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

Note: Sediment gravity flow has four principle transport mechanisms. From wikipedia

  • Grain flow – Grains in the flow are kept in suspension by grain-to-grain interactions, with the fluid acting only as a lubricant. As such, the grain-to-grain collisions generate a dispersive pressure that helps prevent grains from settling out of suspension. Although common in terrestrial environments on the slip faces of sand dunes, pure grain flows are rare in subaqueous settings. However, grain-to-grain interactions in high-density turbidity currents are very important as a contributing mechanism of sediment support.[4]
  • Liquefied/fluidized flow – Form in cohesionless granular substances. As grains at the base of a suspension settle out, fluid that is displaced upward by the settling generates pore fluid pressures that may help suspend grains in the upper part of the flow. Application of an external pressure to the suspension will initiate flow. This external pressure can be applied by a seismic shock, which may transform loose sand into a highly viscous suspension as in quicksand. Generally as soon as the flow begins to move, fluid turbulence results and the flow rapidly evolves into a turbidity current. Flows and suspensions are said to be liquefied when the grains settle downward through the fluid and displace the fluid upwards. By contrast, flows and suspensions are said to fluidized when the fluid moves upward through the grains, thereby temporarily suspending them. Most flows are liquefied, and many references to fluidized sediment gravity flows are in fact incorrect and actually refer to liquefied flows.[5]
  • Debris flow or mudflow – Grains are supported by the strength and buoyancy of the matrix. Mudflows and debris flows have cohesive strength, which makes their behavior difficult to predict using the laws of physics. As such, these flows exhibit non-newtonian behavior.[6] Because mudflows and debris flows have cohesive strength, unusually large clasts may be able to literally float on top of the mud matrix within the flow.
  • Turbidity current – Grains are suspended by fluid turbulence within the flow. Because the behavior of turbidity currents is largely predictable, they exhibit newtonian behavior, in contrast to flows with cohesive strength (i.e., mudlfows and debris flows).[6] The behavior of turbidity currents in subaqueous settings is strongly influenced by the concentration of the flow, as closely packed grains in high-concentration flows are more likely to undergo grain-to-grain collisions and generate dispersive pressures as a contributing sediment support mechanism, thereby keep additional grains in suspension. Thus, it is useful to distinguish between low-density and high-density turbidity currents.[4] A powder snow avalanche is essentially a turbidity current in which air is the supporting fluid and suspends snow granules in place of sand grains.
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Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy, Part 2.2: Soil formation

We all know what soil is, or at least we think we do. If I were to ask you what was in soil, what would you say?

by Dean Alexander

In healthy soils, minerals typically only represent slightly less than half of the volume of soil, while air and water incredibly represent much of the rest. Here is the soil of La Tache in Vosne Romanee.  photo: leonfemfert.wordpress.com

Soil: 45, 25, and 25%

Despite all the talk about limestone, to really understand the terroir of Burgundy, we really have to understand what soil is and the material from which it is eroded. The mineral component, or the part we think routinely of as soil, are typically only 45% of the soil matrix. The balance is actually 25% air, and a further 25% of water, with the last 5% being split between humus (4%), roots (.05% ), and organisms (.05). It would make sense that this percentage changes seasonally, depending on how much water is in the soil from rainfall (or the lack of it) which changes the ratio of minerals, water, and air. Further, these ratios can change based on soil compaction, which decreases the air in the soil, which in turn increases the percentage of the mineral and organic component.  Why is this important? Because this is the environment that the vines live and they require a certain ratio of each of these components to produce high-quality grapes.

Cote soil influencers
I developed this graphic to illustrate the assorted soil formation processes that affect the Côte, and are described in depth in Limestone Fracturing in Part 1.2, and from Limestone to Clay in part 2.1, in earlier articles in this series. This article, Part 2.2 Soil Formation, builds upon those earlier concepts.

 The 45%: Burgundy’s mineral makeup

The French refer to the loamy Saône Valley fill as Marne des Bresse. The earth there is very deep, and typically is too wet for high-quality grape production. Historically this been used for pasture land for sheep and cattle. With every storm, this rich loam from the valley intermixes a little bit more with the soils of the boundary vineyards, and even encroaches on the loose, stony soils of the Côtes lower slopes.  ‘Interfingering’, was how geologist James E. Wilson described this mixing of soils in his 1990 book, Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines.

Bore samples, according to Wilson, had indicated that this interfingering has reached westward, up the hill, to influence the soil construction of the lower sections of the grand cru Batard-Montrachet. With this information, he inferred that the Saône fault must be near.  It is notable that in 1990 precise location Saône fault was not known, and around Puligny, it still may not be. I suppose the wealthy Puligny vintners have no need to explain why Puligny-Montrachet is great. Vannier-Petit however, does tacitly show the Saône fault in her map of Gevrey, which is represented by the abrupt end of the limestone bedding east of RN74.

The ravine Combe de Lavaux defines character of most of the premier crus of Gevrey-Chambertin, but more importantly, its alluvial wash greatly expanded the growing area of vineyards below the village. Click to enlarge
The ravine Combe de Lavaux defines the character of most of the premier crus of Gevrey-Chambertin, but more importantly, its alluvial wash greatly expanded the growing area of vineyards below the village. Click to enlarge

Because the Côte is an exposure of previously buried, older limestone, younger soils line the divide on either side of the escarpment. The Saône Valley’s Marnes de Bresse brackets the Côte on the eastern, lower side of the slope, while younger rock and soil material that cover the tops of the hills, to the west, and beyond.

From the hilltops above, those younger soils have eroded down, bringing feldspar and quartz sand, silt, as well as phyllosilicate clay minerals, to help fill in and strengthen the rocky limestone soils of the Côte. In many places, geological faulting, coupled with runoff or streams, have created combes or ravines which have allowed substantial alluvial washes to extend the planting area of the Côte. A prime example of this is the Combe de Lavaux which is a dominate feature of the appellation of Gevrey-Chambertin.  It has sent a large amount of alluvial material around and below the village of Gevrey, creating good planting beds for village-level vineyards. Alluvial soils are nothing more than a loose assortment of uncemented of soil materials that have been transported by rain or river water. These materials are typically sand, silt, and clay, and depending on the water flow, various sizes of gravel particles. It is this sand and gravel that has traveled with the water flow from the Combe, that provides these vineyards that protrude past the limestone of the escarpment the drainage the vines require.  These are not, however, the soils that will produce the great premier cru, or grand cru, wines for which Burgundy is famed.

a graded sediment bedSoil suspension and graded bedding

Soil moves downslope by water erosion, the force of gravity, and even is transported by the force of significant wind. With movement, the particles within the topsoil are in a state of suspension. Geologists refer to this movement and suspension as turbidity. Because of their weight, gravel travels downward in the moving soil, creating a progressively sorted soil, with coarser pieces on the bottom, while the finer particles find their way to the top.  The result of this is called a graded sediment bed. (1)

While it is easier to see how a graded bed might be created in a stream bed below a ravine like the Combe de Lavaux, I was somewhat perplexed how this might occur in Alex Gamble’s Les Grands Champs vineyard in Puligny-Montrachet, see Clay part 2.1.  Here gravel bedding lay at 80cm, a little more than two and a half feet below the surface. Above the gravel, sat a foot and a half of heavy, yellow, clay-dominated soil. This was, in turn, topped by nearly a foot of loamy-clay soils. Vannier-Petit estimated these soil horizons, as geologists refer to them, were created between two and five million years ago by water runoff. What kind of run off?  I realized that the kind of runoff that creates graded bedding happens often, like in this photo (below), taken in Pommard during the winter/spring of 2014, by winemaker Caroline Gros Parent.

This is how graded bedding develops.
This is how graded bedding develops. Here the road to Pommard has flooded in the winter storms of 2014. Photo: Caroline Parent via twitter

Parent material

Geologists talk about a soil’s parent material because every element of soil came from a different material, which was then weathered, both mechanically and chemically, into various sizes. These minerals will then accumulate, either poorly sorted into an aggregate material, or they can be well sorted by the wind, water, or gravity into size categories. Sand and silt are generally said to have been created by mechanical weathering, although chemical weathering is always a present force, as long as there will be rain. Sand can be made of any parent rock material, but in Burgundy, there are sands made of granite, in addition to plentiful limestone sand. (2) We know this because there is loam present (as well as graded bedding), in the Grands Champs vineyard from the Saône valley fill below. The water that carried this non-limestone, Côte-foreign material, would have carried quartz sand with it as well when it created the graded bedding there. This gives us a very important insight into the construction of the soils of Burgundy.

Fine earth fractions

Fine Earth Fractions are the trinity of sand, silt, and clay. Gravel and sand can be made of limestone or other rock that has been weathered into smaller and smaller pieces, but silt is typically feldspar or quartz. Clay is much, much smaller in size, and is created by chemical weathering of rock. Its parental material can be limestone, granite or other stone.

Geologists grade soil minerals by size; the basis of which are particles that are 2 mm and smaller. These are called fine earth fractions and consist of sand, silt, and clay. In equal thirds of each of the three soil fractions is considered perfect for farming crops, and is termed loam. The various sizes of minerals in the soil makeup gives the soil its texture.

Clay, we have talked about in length in part 2.1, and differs from silt and sand because it is a construction from stone that has been chemically weathered, whereas silt and sand are derived from mechanically weathered rock. Additionally, clay is a construction of clay minerals that are bound with aluminum and oxygen by water and carries minerals within its phyllosilicate sheets. It is also important to mention that clay’s particles are considerably smaller in diameter, being less than 2 microns in size.  Soils with more clay hold more water,  so they require less frequent application. An overabundance of water in clay soils causes oxygen depletion in the root zone.  This can limit root development.  The abundant solvent calcium in the limestone soils Burgundy misaligned the clay platelets, loosening the soil, and allowing better drainage.

Diatoms (top) and Radiolarians bottom, fill the ocean floors with sediment.
Diatoms (top) and bottom, fill the ocean floors with sediment.

Silt is specifically formed from quartz and feldspar, and is larger than clay, being 0.05 mm-0.002 mm. We know that any feldspar in the soil, could not have come from weathered stone; neither limestone or granite, which was the dominant stone in the area when the limestone beds were forming, because it would have metamorphosed into a phyllosilicate clay mineral if it had. This means the feldspar has traveled onto the Côte, either from above or below the limestone strata.

While it might seem logical to assume the quartz in silt originated in the earth’s crust, and perhaps degraded from granite that was prevalent in the area, this may not be the case. The first problem is quartz is resistant to chemical weathering. And physical weathering like frost wedging of sand particles may continue to yield results beyond a certain size.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington used (and I cut and pasted this) a “backscattered electron and cathodoluminescence imaging and measure oxygen isotopes with an ion probe.” They found that the 100% of silt quartz found in 370 million-year-old shales of Kentucky were made from the “opaline skeletons” of plankton, radiolarians,  and diatoms. This, they reasoned, might explain the lack of these kinds of fossils during the same period. These tiny animals had all been incorporated into the then forming shale. This may also be the case for the silt quartz of Burgundy, itself too having once been a Jurassic, seaside resort. This, in fact, this information also suggests this quartz silt may come from weathered shale that is much older than the limestone of the Côte.

A sandy soil horizon
A sandy soil horizon

Sand is larger than silt. being less than 2 mm, and typically is constructed of quartz or limestone particles. The limestone sand will weather to solvent calcium carbonate, but the quartz will not weather and will remain as sand. It is likely that significant quartz sand has been washed down from the hillsides, and certainly is a major contributor to alluvial soils below the combes. Sand drains so quickly that vines grown in sandy soil have more frequent water requirements, but require a lesser amount of water.  Adequate water maintains plant growth while minimizing the loss in the root zone.

 Plant and animal soil contributors

Grasses, with their dense root systems, are positively impactful to the topsoil. In their decomposition, darker soils are created to deeper depths, and the resulting soils also tend to be more stable.  In a monoculture of grapevines, many growers are finding this to be a significant advantage. In Australia, some grape growers are using grasses to help lower soil temperature in efforts to slow down ripening in an ever-warming climate.

Much is made by those practicing sustainable and organic cover crop encourage populations beneficial predator insects and birds, but grasses and cover crops also encourage subsoil organisms and microorganisms growth as well. Most common are bacteria and actinomycetes (rod-shaped microorganisms), which by weight have been found to be four times more present by weight than earthworms in healthy soils. While these are important to the quality of the wine, they are only an intricate part of terroir if it is practiced by the farmer.

The 25%: Air (and soil compaction)

Soil compaction relates to poor water infiltration and low oxygen levels. drawing: landscaperesource.com
Soil compaction relates to poor water infiltration and low oxygen levels. drawing: landscaperesource.com

The proper amount of airspace between mineral fragments is very important for vine growth and allow for water to penetrate and be retained by the soil. Soils with diminished airspace are said to have soil compaction, and compaction is difficult to correct once it has occurred. The Overly tight spacing between the mineral component of a soil restricts oxygen levels and contributes to a poor water holding capability.  Rainfall itself can cause some soil compaction, but most commonly walking or operating farming equipment on moist soils does the most damage. In drought years, soil compaction can lead to stunted vine growth and decreased root development. In wet years, soil compaction decreases aeration of the soil and can cause both a nitrogen and potassium deficiency. Additionally, without adequate porosity to the soil, water cannot easily penetrate the soil during a rainstorm. Water that cannot infiltrate soils of flat terrain can stagnate, which further compacts the soil,  or on sloped terrain will runoff, which can create erosion problems.

Positive effects of moderate compaction

As moisture of the soil increases, so does the depth of compaction.
As moisture of the soil increases, so does the depth of compaction.

Moderate compaction can have some desirable effects. Moderate compaction forces the plant to increase root branching and encourages secondary root formation. This additional root growth is the plant’s response to not finding enough nutrients with its existing root system. Plants with more extensive root systems are more likely to find nutrients that are not carried by water, like phosphorus.  Obviously, more compaction is not better, because it impedes root growth, lessens the oxygen in the soil, and repels water from penetrating the soil.

While deep tillage 10-16 inches can shatter the hard packed soil, studies have shown that crop yields will not return to normal following the effort. While there are factors that might cause the soil to return to compaction, like a farmer, unintentionally re-compacting their soils, more than likely tilling does not return the airspace that was lost in the soil itself. Further continuous plowing and tilling at the same depth can cause serious compaction problems on the soil below the tilling depth.

The 25%: Water (the key to everything that Burgundy is)

It should be impossible to talk about soil without talking about water, given it is optimally 25% of soil’s makeup. It is certainly tempting to pass over the subject of groundwater and lump it into erosion, but that would really shortchange our understanding of the Cote. Part of Burgundy’s success can surely be attributed to relatively steady rainfall year round, coupled with the fractured limestone’s ability to hold water until its reserves of water which is held within the stone can be recharged by future storms.

Good drainage, well-drained? Let’s reset the dialogue.

The infiltration of rainfall by the soil is the first and perhaps most important factor in recharging groundwater levels. Like I wrote of compaction, the soil has to be porous enough to penetrate the topsoil and subsoils successfully. The buzz word in the wine world is drainage, with terms like well-drained, and good drainage appearing often. I suppose we picture the roots drowning in mud if there isn’t good drainage. But the idea of good drainage really simplifies the issue. Drainage can have to do as much to do with compaction as soil materials or slope. Soil drainage is important in fighting erosion as well not causing additional soil compaction. Good drainage, which is what happens with a well-aerated soil, allows the vines roots sufficient oxygen and nitrogen and allows the roots to take in nutrients like phosphorous and potassium. But none of this can happen if the soil releases rainwater too quickly, and the vine can perform none of these vital tasks. The reality is, it is not the fact that a soil well-drained, but rather it drains at the adequate rate for a given rainfall. Obviously, this will not always be a perfect equation since rainfall varies greatly depending on the year and the time of year.

The speed of drainage

water movement through various soil types. source: usda-nrcs
Water movement through various soil types. source: USDA-nrcs

The kinds of materials that make up the soils contribute greatly to the rate of water ability percolate through the material. The speed of the mater’s movement depends on the path the water is channeled in. The most direct path that is in line with gravitational pull will give the fastest drainage.

Water movement comparison through sand and clay. Soure Coloradostate-edu.
Water movement comparison through sand and clay. Source Coloradostate-edu.

Sandy soils, as one might expect, drains quickly because it consists of only slightly absorptive, small pieces of stone, that allow the water to essentially slide right past.

Clay, on the other hand, is very dense and plasticity. These characteristics, as you might expect, would be resistant to allowing water to pass through, and large bodies of transported clay can redirect horizontally, the flow of water percolating through from above due to it’s slower absorption rate. But what isn’t obvious is that clay’s construction encourages capillary action. The clay body will distribute water throughout its mass, counter to gravitational pull, becoming completely saturated, before releasing excess water through to the material below.

Argillaceous Limestone
Argillaceous Limestone with its horizontal fracturing slows water percolation. click to enlarge

Highly fractured limestone that is still in place, is often is fragmented in a prismatic pattern. However some limestones, like this soft argillaceous limestone to the right, with its high clay content, may fracture horizontally. The type of fragmentation would depend on the stresses upon the stone, the freeze-thaw effects of water and temperature, as well as the material of the stone’s construction. Clay based stones will tend to fragment horizontally and when they do, they are considered platy, and water will percolate more slowly than stones that fracture in a prismatic fashion.

Water movement through soil
The hillside of the Côte is a recharge area for water collection, while the valley below is a discharge area, where excess water is expelled. The water table is at the capillary fringe. Water uses faults and fissures to move quickly into and out of the saturated zone. It is likely there are aquifers, meaning caves which have been cut out of the limestone by carbonization below the Côte, where the water is stored.

 

a small karst aquifer Photo:planhillsborough.org/
A small karst aquifer in Florida. Photo:planhillsborough.org/

Groundwater, the water table, and karst aquifers

In writings regarding Burgundy, very little is said about ground water, other than there are no cellars built underground in Puligny because the water table is too high there. A plentiful water supply may be one of the features that propel the vineyards of Puligny into the ranks of the worlds best. As my diagram above shows, water percolates through the soil and stone. This upper section is called the vadose zone, or unsaturated zone. Slabs of limestone, fissures, faults, and clay bodies all can change the course of the water flow. Each horizon of soil and each layer of stone have their own rate of percolation. With this much limestone, it is very likely there are karst aquifers or large caves caused by the carbonization of calcium carbonate beneath the Côte, but I could find no specific mention of aquifers in close proximity to the Côte. There is a mention in a European Academies Science Advisory Council‘s country report for France, that in Burgundy there are “karsified Jurassic limestone layers” somewhere in the region, but nothing more is elaborated upon.

There is a very famous and massive karst aquifer with seven very deep layers that spans from north of Burgundy across the Paris basin to the English channel. The deepest level of water is brackish. The uppermost section is called the Albian sands sits at than 600 meters, and was first was drilled into in 1840 taking well more than 3 years to achieve. The water there is 20,000 years old, and there has been discussion whether the water should be considered fossil, meaning there is a question whether there recharge from the water above, or not.

 

Next up: Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy, Part 3: Confluence of stone, soil, and slope

 


 

(1) Interestingly, larger stones, especially the flatter, rounded shaped stones that the French refer to as galets, tend move to the surface, probably because of their larger displacement values.

(2) Sand from other parent rock material is likely to be available as well.