This transcription was created thanks to: Megan MacCuish and JJ Dal
S2E2: The Hill and the Valley
[ Intro music plays]
Brenna: Hi This is Brenna Quigley, your personal geologist and terroir guide. Join me on a roadtrip through the geologic history of your favorite wine regions around the world. This is Roadside Terroir…
Season 2: Burgundy’s Côte-d’Or is made possible by our season 2 partners: Becky Wasserman and Company, La Paulee, and Acker Wines
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Please, don’t drink and drive...and remember to keep your eyes on the road.
This episode contains explicit language.
1.1 Geology of the Côte d’Or
[Car driving on road]
Françoise hums and sings along to Karma Chameleon by Culture Club
Brenna (Narration): It's a cool late-summer morning in Burgundy as we load up the car and set out on the road…The sun, still low in the eastern sky, reaches out its long rays of dawn, illuminating the cote d’or and the dewdrops that hang on each blade of grass…
I’m in the car with a woman who, until now I have spent very little time with, yet has been a beacon of professional inspiration since I first started working in wine…Francoise Vannier is the geologist of Burgundy and The Queen of the Côte in my eyes and the eyes of many others. She is a geologist with a background in Petroleum, who has now dedicated her life to terroir. She has slowly and steadily been creating painstakingly detailed maps of each village of the Côte-d’Or–with each map, she explores mysteries, debunks old myths, and asks new questions… She is the world’s expert on Burgundian geology…and today, she’s our guide.
[Francoise and Brenna driving, speaking about Burgundy vaguely]
[Classical piano music begins to play]
Brenna (Narration Con’t): Francoise is a small woman, who bubbles with life and her passion for geology - which makes me feel very much at home. Francoise is so animated and has so much knowledge about the local rocks that facts seem to spill out of her mouth faster than she can think them, and certainly faster than we? Can digest them. Despite her speed and enthusiasm of speech, you can tell when you listen closely that she is absolutely measured, precise, and cautious– a true scientist whose brain automatically compartmentalizes the worlds of fact, observation, and interpretation.
[Francoise animatedly talking as the car drives]
Brenna (Narration): We’re setting out on the start of our first real roadside exploration of the Côte-d’Or…
[classic piano music plays]
We drive north out of the city of Beaune, to the northern edge of the Côte de Beaune…where we will explore the Hill of Corton and the valley of Savigny-lès-Beaune.
This is a peculiar portion of the Côte-d’Or where vines of both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay compete for attention and prestige. Many people in the Côte-d’Or believe that certain soils are predestined to grow either red grapes or white grapes. But where does this idea come from? Why are some villages better suited to red grapes over white grapes? Is it the soil, the rock? The climate? Or has human history and wine style or popularity overprinted the natural order of things?
As we explore these vineyards with Francoise, we’ll attempt to discover if there are any geological answers to these questions…
Michael Sager: I don’t hear her, the same way. (speaking to Francoise and Brenna)
Brenna (Narration): We are also joined today by our friend Michael Sager–Michael is a restaurateur, importer, photographer and total wild man based in London. Officially, Michael came along to take photographs and document our journey, but was unexpectedly roped into helping out with our sound recording as well- which he totally nailed, and for which I am extremely grateful…
Michael: Can you say something?
Brenna and Françoise: Hello? Hello? Hello?
Françoise: Do you hear me? I am shouting!
Brenna: Hello hello hello.
[mic check continues till everyone is satisfied]
Brenna (Narration): Leaving Beaune, we drive north along the famed Route des Grand Crus…
[introspective piano plays lightly]
This road was once called the Route Nationale 74, or RN74. Despite wine lovers who cling to the name RN74, which rings with the sound of Burgundian greatness, the road has now been officially renamed to the less whimsical D974. Heading north, the slope of Jurassic limestone is to our left, and the broad, expansive flat plain of the Saône Valley is on our right.
Local geologic lore tells us that somewhere buried below the Route des Grand Crus lies the trace of a major tectonic fault that extends along the entire length of Burgundy– clearly demarcating the great Jurassic-aged limestone terroirs of the côte from the farmland of the Saône Valley, which is historically better suited to cabbages and autoroutes than wines fit for kings…
Geologically speaking, the Saône Valley is nearly synonymous with the term Bresse graben
Michael: What is the Bresse graben?
Brenna: Bresse graben is-
Michael: And how do you spell it?
Brenna: B-r-e-s-s-e, like Bresse chicken
Michael: Ok, so Bresse, then … Graben?
Brenna: G-r-a-b-e-n. Graben is like that thing drops in
Michael: Ah! Oh, Graben like German, ok.
Brenna (Narration): The term graben, is related to the German word for grave, and describes the geologic trench formed by a fault bounded block that has been down-dropped relative to the limestone slope to the West. Imagine a giant stair-step, but like really giant, like over 1500 meters or 5000 feet. The Saône river follows the trend of this depression, and its alluvial sediments have slowly but surely filled in this space over the course of millions of years – these sediments have completely blurred the line between the hard limestone bedrock of the côte and a kilometer of unconsolidated alluvial Bresse marl. There is no obviously visible boundary between these two drastically different sedimentary and agricultural zones, and up until today, I had basically believed that you could stand in one place at the foot of the slope, with one foot on shallow soils over limestone bedrock, and one foot above thousands of meters of unconsolidated, watery mush.
The layers of limestone and marl on the western slopes have been intensely fractured by faults that run parallel to this major North -South tectonic boundary, again, like stair-steps–- the once simple limestone layer cake has been broken up and shuffled like a deck of cards into the infinitely repetitive sequence of layers now exposed along the slope–this already complex geometry has been further obscured by time, and millions of years of erosion has smoothed out the slope erasing most of the topographic evidence of the faults on the surface.
This is the story you will find in just about every single book that exists about the terroir of the Côte d’Or…it is the basis of the explanation for the distinction of the Grand Cru vineyards, and for how and why the personalities of the wines can vary so drastically over such short distances…it's the hidden faults in the geology of the subsurface, that create a patchwork of soils, and a roulette of terroirs…Or, so I thought…
Françoise: Roughly, regarding the geology of the côte, there are so many wrong things that are said all the time and all the time some fake news regarding the geology!
Brenna (Narration): Over nearly two decades, Françoise has been taking all of these stories, myths, and assumptions, and putting them under the microscope. Her maps are dizzyingly detailed, and while she certainly doesn’t set out to redefine the geologic history of the region, they do apply a precision of understanding and a re-alignment of reality that has never existed before…
Françoise: Some people are very mannequin –-they separate the good world of the limestone and the bad world of the bresse marls…you can see clearly, that the faults have not been drawn properly…
Brenna (Narration): Francoise jokes that …this black and white understanding – is silly, and that the idea of one long continuous fault with over 1000 meters of displacement is wrong–she shows us a cross sectional seismic survey that cuts through the côte and the valley.
Françoise: You clearly see that you’ve got a pinch out of the Oligocene… and uhh (continuing to describe the map)
Brenna (Narration): This seismic survey gives us an image of the bedrock and sediments beneath the surface and is clear geological evidence that it is not one fault, but a whole network of faults–more of a fault zone that makes up this boundary, and that the deep, unconsolidated alluvial Bresse sediments gradually pinch out and overlap with the limestones below, rather than creating one distinct line that separates vineland from farmland.
Françoise: There is no “one big fault”. Where is this “one big fault”? And there are so many faults around the slopes, with different compartments: major ones and some minor ones. They pinch out, one from the oligocene, another from the plio-quaternary. So in my opinion this is the synthetic cross section of the cote. And you have some transverse forces…
Brenna (Narration): This is just the first of many wake up calls we will learn from her, it's an excellent example of her work and its significance… and further evidence that this already complicated region is even more complicated than we could have imagined…
2.1 Arriving to Corton and History of Corton
[guitar plays overlain with car driving]
Brenna (Narration): Even from a distance the hill of Corton distinguishes itself from the relative continuity of the côte. It is a topographic monument, regal and proud, with a neat forest green cap, and cascading skirt of steep patchworked vineyards…
The hill of Corton is just that–a hill, almost entirely separated from the east facing côte. According to Françoise, this hill marks somewhat of an unofficial transition from the Côte de Beaune to the Côte de Nuits. And for this reason and perhaps many others, it is an exception in many ways: it is one of the few places in the Côte d’Or with vineyards that span nearly a full 360 degrees North-South-East-and West – it’s the only red Grand Cru vineyard in the entire Côte de Beaune, and the only Grand Cru vineyard that faces West.
This Grand Cru Appellation is the largest in Burgundy, and is shared by 3 communes, or villages…as we drive closer, the Village of Aloxe-Corton sits in front of us, at the base of the south-facing slope the village of Ladoix-Serrigny sits at the base of the east-facing slope, and the village of Pernand-Vergeless is tucked back behind the hill on the west.
Paul Wasserman passes this view almost every day as he drives between Beaune and his home in Bouilland, and he knows it like the back of his hand.
Paul Wasserman: On the really south western to full western side there is the historical heart
of Charlemagne which is En Charlemagne and Le Charlemagne. It is planted to white, so the whites continue mostly at the top of the hill as you start to face east; all the way from parts of Aloxe all the way into Ladoix-Serrigny
Brenna (Narration): Corton is the only section of Grand Crus planted to a significant amount of both Pinot noir and Chardonnay. And one of only two Grand Crus to produce both a red and white wine (the other being Musigny).
The majority of the east to southern slopes, or the Ladoix side, is planted to Pinot Noir (except for at the very top), and the majority of the south to west-facing slopes on the Pernand side are planted to Chardonnay. For the most part…Corton is Grand Cru Pinot Noir, and Corton Charlemagne is Grand Cru Chardonnay…
The juxtaposition of these two noble grapes is actually quite rare in the Côte d’Or as a whole…typically, either history, tradition, or terroir has dictated which vineyards are best at what…and we’re here to see if we can figure out why that is, and why this spot is so unique…
Part of this reason might have something to do with the first Holy Roman Emperor: Charlemagne himself.
[Introspective piano plays]
Paul: First of all, Charlemagne did own vineyards, or at least land on the hill of Corton. He got it from his grandfather who confiscated it from the Burgundians. Because they didn’t help out enough during the war with the Saracens. And the second thing to know is that Charlemagne was immortalized in a very old song as the emperor with the flowery beard.
[recites piece the old French song]
“l'empereur à la barbe fleurie”, except that fleurie meant white so he was immortalized as the emperor with the Santa Claus beard. So the legend is that his last wife, whose name was Luitgard, was a young German princess who everyone adored, including Charlemange. And she objected to his great white beard being stained with red wine so she asked him to switch to white. Then he ordered his land on the hill of Corton to be planted with white grape varieties. That's the legend. There are two problems with the legend. First of all, Luitgard and Charlemagne were married in 794, I believe, but Charlemagne had already bequeathed his vineyards back to the church in 775. So that doesn’t fit. And secondly, and more funnily for people who grew up in France like I did and you know Charlemagne for his big white beard, all historians agree that Charlemagne didn’t have such a beard at all. It wasn’t very fashionable for men at the time and the reason that he is seen with a beard is because it was customary to depict rulers with facial hair. This is because it underlined their virility. So, it undermines the whole tale, but that is the story, the myth, the legend. Other than he owned vineyards there, not much else is true…
Brenna (Narration): It's hard to know exactly what was planted back in the 9th Century or before, but throughout history there is evidence that the hill was replanted back and forth from red to white, and white to red…
Paul: What we do know is that by the 18th century two main authors Cortépée and Arnoux, mention that Corton used to have a lot of white wine that enjoyed a great reputation. They said that it recently disappeared to be replanted by the reds.
Brenna (Narration): By the 19th century, popularity began to shift again, with most credit given to Maison Louis Latour, who popularized replanting the Hill of Corton back to Chardonnay…
Paul: So that is what we know, and you’ve talked to Françoise, that it is a lot of white marl. Certainly at the top of the hill and it just made sense to have white wine there. And it happens to be really great white wine.
Brenna (Narration): So, in this case, it seems like the legends are just legends and history might not have the answers we’re looking for…While it might be pretty disappointing to learn that Charlemagne didn’t even have a beard to worry about staining, debunking this myth leads us right back to where we started and why we’re here…looking to the rocks for answers…
2.2 Geology of the Hill of Corton
It turns out, there is at least some geologic component to this legend…many local vigneron will say the rule of thumb is that white wines do best on white soils and red wines do best on red soils…Françoise does not agree:
Françoise: If you are hear the myth and legends about Burgundy, they say, if the soil is white you should cultivate the Chardonnay if the soil is red you should cultivate the Pinot Noir unfortunately for Volnay there are a lot of light colored soils and they decided to cultivate the Pinot Noir instead of the Chardonnay so…
Brenna (Narration): We drive past the village of Aloxe-Corton, towards Pernand-Vergelesses and begin to make our way up the western slope of Corton Charlemagne. It's morning so we’re still within the cool shade of the hill.. We drive up through the vineyard Le Charlemagne.. – where the slope faces to the southwest… …as the slope wraps around to the west the (vineyard) changes from Le Charlemagne to En Charlemagne (en spelled E-N)--which is claimed by the village of Pernarnd. Even though the commune has changed, we’re still on the hill of Corton, and still within the Grand Cru appellation.
We stop about halfway up and get out to explore the layers of limestone that make up the slope…
[Françoise, humming to herself as everyone exits the car]
Françoise: So you’ve got an outcrop of Ladoix limestone, with sigmoidal bedding typically deposited with tidal action, its tidal deposits.
Brenna: Here, Françoise points out a natural wall of limestone rock, called Ladoix limestone— the rock itself consists of broken up fossils, or shell debris and it is distinctly layered with thin beds of limestone only a few centimeters thick. The layers are wavy, or sigmoidal, and were formed by the tumultuous changing tides on the ocean floor 160 million years ago.
Françoise: Traditionally this limestone is the best for roofing, because the tiles are already pre-cut and you just have to take them! In Ladoix you’ve got a big quarry where this limestone has been very well exploited to build the traditional roofs of Burgundy. And for 40 years local geologists have been using the name Ladoix because it is used in Ladoix. Geologists are very boring people. They see limestone in Premeau; they call it Premeaux limestone! Etc.
Brenna (Narration): Francoise explains that the layer below this Ladoix limestone is called Pernand limestone and contains nodules of Chert. Chert, is hard, glassy microcrystalline silica or quartz.
This is a tricky part of the geologic story – there are at least two different layers of limestone around here that can contain these chert nodules, but they are inconsistent, and can be hard to find…
This Pernand limestone represents a period of geologic time when the depositional environment changed laterally–meaning that different types of rocks were formed at the same time, not very far from each other. The simplest way to explain this is to imagine that you and I are together at a lake. I’m standing on the sandy beach and you have waded out into the water with your toes in the mud.
This kind of geologic deposit is actually very common throughout the Côte de Beaune, and we call these lateral differences facies changes.
Francoise: So you see the silicon nodules there? The chert, they are not silex they are less perfect because you see very often they are not completely filled. But kind of chert with soft sediments… And this is the limestone that contains the chert, and clearly see that the chert develop at the limits, different beds. This is because water circulated when it was still a small fine grained sand or something like that.
Brenna (Narration): She explains that these chert nodules were likely once marine sponge spicules, made up of silica, which dissolved and turned into globs as the sediments were buried and squished. The soils at the base of the hill sit upon yet another limestone called Corton limestone. The bottom of the slope is often deeper having accumulated the slope wash from above, and is also often de-carbonated…meaning much of the limestone has dissolved away and mostly clay remains…
Françoise: You want to go on top of the hill to see the white marl?
Brenna (Narration): From our current position at the Ladoix limestone, we begin our hike up the hill…
[Climbing on rock noises ensues]
Françoise: So we are climbing in the marl.
Brenna: So, I have a big question about marl.
Françoise: I only have small answers
(chuckling together and continuing up the hill)
Brenna (Narration): The bedrock of much of the top portion of the hill consists of white marl – by definition, marl is a type of limestone that consists of a significant amount of clay and is therefore often referred to as “dirty limestone”.
[Catchy drums play]
(Narration continues) Francoise is a geologist so she is strictly speaking about a solid limestone rock, that contains a significant amount of clay minerals, but we’re on a slippery slope here, marl can also be used as a term for soils or unconsolidated sediments, as opposed to bedrock, that contain a similar proportion of limestone and clay– this is what we mean when we refer to the Bresse marls out on the plain in the distance…the term “dirty limestone” usually makes sense when the rock looks grayish or brown, …but here, the stark white color of the rock and soil doesn’t look very dirty at all.
Françoise: So, you’ve got some white beds, they are secondary precipitations, you have one foot of soil, then very often you’ve got some roots. You can see white cylinders around the roots because there are some chemical reactions when the rock interacts with the plants. This announces carbon precipitation, so very often you have the marl you can see the white tubes around the roots.
Brenna (Narration): The white color comes from the high content of calcium carbonate in the soil–the calcium carbonate comes from the dissolved limestone, but then because there is so much clay in marls it hangs out in place some more, where it can re-precipitate, often even forming a white casing around the roots.
Brenna: And that is super harsh on the wine right?
Françoise: Yes, yes.
Brenna: Some of the wine on the white marls, that will taste really harsh.
Françoise: Ignore this, because I’m not an agronomist, but the wines will have harsher tannins, I can’t explain it. It’s just an observation I made, I don’t have any scientific explanation, but yeah you are right.
Brenna: Yeah there are not good answers.
Brenna (Narration): So, it's a harsh environment, which can correlate to a grippy, harsh, tannic texture in the wines…
Brenna: So do you think that by definition a marl rock should be more soft compared to limestone.
Françoise: Uh, softer. At least it is easier to break.
Brenna: So for the most part would you say that marls will erode more on the slope, because they weather more?
Françoise: Yes, yes. Exactly, so there is less resistance to erosion and will erode more rapidly than the limestone.
[introspective piano begins to play]
Brenna (Narration): To recap here: white marl has a lot of calcium carbonate or, is strongly calcareous, and it is softer than limestone, so it erodes more smoothly along the slope…it is certainly worth pointing out again that there is more white marl along the top of the slope of Corton, which also happens to be the part of the slope that is consistently planted to Chardonnay…even on the opposite side which is mostly planted to Pinot Noir
--plus1 pt for the white soils - white wine legend…
Even though our heads are spinning with questions about marl and clay and secondary calcium precipitation, we’ve already spent more of our day here than we’d planned so we turn around and head back down the hill…as we near our car, Francoise leads us to an outcrop of rocks not far from where we started…But this one looks distinctly different than the ones we have seen today…
Françoise: Ah, ok so, this is Breccia. It is a fault, I’m quite sure of it.
Brenna (Narration): This breccia represents the trace of a fault that cuts through the layers of limestone we have just walked through…at the moment, Francoise is in the middle of producing her geologic study of Corton–so she understands the original geology quite well, and is now identifying the locations of the faults and trying to decipher how they have offset and rearranged the limestone layers.
Michael: So what's breccia?
Françoise: Breccia is a rock made up of pieces of limestone. It is a result of the movement between two compartments. If you move one rock against another it is not very easy, you have some angular pieces because you have a fault, you have a limit where water can circulate (water rich in carbon dioxide and calcium) that cements the pieces of limestone together. So now, you have a new rock only twenty-five million years old, made up of much older limestone.
Brenna (Narration): Movement along the fault grinds up the surrounding rocks which later get cemented together by carbonate rich fluids. This breccia provides an elegant illustration of the geologic history of the Côte d’Or…the limestone layers we have just walked through were deposited on a warm shallow seafloor over 160 million years ago… 25 million years ago as Africa collided into Europe, faults cracked through the now hard limestone bedrock… since then, continued movement, weathering and erosion has exposed these rocks on earth’s surface, where exceptional grapes have been grown for over 1000 years. These grapes produced wines that were likely enjoyed by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who may or may not have had a beard...Today we stand here witnessing all of this, which conveniently fits into the frame of Michael’s camera lens…which Francoise insists also includes a shot of her hammer, for scale.
Françoise: Do you want my hammer? To make a scale? Geologists are strange people, they don’t take pictures of their husbands or children, just their hammer, everywhere.
Brenna: (laughing) Yeah
Françoise: My hammer in California, my hammer in Chile, my hammer in France. (Laughing with Brenna).
[Calming music fades them out as motorbikes pass and honk at them on the road]
2.3 Review of Corton Wines
Brenna (Narration): As we’ve mentioned, Corton is a big, complicated place – 145 hectares or 360 acres split up between three villages, plus the confusion about what should actually be planted here, and therefore what the greatest wines should taste like...in this sense, I guess it’s understandable that it is probably one of the least celebrated, or least appreciated of the Grand Crus…In the Côte d’Or.
Raj Parr: Oh, I think Corton is definitely underappreciated, it doesn’t get the same respect. You’d never pick it out in a blind tasting, you’d say ‘Chambolle’ or something.
Brenna (Narration): This is Raj Parr – former superstar sommelier now winegrower on the California coast (Raj needs no introduction – and you can hear more about some of his Californian projects in the first season of Roadside Terroir).
Much of Raj’s sommelier career focused on Burgundy, and he played a huge part in bringing Burgundy to the global acclaim that it has today – including the incredible program he put together at San Francisco’s former landmark restaurant RN74 – named after the road we were just driving on.
Raj: Corton was forgotten a lot. The old wines were always kind of bony crusty and austere. Even the red wines taste like white wines. They age very gracefully, but they have this bony structure, you know…
Brenna (Narration): Raj goes on to discuss how this wine texture relates to the geology of the hill…
Raj: You know clay, being the muscle and limestone being the bones, now it's kind of obvious. If you walk up the hill, as you have, you are walking and suddenly you’re in this kind of gooey clay, little turn and you’re on a spine of pure limestone and you’re gonna slip off because it’s like: where did the clay go?
It really is this landmine puzzle, you don’t know where you’re going to get some clay and where you’re going to get hard exposed limestone. A lot has changed in Corton in the last twenty years.
Brenna (Narration): Paul echoes this sentiment and goes on to say…
Paul: Corton remains unknown, underappreciated. We were all hoping with the arrival of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti on the hill would help, but we haven’t really seen that yet.
Brenna (Narration): In 2008 (or in 2009) Domaine de la Romanée-Conti leased a small section of Corton, and in 2018 added a parcel of Corton Charlemagne as well…
Aubert de Villaine: I thought it would be a good challenge for the team…but it was a difficult decision…
Brenna (Narration): Here, Aubert de Villaine, the co-owner and co-director of the greatest domaine on the planet, explains what this meant to them, and what they hope to accomplish…
Aubert: When you read the famous Laval book he puts the red Corton at the same level as Chambertin…but of course limited to …but limited to Bressandes, Clos du Roi and Renards…so our idea is little by little to do the things that will put Corton at the level of Chambertin–I don't mean price, I mean at the interest…quality…when I look around I see material vegetal that is not at the top, If experience has told me something you can have the best terroir in the world the best climate in Burgundy if you don't have very fine types of pinot you never reach the potential, its as import as the soil and its sometimes forgotten…
Brenna (Narration): Aubert indicates that the care of farming is absolutely critical to understanding and expressing terroir, and believes that historically this may not have always been the case on the hill…which makes me wonder if part of the confusion of what to plant has slowed down some of the precision in farming…either way, Aubert takes this task very seriously and explains that they have even added a facility in Ladoix in order to give their land the Côte de Beaune the appropriate time and attention.
Aubert: So suddenly in the Côte de Beaune we had almost 7 hectares, so I decided to create a unit of production in Ladoix Serrigny, and now we have all that we need to cultivate Corton Charlemagne, Corton rogue, Montrachet that all our vineyards in Côte de Beaune are managed from this unit…and that was interesting because it obliged us to do things we never thought we thought we would do…
Brenna (Narration): This is another example of how human behavior can impact the expression of terroir – vine material and farming practices can be just as important, if not more, than winemaking.
…So, If we can assume farming is a fit.. What does great Corton taste like?
Paul: So, red Corton falls into the category of muscular wines. This means that the tannic structure is more prominent, this means that they are meant to age and they are also very reasonable compared to the Grand Cru of the Côte de Nuits
Brenna (Narration): Both Raj and Paul point out that Corton reds can be bony and rigid…but that other factors such as sites with heavier clay OR warmer vintages can add some flesh and weight…
Raj: In my overall idea I have probably had better white wines. If there was one, but now with the slightly warmer climate, warmer years the reds are getting fleshier, they are very pure, very precise.
Brenna (Narration): David Croix, who we spoke to in our last episode also farms a bit of Corton, his favorite being a small parcel at the base of the south facing slope.
David Croix: This is Corton, so southwest facing and bottom part of the slope… 60-80 centimeters of brown clay soil and then limestone, but for me it’s the terroir. Corton absorbs better than that of Beaune. About 40% of Beaune you would smell it more than here. Here for me if I was tasting the wine blind I would say that it is zero. It’s a red wine that almost has the balance of a white wine in terms of the freshness and the palette. It has characteristics of white in a sense.
Brenna (Narration): The whites on the hill also tend to be austere…especially compared to other great white wine vineyards in the Côte de Beaune, such as Montrachet, but here the austerity is part of the charm.
Perhaps the best known, and certainly most expensive example of Corton Charlemagne is made by Coche-Dury…which easily sells for over $ 7,000 per bottle… I can’t say I have ever tasted this wine myself, but my understanding is that their winemaking style encourages richness to balance out the edges.
In contrast, the domaine best known for embracing Corton’s austerity is probably Bonneau du Martray…
Paul: Bonneau du Martray comes into the story of Corton after the revolution. They were a reference standard for Corton Charlemagne for a long time and I think they became so again once they went biodynamic in 2005. They produced that style of Corton which, at its best, is absolutely luminescent… penetrating in a mineral kind of way, and tart and extremely vibrant. As we know the domaine got sold a couple of years ago, but they didn’t change a ton.So it continues to be Bonneau du Martray, Corton Charlemagne.
Brenna (Narration): The domaine was sold to none other than billionaire Stan Kronke, owner of the LA Rams, Screaming Eagle in Napa Valley, as well as Jonata Vineyard in Santa Barbara County, which we visited in Season 1…
Paul: And first of all that affects, on the western facing side, it affects the sunlight. Much less morning sun, and much more evening sun. According to Jean-Charles le Bault de la Morinière who was in charge of making the wines at Bonneau du Martray until the vineyard was sold, that's a defining character for the white wine. He compared it to painting and he said that the Grand Crus of Montrachet are very outgoing and rich and he compared that to, I think, Botticelli and, and lots of light. And he compared Corton Charlemagne to dutch painting. Vermeer, Rembrandt, to this much darker light, and he literally attributes that to differences in sunlight. He said that when the sunsets there is at least an hour more of sunlight in the evening on Corton Charlemagne. And that is where the character comes from, this sort of reserved, it's colder light, it’s intense light, less expressive and is phenomenal because it is reserved and hyper mineral, and very tense.
Brenna (Narration): The hill of Corton is a big place, with complex geology, and an even more complex history…Today: with increased efforts in farming, a better understanding of the terroir, and the presence of none other than Domaine de la Romanée Conti , it might be entering a new stage of greatness…
2.4 Corton Stratigraphy Recap
[transitional music plays]
Brenna (Narration): This is what Francoise describes as a typical succession, or stratigraphy, of the geologic layers of the hill: Corton limestone at the base, then Ladoix limestone, a thin layer of iron-rich oolite, Pernand marl, and a hard cap rock of Upper Jurassic limestone…
From this west-facing vantage point, we turn our attention across the valley, where another slope with a cap of green forest faces us directly. These are the vineyards of Pernand-Vergelesses and Savigny-lès-Beaune.
Brenna: So then over here is this the Savigny?
Françoise: Yes, this is still Pernand-Vergelesses, after the wood over here you’ve got the first vines of Savigny
Brenna: Ok, so its mirror image
Françoise: Roughly, but not quite because the ferruginous oolite elevations are not quite matching from one side to the other. You’ve got one fault and I will put another fault but roughly the series is the same.
Brenna (Narration): Even though the series of rock types is similar, Francoise can already tell that there is more complexity hiding beneath the surface…the rocks may have formed millions of years ago…but her work , and our work to understand the terroirs and the wines is still ongoing.
Part 3 – Savigny-Lés-Beaune
3.1 Pernand (Chorey) and Savigny Vineyards
[sounds of walking outside]
Brenna (Narration): We make our way down and over to the east facing slope opposite Corton Charlemagne
At midday, most of the varied slopes of this area are illuminated with light, with the southern exposures receiving the full power of the sun…
The area tucked back behind the hill of Corton is Pernand-Vergelesses…there is a small, relatively steep valley that continues back into the Hautes Côtes de Beaune here…the appellation follows the small alluvial fan that projects out of the valley, and abruptly transitions to Savigny-Lés-Beaune along the east-facing slope…
There are several intersecting valleys here, which Francoise points out align with major faults beneath the surface…Pernand-Vergelesses follows this small combe, but Savigny-Lés-Beaune encompasses a much larger, wider valley –
Françoise: The Rhoin, a huge river, is usually flowing from Savigny-Lés-Beaune to Chorey. (laughs) No, I’m just joking, but during the coldest period the flow was not the same. It was like a mountain river and it carried a lot of alluvium…
Brenna (Narration): Unfortunately, I can’t even begin to pronounce the name of this valley…or I’ll spare you my attempt at pronouncing the name of this river…
Brenna: Look, at this I can’t even begin to pronounce… this river.
Paul: No, you can't. R-H-O-I-N. Nobody can, not even the French can.
Brenna: (chuckling with Paul) Ok, so don’t even try.
Paul: (continues to pronounce Rhoin with emphasis)
Brenna (Narration): The valley cuts back into the côte to the west and stretches over 700 meters from one slope to the next, and just like in Pernand-Vergelesses, there are vineyards facing each-other on either side…
In Savigny the Premier Crus on the north side face almost directly south, and those on the south side face to the north east.
Françoise: It’s one of the rare valleys where a river is flowing- all of the other valleys are dry valleys, because they were dug during the cold ice ages. There were no glaciers here, but there were some in the alps clearly and the jura. But here it was cold, but there were no glaciers here.
Brenna (Narration): Francoise makes a point of explaining that both the small combes of the côte and the occasional larger valleys were all formed during the recent ice ages (so, we’re talking tens of thousands of years…as opposed to millions, but also notes that there is absolutely NO evidence of true glacial activity in this part of France…meaning the valleys were dug by water when the ground thawed in the spring and summer, as opposed to being dug out by ice…
This valley extends all the way back to Bouilland, the long-time home of the Wasserman family, and Paul loves to point out that the limestone alluvium we are standing on is derived from the cliffs surrounding his home…
Further out to the east –, is Chorey-Lés-Beaune…which sits on a deep alluvial fan of this very material…
Françoise: For sure part of Savigny vineyard is laying onto the alluvium. Alluvium is good for vineyards because it is well draining, easy for roots to deepen.Not necessarily the best Grand Cru nevertheless part of the Clos de Vougeot or the Echézeaux are laying onto alluvium. So!
Brenna (Narration): Domaine Tollot-Beaut is based in Chorey-Lés-Beaune and makes an excellent bottling of Chorey in addition to their wines from the more well-known surrounding villages…
Françoise: Chorey is dominated by the alluviums of the Rhoin, and that is why the vineyards are extending so far into the east! Most of the subsoils in Chorey are well draining and favorable to the vine cultivation.
Brenna (Narration): In Burgundy, you often get the sense that alluvial wines are seriously subpar to the bedrock terroirs on the slopes…which might lead you to believe that alluvial terroirs follow this trend globally…I encourage you not to fall into this trap.
[ringing transitional music]
There are excellent wines produced from alluvial fans–such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Napa Valley, and, most obviously, Bordeaux…and there are also excellent alluvial wines in Burgundy too.
A lot of this idea probably comes from the image of the Bresse marls, which we discussed and somewhat dismissed earlier…It’s also worth keeping in mind that the deep sediments in the middle of the Saône Valley also likely come into contact with the water table, whereas stony alluvial fan vineyards from the combes, can have deep, well draining, rocky soils.
Another major component of these combes and valleys is that they are also a source of cool, forested air – something that is becoming more and more important as the climate warms…
Françoise also points out that there is further geological significance to these combes…but we’ll save that for another day…
3.2 Pernand to Savigny with Chandon de Briailles
[Operatic music plays]
Brenna (Narration): we’re visiting with François de Nicolay of Chandon de Briailles, who is based in Savigny and has significant holdings here as well as in Corton and Pernand. They’re an historic domaine that have more recently gained a global reputation for pushing the limits of both farming and winemaking.
Raj: Really the rise of, uh, Chandon de Briailles
Brenna (Narration): Here’s Raj again
Raj: …Which kind of has created a ripple of ideas, which is now trickling into other wine growers around Burgundy. When you do the history of wine in the last hundred years or so, they’ll be as important a domaine and really pivotal on the hill of Corton because they have so many parcels, making white and red and perhaps the best skin macerated wine in Burgundy, if not all of France.
Brenna (Narration): As we head to the vines, François explains the history of the domaine, while pointing out some of his favorite vineyards as we pass by…
François de Nicolay: The domaine started back in 1834, with my great great great grandfather. He had vines when he bought the property and he built the winery and some new cellars for his activity and my great great grandmother sold fields for cereals up there and she bought the Corton, the 3.10 hectares of Corton. and then my father bought a very small part of Corton Charlemagne. And myself I bought Savigny-Lés-Beaune - it's half a hectare. Here we are in the Savigny area and now on your left and on your right is Savigny Lavieres and our plot is just there. We have planted fruit trees here. You know? Voila, and this is 2.6 hectares parcel. Now, the 14 hectares are plowed by horse, four horses and three guys! And this is Savigny Aux Fourneaux. And now we are going toward Pernand-Vergelesses, the village. We cannot see it now but we we gonna see it after. And the Pernand Ile des Vergelesses starts here. Here is Savigny and over here is Pernand Ile des Vergelesses.
Michael: Why is it called Ils de Vergelesses?
Francois de Nicolay: Because Ils means Island and it means that it is the best part of something, it is the heart–
Michael: So Ils de Paris et Ils de France?
Francois de Nicolay: Ah! Oui! Yeah, absolutely.
Brenna (Narration): We stop in the vineyard Ils des Vergelesses…which exists just on the border of Pernand and Savigny…the lower parts, Les Basses Vergelesses and Ile de Vergeleses are in Pernand and just above Ile des Vergelesses on the east facing slope is Aux Vergelesses, which belongs to Savigny…all are Premier Cru…
As we walk through the vineyard Francois and Michael discuss the site and how it is farmed…
Francois de Nicolay: So it’s our plot. It's like four hectares, there is about 2.8 hectares red and 1 hectare of white. You want to walk down there?
[seat belts unbuckling and car doors opening and closing as they get out of the car]
Michael: You converted to biodynamic…?
Francois de Nicolay: Ah, we started in 2005. And then we totally converted by 2011. For the life, for us, the most important thing is the soil. And with the horses we have decompacted a lot of the soil, so the soils are very alive. When it rains, for example, the water saturated the soil and it doesn’t run off into the rivers it stays here. When your soil is very alive, what you get is on the roots you get those very very tiny mushrooms you know? They are like a sponge.
Francois de Nicolay: Yes, Mycelium. Like a sponge, when it rains it takes up the water. Then when it is dry it gives up the water. It brings not only the water it also brings the soil the micro elements to the roots, all the minerals, the character, typicity of the climate is coming from there. That is why it is so important to have soil that is alive.
After a while we could see the wines were fermenting differently. The elevage was different. When you were tasting the wines during the year it was very just surprising how things were going. And a little frightening, but in the end… oh god, so brilliant, so different. It has a very balanced terroir, quite a full body, quite mineral of course and a little pepper. Wines can age as much as the Corton. We do love this parcel actually.
Michael: A lot of people say it should have been a Grand Cru…
Brenna (Narration): From Vergelesses, we continue to wrap around the hill, back into the vineyards of Savigny les Beaune – including Lavieries and Talmettes…
Francois de Nicolay: I think it is the best part of Savigny, really. You’ve this Lavieries, Talmettes and if you go on the right side on the top Ile des Vergelesses you have Savigny and Aux Vergelesses. Fantastic terroir!
Brenna (Narration): And Paul agrees…
Paul: Savigny is one of my favorite villages in Burgundy. The premiere Crus are absolutely stunning. It's a big valley, so there are definitely two sides. The south side faces east and north east. You have a very famous vineyard there called La Dominode, it's not on every map, and below it is Les Narbantons. But, my true love is the north side because it benefits from the same light as Corton and faces south. They are incredibly varied but it suffers from the reputation that it produces value wines, which you know it’s kind of a death sentence.
Brenna (Narration): Not that long ago, Burgundy was relatively affordable and people stuck to drinking the greatest and most famed vineyards because well, because they could. Today, villages that were once under the radar, are still barely within reach of mere mortals like me…
Paul: Also the large alluvial fan made the valley floor wines very rounded and back in the day when people prized minerality that wasn’t ok. But today its very ok
Brenna (Narration): Both Savigny and Pernand produce both red and white wines…even if the reds are more plentiful, especially in Savigny…Alluvial soils can provide a pleasant balance, even if they do tend to be slightly less serious, – fresh, elegant friendliness is translated by both grapes…
The author, Jon Bonné once pointed out to me that it seemed like Savigny vineyards could do just about everything, and I think this is spot on. Sure, they might overall have a reputation of being soft and pretty – reflecting the significant alluvial fan…but the two opposing slopes are also packed with very serious wines with distinct personalities.
Here’s Raj again…
Raj: Pernand Vergelesses, absolutely. Ils des Vergelesses is many times as good as anything from Corton. Just with Chandon de Briailles example. My two favorite wines from them are opposite wines. Savigny Les Lavières is always the most open, most delicious red fruit, always open for business and Ils de Vergelesses is always like two years behind it. I think that would kind of define the Pernand Vergelesses if you compare that to Savigny on the borders on that side.
[car driving ]
Brenna (Narration): We continue west towards the village of Savigny and drive along at the bottom of the valley of the name we can’t pronounce, peering out at the vineyards that extend up the slopes on either side of us
3.3 Pernand and Savigny Wines @ Bize Cellar
Brenna (Narration): In Savigny, we say goodbye to Francois and Françoise and head to our final stop of the day…
Raj: When you look at Savigny all you think about is Patrick Bize, you know. His spirit and his energy and how he was always so proud to open an old magnum of the wine and he would put it right next to any Grand Cru, and rightfully so, you know.
Brenna (Narration): One of the few historically great names of Savigny les Beaune is Domaine Simon Bize
Paul: He was part of that gang that started tasting outside of their doors of their own cellars. That was novel. And really, part of that first generation to systematically go out and taste. And he was part of that gang. He was less mentioned for a while because he was in lowly Savigny-lès-Beaune but he was considered a great great great wine maker. Tragically he passed away in 2013. And Chisa and Patrick’s sister, Marielle Grivot, had to continue, while we are waiting for the children to take part. Hugo, the son, is actually working at the domaine.
Brenna (Narration): Chisa Bize, Patrick’s wife, is originally from Japan. She was drawn here by Patrick and has been slowly leaving her mark at the domaine, while also recruiting and cultivating what has now become a vibrant Japanese community throughout Burgundy…
Paul and Chisa are close friends–he pulls the barrel samples and chimes in as she tells her story…
Chisa Bize: I’m not Burgundy… obviously.
I met Patrick when I was thirty years old, in Tokyo and I came here in 1997 during harvest time… and never left. My first impression of Savigny just - Patrick Bize.
(Paul and Brenna chuckle)
Patrick Bize is very dommage
Paul: Patrick was, just this character
Paul: Larger than life.
Chisa: At that time Burgundy was not very international, it was very closed off, very country-side.
Paul: It was not the Burgundy you know today. There were no restaurants, there were bad wine lists, it was… I mean I left for a reason.
[introspective music plays]
Chisa Bize: But actually I was a very city girl at the time. I came here with fashionable pantaloons and trousers and big shoes and when I arrived here Patrick saw me and said “You! Out!”
Immediately I was fired. And then after we had a baby, and then I was kind of housekeeper all the time. I was incharge of making fifty plates for fifty people. I was making harvest lunch, that was my job. At the beginning.
Little by little the children were getting bigger, so I had more time to myself. I was looking for what can I do? What is my place? Where is my place in the domaine? At the beginning there was no place for me…
[Introspective music interludes]
Brenna (Narration): Chisa was a banker in her previous life in Japan, so she decided to take a look at the Domain’s finances…
Chisa Bize: It was terrible!
(Brenna and Bize laugh)
Terrible! It was impossible Because Patrick was only selling the wine he liked!
And when I saw it! (Bize gasps). This is impossible!
That was 2009. Patrick and I had made a price list and everything, and Patrick said: “If you can do it, do it.” And like this little by little I started to do more.
Brenna (Narration): Over time, Chisa also developed an interest in farming, and became particularly interested in biodynamics, and attended the school for biodynamics designed by Anne Claude Leflaive…
Eventually Patrick gave her a parcel to practice her new and unorthodox farming ideas
We begin the tasting by comparing two wines, served blind:
Paul and Chisa converse in French…
Paul: So, there is going to be a comparison of two Savingnys. First you will taste, then say what you prefer and Chisa will tell us what it
Brenna: The first one was like a horse at a rodeo, more wild.
Chisa Bize: Ok, first one is more wild, ok.
Paul: I like number two, more acidity, energy, density.
Brenna: It sounds like we had a very similar experience.
Chisa Bize: So one was copper sulfur… very standard treatment the other one is only plant treatment.
Paul: No copper or sulfur treatment? Zero?!
Chisa Bize: None
Brenna and Paul: Wow!
Brenna (Narration): We then continue to taste through the Premier Crus of Savigny, each one more expressive than the next…
Chisa Bize: For me, Fourneaux is traditionally very charming, but the last few years it is getting more elegant and more elegant
[clinking of glasses and wine being poured]
Chisa Bize: For me the difficult parcel is Marconnets and Talmettes, but for the first time… I got it!
Paul: Marconnets, the only Premiere Cru of the Bize’s on the southern part of the village, and even though Marconnets is a Premier Cru up on the slope its marked by the alluvial fan that does all of the north of Beaune too - that’s got that roundness to it - so it’s kind of like the best of both worlds. It’s really, really pretty wine. Not a lot of it. How many three barrels?
Chisa Bize: Yes
Paul: 75 cases for the world? Where does it go? Who knows… Chisa… despite the fact we are close–
Chisa Bize: For my retirement.
(Everyone laughs heartily)
Paul: See she remains a banker when it comes to allocations.
[wine being poured as everyone continues to chuckle]
Paul (Con’t): Aux Vergelesses, which is the traditional flagship of the Domaine. That austerity is very much white soil. It does produce leaner wines, however with age it just becomes extraordinary. I mean it is really the flagship for a reason.
[Music plays while wine is poured once again]
Paul: Aux Guettes, it’s agressive.
Brenna: It ends, but then this reverberation at the end
Paul: Salinity, you know the salt, like really crushed stone tannins, which are discreet but persistent… wow.
[Transitional music plays]
Paul: So in 2017, was the appearance of different wines at Bize. Wines that don’t necessarily fit what we think of Burgundy. Like you’ve got a maceration of Pinot Gris for Akatcha and You had wines with zero sulfur.
Chisa Bize: I didn’t show this to many people. But I did it because I was curious. I started this wine for my curiosity, but every year this curiosity wine, I’m making more and more. So one day I have to sell, because … well..
Brenna (Narration): There are many parallels and continuations from Patrick’s life and legacy at life at the Domaine.
Chisa Bize: As far as I know, He said, always believe in the grapes. Just believe. Always he said: Do nothing. So that’s what I’ve learned. When something is wrong we always want to do something but just believe. Believing is difficult, but doing nothing is the most difficult thing.
Brenna (Narration): Burgundy lovers around the world remain vehemently passionate about these wines, and find comfort in the fact that Patrick’s spirit lives on in Chisa, his children, and certainly in the wines themselves…
Paul: They are very contemporary, very relevant and still stunning. And full of soul, I think it is one of the most soulful domaines we represent.
[Phone alarms sounds]
Chisa Bize: Ah! Time to go
Paul: Time to go, no whites for us. Another time, we will drink some in a restaurant. OK, shows over
[Chisa Bize and Brenna laugh and transitional music plays]
Part 4: Le Soleil and Closing
Brenna (Narration): As we leave the Cellar at Bize, we walk exactly 10 steps before we hit our final destination…a little restaurant just next door, called Le Soleil…
Summer days are long at this high latitude, so even though we are headed to dinner, and its nearing 9 pm there is still some daylight hanging onto the horizon.
[laughing and restaurant noises, the pouring of more wine]
Brenna (Narration Con’t): Le Soleil is owned by Simon Bize, so it has an incredible list of back-vintage Bize that you could easily spend your life working through, but it also has an extensive, creative list of affordable, international, natural-leaning wines as well…
The front of the house is run by Lola, Chisa’s niece, who is all at both once warm and cool… The kitchen is run by a young couple – Layla and her partner Svante: who each boast very impressive Parisian resumes and a deep appreciation of the local produce, wine, and people. Together, the three of them have created an atmosphere that feels like home, only endlessly better, and represents the community that is building in Savigny right now…
Raj: There’s a vibe in Savigny right now, micro negociants are not so micro anymore. - Like Chanterêves There are interesting people buying Savignys, like David Croix. Theres’ great restaurant, there’s a community, theres young people and even new organic and biodynamic farmers. It’s just… the place, the people the time… It’s probably linked to the fact that you can go progressive when you don’t have Grand Crus that need to represent something. I think there's more freedom.
[introspective music plays]
Raj (con’t): You know, Chandon de Briailles and Simon Bize, they are more kind of start up wines from young producers coming up who have worked at both those domaines and really kind of leap and land into high level farming, and making wines in smaller places and appellations and really kind of focusing on vine health.
Brenna (Narration): Both of these domaines have recently shaped young growers who have gone on to do great things…including Christian (Knott) the chef du cave at Chandon de Briailles who launched Domaine Dandelion in 2016 with his partner Morgane in the Hautes Cotes.
Guillaume Bott made the white wines at Bize up until just weeks ago. He and his wife Tomoko Kuriyama run the well loved micro negociant, Chanterêves, which has grown and expanded to include their own, carefully farmed parcels as well in recent years. –as it happens, the two met at Bize…
[introspective music plays as the dinner conversation fades into the background]
Brenna (Narration): Once again, our geologic investigation has pulled us into the world of the people who live here, and how they care for the land. Over dinner, we discuss what we’ve discovered about red wine soils and white wine soils…and realize that once again we’ve probably uncovered more questions than answers… so, we’ll just have to see what we discover next time…
In our next episode, we head South to continue our investigation of Pinot Noir in the Côte de Beaune by visiting some well renowned vineyards…and visit with a few producers we’re pretty sure you’ve heard of. We’ll see you there…
Thanks for listening.
This episode is made possible by our Season 2 PARTNERS: Becky Wasserman & Co, La Paulee, and Acker Wines…
Roadside Terroir is hosted and produced by me, Brenna Quigley
Recording and sound engineering by Nick Canepa, and original music and sound design by Jeff Alvarez
This season wouldn’t be possible without the support from all of you–thank you for listening, sharing, emailing, and supporting us however you can. Check out our website roadsideterroir.com to learn how you can stay in touch, and how to help support this season by becoming a Roadside Insider, or a Season 2 Patron.
We would also like to thank our very first Grand Cru Patron –Steve Lipin –thank you so much for your encouragement and support.
References/Resources/Acknowledgements/Other thank you's…
Thank you to our guests: Francoise Vannier, Michael Sager, Paul Wasserman, Rajat Parr, Aubert de Villaine, Francois de Nicolay, David Croix, and Chisa Bize.
Thank you to Esa Eslami, Jerusha Frost, Summer Staeb, and everyone else who helped make this episode a reality.
Brenna: [gasps] I was wrong!
Michael: Why are you wrong?
Brenna: We are not going to Camille's tonight. It’s Thursday!
Michael: Oh, Fucccck.
Brenna: We have to try for Le Soleil tonight.
Brenna: Or tomorrow?
Michael: Closed. Tomorrow is closed. Augh, I can hear my own voice.
Michael: (chuckles along) That is awful, how do you bear this?
Brenna: You have to pretend it's someone else. My voice sounds different in my head so you just…
END OF EPISODE 2