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On geological faults in Burgundy and Sonoma County

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I’m reading Benjamin Lewin MW’s new book, Wines of France, and as usual with his books, there’s more thoughtful information packed into almost every paragraph than most other wine books contain in 100 pages.

I’ll have a more complete review in a few weeks, but for now I want to comment on the role of geological faults in Burgundy and in Northern California. As Lewin writes, “Burgundy is a land of faults that create intricate variations in terroir.” The major fault, the Saône, runs down the length of the Cote d’Or; the famous Route Nationale 74 more or less marks it.

The major terroir features that the fault contributes to the Cote d’Or are the hills themselves that are oriented towards the southeast, from where they pick up that beautiful morning sun. The fault also has brought, through uplifting I would imagine, limestone close enough to the surface for the vine roots to touch it, especially mid-slope, which is where the Premier and Grand Crus are.

Yet, to a Californian, to say that the Saône Fault has created “intricate variations in terroir” is almost laughable. Compared to, say, Sonoma County’s, the Cote d’Or’s terroir is as simple as a child’s toy. Where the Cote’s soils are (as Lewin writes) a mixture of various types of limestone and marl (clay and shale), the soils of Sonoma County are complex almost beyond understanding, encompassing everything from volcanic debris to ancient bedrock, sand, pebbles, dust and clay. And where the Cote is geometrically simple to visualize (close your eyes and try it), Sonoma County is a mass of jumbled hills, valleys, swales, cliffs, riverside flatlands and orientations. It defies visualization.

Our relevant fault system in California is the San Andreas. My friend, the well-known wine writer Bob Thompson, once described these soils as a “slagheap,” a word that only begins to describe the cluttered mess. It is often said that Sonoma County contains more soil types than all of France—I may be mis-remembering the specific reference, and I’m hoping someone will point me in the right direction. But you get the point. Walk ten feet from any given spot, and the soils (structure and chemistry) under your feet will change, sometimes drastically.

So if the Cote d’Or displays “intricate variations in terroir,” we’d have to search for a word for the terroir of Sonoma County that means “intricate on steroids.” This is the main reason why the Russian River Valley will never be classified according to vineyards in the orderly, logical way that the Cote d’Or has been. It cannot be done, because there is no pattern to the soils.

The climate is another matter. It is relatively easily explainable throughout Sonoma County. But climate alone cannot be the basis of terroir; indeed, climate plays a minor role in Burgundy, where soil is King (or Queen). There is something decidedly American about the disorderliness of Sonoma County. It’s untidy, a mélange. The French dislike untidiness; it goes against their grain for organization and classification. Lucky they were to have, in the Cote d’Or, a place that really can be organized and classified by soils. They would go crazy if they had to deal with Sonoma.

I doubt if the notion of terroir would have developed the way it has, if the wine world had been centered on California, instead of France. The French not only are obsessive organizers and classifiers, they also possess a sometimes exaggerated patriotism that can verge on chauvinistic. They feel that France is the supreme nation (I am not prepared to disagree in some respects), and, once they realized that the limestone and slopes of the Cote d’Or were responsible for the fabulousness of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they rightfully coined the concept of terroir to imply that no where else in the whole world—no country, no state, no region—could ever match the Cote d’Or in quality, because the Cote d’Or is, by definition, the place that it is, and no other place on earth can be identical to it. This is a redundant truth, and it is not entirely false. But it also is not entirely true. Great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be grown elsewhere. And it also is not entirely true that California cannot produce Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that rival those of Burgundy, and can be very difficult to discern from Burgundy. What, then, does this do to the very notion of terroir? It suggests that all terroirs are equal (in a political sense, like the members of the United Nations all are equal), although, to torture George Orwell, “All terroirs are equal, but some terroirs are more equal than others.”

  1. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpt from The San Francisco Chronicle “Foods & Wine” Section
    (March 8, 2009, Page Unknown):

    “Vintner Creates Pinot Gold from Sonoma Coast’s Mysterious Mother Lode.”

    Link: http://www.sfgate.com/food/article/Vintner-creates-Pinot-gold-from-Sonoma-Coast-s-3169430.php

    By John Bonné
    Wine Editor

    . . .

    For all the acclaim, the secrets of Hirsch’s success remain a bit of a mystery, at least on the surface. For most of 30 years he has been trying to decode a wild jumble of subsoils that include rocks of all types mixed with everything from porous sandstone to impenetrable clay. It led him to divide his 71 vineyard acres into 60 different blocks, each with its own soil signature, each farmed on its own. “If you’re focused on the site,” he says, “you’re looking for what’s happening underground.”

    Such lack of consistency is extremely rare among vineyards, which makes the site defy easy comprehension. . . .

    . . . “With all due respect to the millions of words written about the effect of the California coastal climate, I would say that is a bunch of hockey poo,” he says. “The most significant terroir in our case is the San Andreas Fault.”

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Weekend” Section
    (June 14, 2013, Page Unknown):

    “The Pinot Paradise of the Cool Sonoma Coast”

    Link: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323949904578539841728588344

    By Jay McInerney
    “On Wine” Column

    . . .

    “Right over there,” he [David Hirsch] said, pointing west down the ridge, “the Pacific and North American plates come into contact and grind away to create an incredible mélange of every kind of soil type, from heavy clay to sand, and all kinds of rock has been thrown up: igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary.” It’s hard to generalize about Hirsch, or the area, but probably safe to say this geological and meteorological diversity helps account for the wines’ complexity.

    From Hirsch Vineyards website: vineyard map

    http://www.hirschvineyards.com/?method=pages.showPage&PageID=12f2d9f0-1cc4-81ae-756e-a5e315e29345&originalMarketingURL=The-Site/Vineyard-Map

    Lying adjacent to the great San Andreas Fault, Hirsch Vineyards is a single vineyard comprised of more than 60 distinct farming blocks. These blocks cover an area of 72 acres, resulting in a degree of fragmentation that is unmatched even by the famously subdivided vineyards of the Côte de Nuits. These farming blocks were determined based on soil, exposure and topography, all of which are fearsomely diverse due to the site’s proximity to the San Andreas. Each block was individually developed and is now farmed, harvested and vinified separately.

  2. It’s a very fair and interesting point that the contrasts in terroir are far greater in, say, Sonoma than Burgundy, and I’d draw two implications from this. In Burgundy, it’s because those variations are relatively subtle that the effects are so striking. You can tramp over Chambertin and Clos de Beze, for example, without being able to see any significant difference between them; yet the wines are consistently different. Perhaps that’s why the mystique attracts so much attention. In Sonoma, the differences are so widespread that I’m inclined to wonder whether there’s really any coherence to the concept of the AVA (I discuss this in my book Claret & Cabs). In fact, your comment prompts me to ask to what point consistency of terroir is required to define an area such as an AOP or AVA and at what point heterogeneity really breaks the concept?

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