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

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

by Dean Alexander

slope comparison

Rise ÷ Run = Slope

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

Slope diagram

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

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

fractured limestone base exposed

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

Limestone derived topsoil types

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

Limestone to Clay diagram

 

limestone-clay diagram 2

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand crus on compact marly limestone or argillaceous limestone: None

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Marly Clay – lower slope 15% carbonate 

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

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

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

 

Clayey soils – Sôane Valley fill 

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

 

Clayey sand and loam (no carbonate)

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

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

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

Clay-loam – clay sand

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

Clayey-silt

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

*Grand Crus on clayey soils: None

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

The scree filled Les Narvaux in Meursault. photo: googlemaps

The scree filled Les Narvaux in Meursault. photo: googlemaps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colluvium Creep

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

 

 


 

Authors note:

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

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

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


 

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

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

 

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Saint Aubin, Chardonnay, and Henri Prudhon’s 2011

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

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

“Les Murgers des Dents de Chien” 1er Cru

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

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

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

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

And Then There Is Global Warming

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

Aviary Photo_130437250206082158Domaine (Field) Prudhon, Saint Aubin

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

Les Mergers des Dents de Chien

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

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

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

2012 Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, Bourgogne Blanc

A Simply Superb White Burgundy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2012 Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey Bourgogne Blanc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2010 Jean-Marc Morey, Chassagne-Montrachet “Les Chaumees” 1er Cru

A Serious, Old-School, Chassagne Producer

ChaumeesI’ve had Jean-Marc’s village Chassagne three times over the past month, and while it is quite good with lots of concentration and plenty of complexity, it is almost too serious and backwards. But the 2010 J-M Morey Chaumees 1er Cru I opened last night flat-out blew me away.

2010 Jean-Marc Morey, Chassagne-Montrachet “Les Chaumees” 1er Cru   

Aromatically, this Les Chaumees is not all that complex or floral, with its lavishly, buttery brioche, slate, and baked apples by the sheet pan. But on the palate, it’s remarkably powerful, with lot of ripe, dense, concentration, tons of gravelly-minerality, gunpowder, some roasted root vegetables, and a seriously concentrated essence of ripe, Golden Delicious apples. All of this intense flavor is supported by a lemon juice and lime peel tinted structure.  Although this full-bodied, relatively high-alcohol White Burgundy has a very solid, powerful core of fruit, and a thick mid-palate that dominates the wine, it demonstrates only the slightest of sweetness. Ripe fruit without sweetness: that’s the beauty of Burgundy. On the back of the palate it’s a bit warm, but along with that comes, a long-lasting impression of those oven-roasted apples, along with scalded milk, browned butter and toasty oak.  $56

Weighing the Verdict: Some will not be drawn to the wine’s lack of sweet fruit, or for that matter lack of freshness, but I think this JM Morey Chaumees more than makes up for it with power, concentration and complexity.  This is an old school style, and we should be glad a few people are out there still making wine this way.  On the power scale, It’s got to be a 95 pointer. On the freshness scale however, it scores more-like 87 points.  You ultimately have to decide what is most important for your palate. For me, I find this to be a remarkably successful wine.  93 points.  

The Geography of North-West Chassagne

The Northern border of Chassagne-Montrachet lays at the mouth of the valley where St-Aubin begins. The Les Chaumees vineyard sits on that border, and shares its hillside with St-Aubin’s Premier Cru, ‘Les Charmois’.  I think It is important to note the elevation lines on the map that delineate the two hills that define the region’s warm and cool exposures. 

While the mountain, Mont Rachet (where the 300 mark is on the map) and the outcropping of Dent Jean-Marc Morey and his daughter Carolinede Chien arrange Le Montrachet, Chevalier Montrachet and Batard Montrachet to align in the perfect exposure, these mountains also created a cold-shadow in St Aubin, and a the cool-climate that Chassagne-Montrachet is famous for. These Chassagne vineyards are the coolest planted among the great villages of Puligny, Meursault and Chassagne, giving Chassagnes racy acidity. This acidity highlights the wine’s minerality, but in some years the grapes would not get enough degrees of warmth to develop completely, leaving them lean and shrill. Today, with a couple of decades of global warming, full-ripening is rarely a problem in Chassagne, and these added degrees has brought St Aubin into the limelight as a great-value in White Burgundy with its superb terroir. 

The Producer: Jean-Marc Morey

Jean Marc Morey, here with his daughter Caroline (her husband is Pierre-Yves of Colin-Morey), began making wine from some of his family’s vineyards in 1981, when his father retired.  His style is very traditional, barreling straight from the press, then leaving the wine on the lees for around a year. He adds no yeast, letting the wine ferment with what yeast comes in from the vineyard, or what has propagated the winery over the years. He doesn’t believe in using very much in the way of new oak, employing only 20% new barrique for his premier crus, and roughly 35% new oak for his Chevalier-Montrachet.puligny07

the photo pf Jean-Marc and Caroline Morey is courtesy of http://www.loegismose.dk)

To the right, Mont Rachet from the Puligny side.