds bringing rain first over the HautesCôtes, then to the Côte d’Or, then out across the Saône Valley. The wet warm humid conditions often encourage powdery mildew in the wake of the storms, so there is a tendency to want to prune to open up the canopy for ventilation to prevent mildew. However, the vine canopy can provide significant protection against rainfall strike, depending of course, on the orientation the rows and the of the wind direction. So good canopy coverage for the period that half of the precipitation occurs (April – September)(2) is beneficial in terms of protection from erosion.
As winter arrives, the vines will have lost their foliage, exposing the soil directly for the entire winter and spring to whatever nature has in store.
Rainfall is typically measured in millimeters per hour, with a light rainfall slightly tipping the scales at up to 2.5 mm per hour or less than a tenth of an inch per hour. Moderate rainfall is considered to be from 2.5 mm per hour to 10 mm per hour. A heavy rainfall falls between the range of 10 to 50 mm, and a violent rainfall is above 50 mm per hour.
Light rain – drizzle 2.5 mm per hour with a terminal velocity of 2 meters per second
Moderate rain 2.5 mm per hour to 10 mm per hour
Heavy Rain 10 mm per hour to 50 mm per hour
Violent rain, above 50 mm per hour
Good soil structure resists damage from rainstrike and runoff
Good soil structure is the result of the binding of soil into clumps of both small and larger aggregates, meaning sections of soil will bind more strongly together, than those next to them. This allows the soil to maintain the necessary small and large pore spacing, which allows water, air and nutrient infiltration and movement through the soil. Larger amounts of older, more stable organic matter tend to strengthen soil aggregates so any farming practice that increases organic matter, and the subsequent microbiological activity will result in healthier soils. Stable soil aggregates allow the soil to resist disintegration due rain strike and thusly helps deter erosion. It also encourages root penetration by creating weak spots between aggregate masses.
Conversely, unstable soil aggregates are more easily dispersed by rainstrike, and the ensuing erosion clogs larger pore spaces of the surface soil. This clogging forming hard crusts on the surface which both restricts both air and water absorption and increases runoff.
The fix apparently is simple. According to soilquality.org, soil forms aggregates readily with the addition of organic manure, as well as allowing cover crops to grow, which has the additional benefit of protecting the soil from rain strike and the ensuing erosion.
The speed at which rain can be absorbed into the soil is referred to as infiltration rate. An infiltration rate of 50 mm per hour is considered ideal for farming, because even in heavy rainfall, a well-structured loam will not allow puddling. While the farmers of Burgundy do have some loam in their soils, the geological and topographical factors they face are far more and varied and thus more complex than that of the typical farming situation. I could find no studies done specific to infiltration rates of Burgundian soils, but below are the general rain infiltration rates of general soil types, starting with clay.
The infiltration rate of clay soils, with good to average soil structure, unsurprisingly, do not drain all particularly well, due to their very small-sized particles. Clays typically have an IR of 10mm-20mm per hour. And as we know, transported clay, with its aligned particles, and plasticy quality greatly restricts water flow, and while it will absorb water, it will not allow water to pass through until the entire structure is saturated, greatly slowing drainage. Worse, due to poor farming practices, clay soils can have a decayed structure, which can slow absorption to less than 10 mm per hour. Water tends to puddle on clays with poor structure, causing them deteriorate to the point of deflocculation.
The study of water and how it drains is researched acutely in areas where water is scare, whereas little study of drainage is done in France where rain and water are plentiful. Hence, my investigation of water infiltration in calcium-rich soils lead me to agricultural water policy studies conducted in Palestine and Spain. One such study found that Clayey Marl, with a plasticy character, had an infiltration rate of only 4-8 mm per hour. This low rate of infiltration suggests the soil structure had already been degraded through poor farming practices. Often the villain of low infiltration rates is a combination of frequent deep tillage, herbicide and pesticide use and compaction by walking on or working wet soils, which collapses weaken soil aggregates. In deeper soils, like at the base of the slope, collapsed soil aggregates can result in hardpan development below ground, while on sloped vineyards, disrupted soil aggregates are very susceptible to erosion.
Clay-loam and clayey-marls, like those found on many lower-slope vineyards, that retain good soil structure, have IR rates beginning at 20 mm per hour. As the percentage of loam increases (equal parts sand, silt, and clay) the IR rate increases up to 50 mm per hour as long as it retains good aggregate stability and there is no compaction.
Loam to sandy soils, which some Bourgogne-level and Village-level vineyards possess, can have very good infiltration rates, again as long as soil structures are good. Ideally, they can absorb 50 mm of rain per hour, which is the amount that a heavy rainstorm will produce. These vineyards, however, receive all the runoff from the slopes above, and their “well-drained” soils can be overwhelmed.
Sandy soils and Calcareous (limestone) soils can have infiltration rates well in excess 150mm per hour to 200+mm per hour. The problem is these soils drain excessively well, and tend to not retain water well, and are prone to high evaporation rates. Off point, but quite interesting, are two studies in south-eastern Australia Bennetts et al. (2006) and Edwards & Webb (2006) found that rainwater remained relatively unchanged as it moved though these porous soils that lacked significant amounts of fine earth fractions and organic material. However, water changed its chemical signature quite significantly as it passed much more slowly through clay-rich soils. This finding certainly challenges the long-held assumption that it is the limestone lends many Burgundies their mineral character.
Infiltration Rate, Slope, and Runoff.
A study in Spain by A. Cerdà (Univ. de València) examined infiltration rates, runoff, and erosion, on clay, marl, limestone and sandstone. Additionally, he ran these trials with three levels of vegetation covering the soil material: bare, intermediate and vegetated. The amount of water delivered was 55 mm per hour (which some soils easily absorbed). The study showed slower rates of infiltration on the bare soils, while more highly vegetated soils reduced and almost eliminated runoff and erosion. Interestingly, marl soils fare the worst for both runoff and erosion rates on bare soils. Yet on vegetated soils, runoff and erosion of the marl were minimal.
They observed, of bare soils, an infiltration rate of 3 to 55 mm per hour, the runoff from 0 to 83%, and the erosion rates from 0 to 3720 grams per hour.
The easily erodible marl soils had up to 83% runoff and a maximum erosion of 3720 grams per hour. So it turns out that marl soils are particularly vulnerable to erosion which sets up an interesting dichotomy: Burgundian’s penchant for discouraging ground cover between the vines, actually encourages erosion – something they seek to, and direly need to avoid.
Clay (soil) and limestone (soil) both had what Cerdà considered to be intermediate levels of runoff and erosion; with a maximum of 46% runoff, and a maximum of 131 grams of soil material eroded per hour.
When we talk about erosion, we are implying there is a slope.
On the rockier terrain of upper slopes, the uneven the soil surface can slow the momentum of water coming down the hillside, despite the steeper grade. However, as the runoff moves downslope, and the soil becomes smoother, the water grows in volume as in joins other rainfall which has not yet infiltrated the topsoil. This increase in volume causes the runoff to increase in its speed and its velocity. Speed and velocity increases are exponential, as its mass allows it overcomes the friction of moving over the soil below.
Despite the fact that these moderate slopes can attain fairly significant soil depth with normal, moderate rainfall, they are also prone to erosion when exposed to heavier storm-induced runoff. Any long, uninterrupted stretch across these moderate slopes encourages a fast, and often damaging, runoff. As the speed of the water increases, it achieves a volume sufficient to carry larger and larger particles. Cerdà’s study suggests that the marl that has developed on these slopes are particularly vulnerable to heavy runoff if no vegetative cover is allowed to grow among the rows.
The ratio of surface area to weight determines a soil particle or rock’s suspension velocity. This is the amount of water velocity needed to carry the object in its flow. As the flow decreases, rocks with higher suspension velocity, meaning they require fast-moving water to carry them, settle out quickly, and are said to have a low settling velocity. As the water slows, it is these, the densest objects, that fall out of suspension first.
Silt and Clay particles have a very low suspension velocity due to their extremely small size, regardless of their density. These particles are easily picked up and washed away by water movement. Unless the clay particles in suspension are adsorbed as it slowly passes a homogeneous clay body (ie. a kaolinite clay body attracts kaolinite clay particles and illite particles will flocculate with an illite body), clay particles will not settle out of solution until the water becomes still and ponds. The same is true with silt, with its slightly larger particle size.
Sand and gravel are larger, with enough density to resist slow-moving water. They are considered to have a higher suspension velocity than silt or clay. But neither sand, gravel, nor even rocks the size of the palm of your hand, are immune from alluvial transport.
Up next: Erosion 4.3 In the water’s path: Studies of Erosion in Vosne
(1) It could be argued that because of Burgundy’s monoculture and high erosion rates will only allow calcisol, and because of that soil development (pedogenesis) is not possible due to the filtering out of fine particles, both mineral, and organic, by erosional processes. Conservation tilling or zero till could greatly change that dynamic, and it is possible with these and other techniques, that growers could expose the truer terroir of Burgundy.
(2) The Wines of Champagne, Burgundy, Eastern and Southern France, by John J. Baxevanis Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (October 28, 1987)
(3) Could this chemical signature change the flavor of wine? This certainly raises a whole host of questions regarding the impact of fast draining limestone on the flavor or minerality of in wine. This study would suggest the long-held belief by many that limestone gives wines a minerally characteristic is false.
During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, soil measurements in both Vosne-Romanée and Corton determined that the erosion rate for both areas were approximately 1 mm per year. Considering that the entire Vosne hillside, as well as all of the hill of Corton are either premier or grand cru sites of enormous value, one would have assumed that every effort had been made to limit erosion. But that assumption would not have been completely true.
Even now, 15 years later, with ever-improving an information, and a growing acceptance that erosion is significant problem that needs to be further addressed, not every farmer is making the necessary changes. While soil management may not be ideal in every plot, vast improvements have been made from the time of the Middle Ages, when erosion ravaged vineyards of the Côte d’Or.
Man has waged an epic war against erosion for centuries; which, until recently, has been largely futile. The early Burgundians were understandably ignorant of soil structure and proper tillage techniques, both factors that greatly mitigate erosion. They had no way to know that it was the way they farmed that actually caused the huge erosional problems they fought so unsuccessfully to reign in.
Change, in an old, tradition-bound culture is resisted; and that is nearly as true in Burgundy today as it was in the middle ages. New techniques such as conservation tillage can be very slow to be adopted, much less having a discussions with older generation about whether a vineyard should be tilled at all. That this ancient practice of zero tillage has been implemented with success in other areas as long ago as 1971, is of no consequence.
Many farmers still restrict the growth of ground cover by use of either pesticides and or routine tilling, both of which diminish soil structure and increase exposure to erosional factors. This can be seen even in Comte de Vogue’s perfectly neat parcels of Les Musigny, where only a few tufts of grass evade the plow blade or the hoe. While it is difficult to argue with Vogue’s results in the bottle, the unseen menace of sheet erosion exists robbing the soil of fine earth fractions, ever so slowly.(1)
Before global warming, the vines were planted in Burgundy in east-west rows, straight down the slope. This directional planting was done in belief that it opens the vines to the early morning sun, allowing better ripening. Unfortunately, any truth to this is offset by increased erosion. While the weather was often predictably cold, and complete ripening could be hit or miss, the soil is a not a renewable resource. As we examined in Part 4, soil lost over 6,000 years ago from the hillsides of central France at the hand of Neolithic men, still has not, and in all likelihood, will never really repair itself.
Burgundy’s historical defense of the vineyard
Murgers, or stone walls, have historically beenthe farmers first, and perhaps only, line of defense since antiquity. Murgers (or Clos if the wall completely surrounds a vineyard) as part of the idealized visage of Burgundy, shows itself as part of many vineyard’s name, ie. VolnayClos des Chênes or Nuits St-Georges’ Les Murgers.
Most murgers were no more than stacked stones constructed from rock that had been removed from between the rows of vines because they were plowing obstacles. Stacking them into walls to protect the vineyard from erosion naturally evolved in the fields. In the 18th and 19th century, some of the more wealthy landowners began to have murgers constructed from brick and mortar, then covered with a fine glaze of lime plaster. Grandiose entrances to these murgers were hung with intricate iron gates, meant to indicate both the importance of vineyard, and the owner. In either the case of a stacked stone wall, or a much more extravagant Clos, walls have been the leading defense the vineyards for centuries. They not only serve to direct runoff around the vines, also have the equally important function of keeping the soil that is in the vineyard from being carried out.
Vineyard reconstruction in the middle ages
It is now widely understood that the simple act of farming causes erosion, and poor farming techniques can cause tremendous erosion, particularly on slopes. The earliest record of man’s attempts to fix the vineyards eroded to the point where they could no longer support vines, comes from documents kept in the later Middle Ages.
Jean-Pierre Garcia, a noted scholar at the Université de Bourgogne, quotes manuscripts in which detail the fight against erosion 600 years ago, in his paper “The Construction of Climates (Vineyards) in Burgundy during the Middle Ages” (from French). Translating these ancient texts from the French of the Middle Ages into modern English is challenging, but the message these manuscripts contains is clear: fighting erosion was back-breaking and exceptionally expensive, despite the luxury of cheap labor. This work was likely paid for the Dukes of Burgundy or the Church, or on possibly a smaller scale, by the Duke’s seigneurs, noblemen whose the manors covered Burgundy.
The accounts are as such: In Corton in 1375 and 1376 AD, 38 days of work were required to remove a drystone wall that had collapsed “in the vine” and rebuild it “four feet high along the vine Clement Baubat to defend of acute coming from the mountain.” In Volnay, it was written in 1468-1469, that men had to excavate the earth below the Clos which had eroded down to rock, and “lifted from earth” returning the topsoil to the vineyard. In 1428 there is a reference of constructing a “head” “above the Clos Ducs Chenove for the defense eaues to descend along said cloux.”
By the end of the middle ages, there are the first references to “exogenous inputs of land”, meaning that earth is brought in from an outside area to replace the topsoil lost to erosion. Land was taken in 1383 from Chaumes des Marsannay and from below the “grand chemin” (highway). This was a huge undertaking that was completed over the scope of “691 workers demanding days”.
Then again in 1407 through the spring of 1408, it took 128 days of work were “to flush the royes and carry the earth in the clos,” and 158 working days “to bring the earth into the Clos.” It is immediately obvious that medieval French measure was unique to the time, and is very difficult translate. In one instance, it was recorded that for 28 days carts carried earth into a vineyard in Beaune, and “28 days labor and 48 days working.” In 1431 there was this reference that “six days a horse hauler, dumped 30 days to 2 horses (are needed to dig from) the Chaumes de Marsannay and the road beneath the Clos where piles of earth were raised.” While the exact labor is impossible to gauge, it is very apparent that immense effort was made, by whatever means necessary to return the vineyards of Burgundy to agricultural viability.
The practice of bringing in soils from outlying areas continued through at least through the 18th century. When the Romanée–Conti vineyard (a national property) was sold in 1790, the sale documents reveal that in 1749 the “Clos received 150 carts in grass taken off the mountain” of Marsannay.
1785-1786 “dug near the bottom of the vineyard and removed 800 wagons of earth, and this was spread in areas devoid of ground and low parts.” This practice appears to have ceased, or as Garcia writes “at least on paper” after 1919 when the Appellations of Origin was established. The INAO has certainly forbidden exogenous soil additions since it was formed in 1935.
Interestingly, while on the subject of Romanée-Conti: some of its soils are clearly foreign to the Vosne-Romanée,according to geologist Francois Vannier-Petit, a void appears in the substrata of the south-western corner of Romanée–Conti which suggests the hillside had been quarried at some point, and filled in with “exogenous” landfill. James E. Wilson noted this void as well in his book Terrior (p 137), where he notes that seismic data suggest this void was created by a fault, but electrical resistivity data suggest an erosional scarp (meaning ancient erosion created a cut out in the hillside) into what Wilson identifies as Ostrea acuminata marl below. Wilson, in either case, assumed that subsequent gravitation induced rock slides and erosion from above filled the void with colluvium. Any of the three possibilities are viable explanations, but the manuscript from the 1785-1786 do clearly state 800 wagons of earth” were “spread in areas devoid of ground and low parts.”
At this point, no record has been found regarding a quarry having been excavated at the site of Romanée–Conti, but many governmental and clergy records were destroyed during the revolution. With this, the argument that these vineyards have “special dirt” has been laid open as fallacy. The topsoils of the Côte have been reshuffled for centuries, integrating alluvial loams and clays from the base of the slope (or from elsewhere) back into the fold of the upper slopes of the Côted’Or. The vignerons of Marsannay who are lobbying for 1er cru classification for their vineyards would certainly point to the fact that their dirt is very similar to the dirt in Gevrey. Better yet, it is clear that a fair amount of Marsannay dirt contributes to create Romanée–Conti, the greatest wine all of the Côted’Or, and that dirt has been there for centuries.
As if by divinity, the some potential erosional problems were avoided by the fact that Burgundy’s vineyards tended to be quite small. Murgers at vineyard boundaries could then slow the velocity of the runoff as it moved down the hillside, not allowing it to gain so much momentum that a high suspension velocity can be reached. These vineyard breaks have been crucial in even wider erosional damage in many areas.
The creation of small vineyards was often caused by two factors. The first being economicallylarge vineyards did not make sense. There wasn’t sufficient demand for wine to produce significantly more than the greater Burgundy area could consume. The poor roads and the lack of safety between villages and cities made medieval trading slow and perilous. Additionally the division and subdivisions of France and the rest of Europe meant that lords had the right to restrict passage and to impose fines and tariffs upon merchants. These factors diminished the volume and frequency of trade within the continent, and in turn limited the amount of wine needed to be produced. Large tracts of vineyards were not necessary. The second, and perhaps the greatest limiting factor of vineyard size would be size of a plot that a single man could work in a day.
While ouvrées simply means worked in modern French, it was used in the past as a measurement of land based on how much land a single farmer could work himself. Thus, one ouvrées (4.285 ares (2) or a tenth of an acre) is the amount one man can work in one day without a horse. Madame Roty re-counts her family’s history in explaining that in the late 1800’s an earlier generation did not bother to plant their vines in rows since they could not afford a animal.
This suggests an interesting fact set of circumstances. Before the Revolution, (the Roty’s farmed Gevrey since 1710) farmers who specialized in grape cultivation, worked a handful of parcels on the local Seigneur’s manor, in the open field system described in Part 4. In this feudal society, they had the use of a shared horse and plow which belonged to the estate. However, after the ownership of land was released to the serfs following the Revolution in 1793, they may have now owned their parcels, but they so poor they could not afford the animals to farm them. This forced most of the peasants of Burgundy use to no-till farming methods. Later as economics of the region improved, a horse could be bought (perhaps in co-op one with one or more families), the Roty’s were forced to remove some of the vines so the animal and plow could pass through.
Farmers who could afford a horse, found the animal multiplied their efforts eight-fold, allowing them to plow 8ouvrées in a day. A familywith a horse could now manage seven hectares of land, which were, of course, divided into the same feudal era parcels families of the area had always farmed, just as they do today.
The emergence of tractors opened up the capabilities substantially more, allowing growers to farm much larger areas of land. Additionally that extra time has allowed growers to farm in farther flung vineyards, in villages outside of their own.
Next Up: Part 4.2 Erosion fundamentals: infiltration rates, runoff and damage, and how it has changed the wines of Burgundy.
(1) Musigny has three factors in its favor. It has a shallow slope which aids in its soil retention. It is a shallow vineyard, in that its rows are not long, and runoff can not achieve a high suspension velocity. And third, it is enclosed by walls that help protect it from some erosional forces.
(2) Ares is 100 square meters, and a hectare is 100 ares.
Erosion has had a monumental impact on the character of the wines of Burgundy. It took several decades once the INAO began preventing exogenous soil additions (early 20th century), before growers slowly began to realize that they must change the way they work their fields. They could no longer hit reset, by bringing in new soil to fix what they had damaged through poor farming practices. The vineyards have since responded positively; with increasingly healthier soils, and far better soil retention. The region is now producing the finest wines in its long history. But without a doubt, the erosional damage of the past has been so immense and irreparable, that we will never really know what the terroir of Burgundy might have been.
How long ago this happened, will certainly surprise you.
The First Farmers
With the recession of the Ice Age, the Neolithic hunter-gatherers of the region were now free to venture northward, allowing the arrival of agricultural Neolithic man in central France, 6,500 years ago. Around that time, the first plows were developed, and with the economy of effort it provided, more food could be produced. This in turn allowed the population to grow, greatly increasing the need for arable land.
To meet that demand, they burned to clear forests for pasture and fields. This was an expedient means of what would otherwise take years of work. The unintended consequences of burns to facilitate clearing, were often massive, fast-moving wildfires that swept though forested and grassland areas.
Without the protection of trees and grasses upon the hillsides, the erosion that ensued was monumental. There may have been more erosion in the 700 years Neolithic man farmed the land of central Europe, than in the preceding 35 million years since the Côte d’Or was formed, and perhaps more than all of the time since. Although through intervening centuries have seen the reforestation of the hillsides, the damage done by Neolithic man permanently changed the landscape of France.
Since the Neolithic, two subsequent periods of deforestation occurred, each time followed by large-scale erosion. The least destructive of the two was the periods between the 12th and 15th century, which despite the black plague in the middle 1300s, saw a large population growth in France.
The king, or the Duke in Burgundy’s case (1), would grant large parcels of land from the royal demesne(domaine) to his nobility, who were considered the servants of the Duke. Known as seigneurs, the nobility, would then use the land to raise money to fund the Duchey. The seigneur granted strips of land to tenants (serfs) to farm in open fields. These fields where then were farmed communally by the inhabitants of the manor. Intermixed with the tenant parcels were the demesne of the seigneur, and the demesne of the church – all of the land which was worked by the surf communally as partial payment for their tenant rights.
The rights the tenants had to the land were very strong and generational. They could not be evicted from the land by the seigneur. Additionally, the tenants were able to accumulate rights to more than one strip of land, meant parcels could be scattered across the manor. A transfer of land rights typically happened when a tenant died and had no heirs. At that time another tenant would assume the right to work that parcel. This occurred on a massive scale in the wake of the black plague, which arrived in Lyon in 1348. Lyon, which was only 155 km, or 96 miles along the main highway, the Via Agrippa, from wine villages of the Cote d’Or. There is little doubt that the plague struck the Cote d’Or very hard.
Newcomers to the manor who had no land rights worked for tenants that had more land than they could work themselves. It is estimated that half the of the agricultural community consisted of landless serfs.
The manor model, with its communal farming, required everyone to adhere to the norms of the region, and this discouraged innovation and adoptions of new techniques, causing production per hectare to lag behind farms in England, Holland and elsewhere in the world. The farmer’s dependence on the communal sharing of prohibitively expensive horses and plows needed to farm the heavy clay soils of central Europe only reinforced the status quo.
The inefficiencies of farming under this system meant that as the population grew, it required that the economy remained primarily both rural and agrarian. The existing estates could not supply enough food if population grew mainly in urban centers, so population tended to grow in rural areas. More mouths to feed, and more able hands to employ, meant economic opportunity for the Duchy if new arable land could be developed from the forests.
Even though the open field system inherently discouraged innovation and suppressed productivity, the system proved to be so economically successful its existence eclipsed the time of feudalism. Right up to the revolution, the open field system to continue to fund well-heeled landowners in this very capitalist endeavor. But even then, to say the open field system was gone, might be an incomplete truth. The people may have then owned the land, but their situation had not greatly changed. In fact, until only recently, the wide-spread division of small parcels ensured the impoverishment of paysans across Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, with an obvious, strong parallel to the medieval tenant arrangement. Indeed, the old lord-tenant arrangement of métayage (sharecropping)would reemerge. post-1789 revolution, between those who owned the land, and laborers who would work it. In 1929 there were 200,000 Métayers in France, farming the same 11 percent of agricultural land. This was truly not so differently as had been the arrangement in 1729, or in 1529 for that matter.
As with a population that doubled in the 3 centuries after 1000 AD, the needs for timber and hardwood also increased. Wood was needed for construction, woodworking, iron smelting and metal working, not to mention fuel for heating. All of these needs multiplied the pressures on deforestation. Although forest management had to various degrees been practiced, it tended to be exercised on forests on properties owned by the aristocracy and the church. Elsewhere, woods fell to the ax and saw.
18th century: The last major assault on terroir
A devastatingly cold 17th century followed, slowing the population growth and economies. The end of that century saw the failed harvest of 1693, when the death toll, according to David Huddart, and Tim Stott of Europeans is thought to have numbered in the millions. This period of economic lull set the stage for a final epoch of deforestation and erosion of France.
By the mid 18th century, the average temperature had risen enough to achieve food security. Once again, with food in their bellies, populations rebounded, and focus on innovation brought healthy economies. Industrial development ensued, bringing expansion and colonialism. Massive fleets were built, from forests felled for the needed timber. As the population grew again, farming and pastureland expanded once again to support the needed food supplies. The open field system prevailed through this period, and given their inefficiencies, yet more land was needed to feed the population. To these pressure, the forests fell away, leading to erosion.
The protected hunting forests of the Aristocracy, and those belonging to the Church, alone stood untouched. While these forests were often noted as early forestry, it is somewhat disingenuous call this entitlement “forest husbandry”. Indeed, by the time of the French Revolution the royal forests had become a hated symbol of privilege.(2)
Unlike the medieval period that saw erosion primarily because of deforestation, this dawn of industrialization created many new erosional sources. Iron works and foundries required mines and open pits to be dug to excavate ore, while limestone, prized for its hardness, was quarried across the country, including within the vineyard land of the Cote d’Or.
It was the wealth of the times that created a demand for Burgundy’s limestone. Thousands of large building projects: for the Church, wealthy private citizens, the aristocracy, for government buildings and public works, all of which required vast amounts of building materials. The high demand created such soar value for the “marble”. I had originally concluded when first writing this article, that the value of the limestone below, outsized the value of the grape production of that location, but I have since come to what I believe to be a more valid conclusion. I submit that the quarries dug in locations in which the limestone remained unfractured, examples of which can be seen in the climates of Meursault Perrières,Clos de Beze, Bonnes-Mares, and some submit, even Romanee-Conti, made those particular locations unsuitable for quality vine cultivation, unlike the superb plots which surrounded them.
It was used in its solid slab form for wall paneling and floors, but the rubble was also burned in special kilns to produce Quick lime (calcium oxide) which isthe primary ingredient of both mortar and plaster. Softer limestones were often sought for the production of quicklime, as it was far easier to excavate the softer stone than the harder, unfractured stone which was required for floors and wall paneling.
The excavation of the limestone not only changed the substratum and topography of these vineyards, but greatly affected vineyard lands to either side of these projects, and with substantial impact to the vineyards below. This is where the overburden (the topsoil and useless rubble) was cast, in the most expeditious manner, downhill.
175 years later, the disruption of such a quarry site to the terroir of the region is easily seen in the two vineyards of LesPerrières in Meursault, and Les Charmes, which lies just below. A large quarry was cut out of the hillside of Meursault–Perrières Dessous. The location of bulk of the excavation appears to now have been declassified from Les Perrières, as well as a wide strip above the exposed limestone wall. The sub-plot of Clos desPerrières which is owned by Albert Grivault vineyard is just below the main area of excavation, but it was certainly was part of the quarry itself. The area directly behind the removal site would certainly have been utilized for temporary buildings, for staging or even storage of limestone before transport, a loading area for horse carts, and space for any other logistical needs a quarry would require. The slope of this entire area was more or less leveled from it previous gradient. Clos desPerrières begins that the overburden would have been spread, although. The dirt roads of the regions were also impacted, by the transit of thousands of heavily loaded wagons, itself causing extensive erosion. And then it would rain.
The sections of Les Charmes-Dessus, lying just below this quarry received the discharge of overburden, deepening the soil along this half mile of roadway. That this discharge and erosion onto Les Charmes Dessus, and no doubt Les Charmes Dessous, lying just below that, is without question. The soil depth was increased by the alluvial soils eroded from the quarry site, in addition to any normal erosional deposits that would have occurred, giving the vines more depth than they require, mimicking vineyards that are actually lower on the slope. The wines from Meursault Charmes, are fairly commonly described as fat, without the vibrancy and minerality of Les Perrières, and often given the faint praise of being rather hedonistic.
Excavations by Thierry Matrot in 1990 in his parcel of Meursault–Perrières (parcel 15 in the map to the right) found roughly one foot of topsoil before striking the limestone base. Whereas, digging into his plot of Meursault-Charmes however proved to be far more work. Here a pit of 6 feet was dug before hitting the limestone substrata.(3) This indicates, a significant amount of limestone colluvium had developed in Charmes, that has mixed with transported clay to attain this six-foot depth of marl dominated soil.. I have not been able to determine the location of the Matrot’s plot (or plots) in Les Charmes. It is a large vineyard and without the dig location, this information doesn’t have nearly as much meaning as it would otherwise. It does illustrate the dramatic effect erosion has had on the vineyards of Burgundy and the character of the wines from each location.
Much more on the effect slope position and soil depth on the character of wine can be here for vineyards on the lower slopes, and here for vineyards on the upper slopes.
(1) The Burgundians were an Eastern Germanic tribe which likely crossed the Rhine in 406 AD, in a combined force with the Vandals, Alans and Suebi tribes. The Roman forces there had largely departed four years earlier to deal with Visigoth king, and sometimes Roman ally, Alaric, who would ultimately be an actor in the fall of Rome. But the crossing signaled the end of Roman rule Central Europe.
The Kingdom of the Burgundies, ruled the lands east of Paris, down to the Mediterranean with various boundaries. A series of smaller Duchy, including the Duchy of Burgundy, succeeded the Kingdom of Burgundies in 1032. The Duchy was relatively sovereign, but owed its allegiance to the French crown. The influence and power of the Duchy expanded greatly in 1384 with a union with the Hapsburgs. The house of Valois – Burgundy, the ruling family of the Duchy of Burgundy at the time, ultimately expanded its control of fiefs in Holland and the Netherlands, parts of northern France and Luxembourg. In a bid to gain independence from France, 1477 Charles the Bold was killed in battle by a combined force of the Duke of Lorraine and a Swiss Confederacy. With no heir to Charles, and a weak hold on their power, the Valois were unable to prevent the Duchy from eventually being absorbed into France.
(2) Empire Forestry and the Origins of Environmentalism, Gregory Allen Barton (p.11) Cambridge University Press
While working my first wine shop job twenty years ago, I asked the store manager – who was a Burgundy guy of significant reputation: “Why is Rousseau’s Ruchottes-Chambertin not as good as his Clos de Bèze and Chambertin?” The answer I got was honest: “I don’t know. I’ll have to ask next time I’m there.”
Years later that realized that I had asked the wrong question. The question I should have asked was this: What causes these neighboring vineyards to produce wines of such different character?
Today, twenty years later, I can answer that question. If you have read my previous 12 articles in this series on Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy, it is likely you can answer it too. More importantly, some of the lessons here can be used to understand other appellations where less concrete information is known.
The short answer
Chambertin, Chambertin-Clos de Bèze, and Ruchottes-Chambertin
These three grand cru vineyards sit in a row, shoulder to shoulder on the same hillside. All have their upper-most vines smack up against the forested hillside, and all have virtually the same exposition. The legendary domaine of Armand Rousseau farms and makes wine from all three of these vineyards; yet one, the cru of Ruchottes-Chambertin, does not seem to be cut from the same cloth. The wine made from Ruchottes is not as rich or opulent. It tends to be lighter, more fine-boned, and more angular in its structure. The primary reason for this difference in wine character is that right at the border of Clos de Bèze and Ruchottes, the limestone beneath changes significantly. Unlike the other two vineyards, Ruchottes-Chambertin sits over very hard and pure limestone that is composed of almost completely of calcium carbonates and very little in the way of impurities, such as mud or clay.
The impurities within the stone, (bonded by the calcite) is what determines how much clay and other materials will be left behind as bedding materials when the stone has weathered. The more impurities in the limestone, the more nutrients will be available for the vines when the stone weathers chemically. Further, it will reflect not just how fractured the stone has become due to extensional stress, but it will have often been the determining factor of whether the bedding has become friable as well. The wines of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze have this sort of impure limestone as a bedding under three-quarters of its surface area. It is a significant factor in giving the wines of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze a heavier weight and richer character than the wines from Ruchottes.
Another major factor in this differential in wine weight is that Ruchottes is a much smaller appellation, which confines it solely to the upper slope. Its location makes it subject to all of the factors that challenge upper slope vineyards, details that are examined in Part 3.3. Conversely, both Chambertin or Clos de Beze extend almost three times farther down the hill, all the way to the curb of the slope. Additionally, while the degree of slope may kick up in the upper final meters of the Clos de Bèze and Chambertin, the area under vine upon upper slope (that will produce a lighter wine) is relatively small compared to the entire surface area of those vineyards.
Unlike Ruchottes, the long slopes of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze willreach down to almost to where the slope completely leveled off. There at the base of the slope, rock and soil colluvium will have been transported by gravitational erosion, adding generously to the depth the soil. This depth allows more water to be absorbed and retained for use by the vines. It is rich in limestone rubble, gravel, and catches and holds more fine earth fractions including transported clay that has flocculated there. Above ground, scree litters the vineyards.
The fact that most ownership parcels run in vertical rows, from the top of the vineyard to the bottom, assures that any lighter, more finessed wines will contribute, but not dominate the overall blend. In other words, blending of heavier wines lower on the slope masks the lighter wines from the top of the slope.
It is abundantly clear that the vines benefit from the higher levels of nutrients in these deeper soils. They develop grapes that carry more color (anthocyanins) and brings many times more dry extract to the wine. This translates as the wines of these vineyards having a richer, more velvety texture, increased depth, all of which covers the structure. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the upper-slope position of Ruchottes-Chambertin dictates that the soils there are very shallow, and while there is a high percentage of colluvium, it is not as rich in sand, silt or clay-sized particles. In fact, there are places the topsoil has completely eroded away, leaving fractured stone and primary clay and marly-limestone between the voids and breaks in the rock.
New research allows new understanding
Today we can examine this variation of limestone within a vineyard with a precision that was not possible a decade ago. This is due to the groundbreaking work of geologist Françoise Vannier–Petit and her mapping of the dominant limestone beddings of Gevrey. Through her work, we know that Ruchottes is a very homogeneous terroir, one with a very pure and hard limestone bedding dominating the vineyard. While the stone does not provide much in the way of nutrients to nurture the vines, we know it is well-fractured by two large faults that run through the vineyard. Because of the vigorous faulting and fracturing throughout the vineyard, Ruchottes does produce a grand cru class wine, but it is a grand cru of a different character.
The geological factors in Ruchottes do not typically produce a wine with the substantial fruit or thickness of a Chambertin, and this ‘reduced’ level fruit often does not completely ‘blanket’ of structure in the wines from Ruchottes. This obvious structure is often mentioned in wine reviews, noting heightened acids and tannins, lending the wines a more angular construction than in other grand crus. By the same token, the wine from Ruchottes is often quite aromatic, with finer bones, for this wine, it means exhibiting more finesse, as well as giving the taster a heightened awareness of the wine’s precise rendering of detail. In another vineyard, this might be attributed to the grapes achieving less phenolic maturity, but the wines of Ruchottes are ripe, they just aren’t typically as large scaled or heavy. Moreover, they can be remarkably beautiful wines that can age effortlessly, for decades; often gaining poise, polish, and balance while doing so.
The substrate of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze is much more varied. With Vannier-Petit’s mapping information, we know that 35 million years ago the vineyards of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze were opened up by a large fault. This exposed the older (2 million years +/-) of softer bedding planes below. They are both divided by four bedding planes, three of them being of soft, friable, impure materials, giving excellent nutrients. This softer, highly fractured bedding allows the vines to thrive, and produce wines with much higher levels of fruit. This is the heart of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze.
Additionally, the twin vineyards are perfectly situated, mostly upon a gentle gradient which will resist erosion, or better yet, at the curb of the slope, where the soil is deeper, The vineyards are well protected from wind, being squarely behind the hillside of Montagne de Combe Grisard. These two vineyards sit in the sweet spot of the heat trap formed by the hyperbolic concave of the slope. This positioning allows ripening occur even in most cold, wet years. Ruchottes, while fairly well protected, it is nearer the Combe de Lavaux through which cooling winds flow down the vast gorge.
All of these factors make the wines made from Chambertin and Clos de Bèze much easier wines to understand because they have so much to give. They can be very seductive and complex and can be drunk either young or old. Are they typically better wines than can be made in Ruchottes? The knee-jerk reaction is yes, as Ruchottes can be equated to the man fighting with one hand tied behind his back. But when a well-made wine from Ruchottes is opened at the right time and served with the right meal, it can be perfection.
Generally speaking, when compared to vineyards in some of the other villages, the grand vineyards of Gevrey are fairly mild in their gradient. The uppermost vineyard sites of the Chambertin-named vineyards butt up against the Montagne de Combe Grisard’s “chaumes” (or ‘scruff ‘ in English). But unlike the steep upper hillsides of Vosne or Volnay that were able to be planted to vine, there is an unarable, rocky, forested landscape. Here in the chaumes, where no vines are planted, the hillside above Gevrey becomes steep.
The premier cru of Bel-Air is the one real exception. Carved out of a void in the rocky forest, and perched directly above ChambertinClos de Bèze, Bel Air is a steep vineyard. It is a superb example of the struggles upper-slope vineyards face. See Part 3.3.1 for more on this. According to Vannier-Petit, a white Oolite formation underlies the uppermost section of Bel Air, and Premeaux Limestone underlies the lower part. Several writers have described Clos de Bèze as having Oolite formations below the soils, but Vannier-Petit does not note this. Instead, it is likely that Oolite has slid, as scree, or even in large chunks as a rock slide, into Clos de Bèze, from Bel Air above.
A prominent feature of the area, as outlined by the late James E. Wilson, a geologist, and author ofTerroir (1998), is a rocky outcropping he referred to as a “Comblanchiencap“. While this was not part of the vineyard landscape, he described it as a major feature of the “Nuits Strata Package.” This term,“Nuits Strata Package,” ascoined by Wilson, is an overarching reference to the bands of limestone bedding that stretch from Marsannay to Nuits-St-George, a layering of limestones unique to the Côte de Nuits. An upper-band of Comblanchien stone, he wrote, formed a structural bulwark or ‘cap’ which has allowed the upper-hillside to resist erosion, while the softer center eroded more quickly. This has caused the Côtede Nuits to develop its hyperbolic concave slope-shape. This concave slope relief, as I wrote earlier, allows the heat of the sun is trapped, allowing fruit to ripen fully. This is particularly true for vineyards such as this that sit in a wind shadow which is created by the trees and hillside above.
Interestingly, a much more recent map of Gevrey by Vannier-Petit, does not deem it necessary to include hillside construction above the vineyards. So while she shows no Comblanchien“cap rock“ at the edge of the Gevrey’s vineyards, as it seems Wilson described them, she does shows that the Premeaux stone extends one hundred or so meters up-slope. This extends well beyond the farthest, uppermost edges of the vineyard land. While she may have felt the composition was outside the scope of the project, certainly anything that will wash, slide, or roll into a vineyard, is of great importance to our understanding of the physical vineyard makeup.
Ruchottes-Chambertin: a largely homogeneous appellation
Ruchottes-Chambertin, and it’s ying-yang partner. Mazy-Chambertin (also spelled Mazis-Chambertin), sit at the tail end of the string of grand cru vineyards. The primary limestone beneath both vineyards is the significantly calcium-pure, Premeaux. Premeaux limestone, which is marketed as marble, is highly desirable for construction and prized for its pink color. It is very similar to Comblanchien (which is a creamy white), but slightly less pure, (hence the color), and slightly less resistant to geological strain. See Part 1.1 for detailed compressional strengths of various commercial limestones.
Technically, the Ruchottes appellation is made up of three small, roughly equally-sized vineyards: Ruchottes Bas, (meaning the below) Ruchottes Hauts, (meaning above), and next to that, against the forested outcroppings at the top of the hill, Clos des Ruchottes. The Clos is a monopole owned by the firm of Armand Rousseau.
While the lower half of the Clos des Ruchottes shares the rest of Ruchottes’ Premeaux limestone, the uppermost section, is covered in a layer of white Oolitic stone. Oolitic stone is made up of millions of small, oval, carbonate Oolite (egg stone) pellets that are fused by mineral cement. This composite construction makes the stone more susceptible to fracture, and the vines find it far easier to penetrate the many weak spots in this more porous stone. If anything, this is a benefit that the Clos des Ruchottes has over the rest of the Ruchottes appellation, especially since it is so high upon the hill. However we don’t know if the Oolite is of significant depth, and it is likely that Premeaux lies directly beneath it anyway. In either case, as vineyards go, the entire appellation of Ruchottes-Chambertin, is remarkably homogeneous in character.
The excellent Armand Rousseau website discusses Ruchottes Oolitic limestone, as well as shows the firm’s holdings in the vineyard, and is fairly detailed, and seemingly competent in their geological explanations, a surprising rarity in Burgundian marketing. Below is an excerpt.
The soil is composed of a shallow layer of red marl up to the top of the area. It is very pebbly, shallow and not fertile. The vines are based on oolithic limestone dating from Bathonien which disintegrates if frozen producing scree. This soil type forces the roots to go deeper into the rock. This results in a more fragrant, mineral style of wine that is lighter in colour but with a fine and elegant body. domaine-rousseau.com/en
Examining Ruchottes faulting and fracturing
We know through of the study of fracturing along the Arugot fault in the Dead Sea Basin, that as the distance from the fault increases, fracturing diminishes in frequency. This means that fracturing still occurs in its clusters, but the spacing between clusters is farther apart, leaving stretches of relatively undisturbed stone between areas of fracturing. As Ruchottes is located at the farthest possible distance in Gevrey from the main Saône fault, we rightly might expect this hard stone to be only intermittently fractured. Certainly, there have been numerous accounts over the past century of vignerons having to dynamite sections of these vineyards to break up the stone enough to plant their vines.
Unknown before Vannier-Petit’s work were the locations of sub-faulting that occurred at the same time that the Saône Fault developed.(1) Two sub-faults bi-sect Ruchottes and Mazy, right at the border with Clos de Bèze. The vertical fault-line follows the boundary between the Premeaux stone and the various beddings that make up Clos de Bèze.
Ruchottes origin during of the Côte’s creation
The once level Premeaux limestone bedding of Ruchottes came under great strain as the land that now forms the Saône Valley Basin pulled away and began its slide down. As the limestone slab was pulled extensionally, the once solid piece of limestone bedding first began to microfracture, then to fracture throughout the body of the stone. As understood by the study of fluid mechanics, stress intensifies exponentially upon weakest areas of the stone, from which fracturing propagates, until the main horizontal break, or fault occurs.
As this faulting occurred, the neighboring blocks of limestone were pulled downward by the void made by the dropping/falling off the fledgling Saône Valley. As this happened, bedding of Ruchottes began to tilt and slide downwards, both pulled and sliding with the adjacent formations. It is not clear if this was a rapid, cataclysmic event, or that it happened over the span of hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Either way, the stress upon the Premeaux bedding of Ruchottes was extraordinary, and what fracturing that was not caused the faulting, certainly occurred as it tilted and moved its position downward.
Often times, faulting can cause one plate to sit significantly higher than the next, forming a drop off which may or may not fill with soil. In some locations, such as the fault between Chevalier-Montrachet and Le Montrachet, this has occurred What soil was lost by Chevalier to erosion, found a fine resting place in Le Montrachet, allowing the soils of Le Montrachet to become much deeper (and richer). In other instances, erosion may once again level any difference in bedding height created by faulting. Alternately, the bedding may remain at the same height following the fault creation. To the best of my knowledge, any height differential between Ruchottes du bas and Mazy Hauts is not documented.
Looking at the satellite image, there are certainly several visual clues that this faulting exists. Most obvious are the signs of significant stress are the limestone ridges, where the bedding has folded upon itself, that pushed above the topsoil. These are the dominant features directly above the southern end of Mazy Haut, and just like the walls of Clos, these limestone ridges greatly reduce erosion in these areas, which results in deeper richer soils and thus weightier wines, not only in Mazy but in that area of Ruchottes du Dessus.
Clos de Beze & Chambertin: four distinct bedding planes
While Chambertin and Chambertin Clos de Bèze are very similar to each other, they are unique to all other vineyards in Gevrey. Both vineyards share the same four bands of bedding planes, in roughly the same proportions. The one largest difference between them is that there is a higher percentage of Crinoidal stone in Clos de Bèze than exists in the northern end of Chambertin. However, what is farmed depends completely on the parcels owned, not what exists in the vineyard itself. It is increasingly clear is that a parcel is a vineyard in itself, and sections within parcels can hold wide variation in the character of wine it will produce.
Upper-slope Bathonian beddings:
Premeaux limestone and Argillaceous limestone/Shaley limestone
The uppermost sections of both Clos de Bèze and Chambertin sit over the very pure, and hard, Premeaux limestone, formed during the Bathonian which is a 2 million year period of the upper middle Jurassic. As in Ruchottes, we can expect this Premeaux limestone to be fairly well-fragmented. If this were the only stone found below the surface of these vineyards, the wines would taste much more like Ruchottes, but that is not the case.
The middle-upper section of these sibling vineyards is argillaceous limestone. This is a calcium-rich clay matrix may be indurated into stone, or it also may be soft and more marly. The clay, or argile as it is called in French, normally composes up to 50% the matrix, with roughly the balance being calcium carbonate and impurities. To this Vannier-Petit adds the word hydraulique, (in parenthesis), which refers to the fact that this particular limestone contains silica and alumina, that will yield a lime that will harden under water. The assumption is that this Calcaire Argilleux formed underwater in the Jurassic lagoon or seashore, by secreting quicklime which bound with the clay, 168 million years ago.
Decanter Magazine alternately, and perhaps inaccurately, translates from the French Calcaire Argilleux, into Shaley Limestone, (as seen in the map box). That said, Françoise Vannier–Petit describes in an interview, that the relationship of clay and shale, is almost as one material that continually is in a transition from clay to shale – and back again, depending on how hardened (indurated) it becomes, or degraded. That stated, shale is generally regarded as lithified clay mixed with silt, the blend of which causes the notable horizontal striations, while a body of transported clay (of a single type, ie. Kaolin) that has been indurated (hardened) is termed claystone. Geologists are notorious for their loose use of terms, which makes it challenging for the rest of us to catch up, and I suspect Vannier-Petit is often guilty of this. AC Shelly is credited with writing in 1988 that “The term shale, however, could perhaps be usefully abandoned by geologists, except when communicating to engineers or management‟
Middle to lower slope Bajonien beddings:
Marnes à Ostrea acuminata & Crinoidal Limestone
The oyster, and other fossils thatsedimentologists are constantly mentioning as being present the bedding is really only relevant because it allows the scientist to easily reference age of the material. The fact certain creatures lived only during distinct periods of time, and only in certain environments. So not only does it give scientists the age of the strata, but it tells them a lot about the particular conditions that existed in that location, quickly allows the scientist to assign the formation of the bedding material to a particular period of time. As the fossils display different signs of evolution, (in the case some oysters, their valve position changed over long periods of time) the sedimentologist can establish the age bedding, and allow them to recognize a change of bedding (at on the surface) simply by the fossils in each location.
Using this methodology, the scientist gleans information about how the bedding has shifted position or even its location. These shifts have been very significant in the Côte. By categorizing strata by type, and fossil type. and date, they can match one stratum in one location with its mate in another. This methodology allows sedimentologists to correlate strata worldwide.
In the vineyard of Chambertin, the marl (Marnes à Ostrea acuminata) lies in a layer just beneath the argillaceous material that once was an ancient oyster bed. It is loaded with fossilized oyster shells (Ostrea) from the upper–Bajocien period. This soil, into which the fossils are bedded, contains a large amount of the clay, montmorillonite, which has a very high cation exchange rate, and such soils, with their negative charge, attract and hold positively charged ions called cations (minerals like calcium (Ca++), magnesium (Mg++), potassium (K+), ammonium (NH4+), hydrogen (H+) and sodium (Na+) that are crucial for plant growth. This makes this particular marl which lies in the heart of Chambertin, a particularly sweet spot for vines. And because this is a bedding plane that underlies the Argillaceous material above it, those vines whose roots can reach that deeply may benefit from the Marnes à Ostrea acuminata too. That said, the deeper roots, it is reported, do not typically supply vines significantly with nutrients, that vines rely on their shallower root systems for this function.
The age of the Marnes à Ostrea acuminata dates back to the very late Bajocian, parkinsoni zone168.3 +/-, well before the Premeaux which lies above it was formed on top of it. This important because this decisively shows that the Comblanchien bedding, which lies at the base of the hillside (and was formed later in the Bathonian), slid downslope, pulled eastward with the falling SaôneValley. This slide of this sheet of Comblanchien bedding plane, which at one time overlaid the argillaceous and oyster marl material and lay next to the Premeaux, moved downward almost 100 meters and eastward by roughly 200 meters. This left expose this older argillaceous marl and crinoidal bedding to the air for the first time after having been buried for the previous 133 million years. The next bedding plane is the also Bajocien in origin, again being older than the Premeaux higher on the hill, and older than the Comblanchien which sits below both Chambertin and Clos de Beze.
The lowest section of Chambertin and the largest percentage of Clos de Beze’s acreage consists of the well-fractured Crinoidal Limestone. This is the most common base rock upon which, the classified crus of Gevrey are planted.
Crinoids were extremely prevalent the lagoons and Jurassic seas worldwide, until the Permo-Triassic extinction when they were virtually wiped off of the geologic record. Their fossilized remains create weakness in the stone that encases them. This weakness in the stone, coupled with the geological fracturing of the area, has made it relatively easy for the vine’s roots to penetrate deep into this rock strata. Impurities in the stone’s construction, allows for chemical weathering, brought about by rainwater infiltration, to create rich primary clay bedding for the vines, within the breaks and gaps in the rock. These factors have proved that Crinoidal limestone provides a very effective and fertile bedding for Pinot Noir to grow.
Wilson described the Crinoidal limestone as being “cracked by numerous small faults which ‘shuffle the cards’ of strata, but generally are not large enough to ‘cut the deck’ to introduce markedly new strata.” Terroir (1998) p.131. This is typical of his breezy style, and while it is visual (in terms of cards), it really doesn’t have much concrete meaning, other than being a colorful way to say the crinoidal stone is well-fractured. He does go on to say that this extensive fracturing allows the stone to be a good aquifer for the vines.
Colluvium: atop the bedding planes
Almost every grand cru vineyard in the Côtede Nuits has significant amounts of colluvium mixed in their soils. While Ruchottes-Chambertin does have colluvium is one of the most glaring exceptions it is not significant in quantity. Typically, this colluvium is accompanied by a fair amount of transported clay, which when together often forms marl.(2) Rarely does one exist without the other in vineyards that have been classified as grand cru.
In the Côtede Nuits, there tends to be more colluvium in the colluvium to clay matrix, while in the Côte de Beaune, there tends to be more clay. This tends to the case because there are many more marl bedding planes in the Côte de Beaune than there are in the Côtede Nuits, where marl bedding is rarer. There may be more shale in the Côte de Beaune as well.
The tête de cru, – the very finest of the grand cru vineyards, have relatively equal proportions of marl and colluvium and sit only upon the slightest of slopes. This applies to the vast majority of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze vineyard area. These crus possess a perfect planting bed for vines: they have colluvium/marl based topsoil that is at least 50 cm (19 inches) deep where the absorbing roots are active.(3) Because of this construction, the soil has good porosity for root and water infiltration but is not so porous a material that the water does not drain right through it, or cause it evaporates quickly from it. Additionally, because of its rocky nature, the grand cru soils tend to resists compaction.
While there is a band of harder, less fertile Premeaux stone on the uppermost slopes of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze, this represents a minority proportion of these vineyards. Parcels that have vines on these upper slopes, often lend a measure of finesse to the finished wine, without impacting the palate impression of the finished blend. For these reasons, Chambertin and ChambertinClos de Bèze are among the finest vineyards in the Côtede Nuits.
Clos des Ruchottes, (and Ruchottes in general) is a far different vineyard than its two neighbors. With the near-pure calcium stone beneath its shallow soils, the low levels of impurities mean that when it weathers, very little clay is produced. Because of the scant soil, the vineyard their neither contains nor can it attract, as much in the way of nutrients for the vines as can Clos de Bèze with which it shares a border. The resulting wines typically have less fruit, less color, seem more structured or tannic, and have a finer, though thinner texture. On the upside, the vineyard produces a very classy wine that can have excellent aromatics, remarkable finesse, and has excellent age ability.
Agree? Disagree? Comments are welcome and encouraged! Please feel free to like or share this, or any other article in this series!
Note: Many authors note that Clos de Bèze has Oolitic limestone. Vannier-Petit does not note this on her map. Instead, she places the Oolitic stone in the premier cru of Bel Air, which sits directly above it. A likely explanation of Oolite being cited as existing in Chambertin is scree/colluvium from Bel Air has slid down, to litter Clos de Bèze from above.
(1) The problem with always talking about the Saône Fault ignores the fact that the fault is really the most minor part of the geological event that happened. It was a continent being pulled apart which caused the void into which the entire region from the Côte d’Or to the Jura fell into a trough which now forms the Saône Valley. The Saône Fault is nothing more than as scar marking that event. And in fact, the Saône Fault lies buried quite deeply underground – its general location is only estimated.
(2) Marl would require a smaller particle size than just rock and gravel-sized limestone pieces to produce the non-clayey consistency that marl displays.
(3) Despite the conventional wisdom to the contrary, it is this shallow absorbing root system that gathers the majority of nutrients that vines require.
Vineyard and plot variation confuses our understanding of Burgundy
High on the upper slopes, the farthest away from the Saône Valley Fault, the magnitude of fracturing within the same vineyard can vary significantly, even within the span of a few meters. Not only that, but there is evidence that the farther one moves from the main fault, the occurrence of fracturing patterns widens in its spacing, being further and further apart, and more irregular in its distribution. This means that if the fracturing is unequal within a vineyard, so can it to be unequal within a parcel. Following this uneven fracturing distribution, it becomes quite clear that a wine produced from different vineyard sections may produce wines of differents weights, and possibly character. We can only assume that this kind of intermittent fracturing, hidden beneath the topsoil, has unequally affected not only the wine made by these plots but the reputation of the vignerons who farm these plots as well.
The patterns of fracture propagation
Looking back at Part 1.2 about the deformation and fracturing of limestone, the stress that causes the main fault, and many of the parallel faults also weakens the entire stone structure through deformation. Micro-fractures appear throughout the stone, independently of one another, usually in clusters. As the cracks propagate, they do so often in a tree-like pattern, forking and spreading upward from the origin fracture, deeper within the stone. Depending on the brittleness of the limestone and the direction of the strain, these microcracks will form tensile fractures (extensional strain) or shear planes (compressional strain). Additional strain will be concentrated on the most fractured, weakest part of the stone, and this becomes the path of the fracture. Because these areas have been forced to bend and ultimately fail, this movement causes the strain to localize, increased by the stone’s own failure, causing even greater fracturing. Alternately in the areas between the crack arrays, the stone will be only lightly fractured, and in some places, maybe not at all. It is this that makes plots within the same vineyard unequal, as much as the skill and style vignerons are unequal.
Clues to the Côte by examining another fault/escarpment
The Arugot Fault near Jerusalem is unique because the fractures to its dolomite slabs (limestone containing magnesium) lie above ground, not covered by sand or soil. Geologists are reasonably certain that the Arugot fault was an extensional occurrence (like the SaôneFault), not caused by slip-shear or other earthquake-related stresses. The Arugot fault, like the Saône Fault, was created an escarpment as the Dead Sea Basin pulled away, in ahorst/grabenrelationship. The area is prone to flash flooding, particularly through the deep canyons that bisect the escarpment (not unlike thecombesof the Cote), and it was the erosion that rapid water movement causes have left the vertically fractured dolomite uncovered and available to be studied. The general geographical similarities of the Saône and Arugot are marred by the fact that the Dead Sea escarpment is twice as tall (600 meters), and many times more steep, with very steep angles of 75% to 80% that drop into the Dead Sea depression.
The fault itself is believed to extend several hundred meters into the earth. Parallel to the fault, a series many extensional fractures were formed, marching up the escarpment away from the main fault. There is ample evidence that these fractures propagated from below, as the fractures are tree-like, branching vertically, splitting the rock into smaller and smaller divisions as they move toward the surface. They often, but not always, fracture through the top of the stone. Nearest to the Arugot fault itself, the fractures are very close together, and the farther away from the fault the wider the spacing between fractures until they discontinue hundreds of meters away from the main fault. The relevance of this increased space between fractures is that explains the variation between well-fractured sections of limestone, and poorly fractured sections, all within the space of a few meters. This variation extends to, and explains not only to the difference between two vineyards, but the difference between plots, or even within sections of the same plot.
Shallow topsoil over hard limestone: a site of struggle
As I touched on in the introduction of slope position in Part 3.2, there are significant variables effecting which vineyards can produce weightier wines further up the slope. However, as a general rule, the steep upper-slopes are far less capable of producing dense, weighty and fruit filled Burgundies that are routinely produced on the mid and lower slopes.
The lack of water, nutrients and root space
In many of these upper vineyards, the crushed, sandy, and in some places powdery, or typically firmer and more compact, the marly limestone topsoil overlies a very pure limestone, such as Comblanchien, Premeaux and Pierre de Chassagne. Here, the extent of that the stone is fractured determines the vines ability to put down a healthy volume of roots to support both growth and fruit bearing activity. Any gardener can tell you that insufficient root space, whether grown above a shallow hardpan or in a pot, will cause a plant to be root bound and less healthy.
Because these steeper vineyards can neither develop, nor hold much topsoil to its slopes. The topsoil, which can be measured in inches rather than feet, tends to be very homogeneous in its makeup; a single horizon of compact, marly limestone, with a scant clay content of roughly 10-15%. The infiltration of rainwater and the drainage are one and the same. Retention of the water is performed almost solely by this clay content, and evaporation in this confined root zone can be a significant hazard to the vine. Fortunately rain in Burgundy during the growing season is common, although rainfall from April to October, and particularly in July, the loss of water in the soil is swifter than it’s replacement from the sky (Wilson, “Terroir” p120).
Infiltration Rates of Calcareous Soils
A study by A. Ruellan, of the Ecole National Supérieure Agronomique, examined the calcareous (limestone) soils of Mediterranean and desert regions, where available water and farming can be at critical odds. He studied two major limestone soil types. The first was a light to medium textured, loamy, calcareous soil (60 – 80% CaCO3), and the second was a powdery and dry limestone soil with no cohesion. This second soil had a calcium carbonate content that exceeded 70%, and had 5% organic matter and a low clay content. The water holding capacity of this soil was a mere 14%. The depth of this soil was over 2 meters deep, which likely does not allow weathered clay accumulate near the surface, as it does in Burgundy.
Both limestone soils had very high permeability, with an infiltrate at a rate at a lightning fast 10 to 20 meters per day (or between 416 mm per hour and 832 mm per hour). Even if rainwater infiltrated at half that rate through Burgundy’s compact limestone soils, it would virtually disappear from the topsoil. This is the area where the majority of the vines root system exists, and part of the root system responsible for nutrient uptake is within this topsoil region. In this case of these soils, the vines must send down roots to gain water in the aquifer. Wittendal, who I wrote of in Part 3, suggests in that the vines literally wrap their roots around the stone, and suck the water from them. I have seen little evidence that limestone actually absorbs water due to many limestone’s high calcium content and lack of porosity. This would be particularly true on the upper slopes under consideration now. It would be up to the roots to attempt to penetrate the stone in search of the needed water.
The root zone
By design, vines rely on the roots established within the surface soil – which is where nutrients (ie nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) are found – to gain the majority of their sustenance. They send down deeper roots to gain water when it is not available nearer the surface. However in Burgundy, many of the steeper slopes present planting situations where not only is the soil very shallow, but the nutrients are poor. The limestone in these vineyards often is hard and clear of impurities, and within the same vineyard may vary significantly in how fractured the stone is. Because of this, in some locations vines have difficulty establishing vigorous root penetration of the limestone base, and this can dramatically limit the vine’s root zone.
Additionally, because of the soil’s shallow depth, , and because of the soils high porosity and low levels of clay and other fine earth fractions, only a limited volume of water can be retained
Water is critical for both clay’s formation and its chemical structure, and the clay will not give up the last of what it needs for it own composition. The evaporation rate of what little water there might remain, can be critically swift.
Rainwater’s infiltration of the limestone base, and its retention of water can also be limited where significant fracturing has not occurred. Any water that cannot easily infiltrate either the soil or the limestone base, will start downward movement across the topsoil as runoff. That means any vine that has been established in shallow topsoil, or the topsoil has suffered significant losses due to erosion, will be forced to send roots down to attempt to supply water and nutrients.
Vine roots and a restricted root zone
In non-cultivated, non-clonal vines, powerful tap roots are sent down for the purpose of retrieving water when it is not available in from the surface soils. However our clonal varieties are more “highly divided” according to the “Biology of the Grapevine” by Michael G. Mullins, Alain Bouquet, Larry E. Williams, Cambridge University Press, 1992. The largest, thickest, roots develop fully in their number of separate roots, by the vine’s third year, and are called the main framework roots. Old established vines in good health may have main framework roots as thick as 100cm (40 inches) thick. This main framework root system, in normal soils, typically sinks between 30 cm (11 inches) and 35 cm (13 inches) below the surface. In shallow soils, they may hit hard limestone before full growth, and may have to turn away, or stop growing. Anne-Marie Morey, of Domaine Pierre Morey, echoes this in talking with Master of Wine, Benjamin Lewin, of their plot in Meursault Tessons. “This is a mineral terroir: the rock is about 30 cms down and the roots tend to run along the surface.”
From the main framework, grows the permanent root system. These roots are much smaller, between 2 and 6 cm, and may either grow horizontally (called spreaders) or they may grow downward (known as sinkers). From these permanent roots grow the fibrous or absorbing roots. These absorbing roots are continually growing and dividing, and unlike the permanent roots, are short-lived. When older sections absorbing roots die, new lateral absorbing roots to replace them.
Although the permanent sinker roots may dive down significant depths, the absorbing roots (which account for major portion of a vine’s root system account for the highest percentage of root mass, typically only inhabit the first 20cm to 50cm, or between 8 inch and 19 inches of a soils depth (Champagnol, Elements de Physiologie de la Vigne et de ViticultureGénérale 1984). Clearly this is an issue if the topsoil is only 30 cm (12 inches) to begin with. If the absorbing roots are not growing sufficiently on the sinkers, the vine must rely on the exceptionally poor topsoil of the marly limestone.
South African soil scientist Dr. Philip Myburgh found (1996) that restricted root growth correlated with diminished yields. He also found that the “critical limit’ of penetration by vine root was 2 MPa through a “growing medium”. Weakness in the bedrock, and the spacing of these weaknesses, contributed to a vines viability.
The vines on these slopes, on which there is limited fracturing of the harder, non-friable limestone, have difficulty surviving. These locations often shorten the lifespan of the vines planted there, compared to other, more fertile locations in Burgundy, where vines can grow in excess of 100 years. It is these vines, with barely sufficient nutrients that make wines that don’t have the fruit weight that I wrote of before, simply because they cannot gain the water and nutrients necessary to develop those characteristics. The amount of struggle the vine endures directly determines the wine’s weight, or lack of it.
It is ironic, that when we research the issues the catchphrases of wine describe, ie, the “vines must struggle”, or that a vineyard is “well-drained”, or the vineyards are “too wet to produce quality wine”, we see the simplicities, inaccuracies, or the shortcuts that those words cover up. Yet these catchphrases are so ingrained in wine writing, that we don’t even know to question them, or realize that they require significantly more nuance, or at minimum, point of reference. Yes, the vines on the upper-slopes are particularly well-drained. They do indeed struggle, sometimes to the point of producing vines are not healthy, and cannot the quality or the weight of wine that the producer (dictated by their customers) feels worthy of the price.
Extreme vineyard management
In Blagny, the Sous le dos d’Ane vineyard, which lies directly above the small cru of AuxPerrières, has seen at least one frustrated producer graft their vines from Pinot Noir to Chardonnay. The Pinot, from the red, shallow, marly limestone soils, was felt to be unsatisfactorily light in weight. Not only would a lighter-styled, and minerally Chardonnay be well received, the producer will be able to sell it much more easily – and for more money because he could then label it as Meursault, Sous le dos d’Ane, a much more marketable name.
Producers in the Côtede Nuits rarely have the option to switch varietals. They typically must produce Pinot Noir to label as their recognized appellation. In the premier cru of Gevrey-Chambertin “Bel Air”, and Nuits St-Georges “Aux Torey”, growers have gone to the extreme lengths and expense of ‘reconditioning’ their plots. To do this, they must rip out their vines, strip back the topsoil and breaking up the limestone below. In the adjacent photo, a field of broken Premeaux limestone and White Oolite has been tenderized, if you will. The soil is replaced and the vineyard replanted. The entire process requires a decade before useful grapes can be harvested once again from the site, costing an untold number of Euros spent, not to mention the money not realize had the old vines been allowed to limp on. The same has been done in Puligny Folatières in 2007 by Vincent Girardin, and there again in 2011 by another unknown producer. Ditto with Clos de Vergers, a 1er cru in Pommard in 2009.
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
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 “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 Mazoyères–Chambertin 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.
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
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 SaôneValley 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 LesGrands 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 SaôneValley 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.
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 ishigh, 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.