Monday, March 19, 2012

The world comes to Chablis

The town of Chablis as seen from a vineyard on a hill above it
Looking at a map, I'm not sure why Chablis is considered part of Burgundy. It's 100 km northwest of the rest of the region, and some Burgundy maps show it as an inset.

What is shares with the rest of Burgundy is the primary white grape, Chardonnay. But the great wines of Chablis are so different from anywhere else -- more likely to taste of stones and oyster shells than fruit. It's ironic that Chablis, immediately identifiable to people who know it, is in the US the biggest victim of identity theft from Gallo.

The biannual Les Grands Jours wine tasting event that I came to Burgundy for kicks off in Chablis with the biggest crowds and historically the best lunch buffet. You'd think there's a connection, but I think the reason that the world's wine buyers and media converge on Chablis on this Monday in March is because when you want Chablis, there is no substitute. People will use the word "Burgundian" about earthy, leesy Chardonnays from anywhere in the world, but I've never heard anyone call another wine "Chablisian."

There are days when I wish I was Alder Yarrow, tasting 200 wines and offering a quick rating of each, and this is one. I fought the crowds for a while, found some wines I liked. Then I took a break and walked around town, noting on a war memorial that Chablis lost 78 men in World War I but only four in World War II. Then I went back in there for more Chablis. One of the most highly priced wines, Raveneau, wasn't there; this is the case all week with Les Grands Jours. There's no reason for Raveneau to pour its wines because they're selling already, and moreover I suspect the winery doesn't want people to compare its wines side-by-side with others that cost 1/3 as much.

One theme is that while 2009, a warm year, was good in other parts of France, it was an off year in Chablis because the wines thrive on cool weather. The wines aren't unrecognizable like the '03s; they're just a little soft for many (but not all) wineries. I'll be interested later this week to see if this is true for Burgundy's red-wine regions as well. But for Chablis, you're better off with the 2010s.

Given how little I tasted -- about 50 wines -- relative to how much there was to taste -- 108 wineries showing an average of about five wines each -- I can't claim to have found the best wines at the event. But here were some of my favorites. (Note: Grand Cru, in Burgundy, is supposed to be better than 1er Cru -- read it as "premier cru" -- but I don't find that always to be the case.)

Tommaso Martignon, left, and Philippe Charlopin
Phillippe Charlopin Fourchaume Chablis 1er Cru 2009: Charlopin is famous for his red wines from Gevrey-Chambertin. In 2007 he bought five acres of classified vineyard land in Chablis. I asked, "How hard was that to buy," knowing how difficult it is to buy top vineyards in the red-wine areas. He thought for a moment and gave me a Gallic shrug. This wine has intense minerality; it's salty on the palate, with the lemon fruit lying well underneath, and the finish practically scratches your tongue. I imagine it will age well.

Charlopin's vineyard manager, Tommaso Martignon, is an Italian from Venice whose last job was working for Stéphane Derenoncourt in India at a winery called Alpine Wines in Bangalore. "People have no experience making wine," Marignon says of Bangalore. "You have to explain everything -- what is a pump, what is a valve. But I think there's great potential in the soil." I ask if Bangalore is too hot for quality wine, and he says, "We were at 600 meters. It's not very hot." So put Alpine Wines on your futures list.

Clotilde Davenne
Les Temps Perdus Chablis 2010: Winemaker Clotilde Davenne buys grapes from 1er Cru and Grand Cru vineyards, but it's her basic entry-level Chablis that wowed me with its taut lime fruit and long oyster shell finish. I had many 1er and Grand Cru wines that weren't this good. Turns out Davenne's entry-level Chablis is made only from grapes from her own vineyard, which explains a lot, and shows that sometimes vineyard classifications are either out of date or not that important.

Domaine Billaud-Simon Chablis 2010, Domaine Billaud-Simon Vaudésir Chablis Grand Cru 2009 and Domaine Billaud-Simon Les Preuses Chablis Grand Cru 2009: The Vaudésir is like licking an oyster shell. I like wines with that extreme minerality, so this appealed to me, plus I'm impressed by the great acidity from 2009. But here is a great lesson in terroir, as the wine from the same vintage from the different vineyard, Les Preuses, is completely different: it's just as intense, but in this case with green fruit, lime pith and green plum. The entry-level '10 Chablis impresses with its taut lemon fruit, oyster shell notes and long, flinty finish. 

Domaine Laroche Les Blanchots Chablis Grand Cru 2009 and 2010: Winemaker Stefan Barron has a softer, low acid style than most Chablis winemakers so his 2009 seemed more in line with the rest of his portfolio than some other wineries, but still the 2010 was better. The '10 is the reason people who love Chablis do so: taut and stony, with lime pith fruit and a long finish. The '09 is less classic but more intense, with complex flavors of lime, earth, oyster shell with some leafy herbs. I tried to ask Barron why his wines have green fruit character, which means they were picked early, yet  relatively low acidity, which usually would go with that. But my French wasn't up to the question, nor was his English. I stepped away for a moment, then I went back and said simply, "Malolactic?" "Yes," he said. So the key to getting the answer was simply knowing the answer.

Epoisses makes this much racier than it looks
The food highlight was a hot Epoisses cheese tart with potatoes and smoked ham. Potato-cheese combos are served all over western Europe in various guises, but rarely with a cheese as earthy and racy as Epoisses. In this case, its funkiness wasn't front and center, but emerged at the end of each bite as a note of intrigue and the perfect lead-in to a sip of Chablis.

I also loved a terrine of crayfish, salmon and scorpion fish that I almost didn't take because it didn't look very attractive: mostly white, with the pink salmon studs standing out. I thought: Fishcake. Fishcake dreams of being this good: each of the three critters (it doesn't feel right calling crayfish "fish") was distinctive, and the sweetness of the crayfish added a nice dimension to the more savory salmon.

At lunch, we could pour from any bottle we wanted from about 200 on two tables. I found a magnum of Domaine Christian Moreau Cuvée Guy Moreau Vaillon Chablis 1er Cru 2006 and ended up having three glasses of it; it was classic Chablis well-developed, leading and ending with minerality, with more lemon peel on the midpalate.

After my three glasses of wine -- and after tasting wine most of the morning -- I had a buzz on so I went into the press room to sit down and wait for our driver. I picked up the only English-language newspaper, The Daily Mail, and quickly learned that according to Keith Richards, Mick Jagger has a small penis. Did you know that? They know it in England; apparently it's called "willygate." So when the driver arrived, I said, "Hey, did you know Mick Jagger has a small penis?" in a voice at a level that only seems appropriate after three large glasses of Chablis. So now every English speaker in Chablis knows. Sorry Mick.

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King Krak, Grand Cru Decider said...

"The food highlight was a hot Epoisses cheese tart with potatoes and smoked ham."

You can FedEx a couple of these to me, today. Please.

John M. Kelly said...

[shuddering} Epoisses tart with potatoes and smoked ham {drooling} Yes, please. And a 1er Cru from Dauvissat if I may.

Point of historical interest: perhaps Chablis is included in Burgundy because it was part of the Duchy of Burgundy in the 15th century.

Dapz said...

LOL. I saw a guy on a shirt once that read: Mick Jagger Fword(past tense) David Bowie. So I guess Good old Dave knows that as well.

Did you see a lot, if any, oak being used in the wines you tried in Chablis?
Thanks for the great post!!

W. Blake Gray said...

Dapz: A lot of wineries are using oak, but I only noticed it in the nose and/or palate of a couple of wines -- including at least one Grand Cru. I tended to like wines made in neutral oak better than ones made in stainless steel, but while I like toasty oak notes in white Burgundies from elsewhere, I don't want them in Chablis.