Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy: Part 3.2 The lower slopes

by Dean Alexander

° of Slope =  Soil Type + Soil Depth  → Wine Weight

In Part 3.1, I covered how the position and degree of slope determined the type of topsoil that lies there. In the next two sections, I will talk about how the position on the slope not only greatly influences topsoil composition but independent of winemaking decisions, is a significant determiner of the weight of the wine. In this section I will discuss this concept, focusing primarily on the vineyards below the slope, the flatlands vineyards most burgundy aficionados have traditionally ignored. This disdain for these lower-lying vineyards is changing because massive improvements in wine quality have made them relevant, and equally massive increases in wine prices have left them as the only wines tenable to those without the deepest of pockets. Additionally, sommeliers looking for high-quality wines of relative value, have begun to much more closely examine the wide-reaching Bourgogne appellations and the village level wines of the Côte d’Or. These are wines that fit price points and quality standards premier cru vineyards used to fill and often fill that void admirably.  


 The relationship of slope to wine weight

Soil depth and type can greatly determine wine weight and character

Soil depth and type can greatly determine wine weight and character

It has become increasingly apparent over the past decade, that there is a direct connection between the depth and richness of soil, to the weight of the wines produced from those vines. Vineyards that have a modicum of depth, and at least a fair amount of clay or other fine earth elements, coupled with a fractured limestone base, produce weightier wines. These vineyards typically exist from quite low on the slope to roughly mid-slope. The higher up the slope one goes, the more crucial it is that the stone below is well-fractured to be easily penetrated by vine roots. Softer limestone bases, like the friable, the fossil-infused crinoidal limestone, which is weakened by the ancient sea lilies trapped within it, or like clay-ladened argillaceous limestone, makes it possible to produce great wine from the steeper, upper-slopes. Examples of these vineyards include the uppermost section of Romanee-Conti and all of La Romanee, which sits above it. These appear to be rare exceptions, however.

Most wines produced from the steeper, upper slope vineyards, with shallower, marly-limestone (powdery, crushed-stone with low clay content) soils, lie over harder, purer limestone types like Comblanchien, Premeaux, and Pierre de Chassagne. These limestone types must have at least moderate fracturing and a high enough degree of ductile strain to plant above them. Wines from these types of vineyards are, without question, finer in focus and have greater delineation of flavor. It is not unusual for these wines to be described as spicier, more mineral laden, and have greater tannic structure. The short explanation is the upper-slope wines have less fruit to cover up their structure, while the wines from more gently sloped vineyards have more weighty fruit.  This fruit provides the gras, or fat, that obscures the structure of these weightier, more rounded wines. The upper slope vineyards will be covered in greater depth in the upcoming Part 3.3.

Because of the weathering of limestone on the upper slopes, and subsequent erosion, the soils, and colluvium collect on lower on the slope, making the topsoil there both deep and heavy. They are full of a wider array of fine earth fractions, and more readily retain water and nutrients necessary for the vines health and propagation of full, flavorful, berries.  On the curb of the slope they do this splendidly, with an excellent mix of clay and colluvium, giving the proper drainage for the typical amount of rainfall, yet retaining the right amount of water most times of year when rain does not fall.

The last vineyard before the pastures begin. The village of Puligny Montrachet is in the distance

The last vineyard before the pastures begin. The village of Puligny-Montrachet is in the distance. source: googlemaps.com

The “highway” and the low-lying vineyards below

For decades we have been told that the low-lying vineyards of Burgundy, were too wet to grow high-quality grapes, and we could expect neither concentration nor quality, from these village and Bourgogne level vineyards. The reason, we were told, was grapes grown from these flat, low-lying vineyards became bloated with water, and the result was acidic, thin, and “diluted” village and Bourgogne level wines. Alternately we were told the wines from lower vineyards were too “flabby”, as James E. Wilson ascribes on in his groundbreaking book Terroir published in 1988 (p.128). Thusly, an entire swath of vineyards, from below the villages of Gevrey and Vosne, all along the Côte, all the way to down to Chassagne, were dismissed as thin and shrill, lacking both character and concentration. These wines were generally considered by connoisseurs to be unworthy of drinking, much less purchasing.  At that time, given the poor quality being produced, that seemed perfectly reasonable.

This set in motion a series of generalizations and biases, many of which remain to this day. “The highway”, as Route Nationale 74 is often referred, became the demarcation between the possibility of good wine and bad. The notion that this roadway, something that is built for the sole purpose of moving from one village to the next, had become an indicator of wine quality, is so pervasive, that the grand crus with N74 at their feet, such as MazoyèresChambertin and Clos Vougeot, have been cast in a bad light simply due to their proximity to it. It has colored perceptions so much, that many people, to this day, equate being higher on the slope with being “better situated”. The fact that there are grand crus and premier crus on the upper slope, but none on the lower slopes only buttressed this idea.  However…

We now know this is not true.

Puligny Folatieres after a rain

The road below Paul Pernot’s Clos des Folatières, filled with water. However, this water is not allowed to enter the 1er Cru of Clavoillon below. This is an example of containing and redirecting excess water coming down the hillside, into noncrucial areas. click to enlarge photo source: googlemaps.com

There are many Bourgogne level vineyards that are more than capable of producing wines with good concentration, so long as the vigneron sought to produce quality over quantity, and the plot is not in an excessively poor location. So why were these myths that Bourgogne level vineyards could only produce light, thin, acidic wines, propagated by winemakers, wine writers, and importers?

The optimist would point to a lack of technical knowledge in the field and cellar made this true. The optimist would also say that the long tradition of creating simple, inexpensive, quaffing wine made it acceptable.

But there were other factors. Cold weather patterns from the mini ice-age, which ended in the 1850s, certainly set up long-standing expectations of wine the wine quality that was capable from various vineyards. These expectations were absolutely cemented in after the widely influential book by Jules Lavalle, Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d’Or was published in 1855. In this revered reference, Lavalle classified the vineyards of Burgundy the same year the French Government classified the chateaux of Bordeaux. No doubt the timing of this gave Lavalle’s unsanctioned work credence. After the first half degree average temperature increase which occurred around 1860, the climate in central Europe only gradually grew warmer over the next 135 years until 1990 when global warming really began in earnest. Before that, the weather would not allow the consistent ripening patterns that routinely we see today.

Another major factor was that there was not a complete understanding of how to control and divert runoff. Nor, prior to 1990, was it likely the villages along the Côte wealthy enough to make the large-scale improvements that were necessary to control rainwater runoff. Until the prices of Burgundy began to rise, overall the region was experiencing some economic depressed. This economic struggle, coupled with the inevitable political obstacles required to spend sparse civic funds, could delay improvements a decade.

On the other hand, the skeptic would point to the problems of greed, and it’s accomplice, over cropping. Vignerons could achieve 3 to 5 times higher production levels from the same vines, which was profitable, and required far less knowledge, less diligence in the field, and other than taking up more labor in bottling and space in the cellars, far less work in the cellars. It was not only the Bourgognes that fell into this net of profit over quality, but the village level wines were often fairly low in concentration, with under-ripe fruit, and low in quality. Even now, a producer that has reduced yields by a division of 3 in order to make a quality village or Bourgogne, is making less money per hectare than they would if they still over-cropped – and working harder in the field to do it.

Overcoming wet soil issues

Water features below Puligny Les Pucelles. Controlling and redirecting water away from lower vineyards is a major key to improving quality there. photo: googlemaps

Water features below Puligny Les Pucelles. Controlling and redirecting water away from lower vineyards is a major key to improving quality there.  click to enlarge  photo: googlemaps.com

Excess water in lower vineyards is a serious issue, and each vineyard is not equal in its ability to contend with heavy rainfall. Although flat is the quickest descriptor, the topography of each vineyard varies, as does the bedding (layers of soil) of each vineyard. These variances can dramatically determine the challenges presented to each grower in each day, season, and year, be it rain storm or drought.

In farming, an infiltration rate of roughly 50mm of rainfall per hour is considered ideal. That is precisely what a well-structured loam can typically absorb at normal rainfall rates, without significant puddling and runoff. Clays, however, drain much more slowly, with an infiltration 10-20mm per hour.  These optimal figures can all be thrown out the window, however, if the soil structure has been degraded through compaction or farming practices that commonly degrade the soil. Poorly structured clay soils can drain as slowly as 5-8-10mm per hour.

Alluvial soils, with their graded bedding, created by heavier gravel and sand falling out of water suspension before silt and clays, typically have good infiltration rates. Loam soils that have moved in from the Saône Valley pasture lands, and have weaved themselves into the fabric of the lower vineyards, have ideal infiltration rates. Sandy sections are likely to exist in some vineyards, will have very rapid infiltration and drainage, 150mm to 200+ mm per hour. Where solid layers of transported clay, in thick slabs have formed, drainage can be severely affected.  These plastic-y clays may repel water as much as they slowly absorb it. I wrote a much more complete examination of soils in Part 2.2.

What is important to consider, is that in all but the upper-most vineyards, soils are layered in horizons of soil types. It is normal, around the world, that there are typically 5 horizons of soil and subsoil layers in any given place, although there may be more, or as on slopes, fewer. Each horizon will affect the drainage of the plot, depending on its soil makeup. Geologist Francois Vannier-Petit presided over an excavation of Alex Gamble’s village-level Les Grands Champs vineyard in Puligny-Montrachet. In this vineyard, she records two horizons within the 80 cms that they dug, and she noted most of the vines roots existed in this zone. At the time of the excavation, she noted the soil was damp, but not wet, with good drainage.

The calcium, which is freed from the limestone rubble with weathering on the upper slopes, is not as prevalent and effective in the farther-flung Bourgogne vineyards. The calcium which helps disrupt the alignment the clay platelets, and aiding is drainage, may not be carried far enough by runoff to sufficiently strengthen the soils of these more distant vineyards.  Certainly, most of these vineyards are located beyond the Saône Valley fault, and the continuation of limestone that virtually sits on the surface of the Côte lays buried by at least a hundred feet of tertiary valley fill and has no effect on wine quality there, other than by its remoteness.

flooding

Turbid flood waters carry away gravel, sand, and fine earth fractions. These will be redeposited as alluvial soils, created graded bedding and clay minerals will flocculate onto, or into, other transported clay bodies. photo: decanter.com

The most severe problems revolve around the maximum amount of water the soil or clay can hold and fail to drain quickly enough through to the unsaturated/vadose zone, through capillary action to the water table below. With clay, this is called the plastic limit, or the point just before the clay loses its structure and becomes liquid. Flooding would ensue, and large volumes of soil would become suspended in turbid flowing waters, causing massive erosion, particularly from vineyards up-slope. This would truly be the worst case event, and I won’t say it doesn’t happen.

Another, significant problem, at least for vintners, although less apparent to the wine drinking public, is less wet soil is that it causes the vines to have difficulty acclimating to colder weather, and affects their hardiness if severe weather sets in.

However, in many vineyards, the wet soil has now been addressed by investments in drainage. Large yields are eliminated and concentration is gained by pruning for quality, coupled with bud thinning or green harvest. Vigilance against rot is key in these lower vineyards, as well as odium, and other mildews, which thrive in humid wet vineyards. This is a key element in quality since rainfall during the growing season is very common in Burgundy. With all of these precautions, there are now many producers who now make excellent Bourgogne level wines. And despite the tripling and quadrupling of the prices of Bourgogne, they are now well-worth drinking – often equalling  the premier cru wines of yesteryear in terms of quality.

It is often cited that Puligny-Montrachet has no underground cellars because of the high water table there. Yet Puligny is arguably the finest region for growing Chardonnay in the world. I submit that much of the success Puligny has enjoyed, is in part because the water table is high, coupled with the fact that the village and its vignerons have invested heavily in water control features to channel and redirect excess runoff.

Reshuffling the wine weight matrix

The revelation that well-concentrated wines can be produced from these “wet” vineyards, has thrown slope position into a far clearer focus. No longer did we have lighter-to-medium weight wines on the upper slopes, the heaviest wine on the curb of the slope, and the very lightest wines coming from the lowest and flattest areas of Burgundy. Now it was clear: the areas with deeper, richer soils, particularly those with clay to marl soils, can universally produce richer fuller-bodied wines. This increasing quality of Bourgogne and the lower-situated village wines has dramatically raised the bar of expectations of wines across the Côte d’Or. With Bourgogne’s challenging the more highly regarded village-level vineyard in terms of quality, and village wines posing a challenge in regards to quality to many of the premier crus, lackluster producers were now put on notice to raise their game in terms of coaxing harmony and complexity out of their wines. Now that wine weight can be achieved in vineyards all across the Côte, despite a low slope position below the highway, expectation that Bourgognes are the simple, light and often shrill wines of yesteryear has been largely shattered.

Additionally, there is adequate evidence that deeper soils, particularly those with moderate-to-high levels of clay (or other fine earth fractions), can be a positive factor, for their ability to retain water and nutrients for the vines. This allows them to develop anthocyanins and other flavor components within the grapes. The challenge in these low-lying vineyards is controlling, and dealing with excess water.  In wet years, vignerons have demonstrated that adequate investment to direct and control runoff, even most lower vineyards will not be too wet to grow good to high-quality fruit. Examples abound of village crus, from top vignerons, costing more than many grand crus; and these producers Bourgognes are not far behind in price. It’s not magic; it’s investment and hard work, in a decent vineyard, that makes this kind of quality possible.

Author’s Note: To avoid misunderstanding, this is a discussion of wine weight and concentration, not wine quality or wine complexity. Too often these things are confused, along with the notion that increased enjoyment equals increased complexity or quality. The goal is to understand and appreciate the differences and nuances that each vineyard provides by its unique situation, not to make it easier to find the most hedonistic wine possible.
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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.

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“• 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.

Saint Aubin, Chardonnay, and Henri Prudhon’s 2011

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

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

“Les Murgers des Dents de Chien” 1er Cru

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

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

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

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

And Then There Is Global Warming

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

Aviary Photo_130437250206082158Domaine (Field) Prudhon, Saint Aubin

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

Les Mergers des Dents de Chien

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

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

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

2012 Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, Bourgogne Blanc

A Simply Superb White Burgundy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2012 Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey Bourgogne Blanc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2011 Ballot Millot Meursault “les Narvaux”

downloadToday the nose is showing a bit Loire-like with its parsley, Kafir lime, and tarragon notes, enriched by  cream, lemon zest, touch of gravel and toasty notes, but it may very well just be a bit disjointed and out of sorts after its voyage across the Atlantic and through the Panama Canal.

This is much more elegant and much less concentrated than the 2010 Meursault Village I reviewed last July which was dense and a little tough-edged. This on the other hand, is very clean, with a light lively palate that sings, with parsley, basil-lime, grapefruit, Meyer lemon, minerals, light cream notes. I really like this, although it isn’t what I would call impressive, but it begs another sip, and then another glass. Its palate impression is light to mid-weight in terms of Meursault, with a weightless but firm palate impression.  It show only the vaguest of oak on the nose (and the palate). It’s application of oak is perfect: deft and balanced.  This will gain some weight and fill out with another year or two, and the cream will take on a larger role, and I suspect the green notes will integrate completely.  Score: 90 points.

imgresCharles Ballot is a young winemaker who some, like wine writer John Tilson of the Underground Wine Letter, are calling a rising star.  In his thirty’s, Charles Ballot took over from his father Philippe a few years ago, and is driving the domaine toward a more elegance style, and that has been particularly evident in the domaine’s reds which includes two well situated Premier Crus, Pommard Pezerolles and Volnay Taillepiedes.  He farms his vineyards lutte-raisonnee, which generally means he farms organically,  unless  the situation requires something more drastic, or perhaps if it doesn’t suit him – there are no laws or oversight surrounding the use of this term. At a minimum it usually means no weed-killers and no chemical fertilizers, and a reduction of other treatments.

Meursault Narveax, lieu dit

Meursault Narvaux is a go-to for the budget conscious Burgundy drinker. Narvaux-Dessous is a fairly large, village appellated vineyard that is situated just above the Premier Crus of Les Genevieres and Poruzots, a bit higher up on the slope. This is one of the more well-known lieu dits (named vineyards) and while using the name Narvaux is optional, many winemakers choose to bottle this as a single vineyard, and put the name of the vineyard on the label. Bottling this as a single vineyard, and naming it, can be attributed in part to marketing, and in part to the superior position of this climate (another French word for vineyard-microclimate).

Narvaux’s up-slope vineyard position means thinner soils, as well as shallow top soil due to erosion, so it is typically lighter-bodied than Premier Crus that sit below it.  But the vineyard is well protected by the hill and its excellent exposure, it gets plenty of ripeness to make a satisfying drink. According to The Wine Spectator’s Bruce Sanderson, Ballot has two parcels in Narvaux-Dessous, one has 35-year-old vines, and the other plot ‘s vines are 60 years old.

Narveaux arial map

Wine Note: 2010 Domaine Ballot-Millot, Meursault

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,

Français : vendanges à Meursault (Bourgogne)

Français : vendanges à Meursault (Bourgogne) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Burgundy’s White Wine Blight: Pre-Mox

I asked Mounir Saouma, the winemaker and owner of Lucien Le Moine, about the ongoing problem of  premature oxidation in white Burgundy, commonly referred to as pre-mox. This is question I routinely trot-out to any producer of white Burgundy. Every time the answer is different.

He said he believed there were several culprits. The first being pneumatic presses. He said he thinks the common use of pneumatic presses causes wines to not have enough structure. In 2004 he made two barrels of wine from the same parcel, made the same way, barrel aged the same way, except how they were pressed. One was pressed in a pneumatic press, the other was pressed in a traditional mechanical press. He said the amount of dry extract in the wine pressed from the mechanical press was much higher than from the wine pressed with the pneumatic press, even pressed at the same bar (measure of pressure). He believes this dry extract protects the wine and gives it strength.

The second issue says Mounir, is it is much warmer now. He said that in the past, grapes picked in October would have a potential alcohol of 11% when picked. To this the wine would be chapitalized to 13% and the pH would be very low. Now, the grapes are picked at 14%, no chapitalization is needed, and the pH is quite high. To add acid is disastrous  says Mounir. He believes adding acidity throws everything off, and causes a wine not to age. He said he has learned his lessons about adding acidity. He said white Burgundies are losing their ability to age because Chardonnay, is first picked late, with high potential alcohol, and low pH  then they are pressed using pneumatic presses which don’t extract enough dry extract. Because of these things, the wines are weak. He says now there are four, maybe six wines out of a case that will succumb to prem-ox, but he feels this percentage will increase over time.

The answer to many of the Burgundian winemaker’s problems, (my words, not his) he believes, lies in five factors.

1) The first is to use a mechanical press – at least with Chardonnay.

2) leave the wine on the lees for 2 years, to not add SO2 until the wine has been on the lees for 18 months.

3) Wine must be made in a cold cellar.

4) Wine should rest on their lees, and not be racked for an extended period of time. His prescription 18 months to two years.

5) Barrels must be topped every week.

Yet, Mounier says the biggest mistake, is often the little mistakes that compound upon one another, like not topping up the barrels often enough. He said to me:
“In difficult years, a lot of time you will see some of winemakers best wines. Why? Because they are diligent and they are doing everything they can to make the wine be as good as it can be. But in great years, winemakers feel the wines are strong, and don’t think their wines need to be topped as regularly, so instead of topping every other week, they top every three weeks, and sometimes once a month. It is these little mistakes that build upon one another, slowly robbing the wine of its freshness.”

Leaving the wine in barrel, on the lees for two years is a re-occurring theme with Mounir. He believes that the lees naturally protect the wine, and give it strength for the future. He does not add SO2 for the first 18 months, because he wants the wine to protect itself, and living and dead yeast does that. Adding SO2 kills living organisms in wine, which of course is why it is added. To add SO2 would inhibit the wines interaction with the lees. Which brings me to his new property in Chateauneuf-du-pape.

Mounir and Rotem have in the past few years purchased a small property in Chateauneuf. He makes a white and a red. The vineyard had a small parcel of old vine Grenache Blanc, which is a lesser varietal in Chateauneuf, because it oxidizes very easily. Most producers have long since grafted over their Grenache Blanc to Roussanne or Marsanne. He says in addition to the lack of popularity of Grenache Blanc, everybody in the region leaves the whites in barrel no more than 6 months. What would he do with these Grenache Blanc grapes?

“I decided to make the wine like we do in Burgundy.” He  said.  “I leave the white on the lees for two years, not adding SO2 for the first 18 months.” The wine turned copper in color at first, and he thought, “well, lets just see what happens,” and after around six months the lees pulled the color out of the wine, and it was clear, and creamy and rich. Most importantly, it was not oxidized. Instead, it was strong and powerful with a creamy honeyed mid-palate.