Why you should care
Because the tactics used by these two soil scientists could improve the way your wine tastes — and how it is created.
It’s a well-known fact that Burgundy, in France, thinks its own wines are pretty great. And why not? After all, the region features delicate pinot noir grapes, a discerning climate and, of course, some awesome dirt. But according to Claude Bourguignon, “Most of the soils of which we are so proud here have about as much life in them as the surface of the highway.”
Tell us what you really think. But this is no casual diss. French microbiologist and agricultural engineer Bourguignon — along with his wife, Lydia, a biologist — founded LAMS, the Laboratory for Microbiological Soil Analysis. It advises farmers and vintners how best to treat their soil, which Claude argues has been damaged over the years by chemical herbicides, insecticides and fungicides that became poisonous traps for the earth’s living organisms. Yet some vineyards have continued to boast about the quality of their terroir — “the supposed expressiveness of our wines and the centuries-old tradition of wine producing they were in the process of destroying,” says Claude.
The pair’s views haven’t exactly made them the most popular couple in the $151 billion wine industry. “It goes without saying that we receive a lot of hostility from many sides,” says Claude. Still these “earth doctors,” as they’re sometimes called, have managed to grow a venture in which numerous farmers and vintners — in France, Germany and Austria — rely on their expertise. Customers include some of the most prestigious wineries in the world, such as the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, Jacques Selosse in Champagne and Elio Altare in Piedmont, Italy. “I would be pleased if they came here more often to have a look at my soils,” says Joachim Heger, who oversees the Dr. Heger winery in Germany. “Unfortunately, they are in great demand and don’t have much time.”
Their analysis is “much more profound and comprehensive than is usually the case.”
Joachim Heger of Dr. Heger winery
One benefit to consulting with the Bourguignons, vintners say, is that they learn how their soil stacks up against the global competition. “After all,” says Kurt Feiler from the Feiler-Artinger winery in Austria, “it’s not often one personally has the chance to dig around in the vineyards of Romanée-Conti, for example.” Indeed, the charismatic couple knows how to keep their clients engaged with tales of terroir and stories of soil. Claude, for one, is full of energy — a trait reflected in the colorful, flowery shirts he wears along with a permanent agri-tan. He leans forward when he talks, punctuating his words with his metal bracelet-covered wrists and hands. His sweet, stylish wife communicates easily, making her points about the business with smiling confidence.
The Bourguignons’ advice tends to go down easy, and has been especially valuable when it comes to creating new vineyards and determining whether red or white wines might be more suitable for the local soil. Their process also helps with existing properties. Some vintners take soil samples only at a depth of 25 to 30 centimeters and send it to the laboratory for analysis. The Bourguignons, however, dig down to the source rock — in some cases up to 2.8 meters deep — to see how the soil is formed. Then they check each layer for the number of microorganisms that are present. Their analysis, Heger says, is “much more profound and comprehensive than is usually the case.”
In the past, experts would cut the surface roots off young vines so that other roots could reach as deeply as possible into the ground. They were cut because some evidence has shown that a wine’s taste and complexity, and thus its terroir, which is so often discussed today, come from a deep soil rich with microorganisms. “Back then, the vine roots reached up to 3.5 meters into the earth in many of Europe’s wine-growing regions,” says Claude. Today, he notes, the average depth is only around 50 centimeters, which leads to a dramatic loss of flavor and complexity in the wines.
French vintners have a lot riding on the richness of their wines. The country produces 7.5 percent of the world’s wine, squeezing out more than 5 billion liters a year — more than any other country. It’s also the world’s top exporter of wine, which all goes to say vintners are looking for any leg up they can to make a splash more of cash. For his estate, Heger is convinced the Bourguignons’ method — which included processing his soil with mulch coverings and grass mixtures — works. His land had once been worked on by diggers and heavy machines, leaving the soil “extremely compacted,” he says. “Several years later, we saw wonderful, deep roots.” Meanwhile, he adds, his wines had gained substance, structure and expressiveness.
Not everyone finds the Bourguignons’ approach entirely unique. Rob Renteria, a sommelier at La Folie in California, says deep-soil extraction to determine the amount of living microbes in soil has been done in his state and in Europe for years, including in Bordeaux wineries. But experts do tend to agree that the use of chemicals to control weeds or pests can impact a soil’s biodiversity. Jean-Jacques Lambert, an agriculture professor at UC Davis, says French vineyards tend to use heavy chemicals, but the development of organic and biodynamic viticulture is “changing that for some growers.” And many growers believe that sustainable vineyard practices create healthy vines, which in turn produce better grapes — and, therefore, better bottles of vino.
Jose Fermoso contributed reporting.