'Rock Juice': Austere and appetizing Chablis

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | may 2018

Northern Burgundy is a rainy, cold, hardscrabble place and even though Chablis is technically part of Burgundy, it is about 100 miles north from the more familiar Macon where the everyday white wines of France are produced. Some wine writers have referred to it as ugly but they probably mean commonplace. The vintners here in Chablis have more in common with dairy farmers than they do with the snobby barons and dukes of the Bordeaux noblesse oblige. Had the Cistercian monks not planted grapes here in 1114, the area would probably be dotted with dairies rather than wineries. Only Champagne and Alsace is any farther north.

The good monks, probably using their gut instinct, sited the vineyards in places where the snow melted first, indicating warmer areas that were on a slope catching the sun's rays. Of course, those slopes were near a river, the Serein. The roughly 250 acres of vines that now cover the original site include, in one continuous block, all of the Chablis's grand cruvineyards. That was some instinct! But in that selection process, they seemed to have recognized another factor too. Both there and elsewhere, as their vineyards spread, they were careful to select only sections of hillside where they found the brittle grey-white Kimmeridgian clay, a mass composed of billions of tiny seashell fossils laid down during the late Jurassic era about 180 million years ago. Eight centuries after the monks had made their choices, experts who wrote the 1938 law defining the area of Chablis's appellation of origin (AOC) also believed this chalky clay (named for the village of Kimmeridge in Dorset, England, where it occurs as well) to be as fundamental to the wines style and quality as the Chardonnay grapes from which Chablis, must by law, be made. And though adjusted in the late 1970s, the original boundaries of the appellation enclosed faithfully only the micro-climes where the underlying Kimmeridgian breaks (“flowers" is the local expression) through its covering of Portland limestone.

While the region thrived and grew from 450 farms in the 14thcentury to 700 farms two centuries later, Chablis is not well placed when it comes to the weather. The valley of the Serein River is highly susceptible to frost because its narrow, twisting formation traps any cold spring air forced into it by the prevailing west winds. Neither the vintners nor their workers had much security in a region where the crop could swing from 18,927 hectoliters to 1,893 hectoliters and back again in the course of a vintage year. The risk of losing three successive crops, not unknown in Chablis, is bearable only if the odd good year produces wines of exceptional quality that can be priced high enough to compensate. Until the modern Chablis vintners in the '60s employed watering systems to protect the vines, production varied from as low as 481 hectoliters one year to as much as 20,000 hectoliters the next, hardly a formula for commercial success. In fact, many vineyards were abandoned both before and between the two World Wars. With the advent of modern technology to protect the vines, yields not only grew but also started to show year-to-year consistency. In 1966, the yield was 33,296 hectoliters and has been consistently above 50,000 hectoliters after the start of the 1970s. The '70s was the start of the baby boom generation's fascination with French food and wine encouraged by Julia Child and Alice Waters.

As I've written before, the most weather-marginalized areas of the world often are the source for some of the world's best wines and Chablis fits that bill. Chablis has the texture of smooth wet stones and a taste that is mineral to the extreme. Some people refer to the taste as pebbly or gravelly. The French refer to Chablis as “jus de pierre" or rock juice. It is my favorite wine with seared scallops and broiled lobster. It is also good with the little pâte àux chouxmorsels gougère's. The best way to enjoy Chablis is to wait for the acidity to calm down a bit. The 2014 is just starting to open up to its true potential.

There is a classification system within Chablis that is an easy guide to the quality levels as well as the prices. It is still a good idea to stick with the best producers as I have in the three selections this month. The highest level of quality is the grand cru. There are seven grand crusand the names appear prominently on the label. They are in descending order of acreage planted: Les Clos, Vaudésir, Valmur, Blanchot, Bourgros, Preuses and Grenouilles. There are 40 premiers' crus. (premiers'cruand grand crumeans that no one need be second). The other classes are plain Chablis,which may be thinner andpetitchabliswhich may be thinner yet. In the best years petit Chablis can be a real bargain and not much of it reaches the US.

In addition to the particular soils and microclimates within Chablis, how the grape juice is handled after harvest also affects the finished wine. At La Chablisienne, a farm cooperative that produces about a quarter of all Chablis, both wood and stainless steel is used in the making of Chablis. In the 1930s, Chablis used nothing but oak barrels and large vats to age and store the finishing wines. By the 1970s, most of the wood was replaced by stainless steel. But in the aftermath of most impulsive acts, cooler heads were thinking to themselves “What was so bad about oak?" In 1984, Hervé Tucki, the young technical director for the co-op, brought back 10 oak barrels as an experiment. It seems to have struck a chord. Now they buy almost 100 barrels a year and have installed thousand-gallon wooden vats as well for storage. One of the things I like about French white wines and especially Chablis is the judicious use of oak. The oak is not overpowering like the buttery chardonnays of Napa Valley that are only fit to drink with a butter slathered tub of popcorn. Presently, the Chablisienne vintners use a mixture of oak and stainless steel to produce their wines; yet do it in a way, that doesn't dominate the fruit and gravelly pebbly texture of the wine. The next time you are planning a special dinner featuring shrimp, lobster or scallops, reach for a bottle of Chablis.

My choices for this month are all highly-rated by “Wine & Spirits" at 91, 90 and 89 points respectively. The technical term for them is Village Chablis. All of these wines are delicious now but don't miss the thrill of opening a properly cellared five-year-old Chablis; it is a revelation.

The first wine is the William Férve Champs Royaux, 12.5 percent alcohol and $19 if you buy four at Woodman's. This is a reductive stainless steel style of Chablis that was my favorite of the tasting. It has the guts to stand a few years in the cellar and I wouldn't be afraid to serve it with pork chops or veal. It is also leesy and gives off the aroma of rising yeast when the bottle is opened. It is concentrated and fresh.

The second wine is the 2015 Joseph Drouhin Reserve Vaudon, 12.5 percent alcohol and $15 if you buy four at Woodman's. Drouhin's property is in the valley of Vauvillien not far from the Grand Crus and between the Premier Crus of Montée de Tonnerre and Mont de Milieu. The vineyards are completely organic and yields are controlled at 20 percent less than potential. The wines are free of oak and aged in stainless steel for 7-8 months. The color is a brilliant clear slightly tinged with green. Aromas of citrus, fern and saltiness dominate. The taste is white peaches with a fresh minerally accent. This is my choice for oysters. This wine should age gracefully for five years or more.

The third wine is the 2015 Domaine Laroche Saint Martin, 12.5 percent alcohol and $19 at Ridgeview Liquors. Saint Martin is the patron saint of Chablis. Domaine Laroche is located in the Obédiencerie of Chablis where Saint Martin is buried. The cellars of Laroche date back 1,000 years. The Domaine is completely organic as well with the “one man-one plot" management, where one person is responsible for a plot of vines from pruning in the winter to harvest in the fall. The wine is a clear lemon color with aromas of ripe fruit and jasmine. This wine is still a bit tight, but buy a case and try it over the next five years.

More from Category

Stay up-to-date

Sign up for a monthly digest of everything new in GB.