By Dean Alexander
While working my first wine shop job twenty years ago, I asked the store manager – who was a Burgundy guy of significant reputation: “Why is Rousseau’s Ruchottes-Chambertin not as good as his Clos de Bèze and Chambertin?” The answer I got was honest: “I don’t know. I’ll have to ask next time I’m there.”
Years later that realized that I had asked the wrong question. The question I should have asked was this: What causes these neighboring vineyards to produce wines of such different character?
Today, twenty years later, I can answer that question. If you have read my previous 12 articles in this series on Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy, it is likely you can answer it too. More importantly, some of the lessons here can be used to understand other appellations where less concrete information is known.
The short answer
Chambertin, Chambertin-Clos de Bèze, and Ruchottes-Chambertin
These three grand cru vineyards sit in a row, shoulder to shoulder on the same hillside. All have their upper-most vines smack up against the forested hillside, and all have virtually the same exposition. The legendary domaine of Armand Rousseau farms and makes wine from all three of these vineyards; yet one, the cru of Ruchottes-Chambertin, does not seem to be cut from the same cloth. The wine made from Ruchottes is not as rich or opulent. It tends to be lighter, more fine-boned, and more angular in its structure. The primary reason for this difference in wine character is that right at the border of Clos de Bèze and Ruchottes, the limestone beneath changes significantly. Unlike the other two vineyards, Ruchottes-Chambertin sits over very hard and pure limestone that is composed of almost completely of calcium carbonates and very little in the way of impurities, such as mud or clay.
The impurities within the stone, (bonded by the calcite) is what determines how much clay and other materials will be left behind as bedding materials when the stone has weathered. The more impurities in the limestone, the more nutrients will be available for the vines when the stone weathers chemically. Further, it will reflect not just how fractured the stone has become due to extensional stress, but it will have often been the determining factor of whether the bedding has become friable as well. The wines of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze have this sort of impure limestone as a bedding under three-quarters of its surface area. It is a significant factor in giving the wines of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze a heavier weight and richer character than the wines from Ruchottes.
Another major factor in this differential in wine weight is that Ruchottes is a much smaller appellation, which confines it solely to the upper slope. Its location makes it subject to all of the factors that challenge upper slope vineyards, details that are examined in Part 3.3. Conversely, both Chambertin or Clos de Beze extend almost three times farther down the hill, all the way to the curb of the slope. Additionally, while the degree of slope may kick up in the upper final meters of the Clos de Bèze and Chambertin, the area under vine upon upper slope (that will produce a lighter wine) is relatively small compared to the entire surface area of those vineyards.
Unlike Ruchottes, the long slopes of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze will reach down to almost to where the slope completely leveled off. There at the base of the slope, rock and soil colluvium will have been transported by gravitational erosion, adding generously to the depth the soil. This depth allows more water to be absorbed and retained for use by the vines. It is rich in limestone rubble, gravel, and catches and holds more fine earth fractions including transported clay that has flocculated there. Above ground, scree litters the vineyards.
The fact that most ownership parcels run in vertical rows, from the top of the vineyard to the bottom, assures that any lighter, more finessed wines will contribute, but not dominate the overall blend. In other words, blending of heavier wines lower on the slope masks the lighter wines from the top of the slope.
It is abundantly clear that the vines benefit from the higher levels of nutrients in these deeper soils. They develop grapes that carry more color (anthocyanins) and brings many times more dry extract to the wine. This translates as the wines of these vineyards having a richer, more velvety texture, increased depth, all of which covers the structure. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the upper-slope position of Ruchottes-Chambertin dictates that the soils there are very shallow, and while there is a high percentage of colluvium, it is not as rich in sand, silt or clay-sized particles. In fact, there are places the topsoil has completely eroded away, leaving fractured stone and primary clay and marly-limestone between the voids and breaks in the rock.
New research allows new understanding
Today we can examine this variation of limestone within a vineyard with a precision that was not possible a decade ago. This is due to the groundbreaking work of geologist Françoise Vannier–Petit and her mapping of the dominant limestone beddings of Gevrey. Through her work, we know that Ruchottes is a very homogeneous terroir, one with a very pure and hard limestone bedding dominating the vineyard. While the stone does not provide much in the way of nutrients to nurture the vines, we know it is well-fractured by two large faults that run through the vineyard. Because of the vigorous faulting and fracturing throughout the vineyard, Ruchottes does produce a grand cru class wine, but it is a grand cru of a different character.
The geological factors in Ruchottes do not typically produce a wine with the substantial fruit or thickness of a Chambertin, and this ‘reduced’ level fruit often does not completely ‘blanket’ of structure in the wines from Ruchottes. This obvious structure is often mentioned in wine reviews, noting heightened acids and tannins, lending the wines a more angular construction than in other grand crus. By the same token, the wine from Ruchottes is often quite aromatic, with finer bones, for this wine, it means exhibiting more finesse, as well as giving the taster a heightened awareness of the wine’s precise rendering of detail. In another vineyard, this might be attributed to the grapes achieving less phenolic maturity, but the wines of Ruchottes are ripe, they just aren’t typically as large scaled or heavy. Moreover, they can be remarkably beautiful wines that can age effortlessly, for decades; often gaining poise, polish, and balance while doing so.
The substrate of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze is much more varied. With Vannier-Petit’s mapping information, we know that 35 million years ago the vineyards of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze were opened up by a large fault. This exposed the older (2 million years +/-) of softer bedding planes below. They are both divided by four bedding planes, three of them being of soft, friable, impure materials, giving excellent nutrients. This softer, highly fractured bedding allows the vines to thrive, and produce wines with much higher levels of fruit. This is the heart of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze.
Additionally, the twin vineyards are perfectly situated, mostly upon a gentle gradient which will resist erosion, or better yet, at the curb of the slope, where the soil is deeper, The vineyards are well protected from wind, being squarely behind the hillside of Montagne de Combe Grisard. These two vineyards sit in the sweet spot of the heat trap formed by the hyperbolic concave of the slope. This positioning allows ripening occur even in most cold, wet years. Ruchottes, while fairly well protected, it is nearer the Combe de Lavaux through which cooling winds flow down the vast gorge.
All of these factors make the wines made from Chambertin and Clos de Bèze much easier wines to understand because they have so much to give. They can be very seductive and complex and can be drunk either young or old. Are they typically better wines than can be made in Ruchottes? The knee-jerk reaction is yes, as Ruchottes can be equated to the man fighting with one hand tied behind his back. But when a well-made wine from Ruchottes is opened at the right time and served with the right meal, it can be perfection.
Generally speaking, when compared to vineyards in some of the other villages, the grand vineyards of Gevrey are fairly mild in their gradient. The uppermost vineyard sites of the Chambertin-named vineyards butt up against the Montagne de Combe Grisard’s “chaumes” (or ‘scruff ‘ in English). But unlike the steep upper hillsides of Vosne or Volnay that were able to be planted to vine, there is an unarable, rocky, forested landscape. Here in the chaumes, where no vines are planted, the hillside above Gevrey becomes steep.
The premier cru of Bel-Air is the one real exception. Carved out of a void in the rocky forest, and perched directly above Chambertin Clos de Bèze, Bel Air is a steep vineyard. It is a superb example of the struggles upper-slope vineyards face. See Part 3.3.1 for more on this. According to Vannier-Petit, a white Oolite formation underlies the uppermost section of Bel Air, and Premeaux Limestone underlies the lower part. Several writers have described Clos de Bèze as having Oolite formations below the soils, but Vannier-Petit does not note this. Instead, it is likely that Oolite has slid, as scree, or even in large chunks as a rock slide, into Clos de Bèze, from Bel Air above.
A prominent feature of the area, as outlined by the late James E. Wilson, a geologist, and author of Terroir (1998), is a rocky outcropping he referred to as a “Comblanchien cap“. While this was not part of the vineyard landscape, he described it as a major feature of the “Nuits Strata Package.” This term,“Nuits Strata Package,” as coined by Wilson, is an overarching reference to the bands of limestone bedding that stretch from Marsannay to Nuits-St-George, a layering of limestones unique to the Côte de Nuits. An upper-band of Comblanchien stone, he wrote, formed a structural bulwark or ‘cap’ which has allowed the upper-hillside to resist erosion, while the softer center eroded more quickly. This has caused the Côte de Nuits to develop its hyperbolic concave slope-shape. This concave slope relief, as I wrote earlier, allows the heat of the sun is trapped, allowing fruit to ripen fully. This is particularly true for vineyards such as this that sit in a wind shadow which is created by the trees and hillside above.
Interestingly, a much more recent map of Gevrey by Vannier-Petit, does not deem it necessary to include hillside construction above the vineyards. So while she shows no Comblanchien “cap rock“ at the edge of the Gevrey’s vineyards, as it seems Wilson described them, she does shows that the Premeaux stone extends one hundred or so meters up-slope. This extends well beyond the farthest, uppermost edges of the vineyard land. While she may have felt the composition was outside the scope of the project, certainly anything that will wash, slide, or roll into a vineyard, is of great importance to our understanding of the physical vineyard makeup.
Ruchottes-Chambertin: a largely homogeneous appellation
Ruchottes-Chambertin, and it’s ying-yang partner. Mazy-Chambertin (also spelled Mazis-Chambertin), sit at the tail end of the string of grand cru vineyards. The primary limestone beneath both vineyards is the significantly calcium-pure, Premeaux. Premeaux limestone, which is marketed as marble, is highly desirable for construction and prized for its pink color. It is very similar to Comblanchien (which is a creamy white), but slightly less pure, (hence the color), and slightly less resistant to geological strain. See Part 1.1 for detailed compressional strengths of various commercial limestones.
Technically, the Ruchottes appellation is made up of three small, roughly equally-sized vineyards: Ruchottes Bas, (meaning the below) Ruchottes Hauts, (meaning above), and next to that, against the forested outcroppings at the top of the hill, Clos des Ruchottes. The Clos is a monopole owned by the firm of Armand Rousseau.
While the lower half of the Clos des Ruchottes shares the rest of Ruchottes’ Premeaux limestone, the uppermost section, is covered in a layer of white Oolitic stone. Oolitic stone is made up of millions of small, oval, carbonate Oolite (egg stone) pellets that are fused by mineral cement. This composite construction makes the stone more susceptible to fracture, and the vines find it far easier to penetrate the many weak spots in this more porous stone. If anything, this is a benefit that the Clos des Ruchottes has over the rest of the Ruchottes appellation, especially since it is so high upon the hill. However we don’t know if the Oolite is of significant depth, and it is likely that Premeaux lies directly beneath it anyway. In either case, as vineyards go, the entire appellation of Ruchottes-Chambertin, is remarkably homogeneous in character.
The excellent Armand Rousseau website discusses Ruchottes Oolitic limestone, as well as shows the firm’s holdings in the vineyard, and is fairly detailed, and seemingly competent in their geological explanations, a surprising rarity in Burgundian marketing. Below is an excerpt.
The soil is composed of a shallow layer of red marl up to the top of the area. It is very pebbly, shallow and not fertile. The vines are based on oolithic limestone dating from Bathonien which disintegrates if frozen producing scree. This soil type forces the roots to go deeper into the rock. This results in a more fragrant, mineral style of wine that is lighter in colour but with a fine and elegant body. domaine-rousseau.com/en
Examining Ruchottes faulting and fracturing
We know through of the study of fracturing along the Arugot fault in the Dead Sea Basin, that as the distance from the fault increases, fracturing diminishes in frequency. This means that fracturing still occurs in its clusters, but the spacing between clusters is farther apart, leaving stretches of relatively undisturbed stone between areas of fracturing. As Ruchottes is located at the farthest possible distance in Gevrey from the main Saône fault, we rightly might expect this hard stone to be only intermittently fractured. Certainly, there have been numerous accounts over the past century of vignerons having to dynamite sections of these vineyards to break up the stone enough to plant their vines.
Unknown before Vannier-Petit’s work were the locations of sub-faulting that occurred at the same time that the Saône Fault developed.(1) Two sub-faults bi-sect Ruchottes and Mazy, right at the border with Clos de Bèze. The vertical fault-line follows the boundary between the Premeaux stone and the various beddings that make up Clos de Bèze.
Ruchottes origin during of the Côte’s creation
The once level Premeaux limestone bedding of Ruchottes came under great strain as the land that now forms the Saône Valley Basin pulled away and began its slide down. As the limestone slab was pulled extensionally, the once solid piece of limestone bedding first began to microfracture, then to fracture throughout the body of the stone. As understood by the study of fluid mechanics, stress intensifies exponentially upon weakest areas of the stone, from which fracturing propagates, until the main horizontal break, or fault occurs.
As this faulting occurred, the neighboring blocks of limestone were pulled downward by the void made by the dropping/falling off the fledgling Saône Valley. As this happened, bedding of Ruchottes began to tilt and slide downwards, both pulled and sliding with the adjacent formations. It is not clear if this was a rapid, cataclysmic event, or that it happened over the span of hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Either way, the stress upon the Premeaux bedding of Ruchottes was extraordinary, and what fracturing that was not caused the faulting, certainly occurred as it tilted and moved its position downward.
Often times, faulting can cause one plate to sit significantly higher than the next, forming a drop off which may or may not fill with soil. In some locations, such as the fault between Chevalier-Montrachet and Le Montrachet, this has occurred What soil was lost by Chevalier to erosion, found a fine resting place in Le Montrachet, allowing the soils of Le Montrachet to become much deeper (and richer). In other instances, erosion may once again level any difference in bedding height created by faulting. Alternately, the bedding may remain at the same height following the fault creation. To the best of my knowledge, any height differential between Ruchottes du bas and Mazy Hauts is not documented.
Looking at the satellite image, there are certainly several visual clues that this faulting exists. Most obvious are the signs of significant stress are the limestone ridges, where the bedding has folded upon itself, that pushed above the topsoil. These are the dominant features directly above the southern end of Mazy Haut, and just like the walls of Clos, these limestone ridges greatly reduce erosion in these areas, which results in deeper richer soils and thus weightier wines, not only in Mazy but in that area of Ruchottes du Dessus.
Clos de Beze & Chambertin: four distinct bedding planes
While Chambertin and Chambertin Clos de Bèze are very similar to each other, they are unique to all other vineyards in Gevrey. Both vineyards share the same four bands of bedding planes, in roughly the same proportions. The one largest difference between them is that there is a higher percentage of Crinoidal stone in Clos de Bèze than exists in the northern end of Chambertin. However, what is farmed depends completely on the parcels owned, not what exists in the vineyard itself. It is increasingly clear is that a parcel is a vineyard in itself, and sections within parcels can hold wide variation in the character of wine it will produce.
Upper-slope Bathonian beddings:
Premeaux limestone and Argillaceous limestone/Shaley limestone
The uppermost sections of both Clos de Bèze and Chambertin sit over the very pure, and hard, Premeaux limestone, formed during the Bathonian which is a 2 million year period of the upper middle Jurassic. As in Ruchottes, we can expect this Premeaux limestone to be fairly well-fragmented. If this were the only stone found below the surface of these vineyards, the wines would taste much more like Ruchottes, but that is not the case.
The middle-upper section of these sibling vineyards is argillaceous limestone. This is a calcium-rich clay matrix may be indurated into stone, or it also may be soft and more marly. The clay, or argile as it is called in French, normally composes up to 50% the matrix, with roughly the balance being calcium carbonate and impurities. To this Vannier-Petit adds the word hydraulique, (in parenthesis), which refers to the fact that this particular limestone contains silica and alumina, that will yield a lime that will harden under water. The assumption is that this Calcaire Argilleux formed underwater in the Jurassic lagoon or seashore, by secreting quicklime which bound with the clay, 168 million years ago.
Decanter Magazine alternately, and perhaps inaccurately, translates from the French Calcaire Argilleux, into Shaley Limestone, (as seen in the map box). That said, Françoise Vannier–Petit describes in an interview, that the relationship of clay and shale, is almost as one material that continually is in a transition from clay to shale – and back again, depending on how hardened (indurated) it becomes, or degraded. That stated, shale is generally regarded as lithified clay mixed with silt, the blend of which causes the notable horizontal striations, while a body of transported clay (of a single type, ie. Kaolin) that has been indurated (hardened) is termed claystone. Geologists are notorious for their loose use of terms, which makes it challenging for the rest of us to catch up, and I suspect Vannier-Petit is often guilty of this. AC Shelly is credited with writing in 1988 that “The term shale, however, could perhaps be usefully abandoned by geologists, except when communicating to engineers or management‟
Middle to lower slope Bajonien beddings:
Marnes à Ostrea acuminata & Crinoidal Limestone
The oyster, and other fossils that sedimentologists are constantly mentioning as being present the bedding is really only relevant because it allows the scientist to easily reference age of the material. The fact certain creatures lived only during distinct periods of time, and only in certain environments. So not only does it give scientists the age of the strata, but it tells them a lot about the particular conditions that existed in that location, quickly allows the scientist to assign the formation of the bedding material to a particular period of time. As the fossils display different signs of evolution, (in the case some oysters, their valve position changed over long periods of time) the sedimentologist can establish the age bedding, and allow them to recognize a change of bedding (at on the surface) simply by the fossils in each location.
Using this methodology, the scientist gleans information about how the bedding has shifted position or even its location. These shifts have been very significant in the Côte. By categorizing strata by type, and fossil type. and date, they can match one stratum in one location with its mate in another. This methodology allows sedimentologists to correlate strata worldwide.
In the vineyard of Chambertin, the marl (Marnes à Ostrea acuminata) lies in a layer just beneath the argillaceous material that once was an ancient oyster bed. It is loaded with fossilized oyster shells (Ostrea) from the upper–Bajocien period. This soil, into which the fossils are bedded, contains a large amount of the clay, montmorillonite, which has a very high cation exchange rate, and such soils, with their negative charge, attract and hold positively charged ions called cations (minerals like calcium (Ca++), magnesium (Mg++), potassium (K+), ammonium (NH4+), hydrogen (H+) and sodium (Na+) that are crucial for plant growth. This makes this particular marl which lies in the heart of Chambertin, a particularly sweet spot for vines. And because this is a bedding plane that underlies the Argillaceous material above it, those vines whose roots can reach that deeply may benefit from the Marnes à Ostrea acuminata too. That said, the deeper roots, it is reported, do not typically supply vines significantly with nutrients, that vines rely on their shallower root systems for this function.
The age of the Marnes à Ostrea acuminata dates back to the very late Bajocian, parkinsoni zone 168.3 +/-, well before the Premeaux which lies above it was formed on top of it. This important because this decisively shows that the Comblanchien bedding, which lies at the base of the hillside (and was formed later in the Bathonian), slid downslope, pulled eastward with the falling Saône Valley. This slide of this sheet of Comblanchien bedding plane, which at one time overlaid the argillaceous and oyster marl material and lay next to the Premeaux, moved downward almost 100 meters and eastward by roughly 200 meters. This left expose this older argillaceous marl and crinoidal bedding to the air for the first time after having been buried for the previous 133 million years. The next bedding plane is the also Bajocien in origin, again being older than the Premeaux higher on the hill, and older than the Comblanchien which sits below both Chambertin and Clos de Beze.
The lowest section of Chambertin and the largest percentage of Clos de Beze’s acreage consists of the well-fractured Crinoidal Limestone. This is the most common base rock upon which, the classified crus of Gevrey are planted.
Crinoids were extremely prevalent the lagoons and Jurassic seas worldwide, until the Permo-Triassic extinction when they were virtually wiped off of the geologic record. Their fossilized remains create weakness in the stone that encases them. This weakness in the stone, coupled with the geological fracturing of the area, has made it relatively easy for the vine’s roots to penetrate deep into this rock strata. Impurities in the stone’s construction, allows for chemical weathering, brought about by rainwater infiltration, to create rich primary clay bedding for the vines, within the breaks and gaps in the rock. These factors have proved that Crinoidal limestone provides a very effective and fertile bedding for Pinot Noir to grow.
Wilson described the Crinoidal limestone as being “cracked by numerous small faults which ‘shuffle the cards’ of strata, but generally are not large enough to ‘cut the deck’ to introduce markedly new strata.” Terroir (1998) p.131. This is typical of his breezy style, and while it is visual (in terms of cards), it really doesn’t have much concrete meaning, other than being a colorful way to say the crinoidal stone is well-fractured. He does go on to say that this extensive fracturing allows the stone to be a good aquifer for the vines.
Colluvium: atop the bedding planes
Almost every grand cru vineyard in the Côte de Nuits has significant amounts of colluvium mixed in their soils. While Ruchottes-Chambertin does have colluvium is one of the most glaring exceptions it is not significant in quantity. Typically, this colluvium is accompanied by a fair amount of transported clay, which when together often forms marl.(2) Rarely does one exist without the other in vineyards that have been classified as grand cru.
In the Côte de Nuits, there tends to be more colluvium in the colluvium to clay matrix, while in the Côte de Beaune, there tends to be more clay. This tends to the case because there are many more marl bedding planes in the Côte de Beaune than there are in the Côte de Nuits, where marl bedding is rarer. There may be more shale in the Côte de Beaune as well.
The tête de cru, – the very finest of the grand cru vineyards, have relatively equal proportions of marl and colluvium and sit only upon the slightest of slopes. This applies to the vast majority of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze vineyard area. These crus possess a perfect planting bed for vines: they have colluvium/marl based topsoil that is at least 50 cm (19 inches) deep where the absorbing roots are active.(3) Because of this construction, the soil has good porosity for root and water infiltration but is not so porous a material that the water does not drain right through it, or cause it evaporates quickly from it. Additionally, because of its rocky nature, the grand cru soils tend to resists compaction.
While there is a band of harder, less fertile Premeaux stone on the uppermost slopes of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze, this represents a minority proportion of these vineyards. Parcels that have vines on these upper slopes, often lend a measure of finesse to the finished wine, without impacting the palate impression of the finished blend. For these reasons, Chambertin and Chambertin Clos de Bèze are among the finest vineyards in the Côte de Nuits.
Clos des Ruchottes, (and Ruchottes in general) is a far different vineyard than its two neighbors. With the near-pure calcium stone beneath its shallow soils, the low levels of impurities mean that when it weathers, very little clay is produced. Because of the scant soil, the vineyard their neither contains nor can it attract, as much in the way of nutrients for the vines as can Clos de Bèze with which it shares a border. The resulting wines typically have less fruit, less color, seem more structured or tannic, and have a finer, though thinner texture. On the upside, the vineyard produces a very classy wine that can have excellent aromatics, remarkable finesse, and has excellent age ability.
Agree? Disagree? Comments are welcome and encouraged! Please feel free to like or share this, or any other article in this series!
Note: Many authors note that Clos de Bèze has Oolitic limestone. Vannier-Petit does not note this on her map. Instead, she places the Oolitic stone in the premier cru of Bel Air, which sits directly above it. A likely explanation of Oolite being cited as existing in Chambertin is scree/colluvium from Bel Air has slid down, to litter Clos de Bèze from above.
(1) The problem with always talking about the Saône Fault ignores the fact that the fault is really the most minor part of the geological event that happened. It was a continent being pulled apart which caused the void into which the entire region from the Côte d’Or to the Jura fell into a trough which now forms the Saône Valley. The Saône Fault is nothing more than as scar marking that event. And in fact, the Saône Fault lies buried quite deeply underground – its general location is only estimated.
(2) Marl would require a smaller particle size than just rock and gravel-sized limestone pieces to produce the non-clayey consistency that marl displays.
(3) Despite the conventional wisdom to the contrary, it is this shallow absorbing root system that gathers the majority of nutrients that vines require.