This column is being filed from Chablis, right in the heart of France. This is my first time visiting the region, though I’ve long been a fan of this Chardonnay mecca. The actual town of Chablis is tiny (home to 2,500), but the charm factor is sky-high, as one might imagine.
Let me set the scene.
I’m currently in a small café, grabbing an espresso between winery visits, and church bells are ringing as I type. There are about a dozen gentlemen standing at the bar with their coffees, in animated conversation. Outside the windows on this busy corner there are a few wine bars and small cafés, a bakery, and a charcuterie storefront with sausages hanging in the window. I’ve already counted a half-dozen people riding past on bicycles with baguettes sticking out of their bags or baskets. It’s such a storybook scene that I wouldn’t be surprised to see the clichéd striped shirt and beret on the next person to stroll past.
It’s cloudy and cold today, with intermittent rain. The weather dominates discussion here, as its impact on the 2016 vintage caused production volume to plummet for many, mainly due to hail and frost. For more than a few winemakers I’ve chatted with, their output was slashed in half. On the upside, 2017 is looking considerably better, so there is optimism in the air.
The town is smack-dab in the middle of the wine region, with the Serein River flowing through from southwest to northeast. The river basically splits the region into two subregions, colloquially referred to as the left bank and right bank. Although there are hills and valleys on both sides, it can be taken as a general rule that Chardonnays grown on the right bank may be a little more ripe and generous, with its south-southeast exposure, whereas the left bank’s north-northeast exposure sees wines a little more subtle and nuanced.
There are only four appellations in Chablis, so let’s look at them from least fancy to most fancy. (Those aren’t technical terms.) Petit Chablis is our first appellation, with swaths of vineyards spread around the more outlying areas, often at higher altitudes. Next up is the eponymous Chablis appellation, the largest one, also with sites across the region, usually in valleys, often in closer proximity to the river. Following Chablis, as we climb up the ladder, is Chablis Premier Cru: sites considered higher quality due to better aspects, including slope, sun exposure, and soil conditions. Finally, the top-tier appellation is Chablis Grand Cru, with ideal growing conditions, based on those just-mentioned factors.
Because they encompass many areas, and specific sites are very important, the Premier Cru and Grand Cru appellations are further broken down into climats, which can be considered subappellations.
We will get into those next week.
For now, let’s look at Petit Chablis and Chablis and the thing that makes them great: the soil in which their vines grow. For Petit Chablis, the soil is mainly Portlandian: high in calcium and marl, offering wines with fruity, fresh character. It lies atop Kimmeridgian soil, which is geologically older and closer to the surface in the Chablis, Premier Cru, and Grand Cru appellations. This soil is much richer in compacted layers of limestone and clay, with a telltale characteristic of fossilized oyster shells, offering fantastic minerality and character.
This week, let’s start with these two profiles and a couple of recommended bottles.
William Fevre Petit Chablis 2015
($25.49, B.C. Liquor Stores)
Simple, elegant, lovely. The grapes are handpicked and then lightly pressed, with the wine spending all of its production time in stainless steel. Fresh and citrusy, with light floral notes and juicy acidity.
La Chablisienne Chablis La Pierrelee 2014
($31.99, B.C. Liquor Stores)
La Chablisienne is a cooperative winery, producing about 25 percent of the region’s wine. This wine comes from 20-year-old vines and is fermented in steel tanks, with six months spent on the lees for added richness. Exotic notes of jasmine, quince, and guava swirl out of the glass with ease, followed by crab-apple notes, Bosc pear, and a good crack of mineral character. A nice, long finish keeps the good times rolling.
Although it’s wonderful now, a few more years will make it all the more complex. Do get some fresh oysters or grill up some halibut or throw together a creamy seafood pasta; any of these will work well.
Next week, we’ll drill down further into those Premier and Grand Crus and visit with some local legends. Stay tuned!