The History, the Threats, and Why Terroir is Important
Terroir 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.”
While 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
Complete 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.
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.
(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.
Despite the scores of books written about Burgundy, if you really break down what is being written specifically about 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’sLes Combettes differ from LesChamps-Canet, 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 LycéeViticole 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 of how romantic. Wine writers write what the public wants.
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.
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 a wine’s 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?
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 moreclayey 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.”
With the Pinot, he starts off well. Marl (a combination of clay and limestone in varying percentages) with very high levels of calcium carbonate(limestone) is has a correspondingly high-rate of infiltration by rainwater. And he is right again as he writes that the weight of the wine is dictated by the “proportion of limestone, stone content, and clay on the plot where it grows.”
The problem occurs when he tries to differentiate the conditions in which Chardonnay thrives. “Chardonnay,” he writes, “prefers more clayey marly limestone soils from which it can develop sophisticated, elegant aromas in the future wine.” If we compare the soils and bedrocks of the finest Pinot and Chardonnay vineyards, there are tremendous commonalities, and both varietals seem to flourish on the same soils. Every aspect of what he said about Pinot equally applies to Chardonnay. Second, as marls increase in their clay content (which is what he was trying to say with the utterly confusing description of “clayey marly limestone soils“), these denser soils, which typically occur at the curb of the slope, are still capable of excellent drainage. We will look at this in depth later, but for an immediate explanation see below (6),
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.”
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.”
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 mistranslation 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 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.
(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. Whilethere 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 a 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, nowhere 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 an overview of our producers, I had summarized this idea, (Pinot liked preferred limestone soils and Chardonnay preferred more clay-rich soils.) My boss, Dr. George Derbalian (with his background in failure analysis) looked at 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-richmud 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) This is for two reasons: first, because of the shards limestone, in the soil, weathering of that material by rainwater produces an abundance of freed calcium. This is sometimes referred to as “active” limestone. This calcium, which is mixed by plowing with the clay, misaligns the platelets in clay causing the clay to lose its plasticity. This misalignment greatly increases the infiltration rate (IR) of water through the clay. So while clay alone has very poor IR’s, clay that has been mixed with calcium has much-improved drainage. The second reason that these richer marls, meaning an equal or higher percentage of clay than limestone in the mix, produces richer wines is there is more root space in the vineyards which our author is writing about, (ie le Montrachet and Batard-Montrachet). This occurs because of the location in which clay increases in the soil, happens in places where the slope is leveling off. These locations are where gravity has sent the hills colluvium. Here is where the hillside’s scree, sliding down, due to erosion or from man’s working the land, sits, and upon it, water runoff and gravity have sent the clay, eroded from the hillside above, to this same spot. This convergence of higher proportion of clay in the topsoil and limestone colluvium, together, provide a deep, rich soil that has excellent drainage for the level of slope. Of course, we will get into the science of this in much greater detail, later.
(7) 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.”
(8) 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 to fracture and is thus friable? 4) how much water do these limestones hold? 5) how much groundwater is available to the vines? 6) How does the groundwater 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?
(9) The University, LycéeViticole 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).
(10) 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.
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.
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).
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 friableCrinoidal 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.
The ascension of Saint Aubin in the eyes white Burgundy devotees is in full swing. This rise in popularity has multiple facets, but no doubt people have noticed the uptick in ripeness and complexity from the wines of the region. They will tell you however of the emergence of really talented, – tell your friends about this guy – kind of wine makers, that are now producing wine in Saint Aubin. This, of course, only adds to the allure of buying (relatively) affordable, yet high-quality, white Burgundy when the prices of the big names are going nuts. In the past there had been little reason to delve into these “satellite” appellations, since there were really so few buyers and plenty of good Chassagne and Puligny that could be had at reasonable prices. But things have changed. Competition has become fierce to secure what little wine can be produced from three famous villages of the Cote de Beaune. People began to whisper about Saint Aubin.
At the mouth of the valley that holds the appellation, Saint Aubin shares a border with Chassagne Montrachet on one side, and Puligny Montrachet on the other. All along the once lowly Saint Aubin border, sits a hit parade of famous Premier Cru vineyards: Chassagne-Les Chaumees, Chassagne-Les Vergers, Chassagne-Chevenottes, Chassagne-en Remilly, Puligny Champ-Canets, and most importantly in terms of prestige, at the top of the hill, it adjoins the great vineyard of Chevalier-Montrachet. And to guild the lily, Saint Aubin is also a mere separation from the famed Puligny vineyard of Les Folatieres. But whereas the Grand Crus of Chassagne and Puligny directly face the sun, and the premier crus get fine exposure, the hills of Saint Aubin largely turn away from the sun. This gives its vineyards fewer hours of direct sunlight during the critical final moments of ripening, just at a time when the weather is often already starting to get cooler. Additionally, being in the valley gives them no protection from any wind that might also steal needed warmth. The result is a crisper, more lime driven wine than those in Puligny and or Chassagne, most of which sit in the protection of the hillsides.
And Then There Is Global Warming
Beyond all of that, the defining factor that brought Saint Aubin up in the estimation of Burgundy aficionados (whether they know it or not) is global warming. Global warming has had an enormous impact on the style of wines around the world, but has been especially impactful on the character and quality of the vineyards in Northern Europe. As little as thirty years ago, only the vineyards with the very best exposures, that where tipped toward the sun on hillsides, and protected from the wind and weather, could sufficiently ripen grapes enough to make good wine in most vintages. In absolute numbers, from 1990 to 2006, the average temperature has gone up 1.2 degrees F., and it had already gone up 1.2 degrees F. in the previous thirty years. Today, the crop is consistently ripe enough to make good wine across all climates* in virtually every vintage.
Domaine (Field) Prudhon, Saint Aubin
Vincent and Philippe Prudhon run this highly regarded family estate in Saint Aubin, from its 14 hectares (7,500 cases). The vineyards are planted with meter by meter spacing, giving a densely planted vineyard of 10,000 vines per hectare. The brothers use a pneumatic jacket press to extract the juice from the grapes, and then rack directly into barrique, where primary and malolactic fermentations are completed. The wine left on the fine lees until they are racked and bottled. It was their father Gerard who took the leap from selling their family’s grapes to negociants to bottling and marketing the wine themselves in 1983. And it was Gerard that was one of the major forces in showcasing this up and coming, but uncelebrated region. And once again, (as I wrote in my Kermit Lynch piece,) so many great French domaines have emerged because they partnered with foreign exporters to find fertile markets for their wines, and to sell them at higher prices than they could have sold them in France. With Neal Rosenthal in New York and Richards Walford in London exporting up to 85% of the domain’s production, this gave the family the freedom to re-invest in vineyards and equipment, and ultimately allowed them to attain the success and reputation they are known for today. Today Domaine Henri Prudhon, along with Hubert Lamy and Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey (who is actually based in Chassagne) are the three great champions of Saint Aubin.
Les Mergers des Dents de Chien
Mugers refers to the broken, vertical tectonic plates that form natural walls (Mergers) along the ridgeline. They jut out of the earth, pushed the geologic forces that formed the hill Mont-Rachet. Often were used as the natural separation of vineyards, these ragged Dent de Chien (teeth of the dog) decisively define the division between Puligny and Saint Aubin, physically, financially and one suspects emotionally. The Dent de Chien area (see map) runs along the top of the ridge line of Mont-Rachet is left wild and not farmable. However, in the 1980s, 10 hectares of scrubland was cleared and planted with vines (with great excitement) extending the vineyards en Remilly and Les Murgers des Dents de Chien, bringing Saint Aubin that much closer to Chevalier-Montrachet. This development was significant because it sparked a real feeling of legitimacy within the vignerons of Saint Aubin. They point to their vineyards having the same limestone base and thin soils as Puligny’s very finest vineyards, and they now believe their wines, in the best years can rival the much more prestigious vineyards in terms of quality, if not reputation.
2011 Henri Prudhon, Saint Aubin 1er Cru “Les Murgers des Dents de Chien”
Day One: Having such high hopes and expectations of course is a mistake, but I was somewhat disappointed with this bottle: it was crisp with lime and leafy-green pyrazine flavors, and long, tight acidity. It was clearly very closed, and it was not clear whether there was any weight or real fruit or character behind its shrill facade. But most disconcerting was the green flavors that straddled the jalapeño/eucalyptus flavor profile. I can’t say this is unusual with 2011s, since it was a cool vintage. I think these flavors will integrate with a year or two (plus) in the bottle, but only time will tell – I’ll certainly find out since I have another bottle. On the positive side it showed some power and intensity with plenty of viscosity indicating ripeness, and the fruit trying to break out. I hoped a night later, with a little air, this might show better, indicating a good evolution in the bottle. At $30, I’m not feeling this was money well spent. Score on day one: 83 points. Day Two: That was certainly the case: on day two the green flavors have integrated and ripe apple, and tropical fruit flavors have broadened the palate, pushing down much of the lime notes that were so predominant yesterday. The wine has nice ripeness that was so carefully camouflaged the previous evening. Baked apple and hot river stones comes off the nose, with banana, mango, brioche and in the distant background are notes of geraniums and vanilla. In the mouth, the entry is linear, but broadens quickly on its bright acidic notes, fanning out with baked apple, tropical fruits, brioche, toast. Now I’m more hopeful of my investment. Score on day two: 87 points. *Climate(s): A French word referring to vineyard(s) as a homogeneous unit having a particular exposure and climate.
Many Burgundy experts believe the place were the wine is made has almost as much influence on the style of the final wine as the winemaker or the appellation it is from. They contend that producers that make a Nuits-St-Georges in their Vosne cellars taste more of Vosne than Nuits. This certainly would seem the case here: where the Gevrey-Chambertin domaine of Frederic Esmonin has produced a wine from Comblanchien (near the Beaune border,) that is quite like their excellent wines from Gevrey.
Frederic Esmonin is a very traditional producer, whose defining hallmark is that they make wines with exceptional freshness. Andre Esmonin, who makes the wine, does not typically strive to make a wine of weight, but rather
of balance and freshness. He doesn’t push for ripeness, nor does he instruct their vineyard crew to cut yields for greater concentration. But the small, ripe vintage of 2012 made that adjustment for them. The vintage is one of concentration, and this marries well with Esmonin’s slightly grapey/stem-included style. The 2012s from Esmonin were extremely successful, and although most of the Cotes de Nuits Villages may be difficult to find, all of the Esmonins are worth the search and all are quite well priced for their appellations.
A couple quick notes about the producer before moving on. The vineyards are farmed Lutte Raisonnee. The grapes are brought to near freezing for one-week cold maceration to help set the color and fruit, before fermenting the whole cluster which tends to strip the color but adds freshness, not to mention structure and spice. Andre bottles earlier than many producers of Red Burgundy, either to keep the fresh fruit aspect of the wines or because of space restrictions. Their holdings include the Grand Crus Mazy-Chambertin and Ruchottes Chambertin, the Premier Crus Estournelles St-Jacques, Lavaux St-Jacques, and Champonnets, as well as several Villages level vineyards including Clos Prieur (Bas) and some old vines in the Les Jouises lieu-dits.
2012 Cotes de Nuits Villages “La Belle-Vue”
The nose is dusty, like smelling a gravelly road on a warm summer’s day. But beneath, struggling to emerge, is the super-black cherry liquor that paints the entire backdrop for the palate. This is a starkly dry wine that hits you first with a tart bitterness, but then unfolds into an entry that is fine, and the body is long and lean, without thickness or tremendous weight. There, in that quickest of moments, you see the wine’s breadth. This Pinot Noir becomes a nightfall of fresh, amazingly black-cherry, darkened with black plum, licorice, soy, and herb-tinged stem notes, all wrapped by fleeting moments of tannin and power. The wine is not at anytime heavy, and the tannins are fine and suavely balanced. And so typical of the Esmonin style, the wine is very fresh, very clean, with excellent black fruits, but this time with more concentration and ripeness. This wine really struck me as remarkable at the $30 price point, with just enough complexity to grab my attention and keep me engaged. For me, this is an easy 91 points.
Where is the Cotes de Nuits, and why should I Care?
Cotes de Nuits Villages labeled wines are often confused with the larger, and more widely spread Hautes-Cotes de Nuits appellation that lies to the West of the string of hillside villages that anchor the Cote d’Or. Too many Cotes are not confusing? I’m with you on that. Add a Villages or an Hautes, and you have different appellation!
Think of it this way: The Cote de Nuits refers to the backbone of famous villages that run the length of the Nuits. At the center of the Cote de Nuits are the famed villages such as Vosne Romanee, Gevrey-Chambertin, and Nuits-Saint-George. But on either end of these villages are five villages that almost no one has heard of. With the exception of Fixin (which can be labeled as its own village name,) Brochon, Premeaux-Pressey, Comblanchien, and Corgoloin), must bear the most generic name Cote de Nuits Villages. Wines from Fixin may be labeled either Fixin or Cote de Nuits Villages.
The Village of Combanchien
Frederic Esmonin draws this wine from the Belle-Vue plot in the village of Comblanchien, one of the three villages South of Nuits-St-Georges (about 3 miles away.) Comblanchien, sits upon the same middle-Jurassic limestone, has similar mid-slope vineyards, and similar exposition as the most famous villages to the North. When St-Veran and Maranges can label under their own names, will these Cotes de Nuits Villages be allowed to make their own name?
Not surprisingly, Comblanchien is far more famed for its production of limestone than for its wine production. Historically, the excavation of Comblanchien limestone been the main production of the village, with four quarries that have been in operation for several hundred years. Stone from this small village has been used for some of Frances most important buildings, including the Paris Opera House and the Orly airport. The limestone that is quarried there, is notable for its variety of colors, and looks similar to marble with its veining, is very fine-grained and polishes well, not to mention it is resistant to frost damage.
Domaine Matrot is based in Meursault, and is run by Thierry and his wife Pascale. For legal reason there are two domaines here. One carries the name of Thierry’s father, Pierre Matrot, under which the red and white wines from Blagny are bottled, and then there is this Theirry and Pascale Matrot label for the rest.
The domaine’s substantial holding of 19 hectares, includes plots from the Meursault’s finest Premier Cru vineyards, with nearly a hectare in Meursault’s “Les Charmes” and a half hectare in “Les Perrieres“. Additionally, the family also has some small parcels of Premier Crus in neighboring Puligny-Montrachet within the “Les Garennes” and “Les Combettes” climates. But by far, the family’s largest holdings are 5 hectares in Meursault spanning 11 parcels, and the nearly 3.6 hectares of Bourgogne-appellated vineyards just below the village of Meursault.
The Chardonnay vines for this Bourgogne average a mature 30 years. Thierry has worked his vineyards lutte raisonnée, (reasoned struggle) for the past twenty years, with all treatments to the vines being organic. and plowing rather than using herbicides to control growth between the rows.
Matrot really cuts no corners with his Bourgogne, giving it much the same treatment as his other more prestigious vineyards. This juice is pressed into barrique (15%-20% new- the same percentage as all of his whites), where it ferments on its own yeast, and goes through secondary. Matrot stirs the lee’s (batonnage); how much he does this depends on the vintage. Typically he bottles this Bourgogne after racking at 11 months in screw cap. The early bottling and screw cap are likely efforts to preserve freshness and fruit. He has been quoted as thinking that the screw cap is the way of the future.
2011 Thierry et Pascale Matrot, Bourgogne Blanc
Here is a Bourgogne that serves it straight-up. Golden apples, honey, cooked cream, river stones, fine herbs, and notes of vanilla. Medium in weight, with fresh apple and pear fruit, a touch of lavender-scented honey, again wet stones, jicama, sliced anise bulb, and soft notes of lemonade. This Matrot Bourgogne has good verve and moderate complexity, with enough fruit to round out the palate, It is richer and fruitier when served warm.
The bottom line: This is a good, solid Bourgogne, in a the fresh apple-y style that is currently in vogue. but not quite enough fruit and concentration to make me say wow. If it fills out in six months and gains some richer honeyed, nutty notes on the mid-palate (like Meursault is prone to,) this will certainly warrant a higher score. However, I’m not sure there is enough ripeness or concentration to allow that to happen, and the mineral component will likely dominate as the fruit dries out. That said, this still has two or three years of good drinking ahead of it. 87 points
photo of Thierry Matrot courtesy of DN.no Vinguiden
Bordeaux and Burgundy have been in something of the doldrums in terms of relevance on the American wine scene since the recession began in 2008. It was at this time that, while the near collapse of financial markets in the west, there was an influx of new wealth in China. The Chinese nouveau riche with their insatiable appetite for the best Bordeaux had to offer, drove prices up at a time when budgets were shrinking here. Also at the very, most wealthy, in America and Europe and Russia just continued to gain wealth – snapping up blue chip wines for their cellars. The result the rarest of Burgundies and the most highly celebrated Bordeaux climbed, and climbed in price
The resulting wine trends in the United States was a combination of a rejection of Bordeaux’s pricing, and focus on wines from other places. For the generally stayed Bordeaux drinker, Brunello di Montalcino was an easy retreat. Comparatively, Brunellos were cheap, delicious, and some of the very best producers weren’t much more than $60. With their excellent international reputation, softer tannins, Brunello was a socially acceptable down-sizing for the Bordeaux drinker. For a more adventurous Burgundy drinker, there was a lot of thrilling options to choose from, most notably the remarkable Barolos and Barbarescos coming from Piemonte, and Aglianicos from Campagna and Basilicata. Although for inexperienced tasters these wines have more challenges of in terms of structure and bitterness, their aromatics and texture are a huge draw with those wines, surpassing Burgundy in quality and complexity at each price point.
“The wines from the more traditional producers, really resonated, because they are flavors that cannot be produced anywhere else in the world.”
This economic dynamic created a scarcity of the top wines, while most of the lower and middle tiered wines sat, lingering in distributor warehouses and retailers shelves. Of course this has always been the problem. The top 1% of wines has an eager market, the rest are more difficult to sell. Only now, this disparity is much more acute. Now, as the stock market soars and the housing market moves back toward record highs, we can predict that this trend will continue. The difference I think, is the wine in the next tiers down will be forced to lower their prices because the most of the middle class is not gaining wealth in the recovery. There will not be an increased market for middle tier wines, rather these wines will need to retreat some in price.
In the past, the first growth and second growth Bordeaux were not so expensive that the middle class wine buyer could buy them occasionally, and the same went with Grand Cru Burgundy. But I have always felt the soul of those appellations are those below those haut crus. In Burgundy, I have always felt, that if you don’t know the premier cru’s you don’t know Burgundy. Sure the Grand Cru tasted great. They were ripe and succulent – anybody could like those. The true soul, the heart and character of Burgundy is in the terroir, and if the wines got too ripe, this would be covered up, and the aromatics would be buried. For that reason I have always been a fan of the ”off years.” To me, they seemed to retain more aromatics and just seemed to age better. The ripeness of the Grand Crus, at least to me, often masked the vineyard’s terrior. As for Bordeaux, I have always been a fan of the 3rd through 5th growth Bordeaux and Cru Bourgeois. I know, it’s an underdog thing, but they were really good then, and today they are much better even now which in many cases justifies their price increases. Besides, what hasn’t gone up in price?
Having just started to go out into the marketplace this week with some of these Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, it is fun to watch the light bulbs go off as the wines are tasted. In many cases, the reactions I got are as if these buyers had suddenly remembered that Bordeaux and Burgundy even existed. That’s how far removed the wine industry in many places has become from these two regions. The wines from the more traditional producers, really resonated, because they are flavors that can not be produced anywhere else in the world. It makes you wonder if part of the problem with the relevance of Bordeaux is not only the prices, but the extreme modernization of the wine making, and the resultant fruit-driven styles that have taken hold there.
Tasting the wines from these two classic French appellations is like a re-awakening. They are beautiful, full of personality and character. Sure, because of my new job I have a vested interest in the success of Burgundy and Bordeaux in the market place. But I left my buyer’s position at The Wine Club precisely so I could immerse myself in the amazing portfolio at Atherton Wine Imports. While there certainly is a lot more competition for their attention, but I think Burgundy and Bordeaux are, and will again gain in relevance in the American wine consciousness. Dean
Domaine Ballot-Millot sources it’s Meursault village bottling from a Chardonnay vineyard above the Les Boucheres 1er cru, in what appears to be the Chaumes des Narveaux vineyard,
although the winery is not specific. Winemaker Charles Ballot (30) sorts his fruit on tables in the vineyard, then presses the grapes lightly using a pneumatic press. The wine is then racked from its gross lees into oak barrels where it finishes primary fermentation and malolactic (secondary fermentation). After twelve months in barrel, the wine is transferred to stainless tanks for six months, and before being fined with diatomaceous earth before bottling.
The nose is typical for a cool long growing season, and certainly shows what a tight, classic, vintage 2010 had been. While there is Meursault’s typical honey, white flowers, lemon curd, toast from oak, and a touch of sulfur, it doesn’t yet show the gras (fat) and nuttiness you get with a Meursault that is ready to drink. It does smell like a more expensive White Burgundy, like ones I’ve had from Domaine Leflaive’s former winemaker, Pierre Morey, and that is a good thing. In the mouth, it’s got some concentration, but it’s a bit tight and the oak is definitely showing, giving the wine a bit of dryness. Give this another year: the fruit and fat should be more evident, and the oak will have retreated, sweetening the whole package up. A wonderful wine that’s not quite optimal yet – give it enough time and it should come together beautifully. 87 points today. Potential 90-91 points.
After an hour, the wine shows significant integration, with lime rind, chalk, and minerals showing up on the palate as it opens. This wine is still anything but fat, with a wonderful liveliness – it’s concentration now showing on mid-palate, onto the long, warm, nectarine and lime tinged finish.