Soils and climates: how they impact wine

Here are two often underestimated determinants in winemaking, sometimes even unheard of. And yet, they are both key elements in vine growing and understanding wine. Grape vines require specific conditions in order to deliver their very best fruit. Indeed, they will only grow between the 28th and 50th latitudes under relatively temperate climates. Despite the technical feats which have enabled vines to grow in unlikely countries like Thailand or Cuba, they cannot be expected to perform to their best standards under such conditions.

A terroir, combination of soils and climate, can vary enormously between different continents, countries, and regions. Even a difference of few meters can result in notably different grapes and wines! Let us lay out the origins and impacts of soils and climates.

I – Soils and climates, a long path to understanding

Vous l’aurez compris, la vigne, qui a tant fasciné les hommes à travers les siècles et qui a pu être un véritable signe de civilisation, n’a pas pu s’ériger sur tous les sols. Les conditions de culture de la vigne sont relativement complexes. A en croire la diversité des vins, ce n’est pas une chose facile à comprendre. En effet, cela a demandé des siècles et des siècles mais aussi et surtout beaucoup d’acteurs.

As we’ve mentioned, these vines which have fascinated mankind throughout the centuries and have been a true symbol of civilisation were not able to prosper anywhere. The desired conditions for vine-growing are relatively complex, especially when you look at the broad range of wines they can deliver. Indeed, expertise on the subject has required centuries of trial and error and a great deal of contributors.

Vines were firstly cultivated in Iran and Georgia before being propagated by the Greek and the Romans. These folks were able to understand where the vines could settle down and grow. However, monks and and other clergymen were the first to really understand the importance of soils and climate diversity. The first notable distinction took place under Charlemagne, when monks received patches of land it Burgundy and and decided to split them up into smaller plots. They have been maintained in the region and are locally referred to as “climates”. This definition is universally associated to the word “terroir”. From that point onwards, the significant differences between two neighbouring sites have been better understood and analysed.

Even today, experts are still studying these soils and climates in order to increase their understanding of them, but most importantly to better grasp the needs of the grapevine. Whether it took place in plains or on hillsides, domestication has taken a fair amount of time. It’s thanks to this history and experience that enthusiasts are able to craft excellent wines today. It goes without saying that these winemakers have a huge responsibility on their shoulders and sometimes require more than a lifetime to truly understand their land and produce the very best from their soils, depending on the vintage year. Following this logic, we happen upon an essential aspect of winemaking: legacy and passing it along.

II – A very specific environment

Grapevines are quite fussy and call for very specific conditions. Hillsides fulfil these conditions beautifully. They combine several properties which are very advantageous for the vine, the most important being the diversity of the soil. Indeed, on a slope, we can find several different profiles of ground and underground (also very important) between the top and the bottom of the hillside. This multiplicity is very good for the grapevine. In addition, the specific angle of the slope can provide the vines with beneficial sun exposure. For example, in the region of the northern Rhone Valley, the Hill which hosts the Hermitage is the only one facing directly south, one of the factors which make this AOC quite exceptional. This is the beginning of the link between soils and climate.

Grapevines do very well with a constant and low debit water supply. France, however, as opposed to many New World Countries, has banned irrigation. This rule results in fluctuation between different years, as nature reclaims its rights. In order to prevent this, the underground must be a good match with the geographic properties of the soil and climate above.

For example, in climates in which it frequently rains, soils with weak water retention properties will help the vine. Their permeability will let the vine take up the water it needs without drowning it so it can work efficiently. An example of such land would a ground composed of sand and gravel or pebbles. On the other hand, where rain is scarce, land with high water retention will provide the vines with the water it needs during droughts. A good example here would be limestone.
How deep the roots go will also depend on the soil. They will dig deeper in lands with low water retention then those which soak up most of the rainfall.

III –Types of soil and ground 

The vocabulary in this area isn’t particularly straightforward, which is why we won’t delve too deep into it. Mostly so that you’re able to grasp the key concerns without being overwhelmed by the technicalities, also because we are most definitely not geologists!   There are about 30 varieties of terrain in total, which provides us with a broad palette of options to pull together different vintages.

Clay soils are very well-known, especially on the very reputable terroir of Château Petrus (where it’s they are combined with gravel). This soil slows down the ripening process by its relatively cool environment. You may also find it on the right bank of the Bordeaux region.
In Burgundy, and notably in Chablis, we find Calcareous soils.  This type of land is known for producing extremely fine wines, and they make the vine work particularly hard since they do not retain water on the long term.
To the contrary, chalky soil lets rainfall run deep before its absorbed. It then provides the vine with water in a constant, limited flow. Perfect! These soils are very popular for making white wine in the northern regions of France, such as Loire or Champagne.

Marl, or marlstone is a combination of clay and limestone. A match made in heaven which forms the base of exceptional terroirs, where they deliver power and finesse.
Now if we have a look at local terrain, in the Beaujolais and Rhone Valley, we find soils composed of granite. They let indulgent fruit aromas come though as well as high minerality. A little more to the south of the Rhone valley, we happen upon rounded pebbles in the soil. Their number one fan? Châteauneuf-du-Pape of course! They have an interesting capacity to hoard the heat they receive during the day and release during the night. In this type of soil, vines must work hard to retrieve the nutrients required for proper growth.
The “graves” are a type of soil commonly associated to the Bordeaux region, In particular the Left Bank. Its essentially a mix between pebbles, sand and clay and just like rounded pebbles, this soil can save up heat to deliver it at night time.  This ground is known for making wine which can keep and improve for quite a while.

Finally, a terroir mostly associated to the Languedoc-Roussilon is that of rocky schistose soil. You also find them in Côte Rôtie (North of the Rhone Valley), in Loire and in Anjou. This soil provides the vines with a great deal of nutrients.

IV – Climates

Climates in wine regions are a little easier to remember since they share their names with basic geographical climate. The names aren’t specific to the world of wine. That isn’t to say they aren’t just as important and significant. Climate is a key factor, which impacts the selection of grape varieties and the vintages. Droughts, excessive rain, cloudy summers, frost… there are many aspects of climate which can harm a good vintage.  . 

In France you may encounter four main climates. The mountain climate, with very cold winters and cool summers. The varieties cultivated in this environment are quite specific, like in Savoie, Jura or Pyrenees. The continental climate, known for its warm and dry summers which replace a chilly winter season. You may find this climate in Burgundy or the North of the Rhone Valley (The south receives peculiar mistral winds). You might also hear someone mention semi-continental climates, when they are under an Atlantic or Mediterranean influence as is the case for Champagne.
The Mediterranean climate is particularly prone to vine growing. It is found in the touth of France, in Provence or in Languedoc, but also in certain regions of Spain and Italy. Warm summers and soft winters are the main properties of this climate. A little bit more chilly but also quite warm during summer, we have the Atlantic Climate, which is known for having large amounts of rainfall like in the Bordeaux region and Portugal.

These climates differ by their average temperature, their exposure to sunshine (the number of sunny days per year) and rainfall (mm of rainfall per year). Some regions also host different microclimates. They constitute specific terroirs among many others and depend on a different sun exposure, different soils and produce different grapes and wines. In France we call them “Lieux dits”, or as mentioned above “Climats” in Burgundy. If we were to mention only the most famous, we’d specify that Romanée Conti boasts a true microclimate.


How did Lyon became the capital of gastronomy?

How did Lyon became the capital of gastronomy?

Lyon is the world Capital of Gastronomy

Curnonski, Grand critique culinaire, « prince des gastronomes ».

Ever since the Gallo-Roman period, Lyon has remained firmly rooted at the centre of attention. Indeed, the city was a political capital in ancient times and went on to become an economic and cultural hub. Nowadays, Lyon’s culture radiates throughout France and beyond thanks to its distinctiveness, genius and boldness. Gastronomy is one of the spearheads of the city’s expertise, to the point where the nickname “Capital of gastronomy” is now immediately associated with Lyon.

I – The History of the city of Lyon

During the vast time period running from the middle ages (476-1453) to the renaissance (until end of the sixteenth century), the city of Lyon is a rite of passage. It offers many activities and fairs, as well as inns to offer accommodation and a bite to eat. The fairs of Lyon took place every season, attracting travellers from all over the kingdom as well as neighbouring countries. Innkeepers would then set up stall to present their specialty dishes. Among these one could find the notorious cardoons, a vegetable which has become typical of Lyon’s culinary culture. If you walk down Rue du Boeuf today, you can happen upon some of these beautiful inns like l’Hotel de l’Etoile or l’Outarde d’Or, beacons of the city’s legacy.  

During the nineteenth century, the travel network intensifies and many visitors equip themselves with travel guides to explore the city of Lyon and discover its famous produce, such as chestnuts, cheeses and “Charcuterie” (or cold cuts). In addition, visitors meet with a whole range of delightful products like brioche, chocolate or beer.

In 1859, “La matelote d’anguille” owned by Mère (Mother) Guy holds a prominent place in the Joanne guide. Mère Guy and many other women open their restaurants with a desire to work with a constant menu and quality produce. Among these “mères”, we can mention Mère Brazier, who opened her restaurant on rue royale in 1921. The establishment becomes increasingly popular, the mayor of Lyon Edouard Herriot can be found there most days and all the gourmet visitors rush over.

Mère Brazier becomes a well-known name. Before long, she opens a second restaurant at the Col de la Luère (in the Pollionay commune). The restaurant quickly gains international recognition; it is in fact where Paul Bocuse completed his training.
In 1932, Mère Brazier is given 2 stars for each of her restaurants. Then in 1933, a first in French history, the Michelin guide gives her 3 stars for both her restaurant on rue royale and the one at the Cole de Luère.
New dishes appear on the menu in 1930 like Bresse Chicken, which is still very popular today.
More generally, Lyon’s cuisine makes remarkable progress in terms of quality during the 1930’s. This in turn prompts the city to develop new activities around gastronomy. The “Semaine Gastronomique” (week of cuisine) is one of them, created in 1932 and rechristened Days of Lyonnaise cuisine in 1935. The acclaimed Foire de Lyon (Lyon fair) was launched around the same time, in 1934. Together with the Palais de l’Alimentation, it constitutes a comprehensive framework to studying gastronomy.
And so, Lyon’s reputation as mother of gastronomy is solidly established. We can now pore over the local terroir and influence, core elements upon which the city’s expertise was erected.

II – Terroirs and influence of Lyon’s influence

The south is represented by the use of butter, olive oil and early harvest vegetables (the very first vegetables harvested in the season, grown in an entirely natural manner). These vegetables are packed with flavours and textures, often particularly appreciated for their tender and melt in your mouth characteristics.
In addition, we must keep in mind that during the Renaissance, Lyon was a major European hub on the road conveying spices from the east.
A great number of terroirs also contribute their culinary expertise to the city’s savoir-faire. In its surrounding, we find Bresse and its renowned poultry, Bugey and its wine and crawfish, and of course the Nantua lake from which the nantua sauce is crafted as a perfect escort for quenelles (a form of dumplings). Not to mention the Dombes, which are to thank for the frogs sourced in its lakes. Meat in turn is sourced in the north, in the Charolais region, and thanks to the beautiful Beaujolais vineyard there is no shortage in delectable refreshment.

Now if we shift toward the west, we happen upon the breeding grounds of the Monts du Lyonnais. They supply the city with charcuterie, which residents refer to as “cochonailles”: dried sausage, salami, pigs feet, rosette, rind, ham, filet mignon, terrines, pâtés de campagne… the list goes on and is enriched by rigottes, small cheeses crafted with cow or goats milk.
Further south we find the wines of the Rhone valley, the finishing touch to the Lyonnaise region’s influences. All these terroirs embellish the local gastronomy with their diversity and long-lived prestige.

III – What has become the capital of the gastronomy nowadays?

The late Paul Bocuse, which you may have heard of under the epithet “Monsieur Paul” or “Pope of cuisine”, really set the ball rolling when it comes to Lyon’s Gastronomy. This Michelin star chef, voted best French labourer in 1961 (an official title), was declared the “Cook of the century” by Gault-Millau in 1989. The city truly owes him its gastronomic repute. In 1987, he created the Bocuse d’Or, the most prestigious culinary competition which holds its final challenge in Lyon. This competition takes place every two years, as part of the world famous International Hotel, Catering and Food Trade Exhibition.

But after the passing of this great figure, can Lyon really hold on to the much sought-after title of “capital of gastronomy”?
Lyon was developed by Monsieur Paul during his lifetime, and where his life ended his heritage took over to ensure the artist’s work lingers within the city.
Many have followed in his footsteps and tried to increase Lyon’s renown. The “Toques Blanches Lyonnaises et de la region”, or local association of White Chef’s hats, are an example among many. Since 1936, several of Lyon’s great chefs have joined together to showcase the local cuisine through this association.
Members come from a wide range of backgrounds, old lions and new blood, both from traditional cuisine and more contemporary styles. The association has had remarkable presidents like Pierre Orsi and Guy Lassaussaie, or the current one Laurent Bouvier. They are invested in many events related to culinary art, for example during the Sirha where they were actively backing Lyon’s nomination as city of gastronomy.
And so even as the pope of gastronomy is no longer here, the city has maintained its reputation. Indeed, there are about 4000 restaurants and 20 chefs with Michelin stars within its walls.
It won’t come as a surprise that projects are constantly blossoming from this diverse community of culinary aficionados. One of these is the International City of Gastronomy, a compelling project which deserves a few words.

What is this project?

Located at the very heart of the newly refurbished Hôtel-Dieu, this showroom will do justice to the art of “Haute Gastronomie”. It will be spread out over 4 floors and 3900 square meters and present temporary and permanent collections, as well as experimenting areas where admired chefs will whip up exquisite dishes. The head chef of the Régis et Jacques Marcon restaurant, decorated with 3 Michelin stars, will be one of them. The goal is to create a space to develop and pass down savoir-faire and experience of good food, in order to prompt innovation and experimentation between producers and chefs.
The International City of Gastronomy, which will open in 2019, shall undoubtedly reinforce Lyon’s position as world capital of Gastronomy.
The path of Lyon’s ascent through history was paved with very typical restaurants. Some have had the better of time and survived throughout the ages. The brasserie Georges, for example, has been sitting on the Cours de Verdun since 1836, and the grand cafe des negociants which opened in 1864 can still be found at the Cordeliers.

L’histoire de lyon s’est forgée à travers des restaurants typiques. Certains ont traversé les siècles. C’est le cas de la brasserie Georges, installée depuis 1836 sur le cours de Verdun, ou encore du grand café des négociants installé aux Cordeliers depuis 1864.

We must also mention the famous “bouchons Lyonnais”, emblems of the city’s gastronomy. Quite difficult to define, these local restaurants embody Lyon’s character in the quarter of the old city. There you will find traditional marionettes, a delightful Beaujolais and plates of “Cochonnailles”, and all the local produce cooked to perfection.
At the very beginning, however, these “bouchons” were intended for the “canuts”, silk workers who worked from the early hours of the morning. A bit later, around 9 AM, they they would enjoy a little break with leftovers from dinner (a “casse-croute”) in a quarter called the Croix-Rousse. These restaurants have evolved a great deal, but they will always be a key element of Lyon’s history.

IV – Lyon and the splendour of its wine

Nevertheless, Lyon wouldn’t have become the world capital of gastronomy without the quality of its wine.
Indeed, local vineyards are one of the elements which make the city’s pride. Léon Daudait even said:” the city of Lyon is irrigated by three great rivers: the Rhône, the Saône and the Beaujolais which is never loamy and dry. »
Through these few words the writer pays his respects to a wine country with a heavy history. The region was already known for its wines during the Gallo-Roman period. Vines crept closer and closer to Lyon until they reached Fourvière during the middle ages. They were cultivated on the slopes of the Croix Rousees and the hill of Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon. These no longer exist today, we find them instead in the beaujolais, the coteaux-du -lyonnais and the Coteaux du Rhône. We will say a few words about what sets these vineyards apart.

The main characteristics of its vineyards?

The Beaujolais produces nearly exclusively red wines. Only 1% of production represents white and rosé. There are however several types of Beaujolais. The simpler style of Beaujolais can be associated with many foods and dishes and adapted to several styles of cuisine. The Beaujolais village is a fruitier style of wine. Finally, you will have heard of the 10 crus of the Beaujolais: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte-de-Brouilly, Saint Amour, Juliénas, Fleurie, Moulin-à-vent, Régnié and Morgon.
These vines take up 75600 hectares and produce three million hectolitres of wine every year.
The rest of the vineyard is split over two valleys : the northern Rhône valley from Vienne to Valence and the southern Rhône Valley, from Montélimar to Avignon.

Among the great crus of the north of the Rhône valley, you can find these few famous names around Lyon: Côte-Rôtie, the Condrieu and the Château-Grillet. If you ;re a little more curious, you could end up near Tournon where you’ll recognize the following names : Saint Jospeh, the Crozes-Hermitage, the Hermitage. Finally, the fearless will end up around Valence, the Cornas and Saint Péray.
The vineyard covering the north of the Rhône valley is also considerable, spreading out across 71 000 hectares and producing 2 840 000 hectolitres per year.
The main wine issued from the southern vineyard of the Côtes-du-Rhône is the AOC Chateauneuf-du-pape. It’s one of the greatest French crus. It goes back to the fourteenth century when the Pope Jean 12th created the vineyard. It covers 3000 hectares and produces 100 000 hectolitres per year, 90% of which is red wine. Thanks to a mistral, many AOCs from the south of the Rhône Valley require no treatment, or very little. For this reason many domains are organic or biodynamic, or at least engage in sustainable agriculture. Some other remarkable appellations like Gigondas, Vacqueryras or Ventoux are not as famous but become more and more popular as the years go by.

The climate of these valleys is mediterranean. It benefits from one of the biggest diversity of its unique terroirs and soils. But you will learn more about this in our next article. Soon…

Introducing the Décanté articles

The very first wine guide of Lyon has decided to embark on another journey. In this second edition, the Décanté has branched out to undertake new activities! The guide is put together by students, with the help of Le Studio Culotté for graphic design. Our team is always eager to uncover and share astounding revelations with you.

In order to do this, we have weekly wine related articles in store for you.

The purpose of these articles?

Our ever growing team of driven oenophiles has decided to keep on sharing their passion. With entertaining and straightforward explanations, we aim to prove through these weekly publications that the world of wine is accessible to all.

The themes of our articles?

You will encounter a very wide range of themes! We would like to offer content on many different aspects of wine. These articles will clarify the concepts that may seem unclear like soils and climate in vine growing, as well as hot topics like biodynamics or timeless ones like wine history. The aim is to pave the way towards a better knowledge of wine, a universe you could penetrate much more easily than you’d expect. Let us share with you some ongoing concerns as well as the basics of wine, in order to discover all the wonders behind this much loved elixir!

But for the members of our team who value sharing and other ideals embodied by wine, this is what we want to convey. Uncomplicated but exhaustive, we will do everything we can to enable you to live and love this passion. So cheers, and happy reading!

This is a beautiful quote about wine