History of the Vigneron: Part 3.1, Philosophy, Perception, and the Historian



By Dean Alexander


“The Burgundian patois, to use Sainte-Beuve’s picturesque expression — “a eu des malheurs” (has had misfortunes); it has never become a living language as the Breton and the Provencal have, and is therefore doomed, I suppose, to early destruction; as its older devotees die off, and the young peasant, versed in the language of towns, learns to despise his father’s tongue.” Burgundy: The Splendid Duchy, Allen Percy, 1872


A difficult question to answer: Why were the peasantry diminishing in number?

Why were those who were diminishing in number primarily those whose lived in outlying rural areas and spoke patois Bourguignon? 

This, the third in a series about the linguistic and the consequential cultural changes which were occurring in Burgundy over the course of the 18th-century, had begun with the premise that many rural peasants across Burgundy had economically been squeezed from the region (Weir 1976). These were the paysans (peasant-farmers) whose families had survived on the margins of success and failure for centuries. But there are many suggestions that this model may be incorrect.

For centuries before the Revolution, the peasants worked, often in misery, small tenured seignorial plots. These were essentially irrevocable leases between the lord and the peasant which typically were passed from one next generation of peasant to the next. Under the feudal system, they had survived on the limited fruits of their labor, while paying their local lord his cens (essentially a lease payment) and seigneurial tailles (regional tax to the lord), to the king, they paidtheir taille royale, and to the church, their tithing. For several centuries, however great the cost, this system gave them protection from bandits and mercenaries, and secured their right to farm a defined area which could never be taken away from them. With their support of church and the local priests, the peasantry held on with the belief that something better was out there, if not in this life, then the next.

After 1660’s however, the security that the peasantry gained through the seignorial system, especially along unrulely borderlands such as the Franche-Comte, was no long necessary. The protection once provided by the local nobles (noblesse d’épée) were henceforth secured by the armies of King Louis XIV. This dramatic change in social and political organization came about after a series of military engagements between the forces employed by renegade French nobility, and those of Louix XIV with engagements which ensued across France as part of the Franco-Spanish – Thirty Years War continum. Often written as a separate action was known as the Fronde, this was a civil war which played out within a continental embroilment. For reasons of political and exestential survival, notable players, such as Louis II, Prince of Condé, Duc d’Enghien, who ruled Burgundy, Berry, and Lorraine, found themselves often changing aligences through negociation, as the balance of power dictated. In the end, Louis XIV was able to centralize his authority bringing the nobility to heel.

In doing so, he secured France’s eastern borders, but in turn, unintentionally reduced much of the value the peasantry had gained in their seignorial arrangement with their local lords. Despite the fact that the lords were no longer responsible for duties of regional protection, did not cause a renegociation of the terms of the seignorial arrangement, and with time this caused a great deal of hostility among the peasantry. The terms of tenure remained enforced until the eve of the Revolution, when peasants across France, rose up against the nobles and allowing enough distraction for actions in the Paris to unfold.

While the collapse of the seigniorial system during the First Republic came about largely due to the refusal of the peasants to pay their seignorial dues and taxes, also lost was the security gained by the seignorial system that their land could never be taken away due to financial forteture. The future of this new class of free rural paysan was far less certain with the realities of a capitalist system.

La Pay des Moissonneurs Léon-Augustin l'Hermitte (1844 - 1925)
La Pay des Moissonneurs Léon-Augustin l’Hermitte (1844 – 1925)

Because villages were built as self-sufficient communities long before a well-established road system had been designed, not all villages would find themselves near a road upon which significant trade would pass.  So while growing industry, trade, and commerce were introducing connectivity and an interdependence of communities across France, and fostering significant socioeconomic change elsewhere, the peasants from these small, more isolated communities continued to farm their modest plots of grains and grapes just as their ancestors had before them. It would be this hyper-localized peasantry, with limited external inputs, who would be the last to speak the patois de Bourguignon in any significant numbers.

The population numbers of these rural villages were falling however, and with their dwindling numbers, the patois was being lost as well. The traditional explanation has been that these farmers were part of a rural exodus, leaving either voluntarily for the promise of a better life in industrial centers or having been forced off of their lands, either by losses due to harvest failures and famine or by other economic pressures. At the same time, the population of French city centers was expanding at an exponential rate. However, a close examination of the rural exodus, causes us to question presumed pressures upon the rural peasant and its connection to the urban population growth which was occurring simultaneously. It is entirely possible as some writers have accused that the “rural exodus” can be attributed with Marxist historicism. As closely as it resembles the Marxist exodus conceptualization, there were a myriad of other social and economic factors at play. These influences greatly reshaped the financial economies and culture of the French peasantry, all of which were independent of the Marxist stages of history.   Although France was moving from feudalism to capitalism, Marx’s industrialization which Marxists saw as pushing the peasants from rural farming to become urban industrial workers was not particularly accurate. France was only incrementally becoming industrialized. Similarly, as Weir wrote in 1976, the peasantry was being “squeezed out” the realities of this have their own Marxist overtones. There are points where economic forces may have conspired against the peasantry, but there are periods during which the Burgundian peasantry, particularly for the two decades between 1860 and 1880, probably faired pretty well.

To answer what happened to these people requires a deeper understanding than simply developing a historical timeline. The historical record of the 19th-century is so intertwined with the political, theoretical, and philosophical memes of the 19th century, (and of those of historians since) that they are difficult to separate. To answer this question will require a journey, that while long and seemingly circuitous, at least to me, it is revelatory in understanding what life was like for most people in Europe in the 19th century.

There are so many priorities for this paper (which approaching the size of a short book) that its ties to the original linguistic series are tenuous, almost dubious; yet what is gained is so much greater than the promise of the original mission.   Many of the questions which I seek to answer, I list as a road-map to the writing that is to come, and I believe it paves a fairly good understanding of the situation who the vignerons of Burgundy of yesteryear where, and how that has imprinted their descendants today.

The questions I will address are these:  Click Here to read the roadmap of inquiry for Part 3 (series).



This story must begin with the storytellers themselves.

As much as diving into the plight of the peasantry is appealing, it has become apparent the story must begin with the storytellers themselves. Traditionally, those who tell history would be the historians, but for French history, there is something of a reversal of roles: figures in history who’s political, economic and philosophical analysis are so so closely associated with the history itself, that their influence upon both the events of history and the viewpoint of the historian is indisputable. As I mentioned earlier, the main historical figure in question is Karl Marx, although other leftist thinkers have made contributions to France’s historical dialogue as well. The fact that Marx was, unintentionally, a remarkably good storyteller, makes his imprint on history that much more significant. Because of this, the understanding the relationship between the historical figure and the historian becomes important.

The themes and meaning of histories have proved to be greatly colored by the theoretical context that each scholar carries with them, even before writing the first word. With the following statement, Marc Bloch, of the most influential scholars of modern French history, challenges himself, and his fellow academics, to approach and analyze their subjects as accurately, and impassively as possible.

“The historian is, by definition, absolutely incapable of observing the facts which he examines.” Marc Bloch

Bloch’s quote is but the tip of the iceberg on the challenges of accounting and the understanding of history. Professor Kaya Yılmaz of Marmara University in Istanbul writes: “The discipline of history refers not only to what happened in the past but also to the act of writing about the past”. The moment the pen hits the paper, the historian himself becomes indivisible from that history. Yilmaz continues, “The nature and function of historical writing is shaped by the theoretical presuppositions, by means of which the historian reflects on and writes about the past.” As such, the body of work which encapsulates the “history” of France, has been dominated by a handful of academic lenses, those histories are distinctly colored by each approach. The two schools of thought that dominate much of the body of the history of France, and thus this paper, those of the Annales School, and those who identify themselves as Marxists. It is important to note that both dominant schools of historian appraised history through an analytic, sociological lens, inspecting small data out of the lives of ordinary people, to come up with larger themes within society. So, as any good history should be, it is rarely obvious which intellectual stance of a particular writer.

Marx, historical stages, and posthumous academic acceptance

“History is being invented in vast quantities […]. It’s more important to have historians, especially skeptical historians, than ever before.” Socialist Historian Eric Hobsbawm, in an interview with the Daily Observer, 2002.


Karl Marx and Jenny von Westphalen were married in 1836
Karl Marx and Jenny von Westphalen were married in 1836

Marx’s text came out of a remarkably fertile time of philosophical/theoretical thinking, and like other philosophies of its age, it inspected, dissected, pondered and reshaped every aspect of the human condition and thought. But more than other philosophers, Marx’s writings were politically charged. He literally called on his readers, to use a modern colloquialism, to “wake up.” Marx vehemently encouraged “class consciousness”, that workers should understand that labor was power and as a class, they must “struggle”. He then packaged these words into seemingly sensible, but heterodox, economic models. This was very different from the writings of other philosophers who wrote for their academic peers; the approach Marx used was accessible and applicable to the non-academic. The educated lay-person could easily apply Marx’s work to virtually any western European “capitalist-industrial” system. In a final distancing of his work from other philosophical thinkers, Marx subscribed to moments of written crescendo, in which he would splay out words of incitement such as exploitation, oppressed, and human labor, with distinct intonations of anger. Given his unorthodox style, it is not surprising that he was ignored by those whom he perceived to be his academic peers. (Kreis 2008).

In a 2014 column in ‘Philosophy Now’ magazine, Robert Caldwell, wrote that many of the manuscripts that Karl Marx had been laboriously working on over the course of his lifetime, remained unfinished when he died in 1883. We must consider that there is a difference between simply not finishing, and not being capable of finishing. These incomplete manuscripts suggest that Marx was both unable to intellectually wrap up all of those vague details which dangled from the theories contained within the Communist Manifesto and Kapital, nor was he able to explain why communism seemed no closer to reality than when its concept was first conjured up. 

Although these ideas are incomplete and published five decades after his death without his consent, they have given scholars an addendum work that gave them a far deeper understanding of the thinking of Marx. But perhaps more important to us, the lay reader, is the fact these extensive writings lack conclusions. This in itself suggests that Marx had difficulty explaining the inconsistencies theories which he had ceaselessly promoted throughout his life. This picture of unsureness, and perhaps even doubt, is in stark contrast to the intellectually salient figure that we picture today, who was so sure of his call to the proletariat to come to action.


Prince Louis borrows all his cast-off clothess from his uncle, Amédée de Noé 1848
Prince Louis borrows all his cast-off clothes from his uncle, Amédée de Noé 1848. Marx himself would mock the Bonaparte’s rise to power in the 18th Brumaire, “The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Political satirist, Comté Amédée de Noé, was well-known for mocking the many leading socialist thinkers and politicians of the day for borrowing their “original” ideas and peddling them as new (Hart 2014). Marx himself was influenced by idealist philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) in that “history is a progressive march from epoch to epoch”(Caldwell 2014). From this Hegelian historicism, in which man moves in successive stages toward freedom, Marx based his “Theory of History” where society moved forward toward communism in delineated economic stages ending in a Utopian community where work was equally shared and no class was subservient to another. But where Hegel’s society is ever improving, Marx’s had a more uneven trajectory, based on the development and break down of successive class-based economic structures. Marx’s history began with an utopian-like origin, painting a fabrication of simple tribal communism, a sharing of labor and resources. In Marx’s telling, this would not last, however. The development of personal property, Marx claimed, created class structures, and from this, the world had become a far, far, more depraved and oppressive place. Yet Marx provided hope that things would get better again; that society will return communism, albeit in a much more advanced, and complex form. The stages of history, which Marx almost casually explains in The Communist Manifesto,  are present to varying degrees in many of his works, are:

  1. primitive communism
  2. slave society (ie. the Roman Empire)
  3. feudalism
  4. capitalism
  5. The final stage of history, which was yet to happen, is Communism.

Marx explains how capitalism will captitulate to communism in The Communist Manifesto, writing: “Capitalism is its own grave-digger; its fall and the victory of the proletariat are alike, inevitable.” 

Despite the importance Marx and Engels lay upon historicism and historical materialism, they never wrote a definitive explanation of the “theory of history” (Green and Troup, 1999)  This, I suggest, ties directly back Marx’s unfinished manuscripts I mentioned earlier. It would seem that his many vague statements made in his early works, were based on his sureness that he could work out the details later. But it was precisely his inability to encapsulate the physical world into neat, compartmentalized, philosophical structures, that made finishing his works impossible, even after a lifetime of contemplation.

It was not until a decade or two after his death, that with a Marxist-communist movement that was truly sweeping Europe, did scholars begin to give an appraisal of Marx’s work. For some, such as Russian mathematical economist V. K. Dmitriev 1898, and fellow Russian economist and statistician  Ladislaus von Bortkiewicz, 1907, argued that, as author Henry Epps paraphrases, “Marx drew conclusions that actually do not follow from his theoretical premises”. But I suspect that Marx himself, at some level, had already come to that conclusion.


Read (here) deleted sections on Marx’s theory of History and Historical Materialism which were edited out for the sake of relative brevity

The ancient question of predestination vs. free will

Marx would write in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte part I, 1852, that “men make their own history;” To be sure, this strong statement of self-determination.  Yet, later in Brumaire, he would write that men’s actions are confined, and driven by “circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” This “circumstances existing already” quote defines entire the basis for both his theory of historical materialism and his theory of history. I find it ironic that Marx, a staunch atheist, should grapple with the same age-old question of predestination vs freewill that believers of faith have pondered for more than two millennia.

The Bible teaches in John 12:27 of God’s predestination: ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose, I came to this hour.  Conversely from the old testament comes to this verse of freewill from Hebrews 5:14: “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” For the modern reader, this verse has been much more loosely translated as “God gave us the ability to think, weigh matters, make decisions, and know right from wrong” (jw.org 1986)

For the Marxist, the balancing of these two ideas is crucial, for if communism is to happen, there must be predestination, but conversely for it to happen, as the communist writer Mick Brooks writes (2002), that “We” (the Marxist activist) “need to understand how society is developing in order to intervene in the process.”


Marx’s ideas were evolutionary but seemed to be equally subject to frustration.

Over his lifetime, Marx’s ideas and approach could be said was in a state of evolution. However, I feel the word metastatic, would be more accurate, and denoting that the work was changing, but not finding the improvement that ‘evolution’ implies. This is a topic which the famed American political scientist, Noam Chomsky touches on briefly in his 2004 book, Language and Politics.

My impression, for what it is worth, is that the early Marx was very much a figure of the late Enlightenment, and the later Marx was a highly authoritarian activist, and a critical analyst of capitalism, who had little to say about socialist alternatives.” Noam Chomsky.

prolateriateMarx’s earlier writings, which Chomsky here describes as stemming from the Late Enlightenment, which put in the social historian’s vernacular, was “socialism from below”. This philosophical stance requires that the application of socialism be done by the people themselves, not by some state or party apparatus, which the existence of formed its own class division. For many who lived during the 19th-century, they lived in what socialist writer David McNally called, “the dream of freedom,” and this was precisely the concept that was front and center within the work of Marx. McNally wrote in 1984 that “Marx was the first major socialist thinker who came to socialism through the struggle for democratic rights.”

In later years, however, Marx increasingly lets suggestions that proletariat would need to be led, creep into his work. This approach is defined as “socialism from above,” and was a guiding concept that earlier socialist thinkers such as Gracchus Babeuf 1760-1797 and Adolphe Blanqui 1798-1854 had already embraced. Blanqui, who was well-established in Parisian leftist circles when Marx arrived in 1843, believed that the French farmer sought only to be left alone; that their only real desire of the government was to have legal protections to retain their personal property. They almost universally had no interest in the kind of wholesale economic change urban leftists proposed. Any revolution, Blanqui reasoned, must be by the workers and led by a socialist elite. Moreover, it would have to occur in Paris. Blanqui would not see the ultimate test of this theory, as he had died in 1854, but the social elite did lead the massive Paris uprising of 1871, the result of which yielded disastrous results.

One has to wonder whether these changes in Marx’s outlook were due to a gradual acceptance of this far earlier position taken by Babeuf and Blanqui, which Marx had rejected earlier in his life, or that he was more simply vacillating on the mode with which, at least intellectually, to move forward. But even more than the fact that most French did not seem to support a socioeconomic revolution, the even greater problem was that the proletariat themselves seemed no closer to ushering out the stage of capitalism at the end of Marx’s life than it had at the beginning.

Dictatorship of the proletariat 

The term, “the dictatorship of the proletariat” was the fruit of one of Marx’s followers, Joseph Weydemeyer, who used the expression in 1852 for the title of an article he wrote for a communist German-language paper, Turn-Zeitung. In a supportive response, Marx, in turn, used the phase in a letter to Weydemyer, saying that class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat.” and “that this dictatorship, itself, constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”

It seems the phrase had resonance, which along with the term “vanguard of the proletariat”, are closely associated a later time and place; that of Lenin and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Marx himself would not use the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” in his own work, until 1877, when he wrote in “Critique of the Gotha Programme, part IV. In ‘Gotha Programme’, he suggests briefly that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a transitional (socialist) stage between a capitalism and communism.

For a true communist, Marx’s veering from his linear, predestined “theory of history“, would surely have been a troubling concept. The entire idea that a vanguard of revolutionaries should direct “socialism from above” is itself antithetical to the very idea of communism to which Marx had originally subscribed. It is, after all, a primary tenant of communism that any existence of a state (socialist or otherwise) represents the subjugation of one class over another. As mentioned, Marx saw this dictatorship as a temporary, transitional phase, necessary to implement the stage communism.

As if rushing to address this dichotomy to communism presented by Marx, Frederic Engels would write within “Anti-Dühring part III in 1877, that “the state is not abolished, that it dies out”*, due to its lack of necessity.  He expands on this later in the paper with the following excerpt:

“As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection; as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon our present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from these, are removed, nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a state, is no longer necessary.” Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring part III , 1877

(*) dies or “withers away” depending on the translation.

The Pont Neuf, Giuseppe Canella 1832, source Wikipedia
The Pont Neuf, Giuseppe Canella 1832, source Wikipedia

Meet me in Paris: Marx and the French leftists

Following his expulsion from the Prussian Empire for his political writings and criticism of that government, Marx would live in Paris for only two years, from 1843 until the end of 1844.

Petit-patriots. Source unknown via tineye.
Petit-patriots. Original source unknown (via tineye)

No doubt, the robust activity of socialist worker organizations and secret communist societies in Paris of 1843, were as large a draw for Marx, as the job offer waiting there for him as a journal editor. The radical lawyer, Étienne Cabet, a utopian socialist, and the former Cote d’Or representative to the Chamber of Deputies, was there. Cabet had just returned from a five-year exile to England after being banished for his outspoken criticisms of the Louis-Philippe government. The even more radical, and anti-clerical, Théodore Dézamy was in Paris too, having just published in 1842 what historians Sirot, Cordillot,  Lemarquis, and Pennetierin, have called “the most advanced theoretical work of French communism of the period”.

It was in Paris that Marx would meet and initially befriend leading anarchists Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin. While all three shared a vehement distaste for capitalism, the anarchist position had equal disdain for democracy. This would prove to be a major stumbling block to their friendships, as democracy was a pillar of Marx’s socialism from below. Ultimately Marx would have tempestuous, and then adversarial relations with both men.

Their inevitable conflicts were indicative of the competition and rivalries which were common among leftists of the 1800’s. They battled on another for the type of change to implemented, for the loyalty of followers, and just as likely, they fought due to the hubris which dictated their desire to lead. Historian Ann Robertson wrote of the later Marx-Bakunin conflict, “As co-members of the International Working Men’s Association, they seem to have devoted as much energy battling one another as their common enemy, the capitalist system, culminating in Marx’s successful campaign to expel Bakunin from the organization” (2003). But this was to come later, long after Paris.

The “grinding poverty” of Paris

This level of socialist activism in Paris was in direct response to what Louis Patsouras describes as the “grinding poverty” which existed there. Within the city walls, there was a permanent force of “the unemployed”, which in 1842 numbered 150,000, men, women, and children (Sirot, Cordillot,  Lemarquis & Pennetierin, undated). Marx refers to this massive number of what might have bee a potential workforce as the “industrial reserve army”, whose existence, claimed Marx, put a downward pressure on wages (Marx, Kapital Vol. 1, 1867). 

Child laborers from the movie Oliver Twist, 2005
Child laborers from the movie Oliver Twist, 2005

But at best, this “reserve army” an unfit workforce, rendered physically weak by the squalid conditions and inadequate food available to unemployed French of working age. As a measure of this, ninety percent military-age men who applied to join the French Army were unable to pass its physical entrance exams (Patsouras 2005).

Urban crime in the 19th century was exceptionally high, with an estimated ten percent of the population resorting to criminality. Crime’s economic stablemate, prostitution, employed 50,000 women in Paris alone (Patsouras 2005). At that time, an estimated one-third of all children were illegitimate (Patsouras 2005, cites Langer 1969) indicating a breakdown of the family unit within a city 940,000. Sewage and water systems did not exist until Paris was rebuilt in the 1860’s, and human waste was thrown into the street to be collected. Cholera and other infectious diseases took their toll on these working and non-working classes, with 18,400 dying in Paris during the cholera outbreak of 1832. Indicating the breadth of class division, infant mortality in among the working class and the unemployed was twice that of the upper classes (Patsouras 2005).

marx and englesIt is against this backdrop that Marx worked as the editor of Vorwärts!, a Paris-based, German language, communist paper, where Marx established his idea that “class consciousness” was the “fertilizer” of revolution (Wheen 2008). His time in Paris came to an end when the Prussian government insisted the French authorities shut down Vorwärts! and once again expel Marx.  King Louis-Philippe’s interior minister, François Guizot, a conservative-liberal, was only too happy to comply. While it was ultimately inconsequential that Marx should leave Paris, as French radicals were largely not responding to, or even aware of his work (Chretien 2013), Marx clearly harbors some resentment toward them, as made evident by the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto, which was printed in 1848.

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”


False revolutionaries

The Peasant War-Assembling Constantin Meunier -1875
The Peasant War-Assembling Constantin Meunier, 1875

To the Marxist, the many peasant and worker uprisings of this period of French history (1775, 1789, 1815, 1830, 1832, 1848, and most fatefully, the Paris commune of 1871) well-illustrated that desperate, angry people could, and did repeatedly take to defensive barricades. To those who witnessed these grim times (particularly in England), Marx was a reassuring voice, that at some point, the capitalist-industrial age, and the oppression would be over. Marx envisioned that, as capitalism collapsed under its own negligence and illegitimacy, it would be replaced by shared-worker responsibility. In turn, each man would gain an equitable share in the rewards of their labor. He, like others, adopted a word that  (John) Goodwyn Barmby, a utopian-socialist, claimed to have coined in 1840: “communism”.

The peasant uprisings of 1789, which may have been confused as “revolutionary” acts at the time, were short-lived and in retrospect, seemingly apolitical. This was a major stumbling block for Marxist ideology, which had to be explained. James Blaut, an American social anthropologist,  wrote (undated) that during Engels’ flight across France following the February Revolution 1848 and the abdication of King Louis-Philippe, that Engels “bitterly, bitterly, denounces the peasants in the regions he went through for not supporting the revolutionary process.”

Marx was ultimately forced to address the lack of revolutionary spirit among the peasantry and was conclusory when he would famously write: “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented” (Marx The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte part VII, 1852). Marx reasons within that text, that the act of agricultural production in itself presented an insurmountable isolation for the peasantry. The peasantry simply could not develop a larger, shared, social (class) consciousness. His frustration and ultimate resignation to this fact is on display, with this backhanded comparison of both peasantry and France to a sack of potatoes.

“A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant, and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.” Karl Marx, 1852

Executed National Guards following the communard surrender of Paris 1871
Executed National Guards following the communard surrender of Paris 18

Next Up: dominant schools of thought: the historians

References for Part 3 (series)

  1. The Splendid Duchy Allen Percy, 1872
  2. The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-century History and Theory. edited by Anna Green, Kathleen Troup, Manchester University Press, 1999
  3. Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography Francis Wheen, Grove Press, 2008
  4. Marx in ContextLouis Patsouras iUniverse, 2005

  5. The Philosophical Roots of the Marx-Bakunin Conflict, Ann Robertson, What’s Next, 2003
  6. The German Ideology Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook, Idealism and Materialism, Karl Marx, 1845
  7. The Revolutionary Role of the Peasants, Nigel Harris,  Debate, International Socialism (1st series), No.41,December 1969
  8. Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, By Karl Marx, Loyd David Easton, Kurt H. Guddat, Hackett Publishing, 1997
  9. The poverty of Proudhon’s anarchism, Todd Chretien, socialistworker.org, 2013

  10. Ethics Volume II, Henry Epps, Lulu.com, undated
  11. Chronologie indicative de l’histoire du mouvement ouvrier français, de 1789 à 1863, Stéphane Sirot, Michel Cordillot, René Lemarquis & Claude Pennetier, biosoc.univ-paris (undated)

  12. Language and PoliticsNoam Chomsky, AK Press, 2004
  13. “New” Socialist Ideas in the 1848 Revolution, David M. Hart, professor George Mason University, blog, 2014
  14. Socialism: Collectivist Solutions, Gregory Brown, UNLV, undated
  15. The History Guide, Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History, Steven Kreis, historyguide.org, 2000, 2008
  16. Socialism From Below, David McNally, International Socialists, Canada, 1984
  17. Logics of History, Social Theory and Social Transformation, William Sewell Jr., University of Chicago Press, 2005
  18. The Contemporary Review, Volume 41   Alexander Strahan, Isbister and Company L, 1882
  19. The income inequality of France in historical perspective, European Review of Economic History, Christian Morrison and Wayne Snyder, Cambridge University Press, 2000
  20. The Abolition of Feudalism in France, H.E. Bourne, Historical Outlook: A Journal for Readers, Students and Teachers …, Volume 10, McKinley Publishing Company, 1919
  21. The Remaking of France: The National Assembly and the Constitution of 1791Michael P. Fitzsimmons, Cambridge University Press, May 9, 2002
  22. What do people die of during famines: the Great Irish Famine in comparative perspective, Mokyr,  Cormac,  Ó grada, European Review of Economic History, 2002
  23. Peasantry and Society in France Since 1789, Annie Moulin,Cambridge University Press, 1991
  24. French Rural History (Routledge Revivals): An Essay on its Basic Characteristics, Marc Bloch, Routledge 2015
  25. The unique decline of mortality in revolutionary France, PubMed.gov
  26. Histoire et mémoire des immigrations en région Bourgogne, Pierre-Jacques Derainne, Université de Bourgogne, 2006
  27. The Little Ice Age in Europe, Proffessor Scott Mandia, Sunnyfolk Community College
  28. Great Historical Events that were Significantly Affected by the Weather: Part 9, the year leading to the Revolution of 1789 in France (II), J. Neumann & J. Dettwiller, The American Meteorological Society, 1990
  29. Rising Life Expectancy: A Global History, James C. Riley, Cambridge University Press, 2001
  30. Life expectancy infant mortality, Peter Lindert, UC Davis, 2007
  31. Liszt as Prophet: Religion, Politics, and Artists in 1830s Paris, Andrew Haringer, Columbia University, 2012
  32. City-Farm Wage Gaps in Late Nineteenth-Century France, Pierre Sicsic The Journal of Economic History Vol. 52, No. 3,  1992
  33. Why Did Fertility Decline? An Analysis of the Individual Level Economic Correlates of the Nineteenth Century Fertility Transition in England and France, Neil James Cummins
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  38. The Economic Crisis of 1827-1832 and the 1830 Revolution in Provincial France, Pamela Pilbeam, The Historical Journal #32
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Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy Part 4.3 Erosion and Rills: Studies in Vosne-Romanée and Monthélie

Erosion in Vosne Romanee

In the water’s path

Erosion comes in two forms: the seen and the unseen.

Rill erosion is the most obvious form of erosion and typically occurs in heavier downpours of more than 30 mm (1.2 inches) over a 24 hour period. They begin in spots where soil aggregates are weakened, and will collapse with weight and friction of the water above it, forming the aqueduct-like channels into which the runoff will funnel. Rills often generate in flow zones,  gathers in the depressions between rows. Here water can consolidate, growing in volume and velocity as moves with increasing rapidity down the hillside. With the water growing in mass and speed, larger and larger soil particles are pulled with it, releasing from both the bottom and sides of the rill, developing their typically U-shaped trough. As rills go unrepaired, they can grow substantially,  that can be difficult to control, if measures are not already in place to prevent them.

Sheet erosion (aka surface erosion) is a precursor to, and happens simultaneously with, rill erosion. In this case, rainwater runoff moves in sheets across the surface of the vineyard, but between and through the vines in places where rills won’t, or have not yet, formed. Surface runoff has a less concentrated volume of water than the runoff that travels through rills, so it yields a lower speeds and less velocity. Because of this limited velocity, the water of surface runoff is capable of carrying particles with a lower suspension velocity than rills are capable. These may include sands, but unless the downpour was heavy, would primarily include clays and silts. In less intense storms (< 20mm) surface runoff can cause sheet erosion, but these actions are considered slightly erosive, typically transporting finer materials in weak aggregates. From year to year, soil loss to sheet erosion goes largely unnoticed as the topsoil loss directly beneath the vines disappears down the hillside forever.

  • For an explanation of erosional factors and concepts click here for part 4.2
  • For history of erosion and vineyard restoration in Burgundy click here for Part 4.1
  • For the history of erosion and man in Burgundy click here for Part 4.


2006 Study of erosion in Vosne-Romanée, Aloxe-Corton, and Monthélie

Two sibling studies, preformed by the same research team, illustrates very well the processes of erosion (detailed in part 4.2), and how it affects the wine we drink. These are multi-discipline studies by conducted by the team of Amélie Quiquerez, Jean-Pierre Garcia, and Christophe Petit from the Université de Bourgogne, and Jérôme Brenot from Géosciences Université de Rennes.

The first of the two studies was published in the Bolletino della Società Geologica Italiania 2006, with contributions by Philippe Davy, Université de Rennes. Entitled “Soil erosion rates in Burgundian vineyards (link).” It examined the erosion rates in the villages of Vosne-Romanée, Aloxe-Corton, and Monthélie. I highly encourage you to look at these important studies to get their analysis, which in some ways is limited by the rigors of science which require the researcher to prove what they already know to be true. My overview of the information revealed by their study applies my own perspective and insights.

The researchers selected three steep, upper-hillside vineyards from which to gather data, all which carried essentially the same average grade, with a mean of 10.5% for Vosne and Aloxe-Corton, with Monthelie the steepest, with a mean slope of 10.7%.  Additional selection criteria were all three were they must meet these three (very traditional Burgundian) vineyard practices.

  1. The rows ran vertically down the hillside.
  2. None of the plots were allowed to have grass grow between the vines.
  3. Frequent plowing or tractor crossings (up to 15 times per year)

However, I note two marked differences between the vineyards. 

  1. How much the slope changed within the plot boundaries.
  2. The length of the slope. 
Vosne Damodes
Vosne Damaudes photo: google earth

The study’s most uniform slope was a vineyard in Vosne, with a fairly consistent 10% to 12% grade. It also had, by far, the longest slope studied, at 130 meters.(1)  This longer slope length, one might expect, would allow water to gain volume, speed, and velocity. These three factors all increase the runoff’s ability to carry larger and heavier particles with higher suspension velocities. Conversely, it was the only slope studied which had a murger (stone wall) at its base, slowing the runoff enough to allow sedimentation to occur, and it would appear to be the only plot with a level spot for sedimentation to rest. 

Although unnamed by the study’s author, I have concluded this vineyard is Les Damaudes on the Nuit-St-Georges border. Clues to its identity include a maximum elevation of 345 meters – the highest in Vosne, and uniform slope of 10-12%. Identifying the parcel location is possible as well, as only one location in Les Damaudes is long enough to fit the 130-meter plot length of this study. When subtracting in the dirt roads at the top and bottom of the vineyard, which are natural erosional breaks, the total length is 126 meters. This vineyard was studied in-depth, over a multi-year period, and spawned the two studies I will detail in this article.

The vineyard in Aloxe-Corton may contain a significantly steeper section than the vineyard in Vosne, with a 17% grade, but overall the Aloxe-Corton vineyard had the same average gradient as the plot in Vosne, at 10.5%. This indicates that part of that vineyard had to contain no more than a 5% grade. Additionally, this vineyard was the shortest plot at 53 meters, meaning as long as fast-moving runoff could not enter the plot freely from above, runoff should not be able to attain the same velocity as it might in Vosne. Because of this, we might anticipate erosion lower erosional levels. There is no specific information that might allow us to identify this vineyard. And while the author Jérôme Brenot included a photo and a brief reference to the grand cru vineyard of en Charlemagne (regarding rill erosion down to the limestone bedrock), the lieu-dits  of en Charlemagne is in neighboring PernandVergelesses, not Aloxe-Corton

Monthelie Clou du Chenes
The section of Monthélie studied is snug against the Volnay border. Here in 2012, some grass is now being allowed to grow between the vines. The vineyard above, La Pièce-Fitte, has one plot that is in pretty poor shape, with gaps between vines, and rills that because of the slight off camber row orientation cut right up against the vines, rather than directly between the rows. photo: googlemaps click to enlarge

The slope in the study with the steepest section, by far, was in Monthélie. The plot there reaches a maximum pitch of 24.5%, but the average gradient is only slightly greater at 10.7%, which again indicates much of the vineyard is gentile in its declivity. This vineyard, which would become a 1er cru shortly after the study was published, is the vineyard of Le Clou des Chênes,(2) and this parcel appears to share a border with Volnay’s ez Blanches vineyard. The study measured nearly twice the plot-wide erosion at 1.7 mm (± 0.5 mm year) as they did in either Vosne or Aloxe-Corton. However, in some locations within Le Clou des Chênes had far greater erosional levels: measuring as deep as 8.2 mm (± 0.5 mm) per year.

Notable is that the time under vine is much shorter, having been planted 32 years before the study. This makes the losses all the more alarming for these steeper slopes because the knowledge of how to resist erosion has improved so dramatically in the past twenty years.  

Data collection and methodology

This much erosion surely has had a tremendous influence on the character of the wines produced from these vines.
This much erosion surely has had a tremendous influence on the character of the wines produced from these vines.

Determining these numbers involved a massive data collection effort, imputing vine measurements on a meter by meter scale. With 10,000 plants planted per hectare, this translates into thousands of data points are required to arrive at the final calculations.

Soil loss was determined by measuring the exposed main framework roots from the current soil level to the point of the graft cut. The graft is typically made 1 cm above the soil level at the time of planting, and with this measurement original soil level at the time of planting can be established (NEBOIT, 1983; GALET, 1993). By dividing this measurement by the number of years since planting, a relatively accurate average rate of erosion can be established. This method of using plants to give a historical record is called dendrogeomorphology, which is a geologic adaptation of dendrochronology, the study of trees and plants to determine the historical climatic record.

An unequal field of study

Photo: Jérôme Brenot et al
Photo: Jérôme Brenot et al

In the end, there was a single factor that differentiated these study vineyards: the road and the stone wall below the Les Damaudes vineyard in Vosne. Because of this road and wall, it also was the only vineyard that had an area at the base of the slope that was able to retain alluvial sediment. This proved to be an important last gasp defense regarding soil loss and allowed that sediment to be returned to the slope. With this material, workers could fill the rills in Vosne, that would grow into gullies down to the base rock in Aloxe-Corton and Monthélie.

The return of the sediment to fill the rills was preformed bi-annually in the Les Damaudes parcel. However, the owners of this vineyard were lucky rather than preventative. The wall was built as the headwall of the small clos that surrounds the vineyard below, and the access road that runs between the vineyards proved to provide the necessary flat collection area for the alluvium.

Inexplicably, the author chose to simply say that in Monthélie, the practice of returning  soil to the hillside had never been done, whereas in Vosne it had been practiced every two years. Strictly speaking this was true.  However when looking at satellite images of the vineyard, this statement appears somewhat disingenuous. In reality, the decision to plant the entire area Le Clou des Chênes in long rows without any roadways or other vineyard breaks, when coupled with the  parcel’s physical position on the hill, created a highly erodible vineyard in which no level “toe of the slope upon which might sediment gather. Returning sediment, that doesn’t exist, to the hillside is simply not possible. That does not excuse the vineyard owner from not removing vines to build a walls or taking other erosion prevention measures, but it also gives and indirectly assigns blame for this lack vineyard maintenance. The Aloxe-Corton parcel (where ever it was) is not mentioned as the owners never having returned alluvial sediment to the hillside, although this was apparently the case.

In 2006, the researchers took the adjacent photograph of Le Clou des Chênes, showing that rills had developed into gullies due to the lack of effective intervention by the grower. They also included photo looking up towards the Bois de Corton (which I have not included), with a rill/gully that extends down to the raw limestone base rock below.  In each photo, the vines roots can be clearly seen, having been exposed by the continuing erosion of these gullies. 

Study design: did the study reveal unexpected results?

In some ways, the wall below the parcel in Vosne was problematic to the study. The stone wall, and ability the return of the sediment by the grower directly impacted the amount of erosion recorded. The study’s author reports this in the write-up as: “by a factor of two”.  It not clear that the researchers anticipated this would be such a weighty factor when they formulated the study, since the focus of the study did not seem to take into account the effectiveness of wall in diminishing erosional forces. However the effect of the wall and the “anthropogenic factors” (meaning in these studies: the actions by man of returning the sediment to the hillside) certainly did have a dramatic effect on reducing the total soil lost, and the authors rightly took the opportunity to underscore the roll and value of murgers and clos as a primitive, but effective form of erosion control. (4)

But because of the wall (and the author’s eventual focus on it), other opportunities were lost. Since Les Damaudes in Vosne possessed the longest slope which also had the most consistent gradient, knowing how those factors affected erosion would have been instructional.  Had the erosion measurements been made before the anthropogenic resupply of the sediment to the slope, this information might have been gained. But since the measurements were taken after the rills were filled, ascertaining the impact of degree of slope and the length of the run can not be readily determined if the Vosne parcel is included in the analysis.

Further analysis of  meter by meter grid data, might answer some of these questions surrounding how much erosion is affected by increasing slope gradient and increasing slope length. Here the shorter Aloxe vineyard could have been compared to the top 53 meters of the steeper Monthélie vineyard. What were the erosional differences within these sections? What was the difference between erosion between the upper slopes and the lower slopes of the vineyards. Could these differences have been attributed to gradient or soil type? What were the soils left behind in the inter rows? Were they significantly different to the soils directly under the vines where the soil is more protected from rain strike and rill erosion? Then, if the full length of the Aloxe vineyard could be included, would there be greater erosion on the steeper sections where gravity has more effect? What about on the lower sections of the plot where increase water volume, speed and velocity might be expected to increase? It does not appear that these questions were asked by the study’s researchers in 2006.

It would be interesting if the data still exists and can be analyzed to examine those questions as well. It certainly would shed a more quantitative light on erosional forces on Burgundian hillside vineyards.

Study’s Opinion

In the opinion of the study, while in the short-term, erosion didn’t affect the vines production as long as the root system was not exposed, over time, the overall surface soil level declined despite the best efforts in Vosne to return the alluvial sediment to the hillside. At the time of the study, the most alarmed of growers had begun been attempting to restrict erosion by allowing grasses to grow between rows, shortening the length of rows and rebuilding walls. The authors suggest these processes be applied to all hillside vineyards.

The study of a single rain event in Vosne-Romanée

The second study released by this team in 2007 is far more detailed, focusing solely on the Damaudes vineyard. Entitled,Soil degradation caused by a high-intensity rainfall event (3) the paper details soil loss related to a single storm on June 11, 2004. This study is much more focused and is far more precise and instructional in its findings.

Vosne Damaudes erosion study
Click to enlarge.

The study’s centers on the erosional path, volume, and sediment type, as well as the net erosion levels measured in the vineyard after workers had returned sediment to the hillside, post-storm.

Soil analysis of the plot

The soils native to the vineyard are within this description from the text of the study. The prose is tight and dense so I will quote the author, Emmanuel Chevigny, here.

“The texture is rather homogeneous over the whole plot and is composed of 40% of clays and silts, 50% of gravels (2 mm to 10 mm) and a low sand and boulder content. The topsoils are ploughed (Mériaux et al., 1981). The argillaceous aggregates with polyhedral blunted to grained form are slightly structured. No pedogenetic segregation has been observed.”

The soil, as described, is a marl, with what I would think has a surprisingly high clay content for being this high on the slope. A better breakdown of clay and silt would be informative, because (as detailed in Part 2.1  and 2.2 regarding soil formation), clay is metamorphosed from limestone and other materials, and very fine in size, while silt is larger (between 0.0039 to 0.0625 mm), and not metamorphosed. Silts are often parented from quartz, which unlike limestone is not prone to chemical alteration, and thus will not produce clay minerals. The origin of this silt must have been transported from farther up-slope, having arrived in Les Damaudes through erosion.

The vineyard’s soil has a low sand content.

The author then writes about argillaceous aggregates, which are clay aggregates. In this sentence, they are writing about the type of soil structure found in the vineyard. Clays tend to form into blocky structures, where each clay units sides is the same shape or a cast of the aggregate next to it. In other words, when the blocky structures form, they are literally cast so that they fit together like a puzzle. Here he is saying that the edges of these casts of the aggregates have been blunted making them more grain like.  There is a soil type, classified as granular (grain-like), that is common to soils in grasslands with a high organic content, and Chevigny is clearly saying these are not granular soils.

Lastly, Chevigny notes that the researchers observed no pedogenetic segregation, meaning they could observe no identifiable soil creation nor the beginnings of soil horizons (sedimentary layering). This would lack of soil generation could be caused, in part, by plowing which disrupts soil horizons and encourages the erosion of weak young soils that have not developed into stronger aggregates. More on the concept of what soil is and pedogenesis later.

The gravel, or scree, which constitutes 45 percent of the vineyard’s soil makeup, (by definition) has slid into the vineyard by gravitational erosion, from higher on the hill. With the clearing of land and subsequent planting of the vines, this gravel has long ago been plowed into the clay-silt mixture. It is never mentioned by the study author, whether the scree is primarily limestone or not. Limestone is not a factor for these researchers, the particle size is squarely considered to be the issue.

By the numbers

While study revolves around the analysis of a tremendous amount of numerical data, to examine each piece of analysis is beyond the scope of this article, but their findings are none-the-less important and tells the story of erosion within a Burgundian vineyard very well. Below I’ve listed what I see as the most important changes to the hillside following this particularly heavy storm system:

  • Both rill and sheet erosion occurred, but rill erosion accounted for approximately 70% of all soil lost from the hillside.
  • A total of 13 rill erosion were noted, some forming a mere 30 meters from the upper plot boundary, that ran in straight lines down the slope, each time in the inter-rows.
  • Rills occurred across 59% of the inter-row area
  • The rills were U-shaped with strong vertical walls.
  • Estimated soil loss from the rills alone was 4.77 meters
  • A rill erosion for this rain event is estimated at 7.8 cubic meters (.275.5 cubic feet) and weighing roughly 6 metric tons (13,227 lbs)
  • An estimated 1.6 meters erosional material was deposited into 7 alluvial fans at the base of the plot.
  • The sedimentary fans consisted primarily of very fine sand to coarse sand that was between 63 μm (roughly the thickness of paper) to >2 mm. Only 10% of the fan sediment was silt clay fractions of less than 63 μm
  • Fan #4 had a total sediment area one-half of a meter cubed (.5m3).
  • The two rills that fed fan #4 had a total eroded area of .93m3  *
  • If 10% of the rill volume is sand, then 70 percent of the fan debris came from the rills while a remaining 30% must have come from surface erosion which fed into the rills and were deposited into the fans.
  • Topographic soil loss in inter-rows with rills was 3.9 mm, or 48 metric tons per hectare (105,800 lbs)  even after anthropogenic resupply of fan sediment to the hillside.
  • Mean (average) soil in non-rill effected vineyard area, was 1.4 mm, or 24 metric tons per hectare (52,900 lbs)

*1 cubic meter is equal to 1000 liters, or 6.29 oil barrels or 264 U.S. fluid gallons.

Storm size and frequency

Annual rainfall in the  Côte de Nuits is between 700 and 900 mm (27 inches to 34.4 inches) per year writes Chevigny, citing the Météo France weather service’s Atlas climatique de la Côte dOr 1994.*  The study also cites that storms with rainfall of more than 30 mm per day, occurred 10 times between 1991 and 2002. Nine of these rain event dropped between 30 and 50 mm, (1.1 inches to 2 inches) and a single storm dropped 63 mm (2.5 inches) of rain water per event/day. Based on this, we might expect that there have been 50 such events between planting and the 2006 study.

The storm event of June 11, 2004, was uniquely powerful because 40 mm fell in a two-hour period, which caused causing 3 times the annual erosion rate established by the 2006 study of 1 mm per year. Perhaps most importantly, the erosion of this single event is averaged into that 54 year period. This indicates that some years little erosion occurred. Because the study only includes storm records from 1991-2002, we can’t estimate the distribution of erosion over the span of these 54 years.

With global warming, storm intensity seems to be on the upswing in Burgundy, just as scientists have noted in other parts of the world. The severe hail events of 2012, 2013 and 2014, which centered over the hapless villages Pommard and Volnay, resulted in total crop loss for some growers.  In the Côte de Beaune, where precipitation and hail has recently been at its most extreme, has also been remarkably varied in its distribution. According to Jancis Robinson, in July of 2013, Volnay saw 57mm of rain (2.25 inches), while neighboring Monthelie only got 9.4mm. Needless to say, with this high degree of weather localization, these data figures are representative of the rainfall collection points only. There were likely areas of Monthelie that got much more rain, and areas Volnay that got much less rain than the data collection sites.  The massive storms of late November 2014 that saw 200-300 mm of rainfall along the Mediterranean coastline and into Austria, the Dijon saw 95 mm of rainfall over a 24 hour period. So, in terms of storms, it would appear that while the Côte d’Or gets regular, low volume rain events, it is by and large, relatively protected from major storm fronts.

*Current monthly statistics are can be found here, and the average rainfall in Dijon as of 2015 is 775 mm (30 inches) per year.

The sediment at the “toe of the slope” 

When examining sediment in the alluvial fans, researchers discovered that it was made up of 90% sand and 10% fine sediment. Fan number four, on which researchers focused their examination, contained nearly one meter of alluvial material. The fact that it contained little silt or clay, indicates that when the water became backed up at the stone wall, its movement did not slow enough for particles smaller than 63 μm (which includes all clays and silts) to fall out of suspension. This suggests there was a significant depth of water Then as the runoff began to gather enough volume to circumvent the murger, and continue downslope, it gained sufficient speed and velocity to quickly form rills in its path around the wall. The runoff carried virtually all particles smaller than fine sand out of the vineyard.

Study inconsistencies, and outdated or generic source material

Between the two articles, the explanation of soil and bedrock type differs. It is not clear why the authors of both studies would quote articles that are 35 to 45 years old, and that generic to the region rather than performing a shallow excavation themselves, in order to obtain information specific to that vineyard.

“The slopes are composed of Middle to Upper Jurassic limestones and marls (Mériaux et al, 1981) …“For example, the sandy-clayey screes (grèze litée) reach 3 meters on Comblanchien limestones in Vosne-Romanée.

In the second study they write:

“The hillslopes develop on Middle to Upper Jurassic limestones and marls, and are covered by colluvium soils of argillaceous-gravelly nature and formed by Weichselian cryoclastic deposits (grèze litées) reaching up to 3 m thick (Journaux, 1976).”

Writing of Comblanchien as a class of limestones is a red flag, as it is distinctly a singular type of limestone. Adding to the confusion is the soil percentages that at first appear to be attributed to the vineyard, are actually from the 1981 Mériaux et al study and generic to the  Côte d’Or. Later in the study, the percentage of sand is increased to >20% (from 10% sand and larger stones). 50% gravel content in the vineyard, which is cited in early in the text, is reduced to 45% later in the study write-up.


Computer modeling projects grain-size transition 

Computer projections of grain size changes after each major storm event.
Computer projections of grain size change after each major storm event. Click to enlarge

Because the researchers must begin their work with the soil percentages they observe, this 45% gravel, 40% clay/silt and 15% sand, was their starting point. It was quickly recognized that outgo of clay minerals, coupled with the simultaneous retention of sand would eventually change the vineyard make-up, so they developed a computer program to predict future changes in grain size distribution of the soil composition. Computer models showed after only 4-5 rain events of similar magnitude as the one in 2004, there would be significant changes to the soil makeup. The results of those projections are to the right.

Chevigny encapsulates their findings with this statement.

“…the results of our simulation clearly show that repeated rainfall events modify significantly and very rapidly surface soil grain-size distribution: after only a few events, the top soil has lost more than 30% of its fine material.”

The ultimate effect of this would be the loss of organic materials, nutrients and ultimately soil sustainability.

Study conclusion: vineyard practices enhance rill development and erosion

While the wall slows the net output of soil volume from exiting the plot, the most soils most viable for farming are being lost, while simultaneously, the soil texture and particle size are being irrevocably changed as the sand sediment is returned to the hillside, and disked back into the soil.

It is forwarded by the author, that this action, is part of the problem since rills continue to re-emerge in the same locations, year after year. They submit that ill propagation in the inter-rows is heightened by tilling and repeated passes tractors and foot traffic, and the regularity of rill spacing are evidence of this.  These practices, he writes causes decreased soil porosity (compaction) and restricts rainwater infiltration. Such wheeled ‘passage’ creates flow zones which increase the volume and velocity of runoff in a concentrated area, multiplying the quantity and size of material the runoff can carry. The evidence of these anthropologically created flow zones is the re-emergence of rills that return, repeatedly, in the same inter-rows, despite workers attempts to eliminate them by filling the rills and disking those areas.

It is clear the effort must be made to properly identify the flow zones and attempt to eliminate them but to do so is to understand their formation to begin with, and limit or eliminate that activity altogether.

For me, the results of the computer modeling and projections are not surprising. While this research team and Burgundian winemakers can only look forward to what is next, we have the opportunity to use this information to hypothesize what came before.  This will allow us to see the true arc of geomorphological progression in the vineyards, and thus how winemaking styles have and will continue to change in Burgundy.

Next UP:  Turning our understanding of the limestone Côte on its head




(1)  Vineyards typically are areas with no breaks or obstacles to slow or impede storm runoff, so longer vineyards tend to suffer more greatly from erosion. However, this was not identified as an erosional factor in the study write-up. The length of this Vosne vineyard was listed in the first study at 130 meters, while in the second study it was written as 126 meters.

(2)  Le Clou des Chênes’ increased prestige and vineyard value can be a tremendous incentive to better maintain a vineyard. The vines and vineyard appeared to be in good health in 2012, the last time googlemaps car drove up this stretch of road. Still, no murgers had been built as of that time.

(3) published by Emmanuel Chevigny of the Université de Bourgogne in 2007

Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy: Part 4.2 Erosion: fundamentally changing terroir

Erosion banner



Erosion is constantly changing the terroir of Burgundy, and in turn, it is altering the weight and character of the wines from virtually every vineyard on the Côte. How significant is erosion in Burgundy today? As mentioned in Part 4.1, a study during the late 1990’s measured the soil loss in unspecified vineyards of Vosne-Romanée to be 1 mm per year, and the same erosional levels were measured off of the vineyards of Aloxe-Corton.  Ath that alarming rate, losses over the next century would have averaged 10 centimeters or almost 4 inches of topsoil if corrections were not taken. On the even steeper slopes of Monthelie, a study measured almost twice the erosion at 1.7 mm (± 0.5 mm year), with sections of the vineyard which measured a shocking eroded up to 8.2 mm (± 0.5 mm) erosional rate. Luckily, many growers have improved their farming practices, particularly since 2010, and these figures should be lower today. Only future studies can tell us what improvement has been made.

The grape harvest Annonymous 16th century, Southern Holland
“The grape harvest” Anonymous 16th century, Southern Holland

For centuries the solution for this problem was to bring in soil from outside areas to replace what was lost on the slopes of the Côte d’Or. However, in the name of terroir, this is no longer allowed. Current law allows growers to redistribute only the alluvium that comes to rest within appellation boundaries. One can imagine that the laborious process of shoveling out the alluvium from the toe of the plot and redistributing higher in the vineyard is a yearly chore. What earth escapes the appellation lines however, is gone to that appellation forever.

The intention of preserving the purity Burgundy’s unique terroir by forbidding introduction of exogenous soils is somewhat paradoxical, since it is only attempting to preserve the terroir à la minute. While in reality it is ultimately is failing at that – due to erosion. 

A positive, unintended consequence of this inability to replace soil is that growers have finally realized that soil conservation is now more critical than any time in Burgundies’ 1500+ year-old viticultural history. They now know that they must fully understand the factors of soil structure and erosion, while at a municipal level, their villages must invest in effective storm water management; both of which are in various states of development or improvement. 

The long uninterrupted run of vertically oriented rows presents unrelenting erosional pressures on this section of Les Folatieres.
The long uninterrupted run of vertically oriented rows presents unrelenting erosional pressures on this section of Les Folatières. photo googlemaps

While the best modern practices are stemming the tide of erosion, vineyards still can be threatened. Even great vineyards on the mid-slope, like Les Folatières in Puligny-Montrachet, which have long, open stretches of vines without significant breaks in planting, are prone to extensive erosion. While soils are depleted not only in terms of depth, they are changing in terms of particle size and makeup. Erosion most easily targets fine earth fractions, detaching them from their aggregate groupings, and sending them into vineyards farther down slope. Light to medium runoff acts like a sieve, carrying away only the smallest particles, leaving behind material with of larger particles sizes. This in a very real way changes the vineyard’s terroir, and in turn, the wines that are grown there. Wines from vineyards that retain only course soils of large particle size (1) tend to produce wines with less fruit the and less weight, and by consequence revealing a more structured, minerally character.

Even more critical is that soil loss can threaten the vitality and health of the vines, as the soil is literally carried away from beneath them. A vine’s main framework roots is said to require a minimum 11-13 inches to anchor itself to the earth and survive. The problem arises when a section of vineyard does not have extensive fracturing, and the soil level begins to drop below that one foot level. To address this, various growers have responded by “reconditioning” their land. By using a back hoe to break up the limestone below, this can give new vines planted there the living space so the vineyard can continue. Does this change the terroir and the future wine more than inputs of exogenous soil? I should think the answer is yes, significantly. 


Rainfall and rain strike: the first stage of erosion

rainstrike. photo: agronomy.lsu.edu/
rainstrike. photo: agronomy.lsu.edu/

Rainfall is measured by its size and velocity. A raindrop from a drizzle is typically .5 mm in size, and has a terminal velocity (the maximum speed the drop can reach) of 2 meters per second, or 4.5 miles per hour, in still air. The speed it falls, with no assistance from the wind is determined by its ratio of mass to drag. Large raindrops of 5 mm, have more mass in relationship to its drag and accelerate to 9 meters per second, or 20 mph.

Rainfall, meaning the actual physical strike of each drop, can break down soil aggregates (fine sand,  silt clay, and organic materials) and disperse them. Splash erosion has been recorded to drive particles of earth up to 60 cm into the air, and 1.5 m from its point of origin.

Once their limited bonds are broken, the ensuing runoff can carry these materials downslope. Runoff, the most obvious form of erosion, occurs when rainwater cannot infiltrate the soil quickly enough, and exacerbated by the lack of cover crop, lack of organic material, lack of soil structure and negative effects of soil compaction. Of course, this process is most noticeable during high-intensity rainstorms, the amount of soil lost during longer but low-intensity rainfall can be significant. This slower erosion can go largely unnoticed until most of the productive topsoil has been removed by what is referred to as sheet erosion.

Seasonal protection from rainstrike

Compared to most growing regions, the Côte d’Or has a very wet growing season. Storms during this period can bring irregular and unpredictable rain events that can be heavy and long in duration. The winds during harvest tend to be westerly, with warm humid winds bringing rain first over the Hautes Côtes, then to the Côte d’Or, then out across the Saône Valley. The wet warm humid conditions often encourage powdery mildew in the wake of the storms, so there is a tendency to want to prune to open up the canopy for ventilation to prevent mildew. However, the vine canopy can provide significant protection against rainfall strike, depending of course, on the orientation the rows and the of the wind direction. So good canopy coverage for the period that half of the precipitation occurs (April – September)(2) is beneficial in terms of protection from erosion.

As winter arrives, the vines will have lost their foliage, exposing the soil directly for the entire winter and spring to whatever nature has in store.

Rain Rate

Summer storms. Bottom right Photograph: Louise Flanagan theGuardian.com, Bottom left photo Caroline Parent-Gros of A.F. Gros, Top photo Decanter.com

Rainfall is typically measured in millimeters per hour, with a light rainfall slightly tipping the scales at up to 2.5 mm per hour or less than a tenth of an inch per hour. Moderate rainfall is considered to be from 2.5 mm per hour to 10 mm per hour. A heavy rainfall falls between the range of 10 to 50 mm, and a violent rainfall is above 50 mm per hour.


Light rain – drizzle 2.5 mm per hour with a terminal velocity of 2 meters per second

Moderate rain 2.5 mm per hour to 10 mm per hour

Heavy Rain  10 mm per hour to 50 mm per hour

Violent rain, above 50 mm per hour


Good soil structure resists damage from rainstrike and runoff

Good soil structure is the result of the binding of soil into clumps of both small and larger aggregates, meaning sections of soil will bind more strongly together, than those next to them. This allows the soil to maintain the necessary small and large pore spacing, which allows water, air and nutrient infiltration and movement through the soil. Larger amounts of older, more stable organic matter tend to strengthen soil aggregates so any farming practice that increases organic matter, and the subsequent microbiological activity will result in healthier soils.  Stable soil aggregates allow the soil to resist disintegration due rain strike and thusly helps deter erosion.  It also encourages root penetration by creating weak spots between aggregate masses.

Conversely, unstable soil aggregates are more easily dispersed by rainstrike, and the ensuing erosion clogs larger pore spaces of the surface soil. This clogging forming hard crusts on the surface which both restricts both air and water absorption and increases runoff.

The fix apparently is simple. According to soilquality.org, soil forms aggregates readily with the addition of organic manure, as well as allowing cover crops to grow, which has the additional benefit of protecting the soil from rain strike and the ensuing erosion.

Infiltration rate

Erosion Runoff Ardeche
Rill Runoff running fast in Ardeche. Photo http://www.geo.uu.nl/

The speed at which rain can be absorbed into the soil is referred to as infiltration rate. An infiltration rate of 50 mm per hour is considered ideal for farming, because even in heavy rainfall, a well-structured loam will not allow puddling. While the farmers of Burgundy do have some loam in their soils, the geological and topographical factors they face are far more and varied and thus more complex than that of the typical farming situation. I could find no studies done specific to infiltration rates of Burgundian soils, but below are the general rain infiltration rates of general soil types, starting with clay.

The infiltration rate of clay soils, with good to average soil structure, unsurprisingly, do not drain all particularly well, due to their very small-sized particles. Clays typically have an IR of 10mm-20mm per hour. And as we know, transported clay, with its aligned particles, and plasticy quality greatly restricts water flow, and while it will absorb water, it will not allow water to pass through until the entire structure is saturated, greatly slowing drainage. Worse, due to poor farming practices, clay soils can have a decayed structure, which can slow absorption to less than 10 mm per hour. Water tends to puddle on clays with poor structure, causing them deteriorate to the point of deflocculation.

The study of water and how it drains is researched acutely in areas where water is scare, whereas little study of drainage is done in France where rain and water are plentiful. Hence, my investigation of water infiltration in calcium-rich soils lead me to agricultural water policy studies conducted in Palestine and Spain. One such study found that Clayey Marl, with a plasticy character, had an infiltration rate of only 4-8 mm per hour. This low rate of infiltration suggests the soil structure had already been degraded through poor farming practices. Often the villain of low infiltration rates is a combination of frequent deep tillage, herbicide and pesticide use and compaction by walking on or working wet soils, which collapses weaken soil aggregates.  In deeper soils, like at the base of the slope, collapsed soil aggregates can result in hardpan development below ground, while on sloped vineyards, disrupted soil aggregates are very susceptible to erosion.

Clay-loam and clayey-marls, like those found on many lower-slope vineyards, that retain good soil structure, have IR rates beginning at 20 mm per hour. As the percentage of loam increases (equal parts sand, silt, and clay) the IR rate increases up to 50 mm per hour as long as it retains good aggregate stability and there is no compaction.

Loam to sandy soils, which some Bourgogne-level and Village-level vineyards possess, can have very good infiltration rates, again as long as soil structures are good.  Ideally, they can absorb 50 mm of rain per hour, which is the amount that a heavy rainstorm will produce. These vineyards, however, receive all the runoff from the slopes above, and their “well-drained” soils can be overwhelmed.

Sandy soils and Calcareous (limestone) soils can have infiltration rates well in excess 150mm per hour to 200+mm per hour. The problem is these soils drain excessively well, and tend to not retain water well, and are prone to high evaporation rates.  Off point, but quite interesting, are two studies in south-eastern Australia Bennetts et al. (2006) and Edwards & Webb (2006) found that rainwater remained relatively unchanged as it moved though these porous soils that lacked significant amounts of fine earth fractions and organic material. However, water changed its chemical signature quite significantly as it passed much more slowly through clay-rich soils. This finding certainly challenges the long-held assumption that it is the limestone lends many Burgundies their mineral character.

Infiltration Rate, Slope, and Runoff.

Vogue's parcel of Musigny. Source Googlemaps
Vogue’s parcel of Musigny. Grass growth does not seem to be encouraged here. Given Cerdà’s study regarding the erosion of bare soils, one can only wonder how much greater this vineyard could be? The mitigating factor is the vineyard runs horizontally along the top of the hill, and is not deep or highly sloped. Runoff has little opportunity to gain significant suspension velocity. Photo Source googlemaps.com

A study in Spain by A. Cerdà (Univ. de València) examined infiltration rates, runoff, and erosion, on clay, marl, limestone and sandstone. Additionally, he ran these trials with three levels of vegetation covering the soil material: bare, intermediate and vegetated.  The amount of water delivered was 55 mm per hour (which some soils easily absorbed). The study showed slower rates of infiltration on the bare soils, while more highly vegetated soils reduced and almost eliminated runoff and erosion.  Interestingly, marl soils fare the worst for both runoff and erosion rates on bare soils. Yet on vegetated soils, runoff and erosion of the marl were minimal.

They observed, of bare soils, an infiltration rate of  3 to 55 mm per hour, the runoff from 0 to 83%, and the erosion rates from 0 to 3720 grams per hour.

The easily erodible marl soils had up to 83% runoff and a maximum erosion of 3720 grams per hour. So it turns out that marl soils are particularly vulnerable to erosion which sets up an interesting dichotomy: Burgundian’s penchant for discouraging ground cover between the vines, actually encourages erosion – something they seek to, and direly need to avoid.

Clay (soil) and limestone (soil) both had what Cerdà considered to be intermediate levels of runoff and erosion; with a maximum of 46% runoff, and a maximum of 131 grams of soil material eroded per hour.

When we talk about erosion, we are implying there is a slope.

Nearly level: Level, 0% Nearly level <3%
Gently sloping: Very gently sloping >1%, Gently sloping <8%
Strongly sloping: Sloping >4%, Moderately sloping <8%, Strongly Sloping <16%

Source: nrcs.usda.gov

On the rockier terrain of upper slopes, the uneven the soil surface can slow the momentum of water coming down the hillside, despite the steeper grade. However, as the runoff moves downslope, and the soil becomes smoother, the water grows in volume as in joins other rainfall which has not yet infiltrated the topsoil. This increase in volume causes the runoff to increase in its speed and its velocity. Speed and velocity increases are exponential, as its mass allows it overcomes the friction of moving over the soil below. 

Despite the fact that these moderate slopes can attain fairly significant soil depth with normal, moderate rainfall, they are also prone to erosion when exposed to heavier storm-induced runoff. Any long, uninterrupted stretch across these moderate slopes encourages a fast, and often damaging, runoff. As the speed of the water increases, it achieves a volume sufficient to carry larger and larger particles. Cerdà’s study suggests that the marl that has developed on these slopes are particularly vulnerable to heavy runoff if no vegetative cover is allowed to grow among the rows. 

Suspension velocity

water suspension velocity
water suspension velocity source: water.me.vccs.edu/

The ratio of surface area to weight determines a soil particle or rock’s suspension velocity. This is the amount of water velocity needed to carry the object in its flow. As the flow decreases, rocks with higher suspension velocity, meaning they require fast-moving water to carry them, settle out quickly, and are said to have a low settling velocity. As the water slows, it is these, the densest objects, that fall out of suspension first.

Silt and Clay particles have a very low suspension velocity due to their extremely small size, regardless of their density. These particles are easily picked up and washed away by water movement. Unless the clay particles in suspension are adsorbed as it slowly passes a homogeneous clay body (ie. a kaolinite clay body attracts kaolinite clay particles and illite particles will flocculate with an illite body), clay particles will not settle out of solution until the water becomes still and ponds. The same is true with silt, with its slightly larger particle size.

Sand and gravel are larger, with enough density to resist slow-moving water. They are considered to have a higher suspension velocity than silt or clay. But neither sand, gravel, nor even rocks the size of the palm of your hand, are immune from alluvial transport.

Up next: Erosion 4.3 In the water’s path: Studies of Erosion in Vosne


(1) It could be argued that because of Burgundy’s monoculture and high erosion rates will only allow calcisol, and because of that soil development (pedogenesis) is not possible due to the filtering out of fine particles, both mineral, and organic, by erosional processes. Conservation tilling or zero till could greatly change that dynamic, and it is possible with these and other techniques, that growers could expose the truer terroir of Burgundy.

(2) The Wines of Champagne, Burgundy, Eastern and Southern France,  by John J. Baxevanis Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (October 28, 1987)

(3) Could this chemical signature change the flavor of wine? This certainly raises a whole host of questions regarding the impact of fast draining limestone on the flavor or minerality of in wine. This study would suggest the long-held belief by many that limestone gives wines a minerally characteristic is false.



Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy: Part 3.3.1 Fracturing variations within upper vineyards

Vineyard and plot variation confuses our understanding of Burgundy

High on the upper slopes, the farthest away from the Saône Valley Fault, the magnitude of fracturing within the same vineyard can vary significantly, even within the span of a few meters. Not only that, but there is evidence that the farther one moves from the main fault, the occurrence of fracturing patterns widens in its spacing, being further and further apart, and more irregular in its distribution. This means that if the fracturing is unequal within a vineyard, so can it to be unequal within a parcel. Following this uneven fracturing distribution, it becomes quite clear that a wine produced from different vineyard sections may produce wines of differents weights, and possibly character. We can only assume that this kind of intermittent fracturing, hidden beneath the topsoil, has unequally affected not only the wine made by these plots but the reputation of the vignerons who farm these plots as well.

Fractured limestone of Les Perrieres

The patterns of fracture propagation

Looking back at Part 1.2 about the deformation and fracturing of limestone, the stress that causes the main fault, and many of the parallel faults also weakens the entire stone structure through deformation. Micro-fractures appear throughout the stone, independently of one another, usually in clusters. As the cracks propagate, they do so often in a tree-like pattern, forking and spreading upward from the origin fracture, deeper within the stone. Depending on the brittleness of the limestone and the direction of the strain, these microcracks will form tensile fractures (extensional strain) or shear planes (compressional strain). Additional strain will be concentrated on the most fractured, weakest part of the stone, and this becomes the path of the fracture. Because these areas have been forced to bend and ultimately fail, this movement causes the strain to localize, increased by the stone’s own failure, causing even greater fracturing.  Alternately in the areas between the crack arrays, the stone will be only lightly fractured, and in some places, maybe not at all. It is this that makes plots within the same vineyard unequal, as much as the skill and style vignerons are unequal.


I have laid a vertical tree in a horizontal fashion to more dramatically illustrate fracturing within parcels. Fracturing actually happens from deeper in the stone and moves upwards to the surface, often widening and splintering as it goes. Fracturing does not always reach the surface, and this shows the disparity in fracturing one area vs. another. Mechanical weathering will accentuate fracturing where it does extend to the surface, breaking up the stone, while chemical weathering will reduce the stone to Co3 and primary clay, creating marly limestone.
I have laid a vertical tree in a horizontal fashion to more dramatically illustrate fracturing within parcels. Fracturing actually happens from deeper in the stone and moves upwards to the surface, often widening and splintering as it goes. Fracturing does not always reach the surface, and this shows the disparity in fracturing one area vs. another. Mechanical weathering will accentuate fracturing where it does extend to the surface, breaking up the stone, while chemical weathering will reduce the stone to Co3 and primary clay, creating marly limestone.


Clues to the Côte by examining another fault/escarpment


The Arugot Fault near Jerusalem is unique because the fractures to its dolomite slabs (limestone containing magnesium) lie above ground, not covered by sand or soil. Geologists are reasonably certain that the Arugot fault was an extensional occurrence (like the Saône Fault), not caused by slip-shear or other earthquake-related stresses. The Arugot fault, like the Saône Fault, was created an escarpment as the Dead Sea Basin pulled away, in a horst/graben relationship.  The area is prone to flash flooding, particularly through the deep canyons that bisect the escarpment (not unlike the combes of the Cote), and it was the erosion that rapid water movement causes have left the vertically fractured dolomite uncovered and available to be studied. The general geographical similarities of the Saône and Arugot are marred by the fact that the Dead Sea escarpment is twice as tall (600 meters), and many times more steep, with very steep angles of 75% to 80% that drop into the Dead Sea depression.

The fault itself is believed to extend several hundred meters into the earth. Parallel to the fault, a series many extensional fractures were formed, marching up the escarpment away from the main fault.  There is ample evidence that these fractures propagated from below, as the fractures are tree-like, branching vertically, splitting the rock into smaller and smaller divisions as they move toward the surface. They often, but not always, fracture through the top of the stone. Nearest to the Arugot fault itself, the fractures are very close together, and the farther away from the fault the wider the spacing between fractures until they discontinue hundreds of meters away from the main fault. The relevance of this increased space between fractures is that explains the variation between well-fractured sections of limestone, and poorly fractured sections, all within the space of a few meters. This variation extends to, and explains not only to the difference between two vineyards, but the difference between plots, or even within sections of the same plot.

fracture propagation from the Arugot fault near Jerusalem. The fractures are tree-like, and as you move away from the fault, the fractures are spaced wider and wider apart. source: earthquakes.ou.edu
Fracture propagation from the Arugot fault near Jerusalem. The fractures are tree-like, and as you move away from the fault, the fractures are spaced wider and wider apart. source: earthquakes.ou.edu

Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy: Part 3.3 The Upper Slopes

Shallow topsoil over hard limestone: a site of struggle

As I touched on in the introduction of slope position in Part 3.2, there are significant variables effecting which vineyards can produce weightier wines further up the slope. However, as a general rule, the steep upper-slopes are far less capable of producing dense, weighty and fruit filled Burgundies that are routinely produced on the mid and lower slopes.

The lack of water, nutrients and root space

The scree filled Les Narvaux in Meursault. photo: googlemaps
The scree filled Les Narvaux in Meursault. photo: googlemaps

In many of these upper vineyards, the crushed, sandy, and in some places powdery, or typically firmer and more compact, the marly limestone topsoil overlies a very pure limestone, such as Comblanchien, Premeaux and Pierre de Chassagne. Here, the extent of that the stone is fractured determines the vines ability to put down a healthy volume of roots to support both growth and fruit bearing activity. Any gardener can tell you that insufficient root space, whether grown above a shallow hardpan or in a pot, will cause a plant to be root bound and less healthy.

Because these steeper vineyards can neither develop, nor hold much topsoil to its slopes. The topsoil, which can be measured in inches rather than feet, tends to be very homogeneous in its makeup; a single horizon of compact, marly limestone, with a scant clay content of roughly 10-15%. The infiltration of rainwater and the drainage are one and the same. Retention of the water is performed almost solely by this clay content, and evaporation in this confined root zone can be a significant hazard to the vine. Fortunately rain in Burgundy during the growing season is common, although rainfall from April to October, and particularly in July, the loss of water in the soil is swifter than it’s replacement from the sky (Wilson, “Terroir” p120).

Infiltration Rates of Calcareous Soils

A study by A. Ruellan, of the Ecole National Supérieure Agronomique, examined the calcareous (limestone) soils of Mediterranean and desert regions, where available water and farming can be at critical odds.  He studied two major limestone soil types. The first was a light to medium textured, loamy, calcareous soil (60 – 80% CaCO3), and the second was a powdery and dry limestone soil with no cohesion. This second soil had a calcium carbonate content that exceeded 70%, and had 5% organic matter and a low clay content. The water holding capacity of this soil was a mere 14%. The depth of this soil was over 2 meters deep, which likely does not allow weathered clay accumulate near the surface, as it does in Burgundy.

Both limestone soils had very high permeability, with an infiltrate at a rate at a lightning fast 10 to 20 meters per day (or between 416 mm per hour and 832 mm per hour).  Even if rainwater infiltrated at half that rate through Burgundy’s compact limestone soils, it would virtually disappear from the topsoil. This is the area where the majority of the vines root system exists, and part of the root system responsible for nutrient uptake is within this topsoil region.  In this case of these soils, the vines must send down roots to gain water in the aquifer. Wittendal, who I wrote of in Part 3, suggests in that the vines literally wrap their roots around the stone, and suck the water from them.  I have seen little evidence that limestone actually absorbs water due to many limestone’s high calcium content and lack of porosity. This would be particularly true on the upper slopes under consideration now. It would be up to the roots to attempt to penetrate the stone in search of the needed water.

The root zone

Root development through soil
This slide represents the root development in shallow topsoil over a lightly fractured limestone base vs a deeper soil situation with four or five separate bedding horizons, such as exists lower on the slopes of burgundy.The effect infiltration rates have depends significantly on the distribution of vine roots. In most planting situations, 60 percent of vine roots are within the first two feet of topsoil, and have been known to attain a horizontal spread of 30 feet, although the majority of the root mass remains near the trunk.

By design, vines rely on the roots established within the surface soil – which is where nutrients (ie nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) are found – to gain the majority of their sustenance. They send down deeper roots to gain water when it is not available nearer the surface. However in Burgundy, many of the steeper slopes present planting situations where not only is the soil very shallow, but the nutrients are poor. The limestone in these vineyards often is hard and clear of impurities, and within the same vineyard may vary significantly in how fractured the stone is. Because of this, in some locations vines have difficulty establishing vigorous root penetration of the limestone base, and this can dramatically limit the vine’s root zone.

Additionally, because of the soil’s shallow depth, , and because of the soils high porosity and low levels of clay and other fine earth fractions, only a limited volume of water can be retained

Water is critical for both clay’s formation and its chemical structure, and the clay will not give up the last of what it needs for it own composition. The evaporation rate of what little water there might remain, can be critically swift.

Rainwater’s infiltration of the limestone base, and its retention of water can also be limited where significant fracturing has not occurred. Any water that cannot easily infiltrate either the soil or the limestone base, will start downward movement across the topsoil as runoff. That means any vine that has been established in shallow topsoil, or the topsoil has suffered significant losses due to erosion, will be forced to send roots down to attempt to supply water and nutrients.

Vine roots and a restricted root zone

In non-cultivated, non-clonal vines, powerful tap roots are sent down for the purpose of retrieving water when it is not available in from the surface soils. However our clonal varieties are more “highly divided” according to the “Biology of the Grapevine” by Michael G. Mullins, Alain Bouquet, Larry E. Williams, Cambridge University Press, 1992. The largest, thickest, roots develop fully in their number of separate roots, by the vine’s third year, and are called the main framework roots. Old established vines in good health may have main framework roots as thick as 100cm (40 inches) thick. This main framework root system, in normal soils, typically sinks between 30 cm (11 inches) and 35 cm (13 inches) below the surface.  In shallow soils, they may hit hard limestone before full growth, and may have to turn away, or stop growing. Anne-Marie Morey, of Domaine Pierre Morey, echoes this in talking with Master of Wine, Benjamin Lewin, of their plot in Meursault Tessons. “This is a mineral terroir: the rock is about 30 cms down and the roots tend to run along the surface.”

From the main framework, grows the permanent root system. These roots are much smaller, between 2 and 6 cm, and may either grow horizontally (called spreaders) or they may grow downward (known as sinkers).  From these permanent roots grow the fibrous or absorbing roots. These absorbing roots are continually growing and dividing, and unlike the permanent roots, are short-lived. When older sections absorbing roots die, new lateral absorbing roots to replace them.

This cutaway of the topsoil of Gevrey Bel Air shows just how limited the root zone is in this premier cru vineyard. The Comblanchien below is being 'reconditioned' in this plot. More on this in a near future article. click to enlarge.
This cutaway of the topsoil of Gevrey Bel Air shows just how limited the root zone is in this premier cru vineyard. The limestone below is being ‘reconditioned’ in this plot. click to enlarge.

Although the permanent sinker roots may dive down significant depths, the absorbing roots (which account for major portion of a vine’s root system account for the highest percentage of root mass, typically only inhabit the first 20cm to 50cm, or between 8 inch and 19 inches of a soils depth (Champagnol,  Elements de Physiologie de la Vigne et de Viticulture Générale 1984). Clearly this is an issue if the topsoil is only 30 cm (12 inches) to begin with.  If the absorbing roots are not growing sufficiently on the sinkers, the vine must rely on the exceptionally poor topsoil of the marly limestone.

South African soil scientist Dr. Philip Myburgh found (1996) that restricted root growth correlated with diminished yields. He also found that the “critical limit’ of penetration by vine root was 2 MPa through a “growing medium”. Weakness in the bedrock, and the spacing of these weaknesses, contributed to a vines viability.

The vines on these slopes, on which there is limited fracturing of the harder, non-friable limestone, have difficulty surviving. These locations often shorten the lifespan of the vines planted there, compared to other, more fertile locations in Burgundy, where vines can grow in excess of 100 years. It is these vines, with barely sufficient nutrients that make wines that don’t have the fruit weight that I wrote of before, simply because they cannot gain the water and nutrients necessary to develop those characteristics. The amount of struggle the vine endures directly determines the wine’s weight, or lack of it.

It is ironic, that when we research the issues the catchphrases of wine describe, ie, the “vines must struggle”, or that a vineyard is “well-drained”, or the vineyards are “too wet to produce quality wine”, we see the simplicities, inaccuracies, or the shortcuts that those words cover up. Yet these catchphrases are so ingrained in wine writing, that we don’t even know to question them, or realize that they require significantly more nuance, or at minimum, point of reference. Yes, the vines on the upper-slopes are particularly well-drained. They do indeed struggle, sometimes to the point of producing vines are not healthy, and cannot the quality or the weight of wine that the producer (dictated by their customers) feels worthy of the price.

Extreme vineyard management

Blagny sous la dos d'Ane's shallow red soils produce a Pinot that is too light for the market to bear at the price it must be sold. photo: googlemaps
Blagny sous la dos d’Ane’s shallow red soils produce a Pinot that is too light for the market to accept – at the price it must be sold. photo: googlemaps

In Blagny, the Sous le dos d’Ane vineyard, which lies directly above the small cru of  Aux Perrières, has seen at least one frustrated producer graft their vines from Pinot Noir to Chardonnay. The Pinot, from the red, shallow, marly limestone soils, was felt to be unsatisfactorily light in weight. Not only would a lighter-styled, and minerally Chardonnay be well received, the producer will be able to sell it much more easily – and for more money because he could then label it as MeursaultSous le dos d’Ane, a much more marketable name.

Bel Air. More photos on this excellent website, and a terrific discussion in the comment section, albeit in French. Worth running through a translator. source: http://www.verre2terre.fr/
Bel Air. More photos on this excellent website, and a terrific discussion in the comment section. source: http://www.verre2terre.fr/

Producers in the Côte de Nuits rarely have the option to switch varietals. They typically must produce Pinot Noir to label as their recognized appellation. In the premier cru of Gevrey-Chambertin “Bel Air”, and Nuits St-Georges “Aux Torey”, growers have gone to the extreme lengths and expense of ‘reconditioning’ their plots. To do this, they must rip out their vines, strip back the topsoil and breaking up the limestone below. In the adjacent photo, a field of broken Premeaux limestone and White Oolite has been tenderized, if you will. The soil is replaced and the vineyard replanted. The entire process requires a decade before useful grapes can be harvested once again from the site, costing an untold number of Euros spent, not to mention the money not realize had the old vines been allowed to limp on. The same has been done in Puligny Folatières in 2007 by Vincent Girardin, and there again in 2011 by another unknown producer. Ditto with Clos de Vergers, a 1er cru in Pommard in 2009.



click here: for the previous article, Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy: Part 3.2 The lower slopes

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.

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.

Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy: Part 2.1 From Limestone to Clay

© BiVB Latricieres
Latricieres under brewing storm clouds.  photo © BiVB

by Dean Alexander

The weathering of limestone: let it rain

Rain and Flooding

For the past 35 million years, rainwater has endlessly and relentlessly washed across the limestone escarpment. To varying degrees, the limestone will absorb water through its pores, but stone that has been damaged by ductile deformation is much more easily infiltrated. Faster still, water fills the cracks and fissures created by geologic strain, finding freshly broken calcium carbonate to wetten, and begin the process of chemical weathering called carbonation.

Rain rainwater, it seems is more than just H2o.  From the storm clouds above, H2o binds to with carbon dioxide (CO2) to form carbonic acid (H2CO3). And although carbonic acid is typically a mild acid when carried by the rainwater, it does slowly act as a solvent to the calcium carbonate (CaCO3) that holds the limestone together. This carbonation frees the carbonate from the calcium, and will metamorphose the calcium into calcium hydrogen bicarbonate Ca(HCO3)2, which technically only exists in solution. (1)  The material that remains behind once it is no longer bound by bonds of the stone, is whatever impurities that were in the stone when it formed. This could include clay, fossils, feldspar which is the most common mineral on earth), among many other possibilities.

Nature’s Highly Engineered, Deconstruction of Limestone

Calcium Bicarbonate photo credit: Frank Baron/Guardian
The calcium carbonate in limestone is made solvent by the carbonic acid in rainwater.  The calcium carbonate is metamorphosed into calcium hydrogen bicarbonate  or Ca(HCO3)2. Technically calcium bicarbonate exists only as a water solution. As long as enough CO2 remains in the water, calcium bicarbonate is stable. But once excess Co2 is released, calcium carbonate is dropped out of solution resulting in the scale like on the facet above. photo credit: Frank Baron/Guardian

Calcium carbonate is more soluble in colder temperatures.  If you aren’t paying attention, this, along with so many other pieces of information might seem fairly unrelated. But like everything else, it is an important piece of the puzzle. It is all part of nature’s finely detailed engineering, where every element directly is related to, and influences the next.

This fact that calcium is more soluble in colder temperatures folds beautifully together with the freeze-thaw fracturing of the limestone that I detailed in Limestone: Part 1.2. The acidic water enters the more porous limestone, where it then freezes. This exerts immense internal pressure on the rock, which causes it to split along the pores, can cause various types of fractures within the stone.  Then when the acidic ice within the rock begins to melt, it erodes the stone along the fissures, being aided by the cold temperatures. The more acidic the rainwater, the more minerals the groundwater can dissolve and be held in solution. Interestingly, because lime is alkaline (a base as opposed to acid) it naturally balances the ph of the water, and thus the soil, which is good for the health the vines.

Clay Development = great vineyards

Puligny excavation at Alex Gamble
An excavation of the village cru, Les Grands Champs by Alex Gamble and Francoise Vannier-Petit. According to Vannier-Petit’s analysis, below the first 30 centimeters of dark clay-loam soil, lies a fine-grained, yellow clay. In its most pure form it is typical of transported clay being less than 2 microns, before mixing with heavier soils of increasing size down to an 80 cm depth. Here it transitions to more loosened substratum of “angular gravel” of 2 mm in size, which she also terms “heterometric stones”, providing good drainage for the site. See more at alexgamble.com
Les Grands Champs
Visual observation: Les Grands Champs is located on the eastern edge of the village of Puligny. The land here is be quite flat, with less than a one percent grade.  It sits at the foot of the 1er cru Clavillions (where the road turns to head up hill). Folatieres lies just above that, the bottom of which is denoted by the by the plot being replanted.

Every Burgundy vineyard that is considered to be great has at least some clay and some limestone in their makeup. But that is not surprising since  clay, is the byproduct of the chemical weathering of stone. The silicate materials (essentially the building blocks almost all minerals) in the stone are metamorphosed into phyllosilicate minerals. Putting that more simply: after stone is eroded by acid, some of the weathered material (depending on what the stone was made of) is transformed into a material that will become clay – once it attracts the needed aluminum, oxygen, and water.

Clays first forms at the site (in situ) of the stone that is being weathered, and this typically is a form of surface weathering. This new material is a primary clay, and sometimes referred to as a residual clay. These primary clays tend to be grainy, lack smoothness, and do not typically have qualities that are described as plasticity. As primary clays are eroded, (typically by water) and are moved to reform in another location, they are called transported clays.

This transportation changes the clay’s properties; this is likely because the water carries the lighter, smaller gains together, away from the larger, coarser material that remains in the in situ location. When transported clay reforms, the reformation is called flocculation. This natural attraction that clays have toward homogeneous groupings, are due not only to their similar size but because they carry a net negative electrical charge, which the particles gain by adsorption. Adsorption is not to be confused with absorption, is like static-cling. Items are added, or adhered by an electrical charge, to the grains, not absorbed by the grains.

In flocculation, particles are attracted to one another, by their uniform size (typically very small, under 2 micrometers), and shape (tetrahedral and octahedral sheets). These phyllosilicate sheets organize themselves, layering one upon another, like loose pages of sheet music. Between these silicate sheets, aluminum ions and oxygen are sandwiched. These elements bind together to form a clay aggregate, even in the confluence of water. Clay formations can carry with them, varying mineral components such as calcium, titanium, potassium, sodium and iron and other minerals, making them available to the vines. To say that the chemistry of clay gets very complicated, very quickly, is an understatement.

Transported clay has plasticity, which primary clays do not. When a clay is very wet, beyond its liquid limit, (meaning the most water a clay structure can hold before it de-flocculates), the sheets slide apart, giving clay its slippery feeling. Any thick area of clay found at a location is likely to a be transported clay, as the adsorption characteristic of clay allows it to achieve significant mass.

Sand 0.02 – 2.00 mm in diameter
Silt 0.002 – 0.02 mm in diameter
Clay < 0.002 mm in diameterClay types

Francoise Vannier Petit at AlexGamble
Francoise Vannier Petit, inspects the yellow ocher-colored clay in Puligny-Montrachet, Les Grands Champs.  Clays get their pigmentation from various impurities. Brown clays get their color from partially hydrated iron-oxide called Goethite. This yellow ocher clay gets its color from hydrated iron-hydroxide, also known as limonite. Clay type, however, is not determined by its color, but instead by its chemical and material organization.
Different clay types can be found next to each other or layered on top of one another. This layering is called a stacking sequence. photo source: alexgamble.com

The type of clay that is produced from the weathering of rock depends on the what minerals make up the stone.  In the case of granite (the stone which existed in the Burgundy region, before the creation of limestone), is constructed of up to 65% feldspar, and a minimum of 20% quartz, along with some mica. While quartz will not chemically degrade in contact with the carbonic acid carried in rainwater, feldspar and mica will. Even though they originate from the same stone, these two minerals will metamorphose into two different of types clay, that belongs to two different clay family groupings. Feldspar weathers into Kaolinite clay minerals and mica weathers to an Illite clay mineral. These tend to be non-swelling clays. (3)

I probably spent twenty hours trying to figure out what kind of clay eroded from limestone, before I realized that it would depend on what impurities were mixed into the calcium carbonate when it was brewed up during the Jurassic period.  Limestone can produce any of the four families of clay.

Kandites (of which Kaolin(ite) is a subgroup), are the most common clay type, because feldspar, which is the world’s most common mineral, metamorphoses into it.

The other three clay groupings are smectite, illite, and chlorite.(4) Within these clay family groupings, there are 30 subtypes. As might be suggested by the example of the weathering of granite above, it is very common for different kinds clays reside adjacent to, or in layers with other clays. This layering of clay types is called a stacking sequence, and it can occur in either ordered or random sequences. Each are attracted to formations of its own type, by size weight, and electrical charge.

The Effect of  Weathered Limestone on Soil Quality

effect of lime on Clay
effect of lime on Clay

There are a number of significant benefits to the high levels of limestone in the soils of Burgundy. The world over, farmers make soil additions of agricultural lime (which is made from grinding limestone or chalk), in order to balance and strengthen their soils. These are additions that are unnecessary in Burgundy.  Soil salinity is increased by the calcium bicarbonate that is released by chemical weathering of limestone. This increase in soil salinity (which raises the pH) of the soil, is cited as a condition for the flocculation of the clay, allowing the phyllosilicates (clay minerals) to bind together into aggregates. But of course, citing a high ph is required for flocculation (as I have seen written by several authors) this is the chicken or the egg debate. The flocculation requires a low pH environment to occur because it creates that environment in process of its development.

Lime additions to agricultural lands are also beneficial in that it increases soil aeration, which in turn improves water penetration. The calcium loosened soils allow for better root penetration, and because of that root growth is improved. Additionally, agricultural lime strengthens vegetation’s cell walls, increases water and nitrogen intake, and aids in developing enzyme activity. Too much lime (and its accompanying salinity) in the soil, however, can be lethal to the vines, and various rootstock has been identified as being more resistant to the effects of high levels of limestone in the soil than others.

This loosening of soil by addition of lime/calcium carbonate is caused by the disruption of the alignment of the clay particles. Rather than doing a poor job paraphrasing an already excellent article from soilminerals.com, called “Cation Exchange Capacity,” which will I quote below.  To put the article in a frame of reference, it explains to farmers interested in organic and biodynamic farming, the proper mineral balance for healthy soils. These are conditions often exist naturally in the best sections of the slope in the Cote d’Or.

“Because Calcium tends to loosen soil and Magnesium tightens it, in a heavy clay soil you may want 70% or even 80% Calcium and 10% Magnesium; in a loose sandy soil 60% Ca and 20% Mg might be better because it will tighten up the soil and improve water retention. If together they add to 80%, with about 4% Potassium and 1-3% Sodium, that leaves 12-15% of the exchange capacity free for other elements, and an interesting thing happens. 4% or 5% of that CEC will be filled with other bases such as Copper and Zinc, Iron and Manganese, and the remainder will be occupied by exchangeable Hydrogen , H+. The pH of the soil will automatically stabilize at around 6.4 , which is the “perfect soil pH” not only for organic/biological agriculture, but is also the ideal pH of sap in a healthy plant, and the pH of saliva and urine in a healthy human.” soilminerals.com

Mud is the problem, lime is the solution
On construction sites, mud is a problem, and lime is the solution.

The industrial of use of limestone to control wet and unstable soil

The soil strengthening properties of lime is well known by the construction industry. It is used as a soil stabilizer in the construction of buildings and roadways, as well as being used to stabilize wet ground to improve the mobility of trucks and tractors. In the vineyard, soils with high levels of limestone provide the good porosity, soil structure, and drainage to clay soils, and as this construction advertisement depicts, the same for mud/dirt soils as well.

Lime is also the binding agent in cement. The first known use of lime in construction was 4000 BC when it was used for plastering the pyramids, and later the Romans extensively used lime in the preparation of mortar for various constructions. They found that mortars prepared from lime, sand, and water, would harden to a man-made limestone, with exposure to the carbon dioxide provided by the air. This, of course, sounds very familiar, knowing the formation and chemical weathering of stone.

 Next Up Soil Formation: Part 2.2, Soil, Slope and Erosion


(1) I should note, that within the span of this short paragraph, carbon has seen several forms: in the air (in carbon dioxide CO2), as an acid (in carbonic acid CO3) carried by water, in stone as calcium carbonate CaCO3, as a mineral bi-product (as calcium bicarbonate Ca(HCO3)2 which exists in liquid solutions. This is all part of the carbon cycle, where carbon is regenerated in the air we breath, the water we drink, the earth we grow our food in.

(2) The fact that CO3 is now carried by water, is important in terms of vineyard development.

(3) Kaolinite clays are the type used in pottery.

(4) As Granite was the primary stone formation in the region prior to the development of limestone, it is likely that Kaolinite and Illites are the most common clay families in Burgundy today.

Tasting Cain, part II

Part II:  Winemaker Chris Howell, Cain Winery, and the Taboo Subject of Brett

Cain Winery sits 1800 feet above St. Helena on the valley floor, way up on Spring Mountain Road. A sign with an arrow and the words Cain Winery, marks the longest single-lane, curvy, road/driveway imaginable.  The winery is so far out there, that after two miles down this twisting, blind-cornerd driveway, the there is a county sign that reads, road ends. Yet you still are not there yet.  Go farther; you will find Cain. There is an intense sense of quiet and isolation on the estate, and one can only imagine that has had some profound influence on the unique philosophies that guide the Winemaker and GM, Chris Howell in his quest for the true expression of this piece of land.

St. Supéry Vineyards and Winery - Rutherford, ...
Rutherford, Napa Valley (Photo credit: –Mark–)

I have found a commonality to the wines from this section of the mountain.  Two of Cain’s most immediate neighbors, Guilliams and Keenan, have very similar profile of making classically styled Napa wine, and all have unusually fine, silky tannins.  I cannot say with certainty that these fine tannins are the result of terroir speaking, but I tend to believe that they are. While I talked to Chris, (read part 1) we tasted the three wines being made at Cain. The winery’s flagship, Cain Five, is made entirely from estate fruit. The Cain Cuvee, which is part estate fruit, and part valley fruit, shared distinct commonality. The Cain Concept, is made from puchased Napa Valley fruit, was decidedly different in character and structure, although the winemaking is the same.

“both showed character rarely matched in California Cabernet”

Midway through the tasting, I introduced my feeling that the wines had improved from those Chris had made in the late eighties. Soon after I told him I thought they were cleaner and more enjoyable, and he admitted there had been a lot of brett in the winery, Chris decided to show me an older example of Cain Five. He produced a bottle of Cain Five from 1999 vintage, perhaps to show that the change has been minimal, or maybe he wanted to put the matter to rest. I don’t know, but I was excited to try it. This wine certainly had more brett than the 2007 we were tasting, but not nearly as much as I seemed to remember in the wines, and the nose was remarkable. It was captivating.

The vineyard has been replanted section by section since 1995, so the 1999 Cain Five will have been made from fruit off the old, phylloxera- infested  plantings, whereas the 2007 would be mostly from the new, high-density plantings that are now trained low to the ground to speed physiological ripening, and utilizes vertical shoot trellising. Additionally, pruning methods have been improved. All of these things affect fruit quality. That said, both Cain Fives were truly beautiful wines, showing so much depth, impeccable balance, and both showed character rarely matched in California Cabernet.

Chris was very generous, and allowed us to take all the wines to dinner that night, at Bar Terre in St Helena, where we tried the wines with multiple courses, often with superb results. versatility with food is something I don’t expect from California Cabernet-based wines, due to their typical extremes in terms of weight and concentration, so the fact that Cain Five could, certainly surprised me.

I have rated these wines, something I rarely do, and usually don’t feel don’t feel is appropriate. In this case, because California Cabernet has a fairly uniform style, and I feel scores have more relevance, and may convey the quality I feel these wines possess.

Cain Cuvee NV8 

This Merlot based (48%), dual-vintage blend, is drawn primarily from the lush, but brooding 2008 vintage, with the addition of the brighter wine from 2007. The Cain Cuvee is an impressively svelte wine, designed to drink young.  Blended from a combination fruit from the estate, and purchased benchland fruit, it carries with it more fresh fruit character than Cain’s higher end bottlings, yet maintains the wineries  trademark of class and perfect balance.  Bordeaux-like is the goal, and Winemaker Chris Howell has great success here, giving the wine understated poise, yet detailed, persistent fruit. The nose, with its fresh cranberry and blackberry fruit, has an almost raw, carbonic element to it, when compared to the other wines, although I doubt this was the case. Chris’ practice of picking a bit early, is particularly evident with this wine, with its yin and yang of deeper, ripe notes, and slightly under-ripe fruit, and a hint of briar and dusty road.   Lean and long, this has just enough sinew to bind it all together, with its smooth tannins. This is a wine, that will age effortlessly for 15 to 20 years, due to its impeccable balance. It is the very end of the vintage, and there should be some on retailers shelves, but the distributor, Henry wine group is shipping the NV9.  91 points

2008 Cain Concept, “The Benchlands”

Cain “Concept”, which the winery has subtitled as ‘The Benchlands” because it is maded from all purchased fruit from the valley. The fruit for the “Concept” sourced from several top-flight vineyards, including Beckstoffer Georges III and To-Kalon.  If any wine is intended to be a Cabernet, this is it.  A soft, broad nose of berries, dust, perfume, blueberries, fresh herbs, and California olives. Typical Cain, with rich soft fruit, some classic, old school,(but not assertive) California Bell Pepper, earthy, berry fruit, dusty tannins, touch of peppercorn, and a creamy texture.. Really lovely, so perfectly balanced. Andre Tchelistcheff would be proud.  This wine will improve with a few years in the cellar.  92 points.

2007 Cain Five, Estate, Spring Mountain

All estate fruit, primarily of Cabernet from near the top of Spring Mountain at 1400 ft. Blackberry fruit, coupled with brown sugar, cream, toast, cocoa nibs, and fennel, but this is so integrated, that it’s difficult to separate the aromas. The mouth is more so this way, with mocha and the burnt sugar of toffee taking a more of the center stage. Texture is of black velvet, with a dusky, notes of wet earth, and musk to it, with complex notes from the brett wrapping up the impressive package. Balance is again paramount, with Chris’ fine tannins coming into play. The vineyard was replanted close to the ground, giving better ripeness to the tannins. An easy twenty year wine, but this shows exceptionally well now, and may or may not, improve with age. 95 points

1999 Cain Five, Estate, Spring Mountain

The aroma was so intoxicating, with its undefined floral, herbal, woodsy, and fruit aromas, it almost required no tasting. The palate is very broad and rich, with the earthy loam coming to the forefront, which was somewhat exacerbated by the wine’s cool temperature. The wine wass sweet, and herbal tones in the mouth, with the tannins gripping a bit more after it had been open a while. As it aired, the loam, herbs, and mocha, and spices have overcome much of the blackberry and raspberry fruit.  The earthy-musty quality of brett is  more evident in this bottling, along with some green notes, molasses, allspice, and clove began to stand outeven more  over time, some of which can be contributed to the aged quality which is expected of a 13-year-old wine.  The wine is immensely complex, and quite fabulous, particularly with the braised lamb (at Terra in St. Helena). With a black cod, notes of cranberry fruit tended to stand out (an even older Cain Five would have been even better with this dish). This wine is capable of  aging another fifteen years, easily. 95 points