Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy, Part 3.1: The confluence of stone, slope and soil

Analysis: Combining what we know about limestone and soil, and applying that to a slope allows us to be predictive of topsoil makeup.

by Dean Alexander

slope comparison

Rise ÷ Run = Slope

It has always been my contention that the slope determines a vineyard’s soil type, and it is the soil type that is a major factor in wine character. Because many vineyards carry through the various degree of slope through the profile a hillside, the soils vary greatly from top to bottom. Water and slope work together to cause this. Rainwater both causes the development of clay on the hillside, and is the reason clay and other fine earth fractions will not readily remain on a slope. But lets start with a hillside typical of one found Burgundy, and the fractured stone and scree and colluvium that resides there.

Slope diagram

The 315 meter elevation represents a grand cru vineyard profile. The 350 meter profile represents a steeper rise which would be typical of a premier cru, which sits above a grand cru located on the curb of the slope. This added elevation and degree of slope, greatly changes the soil type at the top of the hill and decreases the soil depth, and at the same time increases richens and thickens the soil type, and deepens the soil in the lower grand cru section.

The typical Cote de Nuits hillside vineyard rises about 100 meters (328 feet). The base of many appellations sit at roughly 200 to 250 meters elevation, and here the vineyards are quite flat. As you move toward the hillside (facing uphill) it is common for there to be roughly a half a degree rise on the lower slopes. After 300 to 400 meters, the slope gently increases over the next 150 to 200 meters to roughly a 2 to 3 percent slope, where the grand crus generally reside. The upper slopes can rise dramatically in places, depending on the how wide the sections of bedding plates between faults, and pulled out and down with the falling Sôane Valley, and how much the edges of those bedding plates have fractured and eroded, also sliding down the hill. Areas like Chambertin, this slope remains moderate and the vineyard land remains grand cru to the top of the slope. However, above Romanee-Conti, the slope becomes much more aggressive, and the classification switches to premier cru at the border of Les Petits Monts. This uptick in slope, and the change in classification is common, but not universal in its application. As most things in Burgundy, there are a lot of exceptions to classification boundaries, notably for historical /ownership reasons.  

fractured limestone base exposed

If we were to strip away the fine earth fractions what we would expose is a fractured limestone base. Here the exceptionally shallow soil of Meursault Perrieres is peeled away and the limestone below is laid bare. The very shallow depth of soil, despite the relatively shallow slope suggests significant erosional problems.

Limestone derived topsoil types

If you could magically strip away all the dirt from the fractured limestone base of the Côte d’Or, leaving only a coarse, gravelly, sandy, limestone topsoil, and watch the soil development, this is what would happen: Over time, with rainfall, carbonization (the act of making the calcium carbonate solvent by carbonic acid in rainwater) would produce clay within the fractures of the stone. This new clay, is called primary clay (see Part 2.1) and gravity would have it settle to the lowest point in the crevices between the stones, below actual ground level. This primary clay will be rendered from weathering limestone everywhere on the Côte, from the top of the slope to the bottom of the slope, and tends to develop into a 9:1 to a 8:2 ratio of limestone to clay. This is the origin of limestone soils, and it is called… marly limestone.

Limestone to Clay diagram

 

limestone-clay diagram 2

I developed this diagram to express the different combinations and geological names of limestone mixed with clay and their agree upon percentages by the geological community. Marl dominates a full third of this diagram from 65 percent limestone/35 % clay to 65% clay / 35% limestone.

 

Marly Limestone – upper slopes: 90% to 80% limestone to clay

There are two common (and well-defined) terms that describe essentially the same soil type, applying different names and using differing parameters. This represents the purest, least mixed soil type on the Côte, and it is found on steeper (typically upper) slopes.

Clayey Limestone: the proportion of limestone in the mix is between 80% to 90% – source Frank Wittendal, Phd. Great Burgundy Wines A Principal Components Analysis of “La Côte” vineyards 2004) 

Marly Limestonecontaining 5-15% clay and 85-95% carbonate. source: The Glossary of Geology, fifth edition. (julia a. jackson, james p. mehl, klaus k. e. neuendorf 2011).

This is new, primary clay is not sorted by size, causing it to be rough in texture. Also of note, it is not plasticky like potters clay (kaolin clay) because of the irregularity of the particle size, which doesn’t allow its phyllosilicate sheets to stack, like it will once it is transported by water and reforms lower on the slope.

 

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The Limestone to Clay diagram can virtually be tilted on upward and applied to the Côte to represent its topsoil makeup. The only part of it is missing is pure limestone because wherever there is limestone, clay has weathered from it.

It is no accident that you can turn this progression of limestone to clay into a general slope-soil diagram. The reason, as always, is water.

It is no accident that you can turn this progression of limestone to clay into a general slope-soil diagram. The reason, as always, is water.

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The fact that limestone and clay continues to exist in this 9:1 to 8:2 ratio (the stone does not continue to accumulate clay although it continues to develop it) allows us to deduce two things: First, the clay gains sufficient mass (depending on how close to the surface it is developing) where it can be eroded down the hill by rainwater runoff when it reaches roughly a 5% to 20% proportion of the limestone soil matrix. This static ratio also suggests that it exists only where erosion is a constant condition, meaning marly limestone can exist only on limestone slopes. It is erosion that maintains this general ratio of clay to limestone; limestone which will always produce primary clay as long as there is rainwater present. Of course, there may be other materials as well present in this mix, perhaps fossils, quartz sand, or feldspar.

I asked Pierre-Yves Morey, a noted winemaker in Chassagne, what was the texture, or the feel, of this marly limestone soil, is, and he described it simply as compact. “You would have to come to Burgundy and come see it.” I was looking for a little more richness to his description, but that is what I got. So… the definition of compact. The Glossary of Geology, 5th ed., defines compact (among other meanings) as “any rock or soil that has a firm, solid, or dense texture, with particles closely packed.” So there you have it. Clayey Limestone/Marly Limestone.

Argillaceous Limestone – mid-slope: 80% to 65% limestone to clay

The next incremental level of limestone to clay (75% to 25%) is not commonly cited, but sometimes referred to as Argillaceous Limestone or Hard Argillaceous Limestone. As a pure descriptor, this name isn’t especially helpful, since Argillaceous means clay. I also found another reference that called this ratio of limestone to “Mergelkalk” which is the German  for “marl chalk”, and this name indicates at least a progressive amount of clay over clayey limestone. This ratio of limestone to clay is not widely used, because, I suspect, it exists in the fairly narrow area of transition areas between marly limestone and Marl.

We might presume this ratio of limestone to clay appears not on the steeper slopes (generally above), but rather as the slopes grow more gentle, where to transported clay (from the steeper grades) may begin to flocculate as the rainwater runoff slows, adding to the primary clay growing in situ.

Because primary clay is more prone to erosion because of its mixed sized particles make its construction less cohesive, it is likely some of the primary clay developed in this lower location will be eroding further downslope, even as finer clay particles traveling in the rainwater runoff are starting to flocculate into transported clay in the same location.

With this high ratio of limestone to clay, it would be likely the be a compact soil, but because of the increased amounts of clay, not to mention some of it being transported clay, it will both have more richness and better retain water and prevent rapid evaporation.  Incidentally, his ratio of 75% limestone and 25% clay incidentally, is the recipe for industrially made Portland Cement.

Grand crus on compact marly limestone or argillaceous limestone: None

 

Marl – mid to lower slope: 65% to 35% limestone to clay

The beauty of, and the problem with, the word marl is its breadth of meaning. Marl as a term covers a wide variation of soils that contain at least some clay and some limestone, with many other possible components that may have been introduced from impurities on the limestone or from other sources within or outside the Côte.(1) But since we have magically stripped away the hillside, let’s imagine marl of its most simple combination: limestone and clay. Once the proportion of clay has risen to 1/3 of the construction with limestone, it is considered marl. It will continue to be considered Marl until clay exceeds 2/3 of the matrix. This is the definition established by the American geologist Francis Pettijohn 1957 in his book, Sedimentary rocks (p410).

Marl is an old, colloquial term that geologists may not have completely adopted until fairly recently. Perhaps it is because of this, that the definition of marl has an uncharacteristically wide variance in meaning, can be applied to a fairly hard, compact limestone soil, to a loose, earthy construction to a generally fine, friable, clay soil.  I imagine that on the clay end of the marl spectrum, the soil begins to become increasingly plasticky, due to the increasing alignment of the clay platelets by the decreased lime in the soil. This is purely subjective on my part.

Marl is most often noted in the same positions on a slope as colluvium, at a resting place of not much more than a 4 or 5% grade.  To attain a concentration of clay of at least 1/3 (the minimum amount of clay to be marl) rainwater runoff must slow enough for the clay’s adsorptive characteristics to grab hold of passing by like-type phyllosilicate minerals and pull them out of the water passing over it. As you can imagine, in a heavy deluge, with high levels of water flow, this will only happen lower on the slope, but in light rain, with a much less vigorous runoff, this will occur higher on the slope. How far these clay mineral travel down the slope before flocculation all depends on the volume of water moving downhill, and its velocity, which tends to be greatest mid-slope.

We can safely deduce that the first marl construction on our magically stripped slope consists of 15% primary clay (maximum) because that is what we started with, 20% transported clay which has been adsorbed to the site, and 65% limestone rubble (rock, gravel, sand and silt). Here, the ratio of stone in the topsoil is lower than in the slope above, because the topsoil is deeper, and the stone represents a small proportion of the ratio. Additionally, it is very possible that some of the primary clay, which is more readily eroded, may have been washed further downslope, in which case the percentage of transported clay would actually be higher.

It also stands to reason that the soil level is significantly deeper where marl resides by a minimum of 15%, due, if only because of it’s increased volume of clay to those soil types above if the limestone concentration in the soil remains constant from top to bottom.  Of course, we know that fracturing of the limestone, erosion and gravity have moved limestone scree downslope.  If you could know that volume of additional limestone that had accrued on the slope, and then factor in the percentage of clay, you could effectively estimate the soil depth. Farther down the slope, marl with 65% clay to 35% limestone, we can assume to have a minimum of 30% deeper soil levels, but again, that depends on the limestone scree that has moved downslope as well. Notes of excavations by Thierry Matrot in 1990 in his parcels of MeursaultPerrières show one foot or less topsoil before hitting the fractured limestone base, whereas his plot of Meursault-Charmes just below it, was excavated to 6 feet before hitting limestone.(3) This indicates, a significant amount of limestone colluvium had developed in Charmes (some of which may have been the overburden removed from the quarry at Clos des Perrières?) that has mixed with transported clay to attain this six-foot depth of marl dominated soil.

Wittendal’s work analyzing the vineyards of Burgundy (2004) revolved around statistical methods tracking values of slope and soil type, among other 25 other factors. From that, he plotted the vineyards as data points to try to develop trends and correlations. I was not surprised by his results, as it confirmed many of my assumptions about slope causing the types of soils that develop there. Of note, though, to some degree, his work dispels some of the assertion that marl/clayey soils reside more in Beaune and limestone/colluvium soils reside primarily in the Nuits.

Wittendal plots a perfect 50-50 marl to colluvium, as point zero in the center of a four quadrant graph (Figure 8 – The Grands Crus picture components 1 & 2). On the left side of the graph would be the purest expression of marl. This represented as negative four points of standard deviation ( σ ) from zero (the mean). On the right, the purest representation of colluvium is four points positive of standard deviation ( σ)  from zero (the mean).

Grand Crus on marl soils: more than one standard deviation (neg)Corton Charlemagne (one section with a standard deviation of -3.5, and another section at -1.5 )  Chevalier-Montrachet -1.75.

Grand Crus Primarily on marl soils with some colluvium: near one standard deviation (neg). Only one lower section of the Pinot producing Corton has a surprising amount of marl – the vineyard is not named (-1.25 ) and Le Montrachet with a surprising amount of colluvium (-.8 )

Grand Crus on slightly more marl than colluvium: Romanee-Conti sits on slightly more marl than the mean  (-.3), La Tache sits right near zero.

Grand Crus on slightly more colluvium than marl: less than one-half the standard deviation. Musigny, Bonnes Mares and Ruchottes-Chambertin. (.333)

 

Ruchottes inclusion here is at first surprising. But since there appears to be little chance of colluvium to develop on this upper slope, coupled with its shallow soils, it is this soil construct makes sense. In fact, this highlights that Wittendal’s work represents the ratio of marl to colluvium, rather than the depth of marl and colluvium present.  It is my contention that the most highly touted vineyards have significant soil depth and typically have richer soils. Ruchottes, which many have suggested should not be grand cru, has little soil depth (which is a rock strewn, quite compact marl), and the vines there can struggle in the little yielding Premeaux limestone below. A vine that struggles, despite all of the marketing-speak of the last two decades, does not produce the best grapes.

 

Clay Marl – lower slope: (a subset of marl)

Clay marl seems to be within the defined boundaries of Marl. One would suspect this to be in the 35-45 limestone with the remainder being clay. It is described by the Glossary as “a white, smooth, chalky clay; a marl in which clay predominates.” No specific ratios are given.

Marly Clay – lower slope 15% carbonate 

Marly Clay, and also referred to as marly soils are 15% carbonate and no more than 75% clay. At this point, it seems the use of the word limestone has been discontinued. Perhaps at this level we are dealing with limestone sand sized particles and smaller, perhaps with pebbles. There must be silt and clay sized limestone particles before complete solvency, but I have never seen mention of this. It is likely the carbonate is solvent, influencing, and strengthening the soil structure, and affecting to some degree, clay’s platelet organization? As much as I have researched these things, I have never seen this written. The soil just is the soil at this point.

Deceptive here is the need to discern limestone sand from quartz or other sands. Limestone sand will be “active” meaning it would be releasing significant calcium carbonate into the soil (disrupting the clay’s platelet alignment) and would be actually be considered marl. I imagine the degree of plasticity to the soil would be the shorthand method to determine this, although I understand if you pour a strong acid on a limestone soil, it will visually start carbonization (fizzing).

Could it be, that in marketing of limestone as the key factor in developing the legend of Burgundy, the Burgundians may have swept the subjects of claystone and shale under the rug?

 

Clayey soils – Sôane Valley fill 

Worldwide, most clayey soils develop from shale deposits. Geologist Francoise Vannier-Petit uses the word shale to explain clay to importer Ted Vance in his writing about his day with her. In fact, she virtually used the term clay and shale interchangeably. However, other than that writing, I have never seen the word shale used in Burgundy literature. This might lead one think that shale is not existent on the Côte. Clayey soils are a large component of the great white villages of the Côte de Beaune however, and ignoring shale as a major source of this clay may be a mistake. Vannier does mention alternating layers of limestone and claystone in Marsannay in the marketing material the Marsannay producer’s syndicate produced which I discussed at length in Part 1.3.  Could it be, that in marketing of limestone as the key factor in developing the legend of Burgundy, the Burgundians may have swept the subjects of claystone and shale under the rug?

 

Clayey sand and loam (no carbonate)

We've seen this before, under the guise of the USDA soil diagram. Here is the original by Francis P. Shepard

We’ve seen this before, under the guise of the USDA soil diagram. Here is the original by Francis P. Shepard

Wittendal uses “Clay with silicate sand” as one defining soil type in his statistical analysis of Burgundy vineyards. He does not give a percentage breakdown he is using for this soil type. However, reaching again to the Glossary of Geology, the most straightforward of definition is attributed to Geologist Francis Shepard: An unconsolidated sand containing 40-75% sand 12.5-50% clay and 0-20% silt.’ (Shepard 1954)“. Unconsolidated means that it is not hardened or cemented into rock. Of note: the definition attributed to Shepard is slightly at odds with the diagram to the right which Shepard is most known for, which has clayey-sand contains no more than 50% clay. The definitions of clayey-sand and loam clearly overlap. At one extreme, Clayey-sand can also be defined as a loam.

Clay-loam – clay sand

Clay-loam is a soil that contains clay (27-40%),  sand (20-45%), with the balance being silt, all of which have very different particle sizes. If you apply the lowest percentage of clay 27%, and a high percentage of sand 45%, and the remainder, silt at 28%; this combination doesn’t somehow doesn’t seem to fit the description well. Clay-sand is overlapping with clay-loam but generally consists of 60% sand, 20% silt and 20% clay.

Clayey-silt

Clayey-silt In 1922 geologist Chester Wentworth defined grain size. Clayey-silt thusly is 80% silt-sized particles, no more than 10% clay (which particles are substantially smaller), and no more than 10% coarser particles of any size, though this would be primarily of sand-sized and above.  Conversely, Francis Shepard’s definition of clayey silt in his 1954 book, is 40-75% silt, 12.5-50% clay and 0-20% sand. 

*Grand Crus on clayey soils: None

Colluvium, Breccia – mid to lower slope (and Scree – everywhere)

The scree filled Les Narvaux in Meursault. photo: googlemaps

The scree filled Les Narvaux in Meursault. photo: googlemaps

Colluvium and breccia are very similar. They are both rubble that has amassed on a resting place on a slope.

Breccia has a more specific definition, being at least 80% rubble and 10% clay, and can be loose or like any soil type, become cemented into rock. Incidentally, that 10% clay ratio has come up again, because just as the marly limestone I spoke of before, the stone will weather primary clay, but rainwater erosion consequently will remove it as the clay gains mass. The stones that form these piles are what geologists refer to as angular because they are fractured from larger rock, they have angular or sharp edges. This remains true until the stone has become significantly weathered by the carbonic acid in rainwater.

Colluvium, on the hand, is a construction of all matter of loose, heterogeneous stone and alluvial material that has collected at a resting place on a slope, or the base of a slope.  These materials tend to fall, roll, slide or be carried to the curb of the slope as scree (those loose stone that lies upon the surface) or washed there by runoff. In Burgundy, the rocks of colluvium and breccia are likely mostly limestone.

Rocky soils, such as colluvium and particularly breccia, are less prone to compaction because of the airspace is inherently formed between the rocks as they lay upon one another. This protection against compaction should not be overlooked as a major indicator of vine health and grape quality these colluvium sites provide. Drainage through a rocky colluvium surface material can be, let’s say, efficient, and this too is a natural defense against soil compaction, because a farmer must be cautious about trodding on wet soils because they compact so easily. Chemical weathering will develop primary clay deposits amongst the stone, and the stones themselves will slow water as it erodes down the hill, likely giving this primary clay significant protection from erosion.

Grand Crus on colluvium soils more than one standard deviation. With the most colluvium are the vineyards of Clos Vougeot with a range of σ ( 2 to 2.7) and Romanee St Vivant (1.8). followed by Most of the red vineyards of Corton sit largely on colluvium (1.25 to 1.75) Echezeaux (1.1).

Grand Crus on colluvium but with more marl: within 1 standard deviation. Charmes, Latricieres, and Richebourg form a cluster of vineyards with a σ of  (.5 to .75) with just a little more colluvium than the Musigny, Bonnes Mares and Ruchottes all at roughly a σ of .4.   source Wittendal 2004 (figure 8)

Here we find some interesting groupings. First, the grand crus with the most colluvium are generally considered in the second qualitative tier. The outlier there would be Romanee St-Vivant, which while great, is not considered to be in the same league as Vosne-Romanee’s other great wines, Romanee-Conti, La Tache, and depending on the producer, Richebourg. Are high levels of colluvium cause the vines more difficulty than those planted to vineyards with a heavier marl component?

Colluvium Creep and landslide, in this case at Les Rugiens in Pommard. The steep slope being Rugiens Haut, and in the foreground, its benefactor, Rugiens Bas. Here is an example of two vineyards that should be separated in the appellation, but both are labeled as Rugiens.

But this question rolls back to ratios of how much colluvium there is in relation to how much marl is in that location, what is the ratio to clay to limestone in the marl at each site (which would change the placement of zero (which would change the mean), and lastly, at what point is it no longer colluvium but marl or vice-versa?

Colluvium Creep

Colluvium is known to creep, meaning it continues to move very slowly downslope since it is not anchored to the hillside bedrock, rather it rests there. It is not uncommon to see the effects of this creep in tilted telephone poles and other structures on hillsides. Creep is essentially a imperceivably slow landslide. The most obvious creep/slide in Burgundy is the slope of Rugiens-Haut onto Rugiens-Bas, in Pommard.  Gravity, being what it is, nothing on a slope is static, and colluvium will, so very slowly, creep.

 

 


 

Authors note:

What I write here, is a distillation of the information laid out in the previous articles, and my weaving together all the information to build a picture of the various soil types and the slopes that generate them. Much of this is my own analysis, cogitation, and at perhaps at times conjecture, based on best information. 

As I mentioned my preface, I had come to some of these conclusions when researching vineyards for marketing information and noticed a correlation between slope and soil type.  The research that formed the basis of the previous series of articles, was done to see if the science of geology supported my theory that a vineyards position dictates the soil type there. I think it does.  Ultimately the goal of these articles is to lay down a basis for explaining and predicting wine weight and character, independent of producer input, based on a vineyards slope and position.

Where science generally begins and ends are with the single aspect of  their research.  That is the extent of their job. Scientists rarely will connect the dots of multiple facts for various reasons. It can move them outside their area of examination, or it may not have a direct evidence to support the correlation, or the connection of facts may have exceptions. The study of the cote is clearly would b a multi-discipline enterprise. There is no cancer to be cured, no wrong to be righted, and no money to be made off of understanding it’s terroir. So it has been largely left to the wine professional to ponder.  These are my conclusions. I encourage you to share yours.


 

(1 & 2) Vannier-Petit discusses alternating layers of Claystone and Limestone in Marsannay. While I have never read this of the rest of the Côte d’Or, the Côte has never been examined as closely as Vannier-Petit is beginning to examine it now. Layers of claystone may well exist, and given the amount of clay in the great white regions, this may well be the case.

(3) Per-Henrik Nansson “Exploring the Secrets of Great Wine” The Wine Spectator, Oct. 25, 1990

 

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Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy (introduction)

The History, the Threats, and Why Terroir is Important

 

Roman Wine FriezeTerroir as a notion: 

The notion of climate and terroir palpably began with the establishment of Clos de Bèze in 630 A.D.  And despite the countless changes of governments, laws, and ownership, the shape and size of Clos de Bèze have remained unchanged in the intervening 1384 years.  However, there were notions of terroir that appeared long before. In the first century, Columella (the only Roman agronomist whose records still exist) wrote of a varietal that had physical leaf characteristics that leave little doubt that the Romans grew Pinot Noir in Burgundy.  The quality of this wine would eventually eclipse Falernian wine in the eyes of the patrician class. That this vine was so perfectly suited to the Burgundy region, Columella wrote: “…it alone gives a good name to even the poorest of soil by reason of its own fertility.”

Monks at Clos VougeotWhile terroir is, at its heart, the physicality of a place, it is also the acceptance of terroir as a notion, that allows its expression in the glass. The concept of terroir asks that winemaker should produce the best wine they can, that still truthfully represent the site, while simultaneously requiring the wine drinker to appreciate what each site uniquely brings to the wine made from it.Interestingly it has been the historical difficulty of ripening grapes in the Côte d’Or that has made terroir apparent in Burgundy. This marginal ripening, coupled with the transparent nature of the Pinot Noir and the Chardonnay that is grown there, lay bare the influence of the vineyard position: the soils below and the weather above. In many ways, it is a quest of purity, and that is something that can easily and quickly be muddied by over extraction, over-ripeness, and blending. Jacques Lardiere, the now-retired manager of Louis Jadot used to say (in the late 1990s) that the terroir would speak, “even if you planted Syrah” in Burgundy. I mentioned Lardiere’s statement to the then winemaker of Mommessin (I don’t recall who that was) and his response was: “That’s funny coming from him.” (1)

The Historical Battle for Ripeness: The Importance of  Vineyard Protection and Exposition

Clos la Roche in winterComplete phenolic ripening in Burgundy has been the holy grail of every winemaker in the Côte d’Or since the middle ages. Given that the last so-called “Little Ice Age” only ended in the 1850s, it is not a complete surprise that only the warmest vineyard sites (the grand crus) could semi-consistently achieve ripeness.   The key to ripeness was a vineyard had to sit on a slope – facing east to southeast, angled to receive the longest rays of the harvest sun. Here, the hillside, and the flat village land at its foot created a heat trap for the ripening crop, sheltering it from the wind which might otherwise disperse the heat. In the long history of Burgundy, it has been only these protected vineyards, on the mid-slope, that could achieve the temperatures necessary to fully ripen the grapes right before harvest.

Climatic and Economic Threats

However, the climate is warming. In absolute numbers, from 1990 to 2006, the average temperature has gone up 1.2 degrees F., and it had already gone up 1.2 degrees F. in the previous thirty years. Today, the crop is consistently ripe enough to make good wine across all climates, in virtually every vintage. At this point in time, we are witnessing the greatest period of in all of Burgundy’s almost 2000 year history under vine. The confluence of winemaking and wine growing knowledge as well as perfect ripening temperatures is granting us truly remarkable wines. I think there is room for some additional warming without major concessions to wine style and terroir. Although, I suppose if it does, we’ll have bigger problems than lamenting the passing of the golden age of Burgundy.

With the increasing ripeness, the winemaker is both pushed toward, and drawn to, making wines with deeper color (anthocyanins), fuller fruit, and more structure. With the clamor for riper, richer, grand cru-styled Burgundies, regardless of how expensive they are, there is a significant economic reason for winemakers to follow this path. But as Burgundies fatten up, terroir is increasingly obscured. It is very possible there will be fewer noticeable variances between the wines from many vineyards unless winemakers and the wine buying public truly embrace terroir. The relevance (and indeed the future) of terroir in Burgundy hinges on the wine appreciation that goes far beyond what is good or bad, in a search for “the best.” The concept“the best” is often at odds, and in many ways contradictory the notion of terroir, and if we don’t actively embrace and extol the differences between vineyards, from grand cru to village lieu-dits, we will lose what is so unique about the region.

Classification

Chevaliers du Tastevin with clergy circa 1950

Chevaliers du Tastevin with clergy circa 1950

The terroir of Burgundy was codified unofficially in 1855, by Jules Lavalle, and again in 1920 by Camille Rodier, both of whom graded the vineyards in five qualitative levels, the best being the Tete de Cuvees. Governmental classification would not come until the late 1930s. Interestingly, it wasn’t until the depth of the depression, and against a backdrop of the tensions of a brewing second war in Europe, that the French Government finally moved forward with establishing the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) system. The Ministry of Agriculture established the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) in 1935, and over the next few years this body defined the official regional appellations for wine and foods across France. It was a uniquely French thing to do, and in a marketing sense quite brilliant, but the idea was to protect these agricultural regions and heritages from change.  In doing so they both branded and secured these places and products as unique in an emerging global economy. When dividing the appellations, the INAO heeded historical ownership and village boundaries, as well as physical and observable geological observation, in as much as it was understood at the time, without intensive study and the benefits of modern technology. And it was done: nearly etched in stone.

But to look past the classifications: to the maps, the geology, and the topography of the region is the goal of this article, in order to understand why certain sites create certain types of wine. What’s more, this knowledge allows us to be predictive of what style of wine we might expect a vineyard to produce based on available geographical and geological information.The subject gains remarkable complexity if you dig too deeply, requiring significant chemistry and geological explanation, of which I’m not qualified. So I will attempt to keep this a more general overview of the important aspects of terroir in Burgundy: ripening and exposition, (meaning how a vineyard faces the sun, slope,) the amount of soil and it’s makeup (topsoil, limestone, and clay) and , and a vineyard’s protection from the wind and weather.

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Note

(1) I too disagree with Lardiere. While Syrah can be quite transparent when just ripe, like in Cote Rotie, the moment it gains weight it becomes significantly dense and can carry a remarkable level of dry extract. Pinot Noir cannot achieve the size, weight, and tannin of Syrah. The short distance between Cote Rotie and Hermitage generally produces a vastly different wine: of terroir is obscured by Hermitage’s additional size and weight.

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See the other articles in this series

Marl: The Most Misused and Misunderstood Word in Burgundy Literature?

Preface to my upcoming article: “Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy”

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Preface to my upcoming article: “Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy”

(Opinion) and the ensuing quest for answers.

travel-france-pic-liberte

Wine literature champions the one half of one percent of the top vineyards, and the very top producers. What about the wine for the rest of us?

Despite the scores of books written about Burgundy, if you really break down what is being written specifically about the each climate, the information can be pretty sparse. For a handful of the greatest vineyards, extraordinary efforts are made to explore the grandness of these few plots.(1)  However these vineyards probably represent less than one half of one percent of Burgundy. Little coverage is given to the physicality of the rest of Burgundy’s sites, including many highly-regarded premier crus. Beyond listing most vineyard’s size, what the name means in French, sometimes an inane fact (like some wild bush used to grow in that spot) and who the top producers are, most crus don’t seem to warrant the effort. How does Puligny’s Les Combettes differ from Les Champs-Canets, which sits directly above it? It is not likely you find the answer by reading a book about Burgundy.

Of these vineyard entries, writers typically ignore the soil makeup and limestone below; the most primary elements of terroir. Perhaps this is due to a lack of information(2). However, I have no doubt that if as much effort was given to researching these appellations as is given to tasting Armand Rousseau’s latest barrel samples, we’d have a lot more understanding about Burgundy than we do today. Typically when a comment regarding a particular vineyard’s soil is made by a wine writer, it is simply as a notation, with no connection to the style of  wine that comes out of that vineyard. It sits there like a pregnant pause, as though it were quite important, but no explanation follows.  And that explanation is what I hope to supply by my upcoming article. I can’t do what the top wine writers can: go to Burgundy and walk the vineyards with the winemakers, talk to the professors at Lycée Viticole de Beaune. But I wanted these answers for myself; what it all that means: the limestone and “marl” and clay, and what did for the wine. If I could. Did I dare?

While I am critical of the much of the wine writing produced – for its lack of deeper educational and intellectual content, I understand that wine writers must produce what consumers are willing to pay for. We are a consumer-driven society, and readers are really looking for buying guides wrapped up in a little bow of information. The capitals of 19th century Europe were famed for their starving intelligentsia, but no one wants to scrape-by in a land of plenty, regardless how romantic. Wine writers write what the public wants.

The beginning

Way Too Geeky!

Way Too Geeky!

After more than a year of researching Burgundy vineyard information for the marketing part of my job, I thought I could do a quick write-up about the terroir of Burgundy. I had come to some interesting conclusions and felt I could write a piece with a unique perspective on vineyard orientation, slope, the general soil types determined by that, and how it all relates to a wine style.

It was all going along quickly and easily, until I wanted to clarify a couple of points about geology. What had initially looked like a weekend project, has taken 9 months of daily work. This article has become something of a Leviathan, but the exploration has taken me to uncover some enlightening information, as the pieces started falling into place. The original piece first became two parts, and ironically, now it is four parts, each divided into articles of a more manageable size of 2,000 to 4,000 words. The result of this is untold hours of research and writing.

Unfortunately, sections of Part One have ended up being so technical that I no longer really know who will want to read it. Any hope of an audience is slim. Most wine professionals are so burnt by the end of the week, that they would rather paint their house than read about wine. However, this is a unique article that looks at the breadth of the factors that influence vine growth in Burgundy, and ultimately influence wine character.

An example of a map showing the vineyards I'm highlighting, as well as the soil and limestone base it sits upon.

An example of a map I developed, showing the vineyards I’m highlighting, as well as the soil and limestone base it sits upon.

A Path of Discovery and Frustration

One of the first surprises was difficulty justifying the satellite images with some of the vineyard maps that I had been so diligently studying. Sometimes they just didn’t look like the same place. The vineyard maps often gave little sense of topography of the hillsides, despite paying particular attention to the elevation lines. I believe that the amount of slope in vineyards that are not terraced, like in Burgundy, is critically important to the profile of a wine.

What looked like roads on a map, at times were not, and in many places, there were entire sections which were shown as vineyard were actually unplanted, inhabited only by trees, scrub, or rock. This I found to be very illuminating information regarding adjacent vineyard land, and how that might define character. At times, the shapes and sizes of vineyards depicted on maps appeared to be different from the photos, perhaps changed to fit the artist’s needs.  After a while, I started making my own maps using Google Maps’ satellite images, and adding the information that I found relevant to the needs of my job. Perhaps the most telling visual information has come by utilizing Google Maps’ street view, to see a vineyard and its slope, the topsoil, quickly and easily, and often from multiple angles. It is an amazing tool, I highly recommend using it in addition to maps when studying wine regions.

Am I a Skeptic or Just Paranoid?

Marl table. With one extreme being all clay and the other being all limestone, marl is a mix of both.  Courtesy of wikipedia.

Marl table. With one extreme being all clay/mud and the other being all limestone, marl is a mix of both. Courtesy of wikipedia.

I noticed that the information I was reading, from multiple sources, wine writers, importers, etc, was all starting to seem repetitive, using similar wording, ideas, phrasing. Increasingly, the information seemed more and more borrowed, shallow and canned. For instance, it is common for a writer to state that a vineyard is “a mix of limestone and marl” or the vineyard is made up of “marly clay.” And then there was this from one of the definitive Burgundy reference books regarding the soils of Mazy-Chambertin: “there is a lot of marl mixed in the with the clay and limestone.”

Marl is generally defined as a mix of clay and limestone. When they refer to limestone in this fashion, they don’t mean solid stone, they mean rock that has been mechanically eroded, of varying sizes (from a fine sand to fairly large stones) that are mixed into the soil.  The ratio of these two major elements of marl, can be a range of 35% of one, to 65% of the other.(3) The more I read, the more I question what I am reading.(4)

Below is an example kind of “soil information” that I’m talking about. At first blush the passage below sounded like I’d found the holy grail of explaining what kind of soils for which Pinot and Chardonnay were best suited, but later I realized it was anything but.  The following was written by an authority on the subject.

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“• Pinot Noir flourishes on marl soils that are more yielding and porous, that tend towards limestone and which offer good drainage. It will produce light and sophisticated or powerful and full-bodied wines, depending on the proportion of limestone, stone content and clay on the plot where it grows.”
“• Chardonnay prefers more clayey marly limestone soils from which it can develop sophisticated, elegant aromas in the future wine. The clay helps produce breadth in the mouth, characteristic of the
Bourgogne region’s great white wines.”

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With the Pinot, he starts off well. Clay with high levels of calcium carbonate (limestone) content loses its plasticity, which makes clay more yielding and porous; that part makes sense. The second sentence somewhat contradicts the first, in that it suggests rightly that as the clay content goes up, the wines it produces becomes more full-bodied. However, as the clay content goes up, the yielding and porous nature of the soil will correspondingly decrease.  To make this passage more accurate, he should have led with drainage. The porosity of the soil allows drainage: in other words, it has a causal effect of good drainage. It is not an axillary attribute as he suggests when he writes “and which offer good drainage.”

Of Chardonnay, he wrote that the varietal “prefers more clayey marly limestone soils. First off, what does that mean anyway? If the soil is marl,(5) we already know that it has clay and limestone. A marl soil can be a clay-heavy marl, or a limestone-dominate marl, but it can not be a “clayey marly limestone soil.”  Secondly, it seems that the writer is suggesting that Chardonnay does not do as well as Pinot Noir in porous limestone dominated soils, and vice-versa. I believe vineyards like Les Perrières in Meursault, that have very poor, and very porous, limestone soils, with little clay content, contradicts that notion. Additionally, in Chassagne Montrachet, Chardonnay has replaced much of the  Pinot Noir on the upper slopes of the appellation, while Pinot Noir has remained in the heavier, clay-infused soils lower on the slope.

“Now every piece of information had to pass the smell test, and preferably it needed to be corroborated by another source, that clearly wasn’t of the same origin.”

Skeptic: everything must pass the smell test.

Skeptical, now everything must pass the smell test.

I plodded on with my inquiry. Now every piece of information had to pass the smell test, and preferably it needed to be corroborated by another source, that clearly wasn’t of the same origin. I had read enough to identify “family trees” of bad information, and I often believed that I could often identify the original source.  Just how easy it is to pass-on incorrect information is illustrated by this next example. I found an error (in my opinion) in one Master of Wine’s book on Burgundy, saying that the “white marl” of a vineyard was found on the upper slope, producing a richer, fuller wine, and while the calcareous (limestone) soils were down below, and produced a lighter wine. It was an obvious mistake if you just thought about it for a second, as the forces of gravity and subsequent erosion drive clay to the lower-slopes where it reforms via flocculation. Later I would find the same information, but in more detail, in another Master of Wine’s article, again containing the same error.(6)  The source of the error was either a mis-translation of a conversation with a vigneron, or a typo. While this is a simple mistake, having two of our most revered Master of Wines citing the same information, can only confuse an already misunderstood subject, even further. I can envision a whole generation of Sommeliers reciting that the upper-slope of Les Caillerets produces heavier, more powerful wine than sections of Caillerets farther down the slope.

It was clear I wasn’t going to find the answers I was looking for in the English language Burgundy books I had access to. Ultimately my questions would become more and more specific, pushing my inquiry of terroir to an elemental level – delving into the construction of the earth and stone, and how it breaks down, and how it might influence the wine we ultimately drink. I still have a tremendous number of questions that will simply go unanswered for quite some time,(7) either due to the lack of research, or that this information is not available in an accessible, English-language format.(8) 

Part One of the article is the result of searching out, reading, and trying to understand small, maybe inconsequential details.  Since I’m putting it out there on the internet, I have made a concerted effort to attempt to get it right. Obviously not a geologist, so despite reading about clay and clay formation dozens of times, from dozens of sources, the complexity of the science makes it easy to over-simplify, to misunderstand it, and definitely, easy to misrepresent. Making making this process more difficult, I could find no articles that (for instance) were specific to the clay and clay formations of Burgundy.(9)

It’s not sexy reading, but I’ve done my best to pull it all together into one place.  If nothing else, I hope this can be a jumping off point for others to research, and expand our cumulative understanding of terroir. 

 

 

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ADDITIONAL NOTES

(1) Even with the top vineyards, publications heavily link the greatness of the wine to the producer, rather than the vineyard. The mantra for the past 30 years has been: producer, producer, producer. While here is a historical reason for this producer-driven focus, I feel the vast improvements in viticulture and winemaking knowledge over the past two decades, coupled with the concurrent global warming, has changed the paradigm, and significantly leveled the playing field between producers. There are now much smaller differentials in quality from the top producers and the lower level producers. I feel that the focus should now return to the vineyards of Burgundy, each with distinct set of characteristics due to its orientation, slope and soils. Nowhere else in the world is this kind of classification so rigorously defined. And because of that, no where else in the world is this kind of ‘study’ possible.

(2) The mapping of Limestone has never really been done before the geologist Francoise Vannier-Petit began her work a number of years ago. She has now mapped Pommard, Gevrey, Marsannay, and Maranges, for the trade associations that have been willing to pay for her services.

(3)  The fact that mud/mudstone (and this is substance is sometimes referred to as shale) is introduced as a term by wikipedia, see table certainly confuses the issue, but they also indicate that this mud is a clay element.

(4) To give credit where credit is due: When I first started doing a overview of our producers, I had summarized this idea, (Pinot liked prefered limestone soils and Chardonnay preferred more clay-rich soils.) My boss, Dr. George Derbalian (with his background in failure analysis) looked and the statement and said, “I don’t know about that.” He asked where I had obtained this information, and when I couldn’t immediately produce the source, he warned: “You have to be very, very, careful about these things. As an importer we have to be completely sure we are right when we say something. I would like to remove this sentence.” I thought he was being over-reactive at the time, and 100% accuracy wasn’t important for the marketing piece I was working on, but later, with much more research under my belt, I would revisit his words with far more respect.

(5) The word marl has a very poorly defined meaning because it is a very old word that was used somewhat indiscriminately. Wikipedia lists marl as a calcium carbonate rich mud with varying amounts of clay and silt in their of the definition. To make matters more confusing Wikipedia’s definition of mud says it has clay in it. Is mud part of marl? Is clay part of mud? Does it really matter?

(6) The quote from the second Master of Wine’s write up of Les Cailleret. I have added the (er) to here to make the passage more clear. “Up at the top of the slope there are outcrops of bare rock. He(re) we find mainly a white marl. This will give the wine weight. Lower down there is more surface soil and it is calcareous, producing a wine of steely elegance. A blend of the two, everyone says, makes the best wine.”

(7) The list of questions I have that don’t have answers seems limitless.  Here are my top questions with no answers at the present: 1) How pervasive is is the fracturing of limestone in the top crus, 2) what kind of limestone is it?  3) does the limestone there fracture and is friable? 4) how much water do these limestones hold, ?  5) how much groundwater is available to the vines? 6) How does the ground water circulate, and 7) how quickly through different types of soil?  8) Where are the faults in the various top climates, 8) are the faults often at the boundaries dividing limestone types? 9)  how deep are the drop-offs (covered by the topsoil) created by the various faultlines?

(8) The University, Lycée Viticole de Beaune is likely to be active in this kind of research, but so far I have not been able to access what might be available, and correct translation from French to English can be problematic if it isn’t done by the author who wrote it, and many times more so if using a translating program (software).

(9) Therefore I’m unable to discuss the types of primary clays, called kaolins which may have formed there in situ, instead focusing on transported clay that has been derived from the erosion of limestone of the vineyards, called Chlorites.

Saumaize-Michelin: A First Look at Roger Saumaize’s Intense 2012 Chardonnays

An Antique Map of Pouilly Fuisse. Vergisson is the Northern-Most of the five villages that make up the appellation.

An Antique Map of Pouilly-Fuisse. Vergisson is the Northern-Most of the four villages that make up the appellation.

Saumaize-Michelin is a top-flight small biodynamic grower-vigneron who is making some beautiful wines from his cellar in Vergisson.  Pouilly-Fuisse, unlike the appellations such as Chassagne and Meursault, is not centered around a single village, but rather four separate villages, Vergisson and Fuisse being the most renown. Vergisson sits in a valley below the massive limestone monolith of  La Roche de Vergisson, and some of its vineyards climb up and around the backside of this behemoth. Vergisson, the northern-most village, is the coolest in the appellations, and because of that, it is reputed to have the highest levels of acidity. In 2011, I would not have been so sure, but with these 2012s, the acidity and concentration of these wines (particularly with the Macon) are jaw dropping.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

Roger Saumaize on a newly plated, steep-sloped vineyard that he thinks has tremendous potential.

Roger Saumaize on a newly plated, steep-sloped vineyard that he thinks has tremendous potential.

2012 Pouilly-Fuisse “Vignes Blanches”

While the 2011s were a bit fat in Maconnaise, this, the first of the 2012 Pouilly to be shipped from Saumaize is sensational in zingingly crisp acidity, with lots of chalky minerals in the nose and the palate: round river stones, apple, lime peel, some nice weight, and modest viscosity. The wine is long and fresh, there is also a waft of balsa and mahogany sawdust. While there are many inexpensive Pouilly-Fuisses on the marketplace, this is definitely not one of those. This is a big step up in quality and verve, and it should improve as it puts on weight and gras with a couple years of age. A fantastic Chardonnay that is comparable in style and quality with a fine St-Aubin. This is drawn from several of his Pouilly-Fuisse Vineyards around Vergisson.  $32.00   92 points

 

Outside the green line that demarcates the Pouilly-Fuisse appellation, are vineyards that must be labeled as Macon or Macon-Vergisson depending on their location.

Outside the green line that demarcates the Pouilly-Fuisse appellation, are vineyards that must be labeled as Macon or Macon-Vergisson depending on their location.

2012 Macon-Vergisson “La Roche”

Everything about this wine is intense, including its nose of cooked cream, lemon, lime peel and butterscotch. In the mouth there is ripping acidity, etching and intense in its attack, pushing the wines concentrated size and weight to their limit to hold this all together. This is a very powerful wine, that has both ripeness and fresh lemon and lots of lime peel flavors, some interesting twig/stem-like flavors, and finally, it gains some breadth in the back of the mouth, with fresh, yeasty bread dough flavors, and finishing with frothy cream, and toasty notes.  Impressive for its concentration and fierce attack, but it is almost difficult to drink.

“Roger Saumaize is swinging for the fences with this daring attempt to totally re-write what Macon village-level wine can be.”

Vergisson in the foreground and La Roche de Vergisson towering above. The vineyard Les Crays, one of Saumaize's top plots can be clearly seen (the area of the tan vineyard block

Vergisson in the foreground and La Roche de Vergisson towering above. The vineyard Les Crays, one of Saumaize’s top plots can be clearly seen (the area of the tan vineyard block

I fear this will turn to all lemon curd as it matures, but I’d like to see this mellow just a bit. For now, it really wants to be paired with some fatty food to tame it a bit.  Wow. That’s a mouthful. It is difficult to judge at this stage. Will it come into balance? Time will tell.  If it can broaden out and sufficiently cover the fierce acidity, this could be a 91 or 92 point wine. But if the lemon flavors overwhelm the other fruit as it matures, this will ultimately fail for me, getting a low 80s score.  Either way, Roger Saumaize is swinging for the fences with this daring attempt to totally re-write what Macon-Village level wine can be.

This Macon-Vergisson vineyard had a particularly small crop, and we got half of the wine we received in 2011. Only 10 cases were imported.

 

Vergisson has various soil types, and Saumaize’s vineyards various vineyards represent this.

Ronchevats sits in deep, younger, Triassic era soils of non-calcareous clay, meaning there is no limestone present, although there is a significant amount of magnesium present.

The Les Crays vineyard, at the foot of La Roche de Vergisson, as well as Courtelongs to the south of town has soils that are made up of white Marl (a mix of clay and decomposed limestone) with a high percentage of limestone in the mix.

Croinoids, a multi-armed sealife that feeds through a center mouth were abundant in huge numbers during certain periods in the prehistoric seas

Croinoids, a multi-armed sealife that feeds through a center mouth, were abundant in huge numbers during certain periods in the prehistoric seas.

The top of Sur La Roche vineyard has shallow soils with Crinoidal Limestone (limestone full of Crinoidal fossils) from the Bajocian era limestone from the middle Jurassic 170 million years ago to 168 million years ago. This period is associated with the development of ammonite biozones  While lower on the hill has shallow soil over limestone from the Bathonian stage 168 million years ago to 166 million years ago. It is interesting to note that the older limestone sits above the younger limestone on the slope. What major upheaval of the earth resulted in that?

Saint Aubin, Chardonnay, and Henri Prudhon’s 2011

This photo is shot from the middle of Les Mergers Dents de Chien 1er Cru. The vineyard is rugged, with  small areas that seem not deemed plantable. Here it slopes down to the highly regarded "en Remilly." Nearby to the left across an unplanted spit of land sits the Grand Cru, Chevalier Montrachet. Just visible, across the mouth of the valley,  you can see village of Chassagne.

This photo is shot from the middle of Les Mergers Dents de Chien 1er Cru. The vineyard is rugged, with areas that seem not deemed plantable. Here it slopes down toward the highly regarded 1er Cru “en Remilly.” Nearby, to the left, across an unplanted spit of land sits the Grand Cru, Chevalier Montrachet. Just visible, across the mouth of the valley, you can see the village of Chassagne. and some of the Chassagne 1er Crus.

“Les Murgers des Dents de Chien” 1er Cru

The ascension of Saint Aubin in the eyes white Burgundy devotees is in full swing. This rise in popularity has multiple facets, but no doubt people have noticed the uptick in ripeness and complexity from the wines of the region.  They will tell you however of the emergence of  really talented, – tell your friends about this guy – kind of wine makers, that are now producing wine in Saint Aubin. This, of course, only adds to the allure of buying  (relatively) affordable, yet high-quality, white Burgundy when the prices of the big names are going nuts.  In the past there had been little reason to delve into these “satellite” appellations, since there were really so few buyers and plenty of good Chassagne and Puligny that could be had at reasonable prices. But things have changed. Competition has become fierce to secure what little wine can be produced from three famous villages of the Cote de Beaune. People began to whisper about Saint Aubin.

An aerial photo of the vineyard. the great Chevalier-Montrachet is just out of sight over the scrub trees, down the hill to the left. The close proximity to this great vineyard has done wonders for the reputation of Saint Aubin in recent years.

An aerial photo of the vineyard. the great Chevalier-Montrachet is just out of sight over the scrub trees, down the hill to the left. The close proximity to this great vineyard has done wonders for the reputation of Saint Aubin in recent years.

At the mouth of the valley that holds the appellation, Saint Aubin shares a border with Chassagne Montrachet on one side, and Puligny Montrachet on the other. All along the once lowly Saint Aubin border, sits a hit parade of famous Premier Cru vineyards: Chassagne-Les Chaumees, Chassagne-Les Vergers, Chassagne-Chevenottes, Chassagne-en Remilly, Puligny Champ-Canets, and most importantly in terms of prestige, at the top of the hill, it adjoins the great vineyard of Chevalier-Montrachet. And to guild the lily, Saint Aubin is also a mere separation from the famed Puligny vineyard of Les Folatieres.  But whereas the Grand Crus of Chassagne and Puligny directly face the sun, and the premier crus get fine exposure, the hills of Saint Aubin largely turn away from the sun. This gives its vineyards fewer hours of direct sunlight during the critical final moments of ripening, just at  a time when the weather is often already starting to get cooler. Additionally, being in the valley gives them no protection from any wind that might also steal needed warmth. The result is a crisper, more lime driven wine than those in Puligny and or Chassagne, most of which sit in the protection of the hillsides.

And Then There Is Global Warming

Beyond all of that, the defining factor that brought Saint Aubin up in the estimation of Burgundy aficionados (whether they know it or not) is global warming. Global warming has had an enormous impact on the style of wines around the world, but has been especially impactful on the character and quality of the vineyards in Northern Europe. As little as thirty years ago, only the vineyards with the very best exposures, that where tipped toward the sun on hillsides, and protected from the wind and weather, could sufficiently ripen grapes enough to make good wine in most vintages. In absolute numbers, from 1990 to 2006, the average temperature has gone up 1.2 degrees F., and it had already gone up 1.2 degrees F. in the previous thirty years.  Today, the crop is consistently ripe enough to make good wine across all climates* in virtually every vintage.

Aviary Photo_130437250206082158Domaine (Field) Prudhon, Saint Aubin

Vincent and Philippe Prudhon run this highly regarded family estate in Saint Aubin, from its 14 hectares (7,500 cases). The vineyards are planted with meter by meter spacing, giving a densely planted vineyard of 10,000 vines per hectare.  The brothers use a pneumatic jacket press to extract the juice from the grapes, and then rack directly into barrique, where primary and malolactic fermentations are completed. The wine left on the fine lees until they are racked and bottled. It was their father Gerard who took the leap from selling their family’s grapes to negociants to bottling and marketing the wine themselves in 1983. And it was Gerard that was one of the major forces in showcasing this up and coming, but uncelebrated region.  And once again, (as I wrote in my Kermit Lynch piece,) so many great French domaines have emerged because they partnered with foreign exporters to find fertile markets for their wines, and to sell them at higher prices than they could have sold them in France. With Neal Rosenthal in New York and Richards Walford in London exporting up to 85% of the domain’s production, this gave the family the freedom to re-invest in vineyards and equipment, and ultimately allowed them to attain the success and reputation they are known for today. Today Domaine Henri Prudhon, along with Hubert Lamy and Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey (who is actually based in Chassagne) are the three great champions of Saint Aubin.

Les Mergers des Dents de Chien

Mugers refers to the broken, vertical tectonic plates that form natural walls (Mergers) along the ridgeline. They jut out of the earth, pushed the geologic forces that formed the hill Mont-Rachet. Often were used as the natural separation of vineyards, these ragged Dent de Chien  (teeth of the dog) decisively define the division between Puligny and Saint Aubin, physically, financially and one suspects emotionally. The Dent de Chien area (see map) runs along the top of the ridge line of Mont-Rachet  is left wild and not farmable. However, in the 1980s, 10 hectares of scrubland was cleared and planted with vines (with great excitement) extending the vineyards en Remilly and Les Murgers des Dents de Chien, bringing Saint Aubin that much closer to  Chevalier-Montrachet. This development was significant because it sparked a real feeling of legitimacy within the vignerons of Saint Aubin. They point to their vineyards having the same limestone base and thin soils as Puligny’s very finest vineyards, and they now believe their wines, in the best years can rival the much more prestigious vineyards in terms of quality, if not reputation.

Aviary Photo_1304390753651275332011 Henri Prudhon, Saint Aubin 1er Cru “Les Murgers des Dents de Chien”

Day One: Having such high hopes and expectations of course is a mistake, but I was somewhat disappointed with this bottle: it was crisp with lime and leafy-green pyrazine flavors, and long, tight acidity. It was clearly very closed, and it was not clear whether there was any weight or real fruit or character behind its shrill facade. But most disconcerting was the green flavors that straddled the jalapeño/eucalyptus flavor profile. I can’t say this is unusual with 2011s, since it was a cool vintage.  I think these flavors will integrate with a year or two (plus) in the bottle, but only time will tell – I’ll certainly find out since I have another bottle. On the positive side it showed some power and intensity with plenty of viscosity indicating ripeness, and the fruit trying to break out. I hoped a night later, with a little air, this might show better, indicating a good evolution in the bottle.  At $30, I’m not feeling this was money well spent. Score on day one: 83 points. Day Two: That was certainly the case: on day two the green flavors have integrated and ripe apple, and tropical fruit flavors have broadened the palate, pushing down much of the lime notes that were so predominant yesterday. The wine has nice ripeness that was so carefully camouflaged the previous evening. Baked apple and hot river stones comes off the nose, with banana, mango, brioche and in the distant background are notes of geraniums and vanilla.  In the mouth, the entry is linear, but broadens quickly on its bright acidic notes, fanning out with baked apple, tropical fruits, brioche, toast. Now I’m more hopeful of my investment. Score on day two: 87 points.   *Climate(s): A French word referring to vineyard(s) as a homogeneous unit having a particular exposure and climate.

2012 Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, Bourgogne Blanc

A Simply Superb White Burgundy

Pierre-Yves Coin and Caroline Morey: The merging of two great Chassagne families.

Pierre-Yves Coin and Caroline Morey: The merging of two great Chassagne families.

Pierre-Yves Colin is one of the hottest winemakers in Burgundy. His domaine, which shares the name of his wife, Caroline Morey, is not even a decade old in its full-fledged form. The target of every Sommelier or collector with their ear to the ground, they clamor to have his wines on their list, or in their cellar. It’s a feeding frenzy.  And while I really have no desire to add to that hysteria, I would be less than honest to say this wasn’t one of the very best Bourgogne Blancs I have ever had.

Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey (aka Colin-Morey, or even PYCM for short) came into being in 2001 when Pierre-Yves was still the winemaker at his family’s Chassagne winery, Domaine Marc Colin. He bought the first 1700 bottles worth of fermenting must and began his fledgling negociant label. His  wife, Caroline Morey (according to the chassagnemontrachet.com site, was given 6 ha. by her father, the stalwart Chassagne producer Jean-Marc Morey, in 2006, (although the

Berry Brothers and Rudd site claims that he took the vineyard from his family.

The road leading out of Chassagne-Montrachet: The 1er Cru "En Remilly" is directly to the right & above; the vineyard to the left is Les Combes au Sud. Somewhere ahead, up on the hillside, resides Pierre-Yves' vineyard that supplies part of this Bourgogne Blanc.

The road leading out of Chassagne-Montrachet: The 1er Cru “En Remilly” is directly to the right & above; the vineyard to the left is Les Combes au Sud. Somewhere ahead, up on the hillside, resides Pierre-Yves’ vineyard that supplies part of this Bourgogne Blanc.

In either case, this allowed the couple to start in earnest. Pierre-Yves left his position as winemaker (his last vintage at Marc Colin being 2005) and with the 2006 harvest, the domaine was born.  Production is said to be around 70,000 bottles, with 2/3rd of the grapes coming from their own Chassagne Montrachet vineyards, the rest being purchased grapes, or wine. I suspect this changes with each vintage, depending on

what is available. PYCM is particularly well-known for  his numerous Saint-Aubin bottlings, particularly en Remilly which sits atop Chevalier-Montrachet.  New bottlings with the 2012 vintage are a Rully 1er Cru and a Montagny Premier Cru. These two bottlings are showing much higher acidity and are much tighter than the Bourgogne now, and need time in the bottle.

His is White Burgundy of a new style, with elevage being in larger 350 ltr barrels, given no battonage, and left in barrel for an extended 20 months. His Criots-Montrachet (the vineyard I understand is owned by American Burgundy expert and California-based venture capitalist, Wilf Jaeger), gets even longer time in barrel and is released months after the Chassagne’s, Puligny’s and Batard. Addendum 3/15/14: After talking to Pierre-Yves, the Bourgogne Blanc comes from two estate plots, one from Puligny-Montrachet, below the village and the other from high up on the hill in Saint Aubin. It was not clear what appellation the Puligny vineyard is actually in, whether it is Bourgogne or Village. It is pretty clear the Saint Aubin is Village level, as there seem to be no Bourgogne appellated vineyards high up on the hill.

2012 Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey Bourgogne Blanc

Part from a Puligny vineyard and the balance from a hillside Saint Aubin plot. Both plots are estate owned.

Part from a Puligny vineyard and the balance from a hillside Saint Aubin plot. Both plots are estate owned.

From first sip this was a wow wine. It has verve and complexity right up-front, with a textural quality of a higher level wine, and a very distinct salinity. The fruit is of crisp green apple, and even to a greater extent of a rich

lemon, like one that has been charred on the grill. Don’t interpret that to mean the wine was oaky or toasty, because it is not. There are elements of cream and vanilla to the body of the wine, as it rolls off the sharp corners of its acidity, that leaves the wine fresh and clean, with subtle notes of river-stone on the finish.  This particular bottle had taken an extended mid winter, lost by UPS trip across the mid-West, and it came back to us having been frozen, and the cork protruding by almost an inch. It definitely got a serious cold stabilization in America that it never got in Pierre-Yves’ cellar, as tartaric crystals littered bounced and buoyed their way across the bottom of the bottle,

like a snow globe.  No fear, this was fabulous. Even at $30 for full retail, this is a real value in White Burgundy. Score: 91 points any way you slice it.

Bourgogne Blanc can come from any one (or more) of 300 communes within Burgundy. Although most Bourgogne Blancs are made of Chardonnay, both Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are permitted. There a 1000 hectares planted in Bourgogne Blanc appellated vineyards. Regulations regarding maximum yields are relaxed, as are vine training techniques and planting densities.  None of these things seem to factor into Pierre-Yves Bourgogne Blanc. I would not be surprised if village level or misfit lots of premier cru appellated wine ended up in this cuvee. Outstanding.

Now I digress into a related (but none-the-less) subtopic. 

I will meet Pierre Yves after La Paulee in San Francisco, and I may get a few of my questions answered.  However, French winemakers truly don’t understand American’s need to know all the details of how a wine is made, and sometimes it seems they resent being pressed for technical information.  Because of that some winemakers have been somewhat notorious for not being forth-coming and allowing misconceptions to remain, leading to some pretty inaccurate facts printed in books regarding how much vineyard land is owned by a producers, vs how much more wine is actually produced by that same producer from that particular vineyard.  By many, this is all considered confidential information.  As an importer, and a representative of a particular domaine, it can make it difficult to come off as an authority to a technically inclined, detail oriented, and enthusiastic American wine-buying public.

Although I am hardly an authority on French culture, I think it comes down to the fact that wine is considered first as a finished product, whose primary job is to provide enjoyment, and secondly must represent its appellation authentically.  The grape type is not on the label unless it is put there for the export market. On the other hand, in the United States, the primary objective of a wine is to be the best Cabernet, or the best Chardonnay. Where the grapes comes from has become an ingredient to make the best Cabernet, not thought of as the reason for being what it is, and in particular, never a directive of what a wine should be.  That’s a huge fundamental difference in outlook. Their position is: It’s a Bourgogne Blanc. It tastes like Bourgogne Blanc, and you enjoy it. End of story.  Our culture wants the particular ingredients of what makes it a great Bourgogne Blanc, which they don’t feel is relevant to the narrative.

While the younger generation is more evolutionary in the winemaking process, they are more open to discussing their techniques in the cellar, but that doesn’t mean they will lay open what vineyards are blended together, how much wine is actually made, or in any way invite scrutiny into allocations. Not to mention that sometimes these questions are just too annoying questions in general. Information is often given grudgingly, and with that, incorrect information is allowed to perpetuate in books by noted authors.  The way they see it is, that stuff is just none of our business.

2011 Ballot Millot Meursault “les Narvaux”

downloadToday the nose is showing a bit Loire-like with its parsley, Kafir lime, and tarragon notes, enriched by  cream, lemon zest, touch of gravel and toasty notes, but it may very well just be a bit disjointed and out of sorts after its voyage across the Atlantic and through the Panama Canal.

This is much more elegant and much less concentrated than the 2010 Meursault Village I reviewed last July which was dense and a little tough-edged. This on the other hand, is very clean, with a light lively palate that sings, with parsley, basil-lime, grapefruit, Meyer lemon, minerals, light cream notes. I really like this, although it isn’t what I would call impressive, but it begs another sip, and then another glass. Its palate impression is light to mid-weight in terms of Meursault, with a weightless but firm palate impression.  It show only the vaguest of oak on the nose (and the palate). It’s application of oak is perfect: deft and balanced.  This will gain some weight and fill out with another year or two, and the cream will take on a larger role, and I suspect the green notes will integrate completely.  Score: 90 points.

imgresCharles Ballot is a young winemaker who some, like wine writer John Tilson of the Underground Wine Letter, are calling a rising star.  In his thirty’s, Charles Ballot took over from his father Philippe a few years ago, and is driving the domaine toward a more elegance style, and that has been particularly evident in the domaine’s reds which includes two well situated Premier Crus, Pommard Pezerolles and Volnay Taillepiedes.  He farms his vineyards lutte-raisonnee, which generally means he farms organically,  unless  the situation requires something more drastic, or perhaps if it doesn’t suit him – there are no laws or oversight surrounding the use of this term. At a minimum it usually means no weed-killers and no chemical fertilizers, and a reduction of other treatments.

Meursault Narveax, lieu dit

Meursault Narvaux is a go-to for the budget conscious Burgundy drinker. Narvaux-Dessous is a fairly large, village appellated vineyard that is situated just above the Premier Crus of Les Genevieres and Poruzots, a bit higher up on the slope. This is one of the more well-known lieu dits (named vineyards) and while using the name Narvaux is optional, many winemakers choose to bottle this as a single vineyard, and put the name of the vineyard on the label. Bottling this as a single vineyard, and naming it, can be attributed in part to marketing, and in part to the superior position of this climate (another French word for vineyard-microclimate).

Narvaux’s up-slope vineyard position means thinner soils, as well as shallow top soil due to erosion, so it is typically lighter-bodied than Premier Crus that sit below it.  But the vineyard is well protected by the hill and its excellent exposure, it gets plenty of ripeness to make a satisfying drink. According to The Wine Spectator’s Bruce Sanderson, Ballot has two parcels in Narvaux-Dessous, one has 35-year-old vines, and the other plot ‘s vines are 60 years old.

Narveaux arial map

Argh! Too Many Spritzy Wines!

Roche de Solutré in the heart of Macon, and above the Pouilly-Fuisse village of Vergisson

Roche de Solutré in the heart of Macon, and above the Pouilly-Fuisse village of Vergisson

Having a recurrent fascination with Burgundy, and an unfortunately small budget, I went to the closest store to work to pick up some Macon whites. Macon, as Neal Martin pointed out in a recent article, was the area that had made the most remarkable strides, and was still affordable, even at their very most expensive. Indeed, I’ve had a number of Pouilly-Fuisee’s that were better than a lot of Pulignys and Chassagnes, and even a cru vineyard from Domaine Ferret that was not unlike Batard-Montrachet.

This particular wine merchant has grown to be one of the big boys on the internet, and does a lot of direct importation – which is cool, I figured. There are something like 4500 producers in Burgundy, and only a small portion of them are imported. If his retailer imported the best of these unknowns, this could be my Shangri-la.  Terrific wines for $12.99. Could it be that I could have a terrific source only blocks away?

“Once in a great while, you find wine from the Mâcon so good…”

The write-ups sounded fantastic. One had the following sign attached it:

“Once in a great while, you find wine from the Mâcon so good that when tasted blind you are forced to apply some much higher (and more expensive) appellation to it. Often, such a wine comes from hillside vineyards with better drainage and cooler nights. This is such a wine, from the slopes below the giant monolith of rock that is Solutré. Domaine Renaud is a small domaine, making Mâcon, Pouilly-Fuissé and St. Veran from 12 hectares of estate vineyards. Their cellar is modern, and they use upright ovals for many of the wines, and stainless for others.”

Along with that sign, I asked the clerks: “Which would you recommend: This 2012 Macon, or this 2011 Macon-Villages?” The answered “They are both good, if you like crisp, minerally chardonnay. And who doesn’t like that?”

So I bought both, plus a really cheap bottle of  Chardonnay from the Loire – which I didn’t have very high expectations for but how bad could it be. But for $6.99 I wasn’t really going to complain. As it turns out, I’m complaining.

Bottle one:2011 Bernier, Chardonnay Val de Loire $6.99:    Spritzy.  Really Spritzy.  After I knocked the gas out of it (which took quite a bit of effort, it was fine, and simple apple fruit, and the Loire’s characteristic limey-ness that you see in so many wines from the region. Fairly solid, pretty much what I would expect, though it could have been much worse.

Bottle two: 2011 Domaine des Niales, Macon-Village Vieilles Vigne $12.99:  Spritzy, Really Spritzy. This too took quite a bit of doing to get the gas out of. Underneath it was a fairly simple wine with apple, and while it still had CO2 trapped in it, minerality. But once the CO2 was gone so were the minerals. Relatively light in weight for Chardonnay, and very representative of what has been made in Macon for the past two decades. Not special in any particular way. I was certainly hoping for more given the quality strides made in the region.

Bottle Three:  2011 Domaine Renaud Macon-Solutré $12.99: Spritzy, Really Spritzy! Underneath all the spritz was a lightly concentrated, very traditional Macon, much like the Niales. It was fine, but seemed a little bit simple, with all the minerality disappearing with the spritz.Ok, what’s going on here? Three bottles in a row? Seriously?

“these were near sparkling levels of CO2 – totally unacceptable levels”

Argh! More Spritzy Wines! My Grapes of Wrath!

Argh! More Spritzy Wines! My Grapes of Wrath!

OK, I’m losing my patience here a little.  This Renaud was the wine I’d had the most hope for. Solutré is shared by Pouilly-Fuisse Vergisson, and the surrounding Macon-Solutré.  I picture a small producer, working the land, probably a husband-wife team which is common in Macon.  This was the story of hard-working artisanal  farmers in a majestic location like Macon-Solutré. That is the romance of wine. This just tasted like all the cheap Macon’s I’ve ever had, without ever stepping outside-the-box.  AN it was the third spritzy wine in a row!

Maybe all the spritzy bottles made me feel a little negative toward this and the others wines. I’m well aware that crisp, steel-raised whites can be bottled with a little CO2 to help protect them, as they have short life spans.  And it is true, that any wine can have an occasionally spritzy bottle.  But these were near sparkling levels of CO2 – totally unacceptable levels if done to protect the wine.  Recently I’ve had increasing numbers of spritzy bottles, to the point where maybe a full third of the wines I buy in stores have this problem. Granted my budget precludes me from buying expensive wines, but really, this is not acceptable.  I don’t return them, because they are not ruined, they can be de-gassed, but it is disappointing nonetheless.

2011 Thierry & Pascale Matrot, Bourgogne Blanc

LB_Thierry_Matrot_B_163346c Domaine Matrot is based in Meursault, and is run by Thierry and his wife Pascale.  For legal reason there are two domaines here. One carries the name of Thierry’s father, Pierre Matrot, under which the red and white wines from Blagny are bottled, and then there is this Theirry and Pascale Matrot label for the rest.

The domaine’s substantial holding of 19 hectares, includes plots from the Meursault’s finest Premier Cru vineyards, with nearly a hectare in Meursault’s “Les Charmes” and a half hectare in “Les Perrieres“. Additionally, the family also has some small parcels of  Premier Crus in neighboring Puligny-Montrachet within the “Les Garennes” and “Les Combettes” climates. But by far, the family’s largest holdings are 5 hectares in Meursault spanning 11 parcels, and the nearly 3.6 hectares of Bourgogne-appellated vineyards just below the village of Meursault.

The Chardonnay vines for this Bourgogne average a mature 30 years. Thierry has worked his vineyards  lutte raisonnée, (reasoned struggle) for the past twenty years, with all  treatments to the vines being organic. and plowing rather than using herbicides to control growth between the rows.

1122285x

Matrot really cuts no corners with his Bourgogne, giving it much the same treatment as his other more prestigious vineyards. This juice is pressed into barrique (15%-20% new- the same percentage as all of his whites), where it ferments on its own yeast, and goes through secondary.  Matrot stirs the lee’s (batonnage); how much he does this depends on the vintage. Typically he bottles this Bourgogne after racking at 11 months  in screw cap. The early bottling and screw cap are likely efforts to preserve freshness and fruit. He has been quoted as thinking that the screw cap is the way of the future.

2011 Thierry et Pascale Matrot, Bourgogne Blanc

$18-$21

Here is a Bourgogne that serves it straight-up. Golden apples, honey, cooked cream, river stones, fine herbs, and notes of vanilla. Medium in weight, with fresh apple and pear fruit, a touch of lavender-scented honey, again wet stones, jicama, sliced anise bulb, and soft notes of lemonade. This Matrot Bourgogne has good verve and moderate complexity, with enough fruit to round out the palate, It is richer and fruitier when served warm.

The bottom line: This is a good, solid Bourgogne, in a the fresh apple-y style that is currently in vogue. but not quite enough fruit and concentration to make me say wow. If it fills out in six months and gains some richer honeyed, nutty notes on the mid-palate (like Meursault is prone to,) this will certainly warrant a higher score. However, I’m not sure there is enough ripeness or concentration to allow that to happen, and the mineral component will likely dominate as the fruit dries out. That said, this still has two or three years of good drinking ahead of it.  87 points

photo of Thierry Matrot courtesy of DN.no Vinguiden

http://www.dn.no/vinguiden/article2013438.ece

Tasting Note: 2010 Domaine Laroche, Bourgogne “Tete de Cuvee”

imgresMichel Laroche is the fifth generation to run this highly regarded estate, that has grown to a very large 100 hectares since the Domaine’s founding in 1850.  While most of the wine produced comes from the family’s base of operations in Chablis, this comes from the Maconnaise  -physically about as far away from Chablis you can get and still be considered to be in Burgundy. This is a negociant wine; grown and fermented by 15 (or more) growers with long term contracts. Once fermentation is underway, the wine is transferred to the negociant (in this case Laroche) to be pressed and finished (95% malo) in their cellars.  This Chardonnay is aged only 2 months (on its fine lees) in stainless steel tanks before being bottled.

This Chardonnay has a rich nose, of like the Greek dessert Balaclava, full of lots of honey, nuts and butter and toasty filo dough, coupled with sage, chalk, and wet stones. The mouth is very dry and savory, rich and broad. The watering acidity (like biting into a crisp grape) is soften and rounded by chalky minerally, which is lemon and golden apple-tinged.  It is very good and quite complex, but its age has stripped it of much of its fruit, leaving the finish a touch bit drying and abrupt. Here is a wine that really would rise to its apex with some pure, but simple food. A roast chicken with wild mushrooms, or Swordfish with butter toasted almonds and fried sage.  This 2010 is very good wine, at the end of its run.  At this point it’s a food wine rather than an aperitif.  For something fresh, try the 2011 which should be out in the market now. 87 points.

vignobles_bourgogne1