by Dean Alexander
The first steps toward vineyard formation
Burgundy’s story really is one of stone into the earth, and pivots on a cast of geological stress, sub-freezing temperatures, and the simple, transformative power of water. Just how the forces of nature may have acted upon the limestone and transformed it into the great wine region it is today, is the subject of this article. Meanwhile, the ultimate goal of this series explains the intimate relationship limestone has with the wines of Burgundy.
I suspect that we all have this image of the Côte, post-Fault Event (however long that took), to be this raw 400-meter face of sheared limestone. But even then, the Côte was not a solid piece of stone. The incredible extensional forces the broke the Côte d’Or free from the Saône would have caused significant tension fracturing throughout the Côte before this much more massive fault gave way.
Just Add Water
This tensile fracturing, which surely was extensive, would allow rainwater to deeply infiltrate these fine crevices of the stone. And then, upon each surface that the water contacted, depending on the specific porosity and permeability of the limestone, rain water would penetrate the surface of the stone. This contact with water would set the stage for two very different yet significant developments in the stone.
With winter temperatures below freezing, the water in the stone will expand between 8 and 11 percent. This will yield 2000 pounds per square inch, or 150 tons per square foot of internal pressure which is more than enough to cleave the stone. Geologists call this frost wedging, a form of mechanical weathering which breaks apart the stone due to thermal expansion and further with the eventual contraction. Thermal expansion has a culprit in shattering the stone: the cold. Most materials are inherently brittle in colder temperatures, and the limestone which has more elastic than brittle tendencies is more vulnerable to fracturing in freezing temperatures. Frost wedging is so successful in nature that the stone industry mimics it as a non-explosive technique to separate pieces of stone.
The effect of successive freeze thaw cycles, even upon undamaged exposed stone can cause the development of micro-fissures that influence the stone’s fatigue strength, and can produce vertical cracking called exfoliation joints, as well as flaking, and spalling. All along the Côte, there are numerous scars on hillsides where limestone has in the past loosened, to slide off of even moderate slopes, sending scree down the hillside to rest at the curb of the slope. Geologists refer to this rubble pile as colluvium, and it has proved a near perfect vineyard soil solution. The sliding and falling of rock further degrades the stone, abrading it as it slides, and breaking as it falls, allowing fresh broken surfaces for water to act on. Frost wedging which in part created this colluvium rubble pile, is considered mechanical weathering, and is the first development that I mentioned water would bring. Equally important to vineyard formation, is the second significant development that rainwater brings, is chemical weathering. The acid carried by the rainwater, will metamorphose these freshly broken limestone surfaces. And like magic, it will slowly dissolve the calcium carbonate which binds the stone, leaving behind clay minerals and other material. (This process will be covered in Part 1.3 Clay and Soil Development)
Exfoliation and Other Theories on Geologic Structures with Unobservable Change
Consider for a moment: most significant geologic changes occurs over a time frame that is far longer than the entire the evolution of mankind. This fact alone might best explain the difficulties of studying events that happen so slowly that change is not observable. These are geologic forces that can not be seen, felt, or measured. If we didn’t have evidence that these changes had occurred, we would
never know they were still continuing to occur around us. The scale of time and shear size and immobility of the objects makes many traditional scientific methods impossible.
Exfoliation Theory: G.K. Gilbert 1904
We know that exfoliation joints exist, but scientists are at odds about how they occur. It is agreed that mechanical strain results in large horizontal sheets of stone separating itself from the mother rock. Half Dome in Yosemite has achieved its shape in this manner. The first, and once long-held theory, was put forth by the ground breaking U.S. geologist Grove Karl Gilbert. Gilbert’s theory of Mechanical Exfoliation concerned stone formations that had previously been buried in the earth’s crust, which were later were forced to the surface by geological up-shifts. The theory explained that the removal of the overburden (the weight of the rock or earth above) had caused unloading of stress in one direction. The resulting release of stress once on the surface and not confined upwardly, caused expansion and tensile cracking along unloading joints, eventually creating loose sheets of stone on the upper surface of these rock structures. These outer layer of stone were thusly being exfoliated. This website for Girraween National Park in Queensland, Australia, has an excellent explanation of exfoliation weathering.
Challenges to Exfoliation Theory
However, this theory has had it challenges by the mid 20th century, and is to some extent (depending on the point of view), muted or discredited. Situations were sited that didn’t fit all of the theory’s criteria, like rocks that with exfoliation joints which have never been deeply buried, and evidence that many exfoliation joints exist in compressive stress environments, rather than being produces by extensional stress as the theory suggests. Alternative theories are thermal expansion, (and even wide diurnal expansion), and hydraulic expansion, , (which I discussed above with frost wedging), compressional stress, and in the case of Half Dome, the weight of gravity, or a combination of all of the above, including exfoliation weathering.
Along the same lines, theories revolve around minerals that are created in an anaerobic environment. These stipulate some minerals molecular structure are changed (metamorphized) when exposure to oxygen, creating new minerals. While oxygen is the most common element in the earth’s crust, most of it is bonded with silicates and oxide materials and is not free to act as a weathering agent. But when minerals are exposed to free O2 above ground, they undergo chemical weathering, that produces new minerals that are stable on the surface. The most obvious example is when iron ions lose an electron with exposure to oxygen, rust is formed.
In many ways, I’ve put the cart before the horse by talking about the escarpment, before covering even more fundamental ideas. But that is how storytelling goes: sometimes you have to fill in the back story.
The world was a very different place 160 million years ago. This was five million years before the Allosaurus and Apatosaurus (formerly known as the Brontosaurus) roamed the earth. The limestone of the Côte, being a sedimentary material, was laid down in big, flat, shallow beds between the reef barrier that protected the lagoon, and the shore. Each layer was put down, one at a time, chronologically by age, marking millions of years. As the seas receded, and this is the main point, this would become a wide, flat valley of young, sedimentary limestone. It is likely that this bedding would eventually, be completely covered by wind-blown soils. We don’t know what happened to this young Burgundian stone in the intervening 130 million years between formation and the Fault Event, 35 million years ago, but it is unlikely it remained there unchanged. As geological stress acted upon the bedding, it would be pulled, pushed, deformed, and in all likelihood, in some way, fractured.
Author’s Note: For the remainder of this article, I will describe the stress and deformation, and potential fracturing of the stone in the body of the text, and in the photos I will show some of the results (that I am aware of), of that stress. Hopefully the two together will paint a complete picture.
It takes more than just ‘X’ to fracture
I would love to be able to write that a particular limestone will fracture under the “X” conditions, but just doesn’t seem to be that simple. First, there are too many variables. How stone reacts to geological stress is directly related to its composition and construction as well as: its temperature, the amount of stress, multiplied by the duration of stress. Most materials tend to be more elastic under higher temperatures and more brittle in low temperatures. It would be reasonable to assume that there was significantly more geological fracturing during ice ages because stone is more brittle in cold temperatures. At least in warmer temperatures, calcium carbonate stones tend to have good elasticity, depending on how pure their construction, as the chemical bonds in CO3 will move if pressure is applied very slowly. However, that elasticity is finite before the stone is structurally damaged as it passes its elastic limit; but more on that later.
Secondly, like I mentioned before, science cannot measure the stress, but rather the deformation due to the stress. For this geologists use a strainmeter, which they measure changes in the distance between two points. For greater distances technology has brought the laser interferometer. These tools allow the scientist to measure frequencies that represent deformation. Over short periods of time, they record tides (I had never before considered the stress created by a 1.5 quintillion tons of water moving position above earth) and the seismic waves of earthquakes, while over longer periods of time, it can record the gradual accumulation of stress of rock formations.
The mission of this article? What I am looking for here, are some kind of answers these two questions: What conditions would make it possible for vine roots to bed into limestone bedrock? and What limestone types will fracture enough to allow this to happen? Anything learned along the way will be a bonus.
Stresses and the resulting strain
Stress causes strain of various types. Like I mentioned before, we are not able to measure the stress itself, rather only its effect by measuring the stone’s deformation. Below are the basic stresses upon objects and the resultant strains and deformations associated with them. Any deformation is considered flow (as science calls this) and it is domaine of an interdisciplinary study called Rheology. Here it is again, more simply, because its getting more complicated: Stress first. It, in turn, causes strain. The result can be deformation, and this deformation is studied as if it were a liquid: as flow by Rheologists (a group of engineers, mathematicians, geologists, chemists, and physicists), who work together in an attempt to answer questions that transcend all of these disciplines.
6 Most Common Geologic Stresses (the first two are the most relevant to Burgundy)
- Tensile, Tension, or extensional stress which stretch the rock or lengthen an object, will cause longitudinal or linear strain, and its effect is to lengthen an object, and can pull rocks apart. Like a rubber band pulled longitudinally, this is known as extensional rheology. As the rubber band breaks, that is called shearing flow. Rocks are significantly weaker in tension than in compression, so tensile fractures are very common. Tension stress formed the Côte d’Or.
- Compressional stress that squeezes the rock and the resulting strain shortens an object. This too can be a linear or longitudinal strain. Stone under compressional stress can either fold (as in the photo to the right) or fault.
- Normal Stress (can be either compressional or extensional) Normal stress that acts perpendicular to the stone.
- Directed stress is typically a compressional stress, that comes from one direction with no perpendicular forces to counteract it. The higher the directed pressure the more deformation that occurs.
- Lithostatic> and hydrostatic stresses are the compressional pressure of being underground or underwater. The force of the stress is uniform, causing compression from all sides.
Interestingly, the effects of hydrostatic stresses upon an object are mitigated by oppositional forces. For example, the stress from below counteracts much of the force from above, and the forces from the right side counteracted by those from the left as they push against each other. So unlike directed stress, (the kind of stress that a 2 ton object exerts on top of a man), hydrostatic stress is like a scuba diver in the ocean. The stress of water upon the diver can be the same as the heavy weight upon the man, but because of counteracting stresses, strain is not expressed in the same way.
- Shear stress is that which is parallel to an object. Shear strain (caused by shear stress) changes the angle of an object. It can cause slippage between two objects when the frictional resistance is exceeded, or even failure within an object. Faulting is an example of slippage under shear stress. I would be remiss to note that faults in Burgundy, at least to my anecdotal eye, often occur between limestone types.
The Magnitude of Strain
Elastic strain and ductile deformation
There are two levels of strain. Elastic strain, in the effects of the strain, are reversible. The stone will change shape or deform under stress, with minimal damage to its structure, and then return to its original shape and position.
Ductile strain, is the area of strain once past the elastic level. The stone is now developing microscopic fissuring, and the stone can not return completely to its original size, shape, or position. Although the stone may not appear to be visibly damaged, any deformation into the ductile range, will harm the stone’ structural integrity. Additionally, in comparison to the deformation of the stone in the elastic range, the speed and ease of ductile deformation increases quickly (in structural geologic terms). The deformation is now the result of micro-fissures that have emerged throughout the stone, and are now both propagating and enlarging. It is during this phase of rapid deformation that the stone can achieve dramatic folding from what had previously been flat, sedimentary stone.
By The Numbers: limestone limits
Author’s note: The measuring of deformation and the related stress involved becomes a bit more technical, and requires a number of lingo words to be used in the same sentence. I resist this as much as possible, because it requires the reader to be very familiar with the terms. Skip ahead if this doesn’t interest you, but it gives a numerical frame of reference for limestone fracturing.
The deformation under applied pressure is called flow, and the material’s resistance to deformation is measured (in newtons). The measurement of a stone’s elasticity is called it’s Elastic Modulus (a.k.a. Young’s Modulus).
The Elastic Modulus measures the tensile elasticity, meaning when a material is pulled apart by extensional stress. This resistance to deformation is expressed in gigapascals (GPa) which are one billion newtons per square meter.
Additionally, there is Bulk Modulus, the measurement of a stone’s lithostatic (compressed from all sides) elasticity. This is expressed in Gigapascals, (GPa) or one million newton units.
And Shear Modulus, also known as the Modulus of Rigidity, in which the elasticity of a stone under shear forces is measured. It is defined as “the ratio of shear stress to the displacement per unit sample length (shear strain)”.
I gave the MPa compressional strength (loads that tend to shorten) of various limestone types in part 1.1. Note here MPa is used, or one million newtons per square meter. The elastic modulus of most limestone can be as low as 3 GPa for very impure limestone (we don’t know what was sampled), and up to 55 GPa depending on purity of the calcium carbonate. As a comparison of elastic modulus: Dolomite (limestone with a magnesium component) typically ranges between 7 to 15 GPa, while Sandstone typically runs 10 to 20 GPa.
General Limestone Modulus Ranges (the range of deformation before fracture)
- Elastic modulus range: 3 GPa – 80 GPa
- Bulk modulus range: 5 GPa – 66.67 GPa
- Shear modulus range: 3.5 GPa to 33 GPa
The strain rate is important: which is expressed as elongation over time (e/t). The longer the period of time, the more the material can “adapt” to the strain. The faster the stress is applied exceeding the plastic elastic limit, the shorter the plastic region. The plastic region fracture where the material breaks and is considered brittle behavior.
- Brittle materials can have either a small (or a large) region of elastic behavior, but only a small region of ductile behavior before they fracture.
- Ductile materials have a small region of elastic behavior and a large region of ductile behavior before they fracture.
From Strain to Total Failure of Stone
The description of how stone reacts to crushing pressures reminds me of those submarine movies, where the hull is slowly being strained with a chorus of creepy groaning sounds, rivets popping and water spraying from leaks in the hull. In the laboratory, geologists study stones they crush, in order to understand what has occurred to rock materials over hundreds of thousands, to several million of years.
Infinitesimal strains refer to those that are small, a few percent or less, and is part of a mathematical approach material that is “assumed to be unchanged by the deformation” (Wikipedia). As deformation increases, micro-cracks and pores in the stone are closed and depending on the orientation of the pores in relation to the direction of the stress, this can cause the stone to begin to deform in a coaxial manner. This non-linear deformation is obvious in weaker or more porous stone.
While in the elastic region, stone adjusts to the pressure applied to it. Micro-cracks don’t appear in the stone until it reaches the 35%-40% way-point in elastic region. At this point structural strain is largely recoverable with little damage. At 80% of the elastic limit, micro cracks are developing independently of one another, and are evenly dispersed throughout the stone’s structure, despite the fact that the stone is at maximum compaction with no volume change. As the stone nears its elastic limit, micro-cracks are now appearing in clusters as the their growth accelerates in both speed and volume. The stones appearance and size remains intact as it passes its peak strength, although the structure is highly disrupted. The crack arrays fork and coalesce, as they begin to form tensile fractures or shear planes, depending on the strength” of the limestone.(1) The rock is now structurally failing, and considered to have undergone “strain softening”. Additional strain will be concentrated on the most fractured, weakest segments of the stone, creating strain and shear planes in these specific zones, which as it nears the fracture point will essentially become two or more separate stones, ironically bound together only by frictional resistance and the stress that divided them. information source: Properties of Rock Materials, Chapter 4 p.4-5, (LMR) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne
The Bottom Line on the Fracturing of Limestone
The truth is that we don’t have any records detailing the condition of the limestone base that lies below the topsoil. Certainly the limestone base has been exposed often enough over the past century, that had some academic organization wanted to catalog this kind of information, there would now be a large database to refer to by now. Moreover this would be a substantial advance in the knowledge of how to farm these vineyards. Today, the most progressive vignerons are now making these inquiries themselves, digging trenches to find out what lies below in order to make the best replanting and farming decisions possible. But it is unlikely that even these recent efforts are being catalogued, as they investigated.
Vineyard Development: Limestone
Limestone fracturing and shallow soiled vineyards
Since deeper soils do not require the vine to penetrate the bedrock in order to have a successful vineyard, fracturing there is not required for vineyard vitality.
However any vineyard where there is shallow soil, the limestone below must be compromised structurally, to some degree, for the vines to penetrate the stone. In this way, the vines themselves are a contributor to mechanical weathering of stone in the vineyards. Limestone varieties with a high percentage of impurities, are typically more easily fractured; although they may actually be soft enough, or porous enough stone for the vines to penetrate on their own. It is documented that composite formations with heavy fossilization (like crinoidal), or clay content (like argillaceous limestone) are less elastic than purer limestones with high levels of CaCO3, and are much more friable. You can read about limestone construction in Limestone: part 1.1.
With a harder stone, would significant ductile deformation with fissuring make the stone weak enough for the vine roots to penetrate? Or does a limestone based vineyard need to be significantly fractured before vines can sufficiently take root? That answer to this question is not apparent with the information available at this time, but the answer is probably yes.
Vineyards like Mazy-Chambertin and Ruchottes-Chambertin give evidence that the more brittle Premeaux limestone (with its lower compressive strength, and higher porosity), if fractured enough, can support vineyards, despite there being very shallow topsoil. There are a number of linear, east-west oriented, limestone outcroppings in these two vineyards, indicating this area has seen significant compressional stress to the bedrock there over the last 35 million years, in addition to the tensile faulting caused by extensional stress that created the region. These two stresses would have created vertical dip joints, and horizontal, strike joints, and very possibly diagonal oblique joints, and fissuring in the bedrock. Enough for the vines to survive well enough for these two vineyards to be awarded grand cru status in the late 1930s.There has been a question in my mind whether Comblanchien, which is so dense that water cannot penetrate enough to effect freeze thawing, and is also very elastic due to its 98% calcium carbonate content, would fracture enough in a vineyard location to support a vineyard in shallow soils. In fact that has been a driving question throughout this piece, and which I was inclined to believe the answer was no, until evidence proved otherwise. Apparently that has happened.
The Rise of Colluvium
In terms of vineyard soil development itself, geologic pressures have worked extensively to prepare the limestone bedrock. Primarily with extensional stress, but also exerting compressional stress, the strain significantly weakened and fractured the limestone bedding. This deformation and the ensuing fracturing allowed water to infiltrate its cracks and crevices. During periods of cold weather it would freeze within the fissuring, causing frost wedging. Exfoliation would ensue, ultimately causing significant limestone debris to be pulled away by gravity, itself a powerful force of mechanical weathering, to slide (and tumble) down the hillside. As the stones fell, they would further break and abrade into yet smaller pieces. Abrasion is another agent of weathering. There they would stop at the curb of the slope, where eventually they form deep, limestone-based “colluvium” soils. This is what Coates is speaking of when he wrote “rock and more limestone on the section closest to the over-hang, and there is some sand” in Amoureuses. These are the colluvium soils that would with enough time would generate the vineyards upon the the red grand cru vines of the Cote de Nuits would grow.
But first, the story of chemical weathering would have to play out, creating clay and soil needed to feed the vines. The slopes of the Cote d’Or would slowly evolve geologically for millions of years, awaiting the arrival Roman agriculturalists who would recognize and exploit the vinous wealth of this thin strip of the hillside.
Next up: Part 1.3 Amoureuses and Parallel Evidence of Shallow Soils over Comblanchien
Please feel free to comment, like, follow, share, or re-blog this or any of this terroir series!
(1) Because it is often difficult to distinguish between the different types of fractures and faulting once the fracture has occurred, I will leave it at this. There are 3 kinds of fractures born from the three major stresses: Shear, tensile, and extensional.
(2) I have not been able to determine if crystallization is a definition of Comblanchien limestone, or if the Comblanchien limestone in the villages Corgoloin and Comblanchien just happen to have been metamorphosed into marble, and that is why it is quarried there.
Previous articles on Terroir
Limestone Construction: part 1.1 (click here)
Introduction to Terroir (click here)
Preface to my article on Terroir (click here)
Marl: The Most Misused and Misunderstood Word in Burgundy Literature? (click here)