Our best understanding of soils of the Côte de Nuits:
In trying to grasp the relationship of the wines made soil from particular crus, many writers, myself included, have come to many fundamentally incorrect conclusions regarding terroir. My version could be summarized into this:
I believed that chemical and mechanical weathering of the limestone bedding naturally created soil types that were dictated by their position on the slope. Highest on the slope, the compact limestone soils were produced by the simultaneous production of clay and the erosion of clay. Lower on the slope, where transported clay enriched the otherwise arid, colluvial soils, I believed that if farmed carefully, clay production could remain in a relative of a state equilibrium with clay erosion. While, it most of these vineyards may not absolutely been in their natural state as when the Romans arrived, of many mid-slope Burgundy vineyards, I felt were relatively authentic in their terroir.
A challenge to the authenticity of terroir:
The 2008 study on the changes to soil composition following a heavy rain event by Quiquerez, Brenot, Garcia, Petit, and Catena, presents, in my view, far greater implications than the study’s more simple intent of establishing hard erosional data following heavy rain events.
The study’s plot site, high up on the hillside, with a long, 12% grade, would challenge the perception that upper-slope, Burgundian soils naturally carry low percentages of clay or silt. This vineyard, with its 40% clay content, at the onset of the study, is doubly surprising, given that the data showed these materials exhibited a high erosional rate out of the plot area. What the soil recording reveal natural soil composition of this hillside originally contained far more clay than we could have ever expected based on the compact gravel “soil” condition of even the best of the upper slope vineyards today.
This study not only gives us a prophetic view of this vineyard’s future soil but also clearly illuminated a much more fertile soil in the past. Just as this vineyard once had an exceptionally high clay content, there is every reason to believe this was also true across the breadth of Burgundy vineyards, indicating a very different erosional story played out regarding the ‘arid’ soils of elite mid-slope vineyards. This information directly challenges our perception of the authenticity of the terroir within many of today’s Burgundy vineyards.
What the study of this vineyard tells us is that, at least on this site, there has been a relatively tight erosional timeline, with much of the damage occurring over the past half-century. Additionally, the erosion is projected to finish its ‘third act’ in Les Damaudes over the next 25 years, at which point it will have a classic Burgundian compact limestone soil. While it would appear that mechanized farming as the most erosive in this vineyard’s largely unreported history, we know that there was massive erosion in other vineyards over the centuries. The remaining question is: What about the historical farming of this vineyard allowed its clay to remain in this parcel of Les Damaudes?
*This article is based on the findings a pair of studies chronicled in Part 4.3, and centers upon the upper hillside plot of Vosne-Romanée’s village cru of Les Damaudes.
Why is this study so important to our understanding of Burgundy?
It has slowly become apparent that the problem in talking about the terroir of Burgundy is this: We really don’t know what the wines of Burgundy might have naturally been, had men had both the knowledge and forethought to do what it would take to preserve these vineyards centuries ago. However, a study like this (click here) gives us the ability to hypothetically see both where this vineyard is going, and what it might have been like before man caused so much erosion upon the hillsides. We were lucky that the researchers chose this particular vineyard at the top of Vosne–Romanée for their study. Les Damaudes is a steep hillside vineyard (in the most revered of villages) that is only midway through its journey of erosional destruction. A study of a vineyard from any of the other lesser appellations could easily be dismissed as not being applicable to les grands villages de Bourgogne. But with a vineyard within Vosne–Romanée, there is no doubt as to the applicability of the information, as this vineyard is in the immediate vicinity of some of the greatest vineyards in the world, including La Tache and Romanée-Conti.
It has become increasingly clear through the research in preparing this series of articles, that vineyards like Ruchottes-Chambertin have been so seriously degraded by the techniques of the farming employed there, that the terroir we talk about today is one that wears immense repercussions of the farming practices of the past centuries. However, it seemed plausible, that the upper slopes could naturally have developed a compact limestone soil, (one that is 85 to 90% crushed limestone and only 10 to 15 % clay). But these studies re-orient our thinking, forcing us to realize that this is not a soil type that is natural to Burgundy. Because of that, it is not a terroir that is natural to Burgundy.
It is not to say that these vineyards, with their degraded soils, do not produce beautiful or interesting wines, but we must realize that this is a vineyard condition that has been inflicted by man. In the truest sense, Burgundy now has a terroir that has been drastically altered, metamorphosed by the actions of man.
Note: at the bottom of this article I discuss data gaps and the certain information the study might have provided which would have been key to a more complete understanding of the soil of Vosne Les Damaudes.
2004: Establishing a soil base-line
Although the changes to the soil makeup after the 2004 storm were covered in-depth the latter half of Part 4.3, it is the basis for projecting what the soil make up was in 1952, so it bears a brief retelling now.
In June of 2004, a storm, which was unusually large for Burgundy, dropped 40 mm of water on Vosne Romanee over a 24 hour period. The effects of that storm were studied, and the researchers determined that the vineyard plot had irrevocably lost between 1.8 mm and 4 mm soil due to erosion, a vast majority of which were very fine particles under 63 μm in size. The material lost was clay and silt since erosion most efficiently targets these tiny particles. (1)
To the right is a graphic I adapted from the study to show the grain size distribution of the soil after the 2004 storm. Each rectangle represents a range of particle size. I also included the before level of clay and silt sized particles to illustrate the loss of those materials, which was shown as 25% in a graph in the study.
1952: the soil content of the past
Given the study’s data, we can extrapolate, at least conceptually, what the clay content on these slopes the vineyard was planted in 1952.(2) Starting with the fact 2004 the hillside contained roughly equal parts clay and gravel at 40+% each; the balance being sand, that we can add 54 mm more super-fine material (smaller than 63 μm) that it did in 2004. If we assume that past soil loss rates were similar to that of the 2004 storm, we can postulate how much clay would have been present in 1952. This figure would be much easier to arrive at if the researchers had given us the soil depth, which would allow us to estimate the volume of gravel (colluvium) and allow us a much more accurate estimate, but that information was not within the scope of the study.
The soil loss projections of the next five large storms, predicts that erosion will remove up to 20 mm in-depth in places. The lost material, it is expected would continue to consist of primarily be smaller than 63 μm in size.
However, would it not be logical assume soil losses of previous storms were similar to that of the 2004 storm? If so, it would not be unreasonable to apply the projected soil loss, in order to estimate the vineyards clay percentage in the past. If these big storms (of 40+mm rainfall per event) happen every 5 or so years, we can estimate that thirty years ago this same hillside may have had as much as a 70% clay content. How much clay existed before the plot was planted in 1952 can not readily be determined without establishing a rough estimate of the volume of gravel in the vineyard, but it is likely that the vineyard, may have had clay content 85%. Such a high percentage suggests that either this plot was either not farmed before it was planted in 1952, or was farmed quite differently in the past than it is now.
We should not have been surprised that the soils of Burgundy are not as nature created them. We should have suspected something was amiss long ago because the soil type in Burgundy today is one of an arid climate. France, and the surrounding Burgundian countryside, however, do not have an arid climate at all. Rather the climate is classified as semi-continental, where rain is frequent and happens virtually year around. These soils would naturally have at least some petrogenetic development, which it is doubtful that any vineyard in the Côte d’Or does. We were told and simply wanted to believe that the wines of Burgundy are naturally and uniquely sparse of nutrients and clay. Additionally, we have not wanted to believe that, in the course of making these great wines, man has precipitously hastened the decline of the greatest vineyards of the world, though poor farming decisions that have been made throughout the centuries. This has never been truer since the organization of vineyards for the mechanization of farming.
Gaps in the data: deficiencies in quantification
As transformative as this study is to our understanding of the wines of Burgundy, the paper, unfortunately, omits some fairly important information. First and foremost, it is unclear how the samples for the data were collected, and secondly how well the data actually represents the soil of the slope in the root zone. The report does say that the soil of the vineyard was homogeneous in its makeup, and no petrogenetic development was observed; meaning the entire vineyard was the same, with no observable generation of new soil. This indicates that what little organic deterioration may develop was washed away by erosion, and no soil horizons (layering) could develop Lack of soil development and soil horizons would be caused the dual soil disruptions created by regular tilling and erosion.
However, the problem lies in the word “homogeneous”. Even if at some point the soil was homogeneous from topsoil to bedrock, erosional changes to the soils would primarily affect only the material nearest to the surface, and then most acutely in the rill affected inter-rows. Now, even after one storm, the soil is no longer homogeneous in its makeup, because the soil at a certain (unknown) depth would contain more clay and silt sized particles than the topsoil. Now there would be two soil types.
Because of this, we must assume that the researchers collected a shallow soil collection for the sample in order to determine particle size.(3) Quantifying the depth of this sample is critical, was this a sample from the first 25mm (1 inch) or 50mm (2 inches) or from deeper, say 200 mm (8 inches) of depth which is the deepest that most tilling reaches? Further, when the samples were collected: ie before or after anthropogenic resupply of the sediment was returned to the slope, and before or after the soil was tilled, are both important factors in understanding the distribution of soil. Additionally, knowledge samples at various depths of the sample would be instructive as the effective depth of the erosional change. This is ever truer after workers had returned the sediment to the hillside, and tilled back into the soil.
It would appear that the study only represents changes to the surface soil: those that would most be affected by erosion, and anthropogenic resupply of the sediment to the hillside. it is possible but less likely, that the soil sample may have been taken down to a 200mm depth (8in), which is the standard reach of a plow shear. But even if samples were taken from the 200mm depth, that is only 2/3s of the minimum depth required by a vine for its root zone.
Despite questions and any doubts these numerical omissions might create regarding the validity of the numbers and projections from the study, the value of this information far exceeds reaches far into the black hole of understanding that existed before. For this reason, I accept these numbers and build in a fairly wide mental fudge-factor when considering the above.
(1) The variance between the 1.8mm figure and the 4mm figure was not explained, but it is likely that lower sections of the vineyard, which were subject to a higher volume of rainwater runoff, and had developed rill erosion, were subject to greater levels of erosional loss.
(2) While the study lumps both clay and silt into a grouping of material by size under 63 μm, according to Wikipedia, as well as other sources, say that silt is primarily made up of the parent materials feldspar or quartz. Feldspar is prone to chemical erosion, just as is limestone, both of which metamorphose into clay (phyllosilicate minerals + water and air), while quartz will not erode due the same contact with the carbonic acid in rainwater. Although granite (the major source of quartz-silt) is common in the areas surrounding the Cote, like in Beaujolais, it is not found near the surface in the immediate area. Although silt has been washed onto the Cotes by alluvial action and transported to the soils of the Cote by wind erosion, I have to assume that silt-sized quartz fragments are a very small minority in the area’s soil makeup. For that reason, I often refer to the study’s grouping of material under 63 μm, simply as clay. Clay, of course, is actually smaller than silt. Although the size definition varies between disciplines 1–5 μm, the metamorphological change that occurs upon clay is the ultimately defines clay, not its size. * an underlying reason that I identify this material may also be that — no wine writer has ever attributed any of Burgundy’s success to silt. Am I cowering in conformity?
(3) How else could one explain a 15% change in a clay content? The planting bed must be at least 30cm (12 inches) for vines to be viable. Most vineyards have this with a much lower clay content, often to 30% less. If we were to use 30cm depth as a baseline, it stands to reason that the depth is likely 30% more than 30cm, being at a minimum 40cm of soil over the base rock though there is likely more. So, if the soil is 400mm deep, and 240mm of that are clay minerals, a 4mm decrease in the clay represents only a 1.7% decrease in clay content in the soil.