11 Jun 2010

Chablis: Bacchus on a Knife Edge

WHETHER BRITS identify with its strict structure or simply find it easy to pronounce, we’ve accrued a taste for Chablis’ crus. Bar France, our nation glugs the nervy nectar with more gusto than any other. In half a century, Burgundy’s northernmost knit of pale clay sewn Chardonnay has swollen from 550 hectares to almost 5,000. But brazen imitators, clued-up competitors, and a leaner economic epoch in which importers talk price before they taste, are factors finally contriving to crimp our consumption. I ventured Yonne-wards to meet a quartet of Chablis’ most galvanised producers...
Midway between Burgundy’s heartland and Paris, Chablis is umbrella to four styles, ‘or children’ as one producer put it: the crisp aperitif of Petit Chablis, more giving Chablis, lithe Premier Crus and rarer, enduring Grand Crus. Taking the name of the Dorset town of Kimmeridge, which is incidentally home to a dinosaur-free Jurassic museum, Chablis’ best terroirs are clay-limestone, riddled with strikingly preserved, tooth-sized oysters. Combined with the refreshing acidity conferred from the cool clime, this explains why a wine from oysters is blissful with them...
I met marketing man, Arnaud Valour at Chablis’ communications hub, ‘Le Manoir de Petit Pontigny’. Founded as a monastery in the 12th century, a version of its original press house endures. The tranquil site was also once home to General Gras, inventor of the eponymous cartridge rifle, then, less decadently, the inland revenue. Joining us to present a 10-year timeline of ‘Domaine Billaud-Simon’ was seventh generation vigneron, Samuel Billaud.
Stressed Vines
As we popped corks, echoing the Manoir’s chilly cellar, Samuel spoke of ‘tensions’ with his uncle, Bernard, who is attempting to sever roots by selling the 195 year-old, 20 hectare estate. Although both Samuel, who made the wine for almost two decades, and his sister have repeatedly sought an amicable solution, Bernard’s taciturn approach to diplomacy has led to legal action and fear from importers. But away from the courts, Samuel is decanting his creative energies into another endeavour with his friends. The result, beginning with vintage 2010, will be a brand new négociants, provocatively titled ‘Domaine Samuel-Billaud’.
Flavour gave insight into Samuel and Bernard’s story: ‘Les Preuses’ ‘06 proved deeply antagonistic. Where I anticipated aromas of icy countryside to emanate, I inhaled burning Bakelite - utterly unexpected in a Grand Cru. Preuses, along with Bougros, Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos and Blanchot represent the region’s seven finest sites, in sight, and the pride of Chablis, the town and its 2,600 inhabitants. Elegantly holding back emotion, Billaud revealed how his uncle vetoed him that vintage, enlisting roving oenologist, ‘Monsieur Lede’. As most producers rushed to harvest, Lede, whom another winemaker termed ‘a poet’, prescribed patience. The result, quinze jours later, was rotting grapes which could only make a drinkable wine when pepped with artificial acidity.
Escaping the cellar, we tasted a more successful vintage at ‘Auberge de la Beursaudiere’ alongside Époisses so ripe it was very nearly intimidating. Served by waiters wearing unconvincing paysan apparel, Parisian tourists eked out the bank holiday’s final sunlit moments before gliding along the Autoroute du Soleil. According to Samuel, Les Clos ‘05 benefitted from a seldom talked about vine pest called ‘court noué’ which can concentrate flavours. Harvested from 65 year-old vines, it was blotter dry and firm, with a subtle wisp of oak smoke and surfacing minerals including chalk. Considering its currently ascetic composition, it is likely to require up to two decades to yield – longer, one hopes, than it will take to resolve Bernard and Samuel’s bitter feud.
The following morning I visited ‘Jean-Marc Brocard’, a deep winery which abuts a slender 13th century chapel. Once in the heart of Préhy, the village has gradually recoiled following fires. I met the charming, creative, Céline Brocard-Guégen who is one of Chablis’ few producers to actively encourage wine tourism. It later transpired that she also offered Samuel a job, an indication of the depth of feeling for his situation. Her latest project, three years in the making, is a stable slumbering in the village of Saint-Cyr-les-Colons. Now couthly converted into three holiday homes, it overlooks a pétanque pit and boulangerie. Echoing the residents of Préhy’s fascination with flames, Céline explained that even midsummer her predominantly Parisian guests love building fires in the inglenooks.
Proving the longevity of even Chablis’ modest wines, I savoured Brocard’s ’93 Kimmeridge over dinner at ‘Hostellerie des Clos’. Accompanying a tender ‘corolla’ of shellfish and pert spring vegetables marinated in sherry vinegar and spry, metallic tasting argan oil, the wine seemed almost marine. Despite the paucity of the vintage, it was resolutely fresh, evoking pulverised shells.
‘Wine is also made from grapes’
(Italian proverb)
Despite their scale, Brocard are determined to convert the 200 hectares that they manage to biodynamic values. This holistic approach of supercharged organics was first outlined during a series of eight lectures given to farmers by Austrian philosopher, scientist and playwright, Rudolf Steiner the year before he died.
Beyond a label dotted with ladybirds and half-moons, the 12 hectare ‘Domaine de la Boissonneuse’, has been certified biodynamic for 17 years. The vineyard, owned by Céline’s brother, Julien, is edged by flora planted to appeal to vine friendly insects. Nearby, a small garden of nettles, sage and lavender contributes to a mixture which is systematically stirred with cow manure from jovial bovines. At the Equinox, the brew is buried in the vineyard in their horns, then re-discovered the following Equinox and homeopathically applied to the vines.
Whilst it may sound hocus pocus, however manifested, tender loving care equates to healthier, happier vines. Hervé Tucki, head of the region’s largest cooperative, ‘La Chablisienne’ later explained, ‘humans forget what pesticides they put in the soil – but the plant does not.’
At 300 growers, La Chablisienne represents a quarter of the region’s rows of vines. To ensure they actually toil the soil, Tucki ‘asks to see producers’ hands.’
Stroking a Kimmeridgian clump in a small tasting room (I saw earlier, the finishing touches being applied to a brand new shop), Tucki compared Chablis’ grape to milk. Chardonnay is the world’s favourite white, although, like cows grazing different pasture he reasoned, the well-travelled grape can express marked differences in wines, as when milk is turned into cheese. ‘We’re not just about hydro alcoholic solutions’ said Tucki, standing in front of an advertisement which proclaimed ‘emotions minérales’. He added: ‘we’re first and foremost about flying the flag of Chablis. The soil is a lesson of modesty given by nature.’ Even though his lines might seem rote marketing spiel, I believed him. And despite La Chablisienne’s scale, Tucki’s wines were accurate, carefully-tempered and individual. We shared a favourite. From the triangle of the Montée de Tonnerre, the ‘08, which Tucki said benefitted from ‘never seeing the power of the sun’ proved an energetic, silken wine which left a reverberation in the mouth long after swallowing; I sensed the sea lapping the shore.
A fanatic of simplicity, Tucki admires the tender vegetable cuisine of triple Michelin starred chef, Alain Passard (‘L’Arpège’, Paris). As we drove to the next appointment, tracing a route along vines, Tucki slammed the brakes in excitement on seeing people plucking white asparagus. Moments later, we were tasting the eerily ivory, ephemeral tips in the doll’s house décor of the dining room at ‘Les Bon Enfants’, Saint Julien du Saul. They were, alas embellished by Japanese chef, Keigo Kimura with too many garnishes, some purely visual. Perhaps a cuisine of vanity over sanity. Alongside, despite the proprietor’s attempt to swerve us towards a more expensive bottle whilst denigrating our selection, we sipped La Chablisienne’s ‘Vénérables’ Vielles Vignes ‘06. Served initially higher than room temperature, it nonetheless demonstrated, aptly, how knife edge Chablis can be, achieving a taught balance between acidity, citrus and minerality.
We also visited the sexiest smokery one could imagine. Favoured by Joël Robuchon, the curvaceous ‘Le Borvo’ was founded in the early 1980’s by another Michelin-starred chef, Daniel Raymond. After discovering a tome from 1900, ‘Le Lievre de Conserves’, Raymond took three years to perfect a formula for delicately smoking salmon. At six days, the process takes doubles that of conventional operations. Incidentally, it takes no fewer than five years for a cutter to grasp the ability to exactly portion sides of salmon. Raymond works with the catch of two countries: Norway’s was sweeter, smoother and leaner, whilst the Scottish (which I preferred) proved crisper, with more ingrained oils.
Unsurprisingly, salmon and Chablis proved a painless match. However, Arnaud Valour had inserted a more testing experience into my itinerary...
Offal: Olfactory Onslaught
65 year-old Gérard Rousselet is famous for crafting the world’s longest Andouillete sausage at 392 metres. Whilst coarsely spiced, seasoned pork intestines won’t fit everyone’s idea of gourmet fodder, I found the spectacle of two metre long boiling innards from Brittany, sifted when cooled through Rousselet’s sausage like fingers, arresting; not unlike blanched seaweed.
As well as the apparently prized chitterling roullade, Rousselet and his brigade hand stuff one and a half tonnes of Andouillete each week including the only version featuring snails, parsley and garlic. ‘Everything that the British hate,’ said Rousselet, somewhat sardonically.
Valour was keen to establish that Andouillette from Chablis is France’s leanest. He had arranged a tasting of four producers’ sausages over lunch at beamed hostelry, ‘Feuillette 132’. I gazed at the fragrant window boxes as some psychological attempt to block the stench of roasted guts encroaching the dining room. Faced with a stave of skewered innards, my tasting notes veered from ‘fibrous’, ‘guttural’ and ‘manure’ to ‘rotted cabbage’ and ‘musky’. Rousselet’s version triumphed all incidentally, including the supposedly superlative, ‘Michel Soulie’, which retained nil integrity when forked.
Alongside, the wines of Patrice Vocoret, who farms 50 hectares, acted as a partial distraction. The winery was previously a dairy, but Vocoret’s philosophy of ‘fewer cows, more wine’, is paying more dividends. I liked both Patrice, who, as a senior local administrator is so gloriously indiscreet and cheeky that he is nicknamed pipelette (chatterbox). Light, pretty and precise, it seemed that his Petit Chablis ’08 had as much care lavished on it as his noble Grand Cru Blanchot ‘09, sampled from the cask.
After a nap to digest the gustatory onslaught, it was again time to taste. Damian Deluget, of the 57 hectare ‘Domaine Verret’ showed his wines alongside artisan cheeses ‘raised’ by affieneur, Sylvain Crégut. Providing a break from white wine, I relished the lifted, rose petal scents of Deluget’s Irancy, L’Ame du Domaine ‘08. It was made 10 miles away in Auxerre, capital of the Yonne department from Pinot Noir grown in the hollow of a sheltered valley amid cherry trees. With soft tannins, but a similar minerality to Chablis, it worked, slightly chilled, with a robust Mimolette Reserve, the bright orange, nutty, salty, crystalline cheese beloved of Charles de Gaulle. Charmingly, its exterior, which appears not unlike a rusty cannonball, is the result of nibbling cheese mites.
I last visited Chablis early during the heat-wave harvest of ‘03, which followed a mean winter. Taking the example of winemakers, I had dunked croissants in strong coffee whilst their fathers and grandfathers indulged in something stronger. Coming back seven years on, I still found mirth and worth in the cool breath of minerals that is Chablis wine. Bruised by a Britain beginning to turn its back on imports, and embracing reasoned agriculture, the four producers I met seemed keener than ever to shed light into the light, green wine...
For an index of producers and places visited, please visit FoodTripper.com (who commissioned this article)