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Friday, 18 March 2022

The CWB Eastern France-Off - A Deeper Dive

Five wines from Eastern France

Draw a straight line down the Eastern side of France from the English Channel to the Mediterranean and you will pass through three great wine regions; Champagne, Burgundy and the Rhône.

It is around 800 miles end-to-end, and can be a pleasant drive to sunnier climes if you add in a stop-over - lunch in Reims, dinner somewhere between Dijon and Macon then an onward drive the following day to the Rhône, Provence or Côte d'Azur for a week of R&R.

We have done it many times over the years with the children and like to mix up the journey with various scenic detours, including, on one occasion, a side-trip to Chablis.

Visiting a wine region and spending time there is the best way I have found to understand its geography, terroir, history, gastronomy as well as the sources of its diversity.

So, in anticipation of a long European summer drive south to sun-kissed beaches and shimmering seas, here is a deeper dive in to a few regions along the way.


At the the far north of Burgundy, Chablis is perhaps better understood as a southerly outpost of Champagne.

Chablis has four levels of classification from Petit up to Grand Cru. Premier Cru is, somewhat confusingly, the second rank of wines, tending to be well structured and long, but needing 5-10 years of ageing to show their best.

There are 40 Premier Cru sites scattered across the appellation, with 17 main ‘Climats’.

Chardonnay is the only permitted grape across the region so there is a distinct Chablis flavour profile - lean and steely in its youth, golden and complex with age.

Vintage aside, the differences are more about quality as a result of location, aspect and soil type - and prices charged will reflect this, of course.

At Premier Cru level, a key distinction is Left Bank vs Right Bank; the Left Bank of the Serein River is cooler giving steelier wines that benefit more from ageing, whereas the Right Bank tends to produce fuller, richer, more powerful wines that are more expressive and approachable when younger.

Here, we have two younger left bankers and a right bank Premier Cru Chablis with more age.

The age vs bank dynamic accentuates the differences in the wines; the older Right Bank wine is showing better right now and for immediate drinking would be my recommendation.

However, with an eye on the future, you should also consider the two Left Bankers and tuck them away somewhere dark and cool, then dig them out in several years and consider what an excellent investment you made.

Simonnet-Febvre Chablis Premier Cru Montmains 2020 (WaitroseCellar.com: £25.49, Great Grog: £32.29, FL Dickins, Thedrinkshop.com: £28.54) 

This is from the left bank which faces southeast, enjoying the morning sun, but it is colder and windier throughout the day, meaning the wines are often more restrained and emphasising classic minerality.

Wines from Montmains are more mineral than fruit driven, because of the stony minerality from the chalk soils.

This has a mineral touch and is powerful with predominant aromas of flowers. It is a supple and rounded wine which has a real sense of its terroir.

restrained orchard fruits and citrus; orchard and white stone fruits, delicate florality and hints of honeysuckle with saline minerality; fresh, supple and pure.

Drinks well on first opening, but better to aerate and also preferably cellar for several years to allow it to develop and show its best.

Very Good.

Match with fish in sauce or white meats.

Simonnet-Febvre Premier Cru Vaillons 2019 (WaitroseCellar.com (£28.99), Small Beer, Whole Foods Market, Thedrinkshop.com (£28.91))

This wine enjoys soils on the left bank that are less clay-like than those on the right bank. Vaillons is one of the largest and well-known of the Chablis Premiers Crus and this wine is an excellent example of a highly rated left bank Chablis.

Pure and focused, it has aromas of delicate white flowers and fruit. Well-rounded and charming this wine has a note of minerality on the palate and a good balance between acidity and fruit.

A generous, beautifully balanced wine with good length and very typical of Chablis.

fresh zippy citrus and delicate florality; orchard and white stone fruits with saline minerality, white pepper and a savoury leesiness; elegant, precise and poised.

Drinks nicely on first opening, but will improve with cellaring and some aeration.

Very Good.

Drink with seafood, grilled fish and white meats in sauce.

Simonnet-Febvre Premier Cru Fourchaume 2018 (Tesco: £25-£30, Thedrinkshop.com: £31.99) 

This is from the Right Bank which tends to produce richer and more powerful wines.

The Fourchaume vineyard borders the northern limits of the town of Chablis and is one of the most well-known and highly respected crus, with a reputation for generosity of flavours. Exposed to the west and southwest, the area sees many hours of sunshine and being downstream, it benefits from the rich terroir created from the alluvium carried by the river. The grapes from the vines here have an average age of 30 years. 

Aged on lees, in stainless steel, for 10-12 months, this is classically elegant, powerful, and round with lovely aromas of citrus fruit, fresh mint and spicy notes alongside ripe fruits and honey flavours.

honeysuckle and yellow stone fruits with white pepper and herbaceous mint; full and supple with saline minerality; stone fruits, honey and savoury, creamy brazil nut leesiness.

Very Good.

Match with fruits de mer, lobster, oysters, clams, prawns, or pork medallions in a cream-and-mushroom sauce.

Northern Rhône

Drive past Lyon and out of Burgundy and, as the mercury rises, you start heading head towards the dusty, rocky, lavender-scented region of Provence via the Rhône valley.

The Northern Rhône is Syrah's spiritual home and predominantly a red-wine area.

Saint-Péray, then, is something of an anomaly; small and little-known, it is an exclusively white region, producing mainly sparkling wines that were once more highly-regarded than Champagne.

Oenologically, it dates back to Roman times, grows mainly Roussanne and was apparently Napoleon's first taste of wine as a Cadet in nearby Valence.

UK Rhône expert Matt Walls says of the region: stylistically, it is most similar to St. Joseph. It has both granite and limestone soils, so the specific wine style depends on where the vines are planted, but it’s usually marginally softer than a typical St Joseph. It can be lovely

US-based Jeb Dunnuck adds: it's more limestone soils as opposed to granite soils; the wines rarely seem to have the density of a top Hermitage or Saint Joseph, but always seem to shows a terrific sense of minerality as well as salinity. Most great Hermitage Blancs come from the more limestone and loess soils on the eastern part of the hill, so there are some similarities from a soil standpoint, but Saint-Péray is more east-facing, so it doesn't have the incredible exposure of Hermitage.

This wine is an anomaly within an anomaly; neither sparkling nor made from Roussanne. It is also very impressive.

Saint-Péray 2020, Vidal-Fleury 

Made from 100% Marsanne grown on granitic soil covered with silt, lœss and limestone debris. The wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and and aged 30% in oak barrels and 70% in stainless steel on the lees with some batonnage.

bright yellow and green with white flowers, lemon zest and subtle hawthorn, violet, and acacia with hints of honey; sweet lemon, apricot, pear and creamy-leesy almond with aromatic fennel, white pepper and aniseed;  rounded, decadent and long yet fresh.

Very Good

Match with fish, white meat or regional cheese.

Southern Rhône

Hedonistic where the North can be haughty, the Southern Rhône is home to a wider range of grapes, colours and styles of wine. 

I've been very impressed with Cellier des Princes previously; the wines are not only consistently well-made and at least enjoyable, if not generally rather better than that, they have a characteristic, atypical vibrant freshness.

The winery dates back to 1925 and is the first and only cooperative in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, overseeing production from vine to the bottle. 

Hérosé, IGP Méditerranée, 2021

Grown on clay and silicious soils, a blend of 70% Grenache, 15% Syrah and 15% Cinsault; fermented at low temperature in stainless steel for freshness and aromatics. 

bright and aromatic with citrus flowers and red fruits; soft red fruits and berries with citrus freshness; elegant and well-made with good, savoury underpinnings.


Serve as an aperitif or match with fish dishes, summer salads, grilled meats and Provence-style dished.

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