Everyone knows Chablis. It gives its name not only to the celebrated wine but also to the region in northern Burgundy where it grows, a land of gently rolling, vine-planted, rock-strewn hills and sparsely scattered villages situated about halfway between Paris and Beaune. There’s even a small town of the same name, which sits in the centre of the region on the banks of the River Serein.
To the chagrin of chablisiens, the name has over the years been hijacked by winemakers around the globe for their jug (junk?) wines. (Gallo in the US has the gall to produce something they call Pink Chablis – “pink like rosé, drinks like chablis!”). These beverages are to the real thing rather as “Swiss cheese” is to the fragrant, nutty – and hole-less – Le Gruyère, made most famously in the Swiss canton of Fribourg.
You’ll have heard and read plenty about the wine (the real thing), so you’ll know it’s all white, and made exclusively from Chardonnay; no other grape variety is permitted under the rules of the appellation.
Tasting notes are thick with wafts of ‘white flowers’ (which for me always begs the question, which ones? Daisies? Roses? Honeysuckle? Apple blossom? Cow parsley?). Green apples and shellfish crop up regularly. There are suggestions of gunflint, steel and struck matches. The ‘M’ word – minerality – is frequently invoked, as are the two ‘P’s, purity and precision. Oh, and salinity. Oak – whether for fermenting or ageing – is seldom used, so if you’re more familiar with luscious [white] Burgundy from the heartlands further south, or even the woody New World versions of the 1980s that put wind in the sails of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement, prepare for a surprise.
So how come *this* Chardonnay is so different from the ones you find in other French regions, or indeed other parts of the world? It’s the terroir, stoopid. One aspect of terroir is the soil (others include the orientation of the vineyard, drainage and the hand of the vigneron[ne]). In Chablis’ case, this means calcareous (aka limestone) and clay soils from the Upper Jurassic age, which were formed more than 180 million years ago, submerged beneath a prehistoric sea.
There are calcareous clays and calcareous clays; the king is Kimmeridgian, where all Chablis Grands Crus and Premiers Crus are planted (wines from less-favoured sites are designated simply Chablis, or Petit Chablis). Kimmeridgian is a cool combination of smashed limestone (complete with fossils) and clay that’s found throughout the Paris basin, an area which extends – improbably – up to the Dorset coast in the south of England (the name is derived from the village of Kimmeridge in that county).
By a happy concatenation of circs, there’s something else that delights in calcareous clay: truffles. This past weekend in Chablis at an event entitled Truffes Noires et Grands Vins de Bourgogne, I was treated to a combination of the two.
A bunch of us, including our host Julien Brocard of Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard (responsible for the Chablis), Vincent Naudet of Pepinières Naudet (owner of the truffière or truffle-inoculated orchard) and the Jourdan family (of Vitabella Wine), assembled in steady drizzle, suitably booted and spurred and accompanied by a pair of truffle hounds and their owners.
The truffière turned out to be a slightly scruffy, limestone-strewn hillside planted with oaks, hazelnuts, hornbeams and the occasional spruce. The dogs set off eagerly up the hill, followed by their owners who kept up a steady stream of encouraging shouts and whistles, urging them to cover the ground. From time to time the dogs checked, sniffed and scratched around tentatively in the leaves. Then they began to scrabble furiously, sending out showers of calcareous clay with their muddy paws. A bit of a scuffle ensued (the worry is always that the dog snaffles the truffle before the owner gets there), then it was hauled away and rewarded with a piece of cheese, the earth was loosened with a small knife and the truffle carefully prised out to general acclaim.
Cheeks were pink, boots were muddied, umbrellas blew inside-out and everyone was thoroughly wet, frozen and happy. Once we had two bags full of truffles, honour was satisfied and we adjourned in high spirits to the domain. A team was detailed to scrub the truffles clean, the chef from the local cookery school donned his apron and started his mise en place while the rest of us sniffed, slurped and savoured a parade of spectacular Chablis from Julien Brocard’s Les Sept Lieux collection of biodynamically farmed wines, from seven different sites around the domaine.
Each wine was like a sea breeze, incisive, bracing, zesty and bursting with life. I got green apples, shellfish, crushed limestone, minerality, salinity, the whole shebang. It was my aha! moment. I thought I didn’t care for Chablis (I can own up to that now) but I’ve changed my mind. Chablis rocks.
And you can give me any amount of truffles, any day. Preferably the two together.