Andrew Jefford takes a close look at Châteauneuf’s other soil type: sand
Back to a theme I last tackled in my blog of March 19th this year: the search for character differences in wines based on soil type. It’s the holy grail of terroir studies – but difficult to prove.
Soil type, remember, is only one element in the terroir equation. There’s also climate at all of its different scales, from macro to micro, as well as topography and the weather patterns of a particular vintage, combined with local viticultural and wine-making practices. For this reason, the most useful comparisons involve wines from different soil types within a single zone and a single vintage, since the variations furnished by those other non-soil factors are minimised.
Scroll down for tasting notes
In March, we compared young St Chinian wines based on schist and limestone soils. The results were encouraging, so in April I set off for Châteauneuf to consider wines produced there on sandy rather than rolled pebble soils.
A bit of context first. Châteauneuf is a large appellation containing just over 3,200 ha of vines. That single appellation, in other words, is almost as big as the entire Côtes de Nuits in Burgundy (which is around 3,600 ha). It contains a multitude of soil types. The visually enticing rolled pebbles known as galets roulés are the most famous, but you’ll also find sandy soils and brilliantly white, fractured limestone soils as well as fine gravels and marl and clay soils.
“What you see on the surface,” cautions Julien Barrot of Domaine La Barroche, “isn’t always what’s beneath.” Sand and clay, points out Barrot, are everywhere in Châteauneuf, including underneath the rolled pebbles. He’s had the soils in all of his parcels analysed. Even some considered not to be sandy turn out to have up to 60 per cent sand.
Setting aside that note of caution, though, every grower I met did indeed consider the principal soil types of Châteauneuf to be markedly different from one another, even if the changes between zones were more gradual than soil maps suggest, and even if there were more similarities between sub-soils than meets the casual eye. If there is a preponderant Châteauneuf soil type to consider in contrast to the big rolled pebbles, it would indeed be sand.
The key sand zone for Châteauneuf is the northeast quarter of the appellation. The vineyards of Châteauneuf are shared by five villages, but most of the sandiest ones lie in the 663 ha of Courthézon vineyards. Notably sandy Courthézon lieu-dit zones include Bédines, Guigasse, Pignan, Pointu, Le Grès, Cristia, the eastern part of Crau, St Georges and Ste Vierges. The southern part of Pignan, Vaudieu and Grand Pierre are all sandy zones within Châteauneuf’s village boundaries, by contrast, lying to the northeast of the small town itself.
It’s not just “sand”, either. There are indeed soils which resemble soft beach sand here, but there are also soils based on what locals call safres, and there is grès or sandstone, too; used locally to build walls. These are differences of texture and compaction. One grower defined safres to me as a grès tendre – a soft sandstone, lumps of which can be disintegrated by rubbing. It’s an intermediate stage between hard sandstone and soft sand. You’ll find all three here, as well as sands with other admixtures – such as the grès roux du Comtat: russet-coloured sandy-clay soils over limestone slabs.
So what’s the overall wine style given by Châteauneuf’s sandy soils?
Remember that Grenache is Châteauneuf’s principal grape variety (almost 75 per cent of plantings, combining all of the colour variants together), even though 13 grape varieties are permitted in the AOP. Grenache is never more powerful than it can be in Châteauneuf – in terms of colour, in terms of structure, and in terms of meaty or even beefy character. That, I would suggest, is what the galets roulés can do – perhaps because of their legendary ‘night-storage heater’ effect, but more probably because of the nutritious clays which tend to lie beneath them.
And that is precisely what sand doesn’t do. The more sand, the less ‘meaty’ and structured the Grenache will seem.
Let me put it another way. The red wines of Châteauneuf range from beefy to ‘burgundian’. If you want beefy, look for galets roulés. If you want ‘burgundian’, look for sand.
“Fine, fresh wines” was the three-word summary of Emmanuel Raynaud, as we strode out on a cool, wet April morning to look at the key vineyard sites of Ch Rayas, whose wine incarnates the ‘Grenache on sand’ style. Rayas is pure Grenache grown on almost pure sands (though the soils have an admixture of clay, too). “Our Grenache – the finest and lightest sort of Grenache – doesn’t need clay. It’s not the only sort of Grenache, but the finest and lightest comes from these light soils of sands and safres. And we also have more woodland than vines,” he pointed out, suggesting that the shade and the ‘air currents’ provided by the woods are important for the Rayas style. So, too, is the north-facing aspect of most of the Rayas plots, which Emmanuel Reyaud says have a “cold and austere” character.
The effect of softness and lightness isn’t simply limited to Grenache, claims Natalie Reyaud (no relation to Emmanuel) of Domaine l’Abbé Dîne, a property which has recently come out of co-operative control, with three out of its four hecatares of Châteauneuf on sand. “It brings freshness and softness to all varieties. It’s true for asparagus, too. Asparagus grown in sand is much softer and more succulent than asparagus grown in clay.”
“We tend to harvest our sand parcels around 15 days earlier than those with pebbles,” says Bruno Gaspard of Clos du Caillou, which has sandy soils in the Bédines, Cailloux and Cassanets lieux-dits. “The wines are less deeply coloured, less structured, finer and more elegant, more in a Burgundy style. They always have a freshness, even though they are low in acidity – I can’t explain that, but we always notice it. We also notice that our Syrahs have less of a cooked style on sand than on pebbles.” “The fewer the pebbles, the finer the wine,” summarises Mathieu Faurie-Grépon of Mas St Louis. “The more pebbles, the more force.”
Several growers mentioned that the propensity of sand to cool down at night by comparison to rolled pebbles is an advantage nowadays. “The sands discharge that daytime heat, to the extent that there can be a 15˚C soil difference between day and night,” says Yannick Féraud of Domaine Féraud, whose vines lie in sandy Grand Pierre close to the southern sector of Pignan. That, he suggests, is a source of freshness in the finished wines. The sands in the Coeur de Rayas vineyards, says Emmanuel Reynaud approvingly, “are cool by eight in the evening.”
Might there, though, be disadvantages to sandy soils in Châteauneuf? They drain well in wet weather, for example, but can they carry the vines through a dry spell? According to Franck Mousset of the sand-soiled Domaine des Saumades, that depends on the organic content. Sands with up to five per cent organic matter will sustain vines through a drought, whereas those with little organic content are liable to suffer.
Are the tannins adequate? “It’s true that the IPTs are lower,” says Julien Barrot, “but the dry extract is as high or even higher than wines grown on pebbles.” He also feels that the quality of the tannins is different on each soil medium. “Clay gives you large, chunky tannins, whereas the tannins you get on sand are very finely textured, like the texture of peach skin when you lick it.”
And length? “You don’t want to overdo the elegance,” according to Baptiste Grangeon of Domaine de Cristia and Chapelle St Théodoric, “since that can be perceived as dilution.” “Super fine sand soils can give you something which is a little too supple,” claims Julien Barrot. Isabelle Ogier at the Guigal-owned Domaine de Nalys (which has 50 ha in the east of the appellation) praises the “aromatic finesse and fine tannins” available on sand soils, but says that “the only drawback is that they sometimes give wines with a little less length” than other soils.
That, of course, would be the advantage of blending wines from different soil origins, as so many domains in Châteaueuf have always done and continue to do. But it’s also worth saying that sand-only properties like Rayas have not, historically, lacked the length to endure in time. “The `78 is just starting to be good,” confides Emmanuel Reynaud. “And the 2009 has 40 years to go.”