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Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Pure Chablis - The Overview‏

Impressions of Chablis from a vineyard tour organised by BIVB with Eric Szabowski
 
Chablis is all about focus - one grape, one colour, one appellation, one ideal aspect and exposure, one soil type.
 
The wines themselves are also characterised by a nervy, cool-climate focus and precision.

As with so many historic wine regions, it is really only on a visit there that one starts to understand the nuances and variations of geography, geology and terrain that result in differences in the finished wines.

Chablis is a pretty little historic market town with a feel that is part northern French, part central European; there are handsome farmhouses, shuttered windows and perpendicular architectural lines.

But there are also Germanic timber beams, hanging baskets and a pretty riverside area that would not be out of place in Strasbourg or Colmar; the existence of a small synagogue provides further evidence of links to a more central European past.

Chablis is then, like so many places on the great European landmass, subject to many influences - part of Burgundy and growing the Burgundian grape (known here as Beaunois - the grape from Beaune), the cuisine is also clearly Burgundian.

Yet it is closer to Champagne than to Dijon, has stronger historic and oenological links with Champagne and has Champagne's challenge of ripening grapes in a cold, northerly climate.

Heretical as it may be, it may even make sense to think of Chablis as more of a southerly outpost of Champagne, making still whites, than the northern tip of Burgundy.

In any case, vines, viticulture and winemaking knowhow were first brought here by Cluniac monks from the Maconnais - in the ancient order, nobles dealt with territorial matters, the peasantry worked the land and the monasteries were bastions of knowledge, both sacred and temporal.

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The town of Chablis sits on a river, the Serein, which flows north and brings damp, chilly air to the valley floor. For this reason, vines are only planted on the hillsides of this small town and of 20 surrounding villages.

Only hillsides with a southerly aspect get enough sun to ripen grapes fully - the best, a group of seven, face due south with just the right angle of incline, undulation and shelter to produce grapes for the top wines - these are the Grand Cru vineyards and produce the most concentrated and complex Chablis with significant aging potential.

Lesser vineyards have only a partly south-facing aspect, less shelter or a slightly different soil composition, meaning the wines they produce are not quite as intense, concentrated or powerful as the Grands Crus; these are the Premiers Crus and AOC Chablis.

To be classed as Chablis, the grapes must be grown on a soil type known as kimmeridgian - once a shallow, prehistoric sea-bed, kimmeridgian soil is an undulating mix of clay and fossil limestone extending in a subterranean arc all the way to Kimmeridge in Dorset.

Atop the hills around Chablis, the soil abruptly changes to a harder, solid limestone known as Portlandian. The vines up here are exposed less directly to the sun and, less well-nourished by the mineral soil, produce Petit Chablis, a "young' or "junior" Chablis.

Petit Chablis shares its name and key characteristics with Chablis proper and is an easy entry level to the world of Chablis.

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Making Chablis - whether petit or Grand Cru - is little short of a triumph over nature. Late frosts are the most common problem and the locals have evolved two ingenious solutions.

The first involves burning petrol at around 4am, the most frost-prone time of night, to create a small cloud of cover for the vines which burns off quickly once the sun arrives.

The second, less pollutive, is to spray the vines with water which forms a layer of frozen protection on the outside but remains liquid inside.

Fast forward to late summer and the greatest risk becomes rain which brings the right conditions for mildew and oidium. At this point, all the vignerons can do is hope and wait.

In such a demanding climate, vines do not achieve the longevity that is possible further south; in any case, the economic climate prohibits the aging of vines to the point where they produce just a handful of grapes each.

Expensive to produce, at its best Chablis is one of the world's great wines, but not (yet) adequately recognised as such. This means that the greatest value is to be found at the upper end rather than the lower.

A bottle of inexpensive Petit Chablis serves as a good introduction to the region and hints at what the Premiers Crus and Grand Crus have to offer. Light, greenish and sharp, it makes a good aperitif.

The best Grand Cru Chablis, aged to golden maturity over five to ten years, tastes strong and important, hard but not harsh, complex and assured.

Other related articles
Pure Chablis - The Tour

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