Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy Part 4.5, Soil retention – the farming of Burgundy in the 1800s

Ancien Régime

A historical explanation for Les Damaudes’ retention of clay


Click to enlarge. Many thanks to Steen Ohman, of Winehog.org for supplying the Cadastre map of 1827

Click to enlarge. Many thanks to Steen Ohman, of Winehog.org for supplying me with the Cadastre Map of 1827

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 Esquiredescribes 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)  

*For additional explanation of feudalism see Part 4: The history of erosion and man.

After the dissolution of traditional "demesne," or domaines of the Marquis and the church, peasants were given the rights to the land that they had always farmed as serfs. These parcels were called selions. After the phylloxera destroyed their vineyards, many of these peasant owners could not afford to replant their vineyards. A number of these lesser vineyards were not replanted for almost a century. Here an Image of a peasant girl resting, is from the Paris Salon circa 1893.

After the dissolution of traditional “demesne,” or domaines of the Marquis and the church, peasants were given the rights to the land that they had always farmed as serfs. These parcels were called selions. After the phylloxera destroyed their vineyards, many of these peasant owners could not afford to replant their vineyards. A number of these lesser vineyards were not replanted for almost a century. Here an Image of a peasant girl resting is from the Paris Salon circa 1893.

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 Seigneur provided 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.

provignage illustrationThe 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

sulpher treatmentsThis 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.

Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), Vineyard laborer resting, 1869

Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), Vineyard laborer resting, 1869

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 Steen Öhman author of winehog.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.


Additional reading

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

http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9479.pdf     European Wine on the Eve of the Railways, James Simpson



Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy: Part 3.4 The Grand Crus

 By Dean Alexander

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 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.”

It years later that realized that I had asked the wrong question. The question I should have asked was: 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.

Clos des Ruchottes to the right, and Ruchottes du bas, on the left. photo: googlemaps

Clos des Ruchottes to the right, and Ruchottes du bas, on the left. photo: googlemaps

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 will reach 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 VannierPetit 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 gentle slopes of Chambertin. Photo: googlemaps

The gentle slopes of Chambertin. Photo: googlemaps

The substrata 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 exposing 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.

Armand Roussaux parcel map

Chambertin clos de Beze


Digging deeper 

Gevrey-Chambertin topography

Generally speaking, when compared to vineyards in some of 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 Chambertin Clos 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 describe 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 of Terroir (1998), is a rocky outcropping he referred to as a “Comblanchien cap“. 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,” as coined 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 Côte de 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 particuularly 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 

Here, a photo by Armand Rousseau illustrating the lack of topsoil, and the width of the fractures in the Premeaux limestone. No doubt this is a more extreme section, but it gives us the understanding of the relationship between the hard stone, fracturing and the difficulty of dealing with erosion in these vineyards.

Here, a photo from Armand Rousseau illustrates the lack of topsoil, and the width of the fractures in the Premeaux limestone. No doubt this is a more extreme section, but it gives us the understanding of the relationship between the hard stone, fracturing and the difficulty of dealing with erosion in these vineyards.

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.

Mazy and Ruchottes Chambertin with dip and strike oriented faults. Significant outcropping has emerged from this hard Premeaux stone at the convergence of these faults. Interestingly its both parallel and perpendicular to the extensional, horizontal faulting

Mazy and Ruchottes Chambertin with dip and strike oriented faults. Significant outcropping has emerged from this hard Premeaux stone at the convergence of these faults. Interestingly its both parallel and perpendicular to the extensional, horizontal faulting

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 dominate 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

Here the soft friable makeup explains the ease that the vines have in extracting nutrients and water from the base rock

Here the soft friable makeup explains the ease that the vines have in extracting nutrients and water from the base rock

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 VannierPetit 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. Geologist 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‟

Nothing is as simple as a name. Shale can be found in many forms. The relationship between clay and shale is very tight, just like water and ice.

Nothing is as simple as a name. Shale can be found in many forms. The relationship between clay and shale is very tight, just like water and ice.

Middle to lower slope Bajonien beddings: 

Marnes à Ostrea acuminata & Crinoidal Limestone

The oyster, and other fossils that sedimentologists 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 strata in one location with its mate in another.  This methodology allows sedimentologists to correlate strata worldwide.

Oyster bedIn 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 upperBajocien 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.

gevrey pre slideThe age of the Marnes à Ostrea acuminata dates back to the very late Bajocian, parkinsoni zone 168.3 +/-, 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 down slope, and was pulled eastward with the falling valley. This slide of the Comblanchien, 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. exposing this older marl and crinoidal bedding to the air, after having been buried underground 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 Côte de 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 Côte de 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 Côte de 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 Chambertin Clos de Bèze are among the finest vineyards in the Côte de 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, is it 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, that caused a void into which the land adjacent to the Cote d’Or fell into a trough which would become 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.


Lust-worthy: 2007 Joseph Roty Gevery “Les Fontenys” 1er Cru


Many of the 2007 Burgundies are showing beautifully right now, although the bigger wines do benefit with a lot of air. While the 2007 Joseph Roty Gevrey Fontenys did show very well when it’s cork was popped at 10 am, it really blossomed and expanded over the course of the day, gaining depth and girth, and multiplied its kaleidoscopic aromas and flavors. This is the second bottle of 2007 Roty Fontenys I’ve had open in the past week, and it has been consistently beautiful on both occasions.

2007 Joseph Roty Gevery-Chambertin

“Les Fontenys” 1er Cru   $110-$129  

2007 vintage is currently available 

This 2007 Fontenys is superbly rich from the first whiff. Now open for 11 hours, its nose is exploding with warm loam, smoke, game, leather, blackberries and black cherries, dried flowers, orange peel, dried apples, cream, and cocoa powder and notes of coffee. A fantastic wine!

In the mouth, this is grand cru-worthy, showing round and very rich, with so much depth, where all the flavors in the nose play out vibrating with verve. and exceptional complexity. Looking at the details of the wine, it was easy to miss the expansive backdrop of deep blackberry-blackberry fruit, that is so well-integrated and totally dry that it’s easy to miss – it was a ‘missing the forest for the trees’ moment. This is softer, open vintage, and for Roty is one of silky smoothness; with absolutely no raw edges – a sexy, hedonistic, yet quite intellectual wine. There is so much going on here, with remarkable palate presence, weight, and incredible length, yet is not in the slightest sweet, never cloying or heavy.  Spectacular right now, and should drink well for another 5 years, and depending on how aged you like your wine, another 15 to 20 years.   

Score: When first opened this was impressive, though slightly tight.  A solid 92 points.  After being open for a full day (and driving it a hundred fifty plus miles across the length of Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley the Fontenys really improved and showed gloriously for the above tasting notes. I’d absolutely love to have a case of this in my cellar.  94 points.

The Domaine

Joseph Roty was one of the pioneers of the small, family domaine when he started bottling his own wine  in the 1960s. The family has been based in Gevrey-Chambertin since 1710, and brothers Pierre-Jean and Philippe  mark the 11th generation of their family to be growers there. Philippe Roty took over the winemaking duties from his late father Joseph, around 10 years ago when Joseph became physically unable to continue making wine. And although Philippe gets the lion’s share of credit, it truly a family effort, with all members fulfilling the essential duties of vineyard work and wine production. 

The plots owned by Roty are reputed to be among the oldest in Burgundy, averaging 65 years. Some of the grand cru vineyards have vines that were planted in the 1880s, before their plots were organized in rows, and all cultivation was done by hand. Some of the vines were eventually removed when the family started to plow the vineyards – presumably, because they could finally afford a horse and a plow.

These old vines provide Roty with very concentrated fruit, to which they add another layer of concentration: they tend to pick a bit later than their peers, usually about a week. The family is very conscious of not letting the grapes get over-ripe, and indeed they never are. Despite the solid core of fruit, and ripeness, the wines are never heavy, and are never ‘sweet’ with fruit.

The winemaking is absolutely traditional, and that is the final piece to the Roty puzzle. Their wines are not flashy or vivacious, but rather nuanced, at times muscular, complex and somewhat intellectual. It truly is a formidable package of attributes.

The ravine Combe de Lavaux defines most of the premier crus of Gevrey-Chambertin

The ravine Combe de Lavaux defines most of the premier crus of Gevrey-Chambertin

The Fontenys Vineyard

Les Fontenys sit adjacent to the Grand Crus Ruchottes-Chambertin and Mazis-Chambertin. There are

three features of the vineyard that keep it from Grand Cru status.  All three of these factors has to do with the fact that it sits at the mouth of the Combe de Lavaux, a ravine/valley that defines that part of Gevery-Chambertin. First, sediment has washed off the mountain and down the Combe (ravine), which has given the premier crus  more (and more fertile) topsoil than the grand crus at the base of mountain. Second cooler air rushes down the combe slowing the grapes maturity. And third, as the mountain turns toward the Combe (where Fontenys is) the orientation to the sun is not as optimal during harvest as the orientation the grand crus receive.  This was a bigger deal before global warming, when Burgundy was often too cold to regularly ripen only the most perfectly oriented sites – which were the grand crus. Today, I believe the longer hang-time is an absolute benefit, helping, drying stems, ripening tannins, developing phynols, adding complexity, and aiding concentration of the juice by dehydration of the berries.gevrey map