The cachet of Chablis, Sunday, June 14, 2009 By Tomás Clancy Sunday Business Post

Standing in the main road that runs through the sleepy town of Chablis in northern France, you look up to find yourself surrounded by very steep, though not very high, hills. Chablis occupies a valley where the river Serein cuts viciously down through quite soft, chalky rock. The Serein flows north into the river Yonne, which is a major tributary of the Seine. So nature has essentially created a natural highway for the produce of Chablis to flow downstream to the metropolis of Paris. Chablis is located on a huge, high plateau that rises up just south of Paris and separates the French capital from Lyon. Fortunately, because the river cuts through a steep valley, it has created a natural suntrap and wind break. Looking like a Hollywood producer’s idea of how a geologist and archaeologist should appear, in a soft hat and semi-military attire, Serge Grappin, the chief archaeologist at Saint Romain - one of France’s most important archaeological sites - points to a ridge of cliffs that surround us. ‘‘Sixty million years ago, all of these edges were beside a lagoon, and the vines that cling to the hills were probably on the beach,” he says. ‘‘At the time, all of northern Europe was under water - not deep water like the Atlantic, but more like a series of tropical islands with lagoons. Over millions of years, at the bottom of this clear, warm water, crustacean like animals died and were deposited on the seabed. Eventually, these dead shells created a huge layer of chalky rock.” As proof of this theory, Grappin points to the discovery in a local vineyard of a tooth from a giant prehistoric crocodile which is known to have only lived in tropical lagoon climates. Chablis is a sleepy village which bursts into life several times a day when a fleet of tour buses rolls down the small main street, having made the 90-minute trip down the auto route from Paris. For the next hour, hordes of tourists move like locusts through the streets, hoovering up wine, stones and the fossils that make such perfect presents for dinosaur-obsessed children. While the region’s stone layers may preserve fossils well, they are too poor for most agriculture, but are perfect for growing vines, as they form brilliant draining soil with very expressive tastes of minerals, even in the water. Add to this layers of granite and a clay-like topsoil, and you have a very complex environment in which to plant vines. As is the case almost everywhere in western Europe, the Romans played an important part in the development of Chablis as a wine region. It is believed that the first vines were planted there by retired legionaries from the Roman army, with the first Chablis wine produced around 200AD. It was six hundred years later, around 800AD, that monks establishing monastic communities made the first sought after wines of Chablis. Famous monks like our own St Patrick studied and presumably made wines in the monastic and academic communities around Chablis, Auxerre and Tonnnerre. These were places of pilgrimage filled with relics and holy sites, and visitors and pilgrims from across Europe passed through the area praying and sampling the wine. Over time, the wines became famous, and eventually a thriving monastic export business grew up. When Paris was eventually chosen as the capital by the kings of France, Chablis, directly connected by river and just 100 kilometres away, was the first and obvious place to become the vineyard of the city. These original vineyards of Chablis were located on the best drained, south-eastern facing slopes. Southeastern slopes are the best because they get the morning sun, which dries out the grapes and gently ripens them by noon. Western-facing slopes have wetter grapes all day, and are prone to rot and fading sun in the afternoon, so it is from the south-eastern slopes that we generally get Grand Cru vineyards. In the valley floor, lower down the slopes, we find the same chalky limestone subsoils, but also clay and lower sunshine, so these are good spots for vineyards - though not perfect. These are where we find the Premier Cru vineyards. On soils that are only partly chalky, or are not as well-positioned for the sun, we find the regular village or plain AC Chablis vineyards. These vineyards have been vastly expanded over the last 30 years, as the word Chablis became a brand in itself, and every producer in Burgundy drove up to Chablis and bought some land in the nearby areas. These new lands were, after vigorous political lobbying, legally reclassified as AC Chablis. So, in Chablis, more than any other region, it is vital to seek out older, more established firms, of whatever size or fame, as the key to drinking well. Make sure that your wines are made from the original parts of Chablis, rather than the vastly expanded commune that now exists. One quick tip is to generally avoid anything marked Petit Chablis. There is a certain honesty here - the winery is putting its hands up to the fact that the vines are from further away. If you like the wine and it is a good price, then it is a fine choice, but it is rarely a true expression of Chablis. The Grand Cru Chablis wines need a decade to reach their peak, when they swap their wet-wool smelling nose and austere stony palates for piercing savoury lemon, startlingly contrasted with creamy, nutty and complex finishes of immense length. Drink one of these wines aged five years or under, and you will wonder what all the fuss is about. The Premier Cru Chablis wines can be drunk quite young, and are all about steel and power - they have intense flashes of acidity, rolling over lime, lemon, granite faced washes. Ordinary AC Chablis can be superb examples of minerality, balance and delicacy. They are meant for early drinking, and usually have higher levels of acidity than the Premier or Grand Cru wines, and slightly more forward, riper, fruitier notes on the palate. Each Chablis has its place and function, and there is a Chablis for every pocket. This flexibility, along with consistency and its trademark Jurassic minerality, has brought the region centuries of fame and popularity. AC Chablis * Domaine des Malandes, AC Chablis 2006, €18 (88) A superb, quite brittle and stony wash, with excellent integration of fruit and slightly higher alcohol than you might expect. * William Fe’vre Champs Royeaux, AC Chablis 2006, €20 (89) Avery complex and rewarding regular Chablis that in good years, like this one, can happily play at Premier Cru levels of complexity, minerality and ripeness. Premiere Cru Chablis * Domaine des Malandes, Vau de Vey, AC Chablis Premier Cru, 2006, €22.50 (91) Instead of the monochrome acidity of AC Chablis, we now find touches of Granny Smith apples, the tartness but firmness of an unripe pear, and a perfume of acacia on the nose that matches the hints of richness in the finish. However, you pay extra for this complexity. * Domaine Olivier Leflaive, Cotes de Lechet, AC Chablis Premiere Cru 2007, €29.95 (91) This is one of the very best Premier Cru in Chablis, clearly bordering on Grand Cru quality, but that does mean that this 2007 example is a year or two away from being a perfect wine. The evident complexity, the tinge of nutty and creaminess over the minerality is as yet all just nearing a peak. I would like to taste this next year for the final verdict, but with small supplies and high demand for Leflaive, picking a bottle up for under €50 and trying not to drink it is your best option. Chablis Grand Cru * Jean-Marc Brocard Grand Cru Chablis 2006, €49 (93) Since most of us spend our time happily drinking AC Chablis with the odd Premier Cru thrown in, our perception of Chablis is that it is basically a quite tart and firm wine which is ideal with fish. This Grand Cru gives the lie to that, with its nutty, almost caramel-like toasted touches over a skeleton of firm minerality. It is more reminiscent of an aged Beaune or Meursault, so bear in mind that you will be paying €50 not for the best zesty Chablis you could imagine, but rather for a wine that shows the true Burgundian credentials of this most northerly commune of Burgundy. Wines available from Le Caveau, Market Yard, Kilkenny; Searsons Wine Merchants, Blackrock, Co Dublin; Fallon & Byrne, Dublin 2; O’Briens Wines nationwide Tomas Clancy, Sunday Business Post
Pascal Rossignol

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