Burgundy: The History of the Vignerons: The Villages part I

The wine villages of the Côte d’Or in the 18th Century

By Dean Alexander

PommardReflecting on it, I find it amazing that the descendants of so many old Burgundian families still farm the vineyards, and live in the same tiny villages of the gold coast as their ancestors. Many of these families have lived there for more than two centuries. The Roty’s of Gevrey-Chambertin arrived there in 1710, and have now lived in Gevrey for more than three centuries, and the Mongeard family arrived in Vosne in 1620, just shy of four centuries.

Consider further, for many generations, all but the most wealthy, rarely traveled much farther than the fields that they worked, none of which were very far away. They often did not know the families from two or three villages distant, because to get there, many of them would have had to walk. They lived and died in the houses in which they were raised, and that was often the same house that their mother or father was raised.(1) For most urbanites, this is kind of stationary life is unfathomable. But this long history of a family being precisely in a single place, for so many generations, can only be explained by these people having developed exceptionally strong emotional ties to their village, their family, and to their land.

While to outsiders, the daily life of the farmer can only describe as repetitious and mundane, in the long view, the changes that have occurred on the Côte can be fascinating. Over the span of the past two to three hundred years, these fermier families have had, along with a certain amount of luck, the ability to adjust and adapt at crucial times.

First and foremost, they were lucky. To have had built up enough assets to handle disasters as they came can be a matter of luck. Any ship can sink in the perfect storm. But beyond that, they tenacious, yet flexible enough to endure nature’s worst. Examples of adversity the families of the Côte would face included: multiple, several near-total harvest failures, and more than a couple vineyard losses due to vine killing winters, hail, and flooding. Then there were the major diseases such as mildew (oidium in 1854 and downy in 1887) not to mention phylloxera.

The image of a peasant girl resting, is from the Paris Salon circa 1893.

The image of a peasant girl resting is from the Paris Salon circa 1893.

The political and economic challenges were relentless, included the lengthy French Revolution, multiple governmental changes, and economic and the catastrophes of wars and occupation. Had these families not been lucky, not had assets when they needed them, and not made the right decisions at the right time, they would have left been forced to leave, as many did. (Garnot 2008) Most importantly, they had the ability to make the jump from being simple paysans, meaning the peasant-farmers, who only just subsisted on small plots land, to fermiers who not only owned the land they worked, and more importantly, owned enough land they needed to hire people to help work the land they owned.

Gone from the Gold Coast now are those paysans.  Their small plots absorbed by larger landholders and their labor replaced in the fields professional vineyard managers and workers and supplemented day laborers.

Throughout the late 19th and most of the 20th century, it was an idealized version of these very peasants, who had been economically pushed out of the Gold Coast, by which the French viewed their own national identity.  The French viewed itself as the peasant: a stout, strong, determined, rural proletariat, who farmed the land, feed the nation and were called to war. (Lehning 1995) It was generally felt that the peasants were the backbone of the country. As such, it was with a certainly irony, that much later, during the 1920 and 1930’s, the fermiers of the Côte would begin to market Burgundy and themselves as synonymous with the already existent folklore of the ‘peasant farmer’. (Whalen 2009) This would be their guarantee of quality, their simple honesty, steadfastness, and hard work.

 

print of Gevrey Chambertin from Dr Jules Lavalle's 1855 Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d'Or

print of Gevrey-Chambertin from Dr. Jules Lavalle’s 1855 Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d’Or

The growth of a village

In an isolated locale, like the wine villages of the Côte d’Or, a census is a very good barometer of the health of its economy. As the economy heats up, as financial folks like to say, the population increases. Conversely, as the economy slows, populations tend to contract accordingly. In 1793, toward the end of the Revolutionary period, the first census of the new republic was taken.  At this time, the population of Gevrey was only 1,193. Over the next two decades, Gevrey’s population would grow only incrementally until 1831, when it would begin to expand over the next 50 years.

Phylloxera, in its steady march across France, would finally reach the vineyards of the Côte d’Or in 1880. However, rather than the loss of production forcing the population to contract, -as those “in the margins” were indeed displaced by a lack of field work, new inhabitants were arriving, largely replacing their numbers. A whole new industry had sprung up surrounding the fighting of phylloxera. As that battle was gradually lost, these jobs would eventually be replaced by those who would plant the vineyards again. These were people who had trained in the new skills of grafting vinifera Pinot and Chardonnay vines to the hybrid American rootstock. This carousel of workers kept the number of people living in the village fairly constant, but generally, the fermiers, the landholding farmers, many whose family names we recognize today, remained.

The census of 1881 revealed a population of 1,868. Shortly after the turn of the century, economic instability, and low wine prices, and falling vineyard values, would cause the lowest number of inhabitants since the census had begun, with a mere 1,543.  Gevrey’s population would fall even further during the interwar years, for in 1936 Gevrey had a population only 1,486, the lowest it had been after one hundred years of growth. These were grim times, and the fermiers and concerned politicians sought new ways to produce and market wine independent of the negociants that had controlled the industry since the 1750’s. These efforts, coupled with the Europe’s general economic recovery after the Second World War, has sent the population dramatically upward, with new industries which supported the now profitable wine growers and bringing with them hundreds of new jobs. The censuses of 1962 and 1975 marked how dynamic the recovery had been. (census figures: fr.wikipedia.org)

Population of GevreyThe population of the larger town of Nuits-St-Georges, a center for negociant trade in the mid-1700‘s, has been more stable than Gevrey. Nuits expanded through pre-phylloxera times but then remaining fairly steady for almost a century between 1866 and 1954. The town’s population saw minor fluctuations of alternately adding and losing 100 to 400 people, through the end of the Second World War, but these changes were a much smaller percentage of the population than the swings seen in Gevrey-Chambertin. This is likely that because of the town’s size, there was far more business operating in Nuits-St-Georges beyond the direct cultivation of the vines. As an overview: in 1793 Nuits had 2,541 inhabitants. It peaked just before phylloxera 1881 at 3,727 people. Today, after steady growth since the end World War II, (3,285 in 1946), the population now sits at 5,516 in 2008. (fr.wikipedia.org)

Stepping farther back in time

The old villages, tranquil wine smaller villages of the Côte d’Or, with their narrow streets and quaint houses, are quite easy to envision two hundred fifty years ago, during the time of King Louis the XVI, for these are remain small, sleepy, villages. Vosne even today has a population of a mere 427 people, and only 307 people live in the nearby village of Chambolle. Even with the tourists that mill around and support the restaurants and inns of the old, more touristy section of Gevrey-Chambertin, this section of town could not be described as bustling. It would seem as though place must be quite unchanged over hundreds of years. In your mind’s eye, just exchange the slow trod of oxen pulling a cart along the graveled highway for the cars that now ply the paved RN74.  Upon the once cobbled streets of the better sections of the village, add in horses and the staccato of their hooves. Wood-smoke, billowing from the chimneys of a few dozen open hearths; the day crisp, with fall in the air, and the vision should be complete.

But things have changed in these villages. Perhaps the biggest paradigm shift took place when the vines of Pinot Noir won out over Gamay.

(*) larger is relative, but considering the value of the land, and the wine made from it, these are not poor men. (**)The increase of population in the larger towns and villages is best explained by more wealth is created by both vignerons and by the tourist industry, the there are more jobs available to service their needs today. 

 

French peasants depicted in "Fin du Travail" by Jules Breton (1887)

French peasants depicted in “Fin du Travail” by Jules Breton (1887)

Economic battle between of Pinot Noir and Gamay

Winter 1709For many centuries, there was an economic and ideological battle going on between those who were planting the vines that produced the more consistently ripening Gamay grape, and those who would have all vines in Burgundy planted only to Pinot Noir.

For some, the battle was societal. While certainly it was recognized that Gamay could produce a high-tonnage of fruit, while still maintaining acceptable quality (for the masses), the noblesse d’épée (noble of the sword), the noblesse de robe (magistrates and parliamentarians of Dijon), clergy officials, and most acutely, the invested haut bourgeoisie, felt the Gamay wines were coarse and undeserving vineyards of the Côte d’Or. Most importantly, they rightly felt Gamay pulled down the reputation of the Côte in general. Gamay certainly did not add to the noble reputation that the upper strata of society believed the region should be allowed to attain.  Social standing and reputation in the 18th century was hugely important to those in a position to affect it, and cannot be underestimated in the context of where some Gamay should and should not be planted in Burgundy.

For centuries there was a vocal pressure to eliminate Gamay, and although it was banished by Philip the Bold in 1395, peasants continued to grow on the slopes through the end of the 19th century. In Morey“Of the 160 hectares under vine,” Auguste Luchet wrote in 1858, “90 are planted to Gamay.” Later in the text, he would write: “Gevrey has about four hundred hectares of vineyards, half in Gamay and one in Pinol (Noirien) mixed with a little white.”

According to Marion Fourcade, an associate professor at UC Berkeley, there were “periodic local ordinances” eradicate Gamay in vineyards of the Côte d’Or. In her paper,“The Vile and the Noble” (2012), Fourcade briefly mentions that those who pushed to expunge Gamay alleged its cultivation promoted various unspecified “health dangers”. As an economic problem, Gamay’s critics charged that its cultivation contributed to an increase in the fraudulent bottling of Gamay as Pinot Noir, or alternately, it was accused that Gamay was illegitimately blended with Pinot Noir. This no doubt occurred. But, as previously believe in the preceding centuries, Gamay was, in general, unworthy of the region.

LavalleDr Jules Lavalle, in his 1855 book, “Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d’Or, which was revered by many, calls Gamay “common,” and “ordinary,” claiming Gamay had “invaded hilltops and flatlands all around”. (Forcade 2012)   “God knows how awfully active the vulgar plant has been in driving away the fine plant, and what progress it makes every day! Our ancestors would have been appalled!” As translated by Fourcade.  In Charles Curtis’s translation of Lavalle (in which I did not find the aforementioned quote) in his book the “Original Grand Crus of Burgundy”, Lavalle writes “The vines planted in Gamay cover more than 23,000 hectares,(1) which one meets under the name of plante Mâlain,  plante d’Arcenant plant de Bévy” Additionally Lavalle condemns that “The yield can often extend to 50 and even 60 hectoliters per hectare.”

The choice to plant Gamay was surely decided, however, not by the ideological mindset, or by social consciousness, but rather by the wealth of the vigneron. The poor farmer could simply not afford the high-stakes gamble of Pinot Noir presented, with its pitifully small production of 18 hectoliters per hectare (Lavalle 1855), and its inability to consistently ripen its fruit completely  The peasant could not afford a single failed vintage, that the high-risk Pinot Noir grapes delivered this result on a fairly consistent basis.*

Moreover, Pinot, with its thin skin was particularly prone to rot and disease, it was far more difficult to make into a competent wine. In some years, Pinot vines would produce a completely unsalable crop. The wealthy landowning farmer (a fermier – as opposed to a vigneron) could take such a gamble with virtual impunity, because when it the Pinot crop paid off, the dividends of producing a great wine, far outstripped the losses incurred by poor to very poor vintages. The incredible demand (and payday) for wines from great vineyards, in these great years, continues to this day.

(*) It is not without note that the little ice-age, (which dates are contested) is generally thought to have begun in the 1300’s, and ended around 1850. Additional weather variations occurred, with extremely low temperatures materializing with disastrous effect in 1660 1709, 1740 and 1794/1795 and the last in the year 1850.

Grains are still a major crop in the Cote d'Or

Grains are still a major crop in the Côte d’Or. Here, adjacent to vineyards that produce Bourgogne Rouge on the outskirts of Gevrey, wheat, rye, corn and barley are regularly planted and harvested. photo googlemaps.com

The paysan of the Côte, a poly-cultiveur

While we think of only vines on the slopes of the Côte d’Or, the vineyards of the early to mid 18th century, were typically a polyculture. It was common for the vines to share the slopes with animals, fruit trees, and vegetable plots, depending on the site. (Swann 2003) However, as the 18th century progressed, economics would begin to crowd out polyculture off of the slopes.

Below the vines of the great vineyard slopes, upon low-lying fields, grew all manner of foods, particularly grains. Rye which grew well on the poor soils of northern France, corn, wheat and barley were widely grown; and in personal gardens next to their houses, the peasants often grew vegetables. It is well documented that the lower third of Clos St-Jacques was planted to alfalfa until 1954, but it is likely that it had been home to many different crops over the centuries.

Very few ‘vignerons’ during the 18th century actually worked solely with the vine, and those that did, according to historian Benoit Garnot, were in decline in the 18th century. He laments bleakly that “the tired qualification ‘winemaker’ seems to be socially rewarding.” (Garnot 2008)

Busby wrote, in 1840, that in vignerons in Chambertin would rip out dying provignage vines (which only survived ten years or so), and let the land fallow while being planted to sainfoin, a cover crop that flourishes on calcareous (limestone) soils. Planting sainfoin had dual benefits: it not only would the crop rejuvenated the topsoil with an infusion of nitrogen but it also the sainfoin was a good feed for their grazing animals. Those vignerons that had a cow or two, had them tended by a communal herder who took them to field for the day and returned them to the owner at night.

Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), Vineyard laborer resting, 1869

Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), Vineyard laborer resting, 1869

The fall harvest season was unrelenting and well-reported as being extreme in the exhaustion it created.  By the end of August, all of the rye, which was an important crop in the poor soils of north-eastern France, and the summer wheat, had already been harvested. Also already harvested were the other major crops, which included barley, colza, which is also known as rape, or rapeseed, was grown for lubricants, and hemp  (not to be confused with its relative cannabis), was also grown for seed, oil, wax, resin, rope, cloth, pulp, paper and, in this north-eastern region. (U.S.Gov. Printing Office 1888) This would give the paysan a month for the grape harvest, before the planting of winter wheat, which would begin straight away in October, after pressing and barreling of the new wine.

Centuries of stagnant agricultural practices

It is widely accepted that during the ancien regime, few improvement in farming had come to France. The tasks of the cultiveur were done in the least expensive manner; just as their fathers and grandfathers, and as well their great-great grandfathers had farmed the same land.

To the English agronomist Arthur Young, who visited Burgundy and elsewhere in France on the eve of the revolution, the inefficiencies of French agriculture was “quite contemptible’. He was so critical of French farming methods as to say that even the large capitalist farms were “villainous cultivated’. As far as investing in capitalization farming given the French methods, he declared “If I had a large tract of this country, I think I should not be long in making a fortune’.(Swan 2003)

Change was painfully slow, despite attempts by Dijon to push the people to adopt them. The problem really came down to money, and the peasants had none to invest in the changes necessary. A Burgundian representative to the National Constituent Assembly, during the first stages of the Revolution, explained the failure of previous attempts at agricultural reform:

“Oh you who complain of the intractability of the peasant when he refuses to adopt your new ploughs, your new seed drills…your deep furrows, your doses of fertilizer that are four times greater than what he can afford, before tripling his expenses in the uncertain hope of a tripled harvest, begin by putting him in a state of being able to buy clogs for his children.”

 

wheat fields Van Gough

 Up Next: The Villagers of the 18th Century

 


Additional Notes:

(1) Life was short and death rates of children under the age of ten were high. Because of this, and the general lack of excess money homes traditionally multi-generational. There will be much more about life and death on the Gold Coast in upcoming chapters.

(2) Charles Curtis, in his book “The Original Grand Crus of Burgundy”, takes these hectare figures, printed in Lavalle, at face value, and proceeds to discuss how they might be accurate. However, I feel, that they are as just as likely, a misprint,  so far off from the hectares, as they exist today, even taking into consideration the loss of so much vineyard land, post-phylloxera, that was never replanted around Dijon. One might also view these figures to be considered a fabrication, as a call to action against the Gamay scourge. Words are weapons. Because there appears to be no other at the ready figures of Gamay and Pinot Noir acreage planted in the Cote d’Or to compare Lavalle’s figures with, I choose to bypass the issue altogether. It isn’t all that germane enough to the already too wide of a scope of these writings, to deal with something I can’t bring to an adequate conclusion about. There are other fish to fry.

 

 


 

Reference Sources for Burgundy: History of the Vignerons: The Villages parts I – IV 

La Côte-d’Or à vol d’oiseau: lettres écrites à M.L. Havin, après la récolte, Auguste Luchet 1858

Gevrey-Chambertin: notice historique, topographique et statistique, suivie de promenade à Fixin, by Henri Vienne 1850

Journal of a Tour through some of the vineyards of Spain and France, James Busby, Sydney 1833

Peasant Proprietors and other selected essays,  Lady Frances Parthenope Verney Longmans, Green, 1885 –

L’état de la recherche sur la vigne, le vin et les vignerons en Bourgogne au XVIIIe siècle, Benoit Garnot,  2008

The Peasants and the King in Burgundy, Hilton Root, University of California Press, 1992

Evolution du Métayage en France, L. Durousseau-Dugontie, Impr. Crauffon, 1905

Centre d’Histoire de la Vigne et du Vin, Charlotte Glain-Fromont,  Bulletin de liaison Bulletin 30 janv-fev 2012.pdf

 LES Climats du vignoble de Bourgogne Dossier de candidature à L’INSCRIPTION SUR LA LISTE DU PATRIMOINE MONDIAL DE L’UNESCO Janvier 2012

Communities of Grain: Rural Rebellion in Comparative Perspective Victor V. Magagna Cornell University Press 1991

Infant and Child Mortality in Eighteenth Century France: A Function of Income? Hajime Hadeishi,  Bureau of Economics Federal Trade Commission, cliometrics.org 2010

Harvest Failures, Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson, 2015 Alphahistory.com

Cattle and Dairy Farming Part 1 United States. Bureau of Foreign Commerce  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1888 –

The Peasantry in the French Revolution P. M. Jones, Cambridge University Press, 1988

Peasant and French: Cultural Contact in Rural France During the Nineteenth CenturyJames R. Lehning Cambridge University Press, 1995

Insofar as the ruby wine seduces them’: Cultural Strategies for Selling Wines in Interwar Burgundy,” Contemporary European History 18.1 Philip Whalen (2009)

The Vile and the Noble: On the Relation between Natural and Social Classifications in the French Wine World, Marion Fourcade,  Sociological Quarterly 2012

Aristocracy, Antiquity, and History: An Essay on Classicism in Political ThoughtA. A. M. Kinneging Transaction Publishers, 1997

Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment By Michel Delon, Routledge 2013

Provincial Power and Absolute Monarchy: The Estates General of Burgundy 1661–1790 Julian Swann, Cambridge University Press  2003

History and Climate: Memories of the Future? Phil D. Jones, A.E.J. Ogilvie, T.D. Davies, K.R. Briffa Springer Science & Business Media, Apr 17, 2013

The Decline of Childhood Mortality Kenneth Hill. Department of Population Dynamics School of Hygiene and Public Health Johns Hopkins University 1990

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography Graham Robb W. W. Norton & Company2008

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Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy: Part 3.4 The Grand Crus

 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 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.”

It years later that realized that I had asked the wrong question. The question I should have asked was: 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.

Clos des Ruchottes to the right, and Ruchottes du bas, on the left. photo: googlemaps

Clos des Ruchottes to the right, and Ruchottes du bas, on the left. photo: googlemaps

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 VannierPetit 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 gentle slopes of Chambertin. Photo: googlemaps

The gentle slopes of Chambertin. Photo: googlemaps

The substrata 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 exposing 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.

Armand Roussaux parcel map

Chambertin clos de Beze

 

Digging deeper 

Gevrey-Chambertin topography

Generally speaking, when compared to vineyards in some of 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 describe 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 particuularly 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 

Here, a photo by Armand Rousseau illustrating the lack of topsoil, and the width of the fractures in the Premeaux limestone. No doubt this is a more extreme section, but it gives us the understanding of the relationship between the hard stone, fracturing and the difficulty of dealing with erosion in these vineyards.

Here, a photo from Armand Rousseau illustrates the lack of topsoil, and the width of the fractures in the Premeaux limestone. No doubt this is a more extreme section, but it gives us the understanding of the relationship between the hard stone, fracturing and the difficulty of dealing with erosion in these vineyards.

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.

Mazy and Ruchottes Chambertin with dip and strike oriented faults. Significant outcropping has emerged from this hard Premeaux stone at the convergence of these faults. Interestingly its both parallel and perpendicular to the extensional, horizontal faulting

Mazy and Ruchottes Chambertin with dip and strike oriented faults. Significant outcropping has emerged from this hard Premeaux stone at the convergence of these faults. Interestingly its both parallel and perpendicular to the extensional, horizontal faulting

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 dominate 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

Here the soft friable makeup explains the ease that the vines have in extracting nutrients and water from the base rock

Here the soft friable makeup explains the ease that the vines have in extracting nutrients and water from the base rock

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 VannierPetit 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. Geologist 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‟

Nothing is as simple as a name. Shale can be found in many forms. The relationship between clay and shale is very tight, just like water and ice.

Nothing is as simple as a name. Shale can be found in many forms. The relationship between clay and shale is very tight, just like water and ice.

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 strata in one location with its mate in another.  This methodology allows sedimentologists to correlate strata worldwide.

Oyster bedIn 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 upperBajocien 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.

gevrey pre slideThe 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 down slope, and was pulled eastward with the falling valley. This slide of the Comblanchien, 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. exposing this older marl and crinoidal bedding to the air, after having been buried underground 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.

crinoids

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, is it 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, that caused a void into which the land adjacent to the Cote d’Or fell into a trough which would become 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.

 

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

 

Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy (introduction)

The History, the Threats, and Why Terroir is Important

 

Roman Wine FriezeTerroir as a notion: 

The notion of climate and terroir palpably began with the establishment of Clos de Bèze in 630 A.D.  And despite the countless changes of governments, laws, and ownership, the shape and size of Clos de Bèze have remained unchanged in the intervening 1384 years.  However, there were notions of terroir that appeared long before. In the first century, Columella (the only Roman agronomist whose records still exist) wrote of a varietal that had physical leaf characteristics that leave little doubt that the Romans grew Pinot Noir in Burgundy.  The quality of this wine would eventually eclipse Falernian wine in the eyes of the patrician class. That this vine was so perfectly suited to the Burgundy region, Columella wrote: “…it alone gives a good name to even the poorest of soil by reason of its own fertility.”

Monks at Clos VougeotWhile terroir is, at its heart, the physicality of a place, it is also the acceptance of terroir as a notion, that allows its expression in the glass. The concept of terroir asks that winemaker should produce the best wine they can, that still truthfully represent the site, while simultaneously requiring the wine drinker to appreciate what each site uniquely brings to the wine made from it.Interestingly it has been the historical difficulty of ripening grapes in the Côte d’Or that has made terroir apparent in Burgundy. This marginal ripening, coupled with the transparent nature of the Pinot Noir and the Chardonnay that is grown there, lay bare the influence of the vineyard position: the soils below and the weather above. In many ways, it is a quest of purity, and that is something that can easily and quickly be muddied by over extraction, over-ripeness, and blending. Jacques Lardiere, the now-retired manager of Louis Jadot used to say (in the late 1990s) that the terroir would speak, “even if you planted Syrah” in Burgundy. I mentioned Lardiere’s statement to the then winemaker of Mommessin (I don’t recall who that was) and his response was: “That’s funny coming from him.” (1)

The Historical Battle for Ripeness: The Importance of  Vineyard Protection and Exposition

Clos la Roche in winterComplete phenolic ripening in Burgundy has been the holy grail of every winemaker in the Côte d’Or since the middle ages. Given that the last so-called “Little Ice Age” only ended in the 1850s, it is not a complete surprise that only the warmest vineyard sites (the grand crus) could semi-consistently achieve ripeness.   The key to ripeness was a vineyard had to sit on a slope – facing east to southeast, angled to receive the longest rays of the harvest sun. Here, the hillside, and the flat village land at its foot created a heat trap for the ripening crop, sheltering it from the wind which might otherwise disperse the heat. In the long history of Burgundy, it has been only these protected vineyards, on the mid-slope, that could achieve the temperatures necessary to fully ripen the grapes right before harvest.

Climatic and Economic Threats

However, the climate is warming. 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. At this point in time, we are witnessing the greatest period of in all of Burgundy’s almost 2000 year history under vine. The confluence of winemaking and wine growing knowledge as well as perfect ripening temperatures is granting us truly remarkable wines. I think there is room for some additional warming without major concessions to wine style and terroir. Although, I suppose if it does, we’ll have bigger problems than lamenting the passing of the golden age of Burgundy.

With the increasing ripeness, the winemaker is both pushed toward, and drawn to, making wines with deeper color (anthocyanins), fuller fruit, and more structure. With the clamor for riper, richer, grand cru-styled Burgundies, regardless of how expensive they are, there is a significant economic reason for winemakers to follow this path. But as Burgundies fatten up, terroir is increasingly obscured. It is very possible there will be fewer noticeable variances between the wines from many vineyards unless winemakers and the wine buying public truly embrace terroir. The relevance (and indeed the future) of terroir in Burgundy hinges on the wine appreciation that goes far beyond what is good or bad, in a search for “the best.” The concept“the best” is often at odds, and in many ways contradictory the notion of terroir, and if we don’t actively embrace and extol the differences between vineyards, from grand cru to village lieu-dits, we will lose what is so unique about the region.

Classification

Chevaliers du Tastevin with clergy circa 1950

Chevaliers du Tastevin with clergy circa 1950

The terroir of Burgundy was codified unofficially in 1855, by Jules Lavalle, and again in 1920 by Camille Rodier, both of whom graded the vineyards in five qualitative levels, the best being the Tete de Cuvees. Governmental classification would not come until the late 1930s. Interestingly, it wasn’t until the depth of the depression, and against a backdrop of the tensions of a brewing second war in Europe, that the French Government finally moved forward with establishing the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) system. The Ministry of Agriculture established the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) in 1935, and over the next few years this body defined the official regional appellations for wine and foods across France. It was a uniquely French thing to do, and in a marketing sense quite brilliant, but the idea was to protect these agricultural regions and heritages from change.  In doing so they both branded and secured these places and products as unique in an emerging global economy. When dividing the appellations, the INAO heeded historical ownership and village boundaries, as well as physical and observable geological observation, in as much as it was understood at the time, without intensive study and the benefits of modern technology. And it was done: nearly etched in stone.

But to look past the classifications: to the maps, the geology, and the topography of the region is the goal of this article, in order to understand why certain sites create certain types of wine. What’s more, this knowledge allows us to be predictive of what style of wine we might expect a vineyard to produce based on available geographical and geological information.The subject gains remarkable complexity if you dig too deeply, requiring significant chemistry and geological explanation, of which I’m not qualified. So I will attempt to keep this a more general overview of the important aspects of terroir in Burgundy: ripening and exposition, (meaning how a vineyard faces the sun, slope,) the amount of soil and it’s makeup (topsoil, limestone, and clay) and , and a vineyard’s protection from the wind and weather.

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Note

(1) I too disagree with Lardiere. While Syrah can be quite transparent when just ripe, like in Cote Rotie, the moment it gains weight it becomes significantly dense and can carry a remarkable level of dry extract. Pinot Noir cannot achieve the size, weight, and tannin of Syrah. The short distance between Cote Rotie and Hermitage generally produces a vastly different wine: of terroir is obscured by Hermitage’s additional size and weight.

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See the other articles in this series

Marl: The Most Misused and Misunderstood Word in Burgundy Literature?

Preface to my upcoming article: “Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy”

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Preface to my upcoming article: “Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy”

(Opinion) and the ensuing quest for answers.

travel-france-pic-liberte

Wine literature champions the one half of one percent of the top vineyards, and the very top producers. What about the wine for the rest of us?

Despite the scores of books written about Burgundy, if you really break down what is being written specifically about the each climate, the information can be pretty sparse. For a handful of the greatest vineyards, extraordinary efforts are made to explore the grandness of these few plots.(1)  However these vineyards probably represent less than one half of one percent of Burgundy. Little coverage is given to the physicality of the rest of Burgundy’s sites, including many highly-regarded premier crus. Beyond listing most vineyard’s size, what the name means in French, sometimes an inane fact (like some wild bush used to grow in that spot) and who the top producers are, most crus don’t seem to warrant the effort. How does Puligny’s Les Combettes differ from Les Champs-Canets, which sits directly above it? It is not likely you find the answer by reading a book about Burgundy.

Of these vineyard entries, writers typically ignore the soil makeup and limestone below; the most primary elements of terroir. Perhaps this is due to a lack of information(2). However, I have no doubt that if as much effort was given to researching these appellations as is given to tasting Armand Rousseau’s latest barrel samples, we’d have a lot more understanding about Burgundy than we do today. Typically when a comment regarding a particular vineyard’s soil is made by a wine writer, it is simply as a notation, with no connection to the style of  wine that comes out of that vineyard. It sits there like a pregnant pause, as though it were quite important, but no explanation follows.  And that explanation is what I hope to supply by my upcoming article. I can’t do what the top wine writers can: go to Burgundy and walk the vineyards with the winemakers, talk to the professors at Lycée Viticole de Beaune. But I wanted these answers for myself; what it all that means: the limestone and “marl” and clay, and what did for the wine. If I could. Did I dare?

While I am critical of the much of the wine writing produced – for its lack of deeper educational and intellectual content, I understand that wine writers must produce what consumers are willing to pay for. We are a consumer-driven society, and readers are really looking for buying guides wrapped up in a little bow of information. The capitals of 19th century Europe were famed for their starving intelligentsia, but no one wants to scrape-by in a land of plenty, regardless how romantic. Wine writers write what the public wants.

The beginning

Way Too Geeky!

Way Too Geeky!

After more than a year of researching Burgundy vineyard information for the marketing part of my job, I thought I could do a quick write-up about the terroir of Burgundy. I had come to some interesting conclusions and felt I could write a piece with a unique perspective on vineyard orientation, slope, the general soil types determined by that, and how it all relates to a wine style.

It was all going along quickly and easily, until I wanted to clarify a couple of points about geology. What had initially looked like a weekend project, has taken 9 months of daily work. This article has become something of a Leviathan, but the exploration has taken me to uncover some enlightening information, as the pieces started falling into place. The original piece first became two parts, and ironically, now it is four parts, each divided into articles of a more manageable size of 2,000 to 4,000 words. The result of this is untold hours of research and writing.

Unfortunately, sections of Part One have ended up being so technical that I no longer really know who will want to read it. Any hope of an audience is slim. Most wine professionals are so burnt by the end of the week, that they would rather paint their house than read about wine. However, this is a unique article that looks at the breadth of the factors that influence vine growth in Burgundy, and ultimately influence wine character.

An example of a map showing the vineyards I'm highlighting, as well as the soil and limestone base it sits upon.

An example of a map I developed, showing the vineyards I’m highlighting, as well as the soil and limestone base it sits upon.

A Path of Discovery and Frustration

One of the first surprises was difficulty justifying the satellite images with some of the vineyard maps that I had been so diligently studying. Sometimes they just didn’t look like the same place. The vineyard maps often gave little sense of topography of the hillsides, despite paying particular attention to the elevation lines. I believe that the amount of slope in vineyards that are not terraced, like in Burgundy, is critically important to the profile of a wine.

What looked like roads on a map, at times were not, and in many places, there were entire sections which were shown as vineyard were actually unplanted, inhabited only by trees, scrub, or rock. This I found to be very illuminating information regarding adjacent vineyard land, and how that might define character. At times, the shapes and sizes of vineyards depicted on maps appeared to be different from the photos, perhaps changed to fit the artist’s needs.  After a while, I started making my own maps using Google Maps’ satellite images, and adding the information that I found relevant to the needs of my job. Perhaps the most telling visual information has come by utilizing Google Maps’ street view, to see a vineyard and its slope, the topsoil, quickly and easily, and often from multiple angles. It is an amazing tool, I highly recommend using it in addition to maps when studying wine regions.

Am I a Skeptic or Just Paranoid?

Marl table. With one extreme being all clay and the other being all limestone, marl is a mix of both.  Courtesy of wikipedia.

Marl table. With one extreme being all clay/mud and the other being all limestone, marl is a mix of both. Courtesy of wikipedia.

I noticed that the information I was reading, from multiple sources, wine writers, importers, etc, was all starting to seem repetitive, using similar wording, ideas, phrasing. Increasingly, the information seemed more and more borrowed, shallow and canned. For instance, it is common for a writer to state that a vineyard is “a mix of limestone and marl” or the vineyard is made up of “marly clay.” And then there was this from one of the definitive Burgundy reference books regarding the soils of Mazy-Chambertin: “there is a lot of marl mixed in the with the clay and limestone.”

Marl is generally defined as a mix of clay and limestone. When they refer to limestone in this fashion, they don’t mean solid stone, they mean rock that has been mechanically eroded, of varying sizes (from a fine sand to fairly large stones) that are mixed into the soil.  The ratio of these two major elements of marl, can be a range of 35% of one, to 65% of the other.(3) The more I read, the more I question what I am reading.(4)

Below is an example kind of “soil information” that I’m talking about. At first blush the passage below sounded like I’d found the holy grail of explaining what kind of soils for which Pinot and Chardonnay were best suited, but later I realized it was anything but.  The following was written by an authority on the subject.

_____________________________________________________________________

“• Pinot Noir flourishes on marl soils that are more yielding and porous, that tend towards limestone and which offer good drainage. It will produce light and sophisticated or powerful and full-bodied wines, depending on the proportion of limestone, stone content and clay on the plot where it grows.”
“• Chardonnay prefers more clayey marly limestone soils from which it can develop sophisticated, elegant aromas in the future wine. The clay helps produce breadth in the mouth, characteristic of the
Bourgogne region’s great white wines.”

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With the Pinot, he starts off well. Clay with high levels of calcium carbonate (limestone) content loses its plasticity, which makes clay more yielding and porous; that part makes sense. The second sentence somewhat contradicts the first, in that it suggests rightly that as the clay content goes up, the wines it produces becomes more full-bodied. However, as the clay content goes up, the yielding and porous nature of the soil will correspondingly decrease.  To make this passage more accurate, he should have led with drainage. The porosity of the soil allows drainage: in other words, it has a causal effect of good drainage. It is not an axillary attribute as he suggests when he writes “and which offer good drainage.”

Of Chardonnay, he wrote that the varietal “prefers more clayey marly limestone soils. First off, what does that mean anyway? If the soil is marl,(5) we already know that it has clay and limestone. A marl soil can be a clay-heavy marl, or a limestone-dominate marl, but it can not be a “clayey marly limestone soil.”  Secondly, it seems that the writer is suggesting that Chardonnay does not do as well as Pinot Noir in porous limestone dominated soils, and vice-versa. I believe vineyards like Les Perrières in Meursault, that have very poor, and very porous, limestone soils, with little clay content, contradicts that notion. Additionally, in Chassagne Montrachet, Chardonnay has replaced much of the  Pinot Noir on the upper slopes of the appellation, while Pinot Noir has remained in the heavier, clay-infused soils lower on the slope.

“Now every piece of information had to pass the smell test, and preferably it needed to be corroborated by another source, that clearly wasn’t of the same origin.”

Skeptic: everything must pass the smell test.

Skeptical, now everything must pass the smell test.

I plodded on with my inquiry. Now every piece of information had to pass the smell test, and preferably it needed to be corroborated by another source, that clearly wasn’t of the same origin. I had read enough to identify “family trees” of bad information, and I often believed that I could often identify the original source.  Just how easy it is to pass-on incorrect information is illustrated by this next example. I found an error (in my opinion) in one Master of Wine’s book on Burgundy, saying that the “white marl” of a vineyard was found on the upper slope, producing a richer, fuller wine, and while the calcareous (limestone) soils were down below, and produced a lighter wine. It was an obvious mistake if you just thought about it for a second, as the forces of gravity and subsequent erosion drive clay to the lower-slopes where it reforms via flocculation. Later I would find the same information, but in more detail, in another Master of Wine’s article, again containing the same error.(6)  The source of the error was either a mis-translation of a conversation with a vigneron, or a typo. While this is a simple mistake, having two of our most revered Master of Wines citing the same information, can only confuse an already misunderstood subject, even further. I can envision a whole generation of Sommeliers reciting that the upper-slope of Les Caillerets produces heavier, more powerful wine than sections of Caillerets farther down the slope.

It was clear I wasn’t going to find the answers I was looking for in the English language Burgundy books I had access to. Ultimately my questions would become more and more specific, pushing my inquiry of terroir to an elemental level – delving into the construction of the earth and stone, and how it breaks down, and how it might influence the wine we ultimately drink. I still have a tremendous number of questions that will simply go unanswered for quite some time,(7) either due to the lack of research, or that this information is not available in an accessible, English-language format.(8) 

Part One of the article is the result of searching out, reading, and trying to understand small, maybe inconsequential details.  Since I’m putting it out there on the internet, I have made a concerted effort to attempt to get it right. Obviously not a geologist, so despite reading about clay and clay formation dozens of times, from dozens of sources, the complexity of the science makes it easy to over-simplify, to misunderstand it, and definitely, easy to misrepresent. Making making this process more difficult, I could find no articles that (for instance) were specific to the clay and clay formations of Burgundy.(9)

It’s not sexy reading, but I’ve done my best to pull it all together into one place.  If nothing else, I hope this can be a jumping off point for others to research, and expand our cumulative understanding of terroir. 

 

 

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ADDITIONAL NOTES

(1) Even with the top vineyards, publications heavily link the greatness of the wine to the producer, rather than the vineyard. The mantra for the past 30 years has been: producer, producer, producer. While here is a historical reason for this producer-driven focus, I feel the vast improvements in viticulture and winemaking knowledge over the past two decades, coupled with the concurrent global warming, has changed the paradigm, and significantly leveled the playing field between producers. There are now much smaller differentials in quality from the top producers and the lower level producers. I feel that the focus should now return to the vineyards of Burgundy, each with distinct set of characteristics due to its orientation, slope and soils. Nowhere else in the world is this kind of classification so rigorously defined. And because of that, no where else in the world is this kind of ‘study’ possible.

(2) The mapping of Limestone has never really been done before the geologist Francoise Vannier-Petit began her work a number of years ago. She has now mapped Pommard, Gevrey, Marsannay, and Maranges, for the trade associations that have been willing to pay for her services.

(3)  The fact that mud/mudstone (and this is substance is sometimes referred to as shale) is introduced as a term by wikipedia, see table certainly confuses the issue, but they also indicate that this mud is a clay element.

(4) To give credit where credit is due: When I first started doing a overview of our producers, I had summarized this idea, (Pinot liked prefered limestone soils and Chardonnay preferred more clay-rich soils.) My boss, Dr. George Derbalian (with his background in failure analysis) looked and the statement and said, “I don’t know about that.” He asked where I had obtained this information, and when I couldn’t immediately produce the source, he warned: “You have to be very, very, careful about these things. As an importer we have to be completely sure we are right when we say something. I would like to remove this sentence.” I thought he was being over-reactive at the time, and 100% accuracy wasn’t important for the marketing piece I was working on, but later, with much more research under my belt, I would revisit his words with far more respect.

(5) The word marl has a very poorly defined meaning because it is a very old word that was used somewhat indiscriminately. Wikipedia lists marl as a calcium carbonate rich mud with varying amounts of clay and silt in their of the definition. To make matters more confusing Wikipedia’s definition of mud says it has clay in it. Is mud part of marl? Is clay part of mud? Does it really matter?

(6) The quote from the second Master of Wine’s write up of Les Cailleret. I have added the (er) to here to make the passage more clear. “Up at the top of the slope there are outcrops of bare rock. He(re) we find mainly a white marl. This will give the wine weight. Lower down there is more surface soil and it is calcareous, producing a wine of steely elegance. A blend of the two, everyone says, makes the best wine.”

(7) The list of questions I have that don’t have answers seems limitless.  Here are my top questions with no answers at the present: 1) How pervasive is is the fracturing of limestone in the top crus, 2) what kind of limestone is it?  3) does the limestone there fracture and is friable? 4) how much water do these limestones hold, ?  5) how much groundwater is available to the vines? 6) How does the ground water circulate, and 7) how quickly through different types of soil?  8) Where are the faults in the various top climates, 8) are the faults often at the boundaries dividing limestone types? 9)  how deep are the drop-offs (covered by the topsoil) created by the various faultlines?

(8) The University, Lycée Viticole de Beaune is likely to be active in this kind of research, but so far I have not been able to access what might be available, and correct translation from French to English can be problematic if it isn’t done by the author who wrote it, and many times more so if using a translating program (software).

(9) Therefore I’m unable to discuss the types of primary clays, called kaolins which may have formed there in situ, instead focusing on transported clay that has been derived from the erosion of limestone of the vineyards, called Chlorites.

Antica Terra’s 2011 “Coriolis” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley

Winemaker Maggie Harrison walks her vineyard

Winemaker Maggie Harrison walks her vineyard (photo: Northwest-wines.com)

So, it should be stated up front, I really like the 2011 Oregon Pinots. Lighter sure, but for good producers the quality is sound and the aromatics are remarkable. Maggie Harrison, who although has been making superb Pinots on her own for a decade, is always framed by her time with Manfred Krankl at Sine Qua Non. There I did it myself. But the winery does it on their own website. She was there nine years, so I suppose it was game changing. Still, this is her own show, and this wine has little to do with the central coast wines she made with Krankl. It is all finesse. And that is the real story here.

Maggie Harrison's 11 acre vineyard planted to sandstone with oyster fossils

Maggie Harrison’s 11-acre vineyard planted to sandstone with oyster fossils (photo: thebestofwines.com)

Review: 2011 Coriolis Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley

Wow. This is extremely aromatic; soaring, almost an exploding perfume of potpourri-like spice, cedar, black fruits, vague stem notes and forest floor, high notes of pine and resin with dried cranberries. The mouth is broad and soft with black fruit at its core, again some stem and pine flavors that almost structurally holding this soft but long and expansive wine together.  The weight of the wine is medium, but the finish while long is weightless, something I cherish, but others complain of bitterly as if it’s a fault. This is a beautiful wine, long and so silky with an airy finish, the aromas lingering, wafting as the alcohol volatilized, long after the wine is swallowed. Just delicious, with elements that make me think this easily could be confused with a very good Burgundy or even a very high-level Beaujolais, I find this wine very successful.  For others, this beautiful wine might be dismissed as too light. Utter silliness. 93 points for me. $54

The Winery and Geology of the vineyard

Coriolis is the second wine of Antica Terra label, where Harrison was brought on as winemaker and partner to push up the quality a decade ago.  Indeed, with her talent, she has put them on the map. The winery name refers the ancient soils of the vineyard that the original owners planted in 1989. Unique to the region, an ancient indurated seabed has pushed to the surface on this vineyard spot and has been encircled by the much younger, fertile soils that flow around it. The Antica Terra vines are planted directly into fractured sandstone that is studded by fossilized oyster shells. Harrison reports (and sometimes worries) about the underdeveloped and frail nature of her twenty-year-old vines. While a vine’s roots can reach deep into soil and rock for water, it is their root system near the surface from which vines get most of their nutrients. Perhaps she has reason to worry: vines in Burgundy that are planted to limestone sites with very little topsoil have difficulty achieving old age. She describes chlorosis when she writes:”The smallest changes in the environment can cause the leaves to turn yellow and fall.” This too happens in Burgundy, where acidic ground water that has eroded limestone can form a casing around the roots inhibiting iron intake causing chlorosis. She mentions fossilized oyster shells, and it is interesting to note that the difference between the two sandstone and limestone is that limestone consists of 50% or more of calcium carbonate (CaCO3)  which is derived (in Burgundy) from marine life, like oysters. In any case, these vines are certainly not well nourished, but with extreme care, and very careful fruit selection, the wines coming from this vineyard are routinely superb.  

Giving to Charity:  Coriolis is a side project where 100% of the profits are donated to the  Phil Knight Cancer Challenge.

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Crush at Antica Terra Winery

Crush at Antica Terra Winery (photo googlemaps.com)

 

2012 Fredreric Esmonin, Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos Prieur

Clos Prieur Bas, with Clos Prieur 1er Cru and Mazis Chambertin directly behind it.

Clos Prieur Bas Vineyard, with Clos Prieur 1er Cru, Mazis Chambertin and the legendary Clos de Beze directly behind it.

Domaine Frederic Esmonin, a firm that produces solid wines from their cellar in Gevrey-Chambertin every year, really made some special Burgundies in 2012. The wines retain Esmonin’s characteristic freshness while gaining a touch more swagger, with modest but noticeable increases in ripeness, concentration, and depth. This is not to say these 2012s are big or heavy wines. They are not, but many crus could use a few years in the cellar.  Having tasted through the entire lineup at our San Francisco Tasting in April, the Clos Prieur was the one wine that was lighter, and quite a bit more aromatic than all of the others.

For me, Clos Prieur was a standout. It had such superb balance, and the aromatics melded seamlessly with its broad red cherry-filled palate while retaining an almost airy weight, all of which struck just the right cord. Whereas the other Gevreys were dark, impressive and somewhat brooding, the Clos Prieur was translucent and open. It is said by some winemakers that these vineyards just south of the village are prone to lightness and delicacy and that if care is not taken can be light and washed out if yields are not kept in check.

The grapes at Esmonin grown lutte-raisonnee. They are said to be destemmed, though I have detected what I believe to be the presence of at least some stems in the cuverie on more than one occasion. The fruit is cold-macerated for a few days, giving them the wines their dark color, before fermenting traditionally. The wines are bottled quite early, giving them a uniquely fresh, almost grapey quality when they are young. Andre Esmonin, Frederic’s father, makes the wine here. I reviewed the delicious, and darker 2012 Esmonin Hautes-Cotes de Nuits earlier this year. See that review here.

Clos Prieur Bas in the center of the map sits in deep marl (loose, earthy deposits that are a mixture of clay and calcium carbonate) over a Combanchien Limestone base.

Clos Prieur Bas in the center of the map sits in deep marl (loose, earthy deposits that are a mixture of clay and calcium carbonate) over a Combanchien Limestone base.

2012 Gevrey-Chambertin Clos Prieur 

This Clos Prieur is just lovely. A translucent ruby-red, this Pinot is all about purity, a quality that not celebrated often enough, and because of that occurs all too rarely in wine. The nose is fresh and buoyant, with cherries, smoke, a touch of thyme, vanilla, and some of Gevrey’s iron-rich meaty notes, along with a light airy quality of fresh roses. Initially, the wine appears lean, but as the palate adjusts, this gives way quickly to a soft round palate that is light and lovely. It’s rose-tinged flavors of cherry, deeper plum, orange peel, vanilla, and cream with a touch of stem, are perfumed and lifted,  just floating on and on. If you look for that animal, it is there, but not so apparent at this stage. I’m assuming this will become more prominent as it ages. This is not a wine and wine style people will accept as being a high scoring wine, but I have to say I really, really enjoyed this. Some have said this to be a bit simple, but I did not find that to be the case. It just wasn’t big and powerful.  Is there a confusion about what complexity is? The future for this wine is that it is destined to change; I think fairly dramatically. I may gain some more weight, and its freshness will certainly replace the more typical Gevrey traits of forest floor and savage animal notes, on it’s very aromatically driven platform. Esmonin’s wines are noted for how effortlessly they age, and this should be no different.  91 points (but I really liked it more than that).

Map produced by geologist Franciose Vannier-Petit for the Gevrey Chambertin Viticultural Society

Map produced by geologist Franciose Vannier-Petit for the Gevrey-Chambertin Viticultural Society

The Vineyard and the Geology

Clos Prieur is the name of two distinctly different vineyards. Despite this, writers have historically referred to them as a single vineyard that is split by classification. The Clos Prieur-Bas section, where this plot is located, sits down-slope, with much deeper marl topsoil, than its sibling. The bottom of Clos Prieur-bas is even more fertile, affected by the alluvial soil that was washed down from the Combe de Lavaux over the centuries.  Beneath the vineyard, virtually impervious to the penetration by the roots of vines, lies the very hard, fine-grained Comblanchien limestone.

On the other hand, the smaller premier cru of Clos Prieur-Haut, which sits atop Clos Prieur-Bas like a mignon, has shallower marl soils and the friable Crinoidal Limestone below. The very bottom of the vineyard is similar soils and Comblanchien to Clos Prieur bas, but it is amazing how closely these ancient vineyard divisions echoed the geology that had not been mapped until very recently. We can thank geologist Francoise Vannier-Petit and the Syndicat Viticole de Gevrey-Chambertin for this in-depth, (literally hundreds of investigative trenches were dug) in order to deliver this ground-breaking research. (I was unable to resist the pun.)

Notably, the premier cru of Clos Prieur sits among a string of premier cru and grand cru vineyards, including Chapelle, Griotte and Charmes-Chambertin, All which follow the same swath of Crinoidal limestone that runs North-South from Gevrey to Morey-St-Denis – and probably doesn’t stop there! This crinoidal limestone flows below the road (the Route de Grand Crus) which is the upper-most boundary of  Clos Prieur-Haut and is no more than 200 yards wide at this point. The Crinoidal limestone widens as it reaches the Clos-de-Beze vineyard, coving half of that cru and half of Chambertin as well. While the road turns away from its path along the limestone toward N74, the line demarcating vineyards continues to follow limestone below.

Kirkland Carneros Pinot Noir

Costco Serves Up The Quintessential Deal In Pinot Noir

Garnet Vineyards winemaker Allison Crowe see more at http://www.garnetvineyards.com/Winemaker

Garnet Vineyards winemaker Allison Crowe see more at http://www.garnetvineyards.com/Winemaker

If there is one thing you can say about Costco, they don’t stock crap, and that extends to their private-label Kirkland brand wines. Costco doesn’t normally disclose which winery that produced the wine, but does the next best thing, they credit the winemaker. In this case it is Allison Crowe, the winemaker at Garnet Vineyards, and it is not a reach to infer that Garnet is the likely source for this delicious Kirkland Pinot Noir. The Garnet name started its life in 1983 as a second label for the Carneros Pinot Noir pioneer Saintsbury. It went to market as a lighter-styled, lower priced offering, which to my tastes was at best simple tart cherry-cranberry fruited wine, and at its worst was barely worth drinking;  and it plodded along this way for 28 years. But 2011, the Garnet brand was sold to Silverado Winegrowers the firm which had been supplying the grapes to Saintsbury (for Garnet) all those years. So the grower becomes a producer, and what do you know? The quality goes up.  No doubt once they owned the label, they put more care into the production than Saintsbury did (after all Garnet was no longer a second label, it was the label) and more care into the vineyards and the fruit themselves. At any rate, the quality seems better, even in this sold off, declassified wine. Their winemaker, Allison Crowe, first cut her teeth with the talented and passionate Dan Karlsen at Chalone Vineyards where she interned while an enology student at UC Davis. Later Allison worked at Byington in high above Los Gatos in the Santa Cruz Mountains, before moving down the Mountain to spend almost 5 years with working for Randall Graham at Bonny Doon.

Kirkland pinotTasting Notes: 2012 Kirkland Carneros Pinot Noir

This is classic Carneros Pinot Noir, with its nose of black cherries,, scorched caramel, a momentary green note that turns briary, wisps of eucalyptus and creamy vanilla. In the background threatens the aroma of cooked beets,  like a day with a chance of rain. In the mouth, it is rich with deep, sweet black cherries, cooked strawberries, and plenty of deeper dark bass notes of black plum coming from a surprisingly concentrated core of fruit. The palate is smooth, round and quite weighty, with soft acids and few tannins. The young sweet fruit tapers nicely, though, giving the wine a moment’s leanness, as is tries in vain to grasp at an intellectually stimulating, and lingering finish, with some minerally notes of wet stones and gravel.  But ultimately it misses that gold ring of complexity. But who’s complaining?  At $10.99 it is a superior deal in Pinot Noir, comparing easily to wines that retail for$20 at retail. I highly recommend it. 88 points.

Bottom line: If the wine they sell-off to Costco is this good, this relatively new wine company has good things in store with it’s higher level production wines that draw largely on several estate vineyards, most notably the highly-regarded “Rodgers Creek” in the Petaluma Gap and Stanly Ranch vineyard in Carneros.

Tasting Note 2010 Domaine Jamet, Syrah

A Sensational Substitute for Jamet’s $125 Cote Rotie

Domaine Jamet, is one of the old-guard, traditional Cote Rotie producers. Following in the footsteps of their father Joseph Jamet who retired in 1991, his two sons Jean-Paul and Jean-Luc have stayed very traditional to their approach to winemaking.  Their regimen is typically consists of de-stemming a portion of the grapes, while leaving a significant portion as whole clusters. The stems give spice and tannins to the wine, as it ferments in stainless tanks. After fermentation, the must is pressed, and barreled down to older, neutral oak barrels. While the brothers have worked together as co-managers  for over 20 years, it seems they have parted ways in 2013.  Jean Paul will continue to produce the wines at Domaine Jamet, while his brother will begin making wine with the family’s parcel in the Cote Rotie Lancement lieu-dit (named vineyard).  I guess, after 50 years of sharing bedrooms, toys, bikes, girlfriends, tractors, it’s just gotten to the point that they’ve just had enough of one another.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Like many Cote Rotie producers, Jamet has to look farther afield for high-quality grapes to augment their small production from Cote-Rotie. Collines Rhodaniennes is a large IGP area (the EU term for Vin de Pay), to the east of the Northern Rhone appellations of Cornas and St. Peray. Of the red grapes planted there, Syrah is the main player, just as in the Northern Rhone, but also Gamay is grown in healthy amounts – though not by Jamet. Like the Northern Rhone, the cool air rolls down off the alps, creating continental climate that so distinctly influences the Northern Rhone with its long growing season, and  just-riped Syrah grown there. 

2010 Domaine Jamet, Syrah, Collines Rhodaniennes

235565This is strikingly Cote-Rotie-like, with its beautiful floral aromas of iris, geraniums and lavender, as well as smoked beef, soy, grilled baguette, a touch of plum and black cherry wrapped up with creamy notes. In the mouth the wine is lean, a little more so than a top-flight Cote-Rotie, but its flavors are spot-on.  Not to mention, its low 12.5 percent alcohol give it that authentic Cote-Rotie cool-fruit character. It is a lean Syrah, but it’s not too sharp. Creamy notes and the well-integrated flavors of cured meats and subtle cherry-blueberry fruit broaden-up the palate, saving the back-end of the wine with a nice level of richness.  The wine culminates with a soft finish allowing the florals to float across the palate where they alcoholize and give the wine a very pretty lift. This 100 percent Syrah is aged in very neutral oak barrels, 6-10 years allowing the resulting wine to stay very pure and beautifully aromatic, with excellent balance.

The Bottom Line: 91 points for the cognoscenti. This is a very impressive wine, but certainly not for everybody. If you love Cote Rotie, or any aromatic red this is a beautiful choice. For people who understand this kind of wine. Considering Jamet’s Cote Rotie’s cost roughly $125 a bottle, this is a great insight into the Jamet-syle, and is worth the $29 price tag.

Jamet has a significantly large 17 hectare plot in Collines Rhodaniennes, (according to importer Robert Kacher’s website), so presumably there should be a fair amount in the marketplace. Winesearcher.com doesn’t reveal this to be the case however. Finding it may entail a search, or a request from a knowledgeable wine merchant to obtain it, but for Cote Rotie enthusiast, this would be well-worth the trouble. Some 2011 has already hit at least one retail shelf on the East Coast (and should be delicious), though latent bottles of the 2010 still should be out there somewhere.

Two Superb Wines from Domaines with Something, and Nothing, to Prove

The Gros Family is iconic in the commune of Vosne-Romanee.  When the renown Jean Gros (Bernard’s father) retired in 1995, four separate domaines sprung off from various family members. Anne Gros (Bernard’s cousin), is certainly the most coveted by collectors, but there is also the highly regarded A.F. Gros (Bernard’s sister.) Then there is Michel Gros, (his Brother) who traded all of  his Richebourg to gain a monopole of the premier cru Clos de Reas – a vineyard  synonymous with his father’s legendary name. Lastly, there was Bernard.

For many years, Domaine Gros Frere et Soeur (Bernard Gros) was considered the less serious producer of the family, making ripe, voluptuous wines that were based on fruit  -in virtually every vintage- rather than shooting for finesse.  Perhaps there was too much influence by the now discredited Guy Accad, but in the mid-ninties these were certainly opulent Pinot Noirs, in terms of Burgundy.

Vosne-Romanée, célèbre petit village vinicole ...

Vosne-Romanée AOC. The village of Flagey-Echezeaux pop. 500 is pictured. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the past few vintages however, Bernard’s wines have repeatedly shown the kind of restraint and complexity one expects from a serious Burgundy house.   This Gros Frere Vosne Premier Cru is source largely from Bernard’s plot of younger vines in Echezeaux, and has the remarkable depth and physiological ripeness, but is not over-ripe or excessively heavy.  Considering that Gros Frere wines trades at a third or half the price of similar quality Burgundies, they are one of Burgundy’s the relative values.

2010 Gros Frere et Soeur, Vosne-Romanee, Premier Cru $79.99

This was sensational; clearly showing its high percentage of fruit from the younger vines from Gros Frere’s Echezeaux parcel.   Deep berry fruit, with warm spices, smoky meat, grilled fennel bulb, and plum. The same flavors play across the palate, with excellent palate impression, fruit, and a dried stems element, dark loamy earth.This is rich, sultry and satisfying. A superb bottle of red Burgundy.

                                                                           *              *             *

Since 1975, Vincent Mongeard has worked in the vineyards and cellar of his family estate, Mongeard-Mugneret, in Vosne-Romanee. He farms 33 hectares (81.5 acres) from 35 different vineyards. His vines are quite old, averaging 45 years in age. In the past, the domaine had been accused of using too much oak, but has pulled back on use of oak over the past decade. Since 1998, Vincent began sourcing his own wood, and having the barrels made for him to his own specifications.  Still the specter of suspicion lingers, with the oak police continually, and critically, examining the amount oak being used by Mongeard.

 ” Still the specter of suspicion lingers, with the oak police continually, and critically, examining the amount of oak being used by Mongeard”

1999 Mongeard Mugneret Grands-Echézeaux

1999 Mongeard Mugneret Grands-Echézeaux bottling (Photo credit: testastretta-999)

Vincent’s wines have become more refined as well. Where they had been routinely characterized with faint praise as sturdy, darkly colored, and concentrated, none of those descriptions can be used here. This quote by Robert Parker is routinely used on the web (even by it’s importer Vineyard Brands) : “the style of winemaking seems to extract rich, supple, concentrated fruit from the grapes…” But Parker stopped reviewing Burgundy in the mid-nineties, after he was sued for libel in 1994 by the firm of Joseph Faiveley, and found himself unwelcome in many cellars. So you have to ask yourself, how valid is this quote after almost 20 years? On many occasions  it is sited that Vincent only uses stems on his top two or three bottlings.  I definitely noted stem notes in the Nuits-Les Plateaux I tasted.  Things change over time. Good winemakers don’t make wine by a recipe.  When will we actually judge the wine in the glass rather than being influenced by these overly repeated characterizations?

This is the wine I tasted.

 2010 Mongeard-Mugneret Nuits-St-Georges, Les Plateaux $49.99

Beautiful, if one of the least Nuits-like wines I’ve tasted. In fact the vineyard is very close to Vosne Romanee, and tastes quite a bit like one. It was effortless, whereas many Nuits can seem to try too hard, are too dark, are too rough around the edges, are too tannic for their acids. Light to medium in weight and completely translucent. Warm aromas of cedar-wood, cherry, cranberries, flowers, cinnamon, dust, and twigs. In the mouth, it is light but mouth-filling, lovely, soft and very, very long, with its flavors  of faint cherry, dusky cranberries, and dried twigs resonating on and on.  An outstanding value in fine red Burgundy.