Chablis, Where God and Darwin Collide
Evolution and the nature of existence is not our usual reflection from wine, but in one spot in the wine world the enormity of the earth’s and mankind’s history bursts though into the air, the soils and the wine.
In one spot, Evolution and Intelligent Design collide in a joyous creation.
This is in Chablis.
Every where you step and plant your foot in a Chablis vineyard you crunch into the soil, which ios made of endless deep white and grey gravel.
The gravel is irregular, full of white and grey stones that range from the size of a euro to the size of your fist. It is an uncomfortable surface to walk across, but thankfully there is some beige sandy earth and finer soils made from endlessly ground up rocks.
If you hunker down and lift one of these stones in your hand, if you did not already know, you will be somewhat taken aback.
Look closely and you can see you are crunching on fossils, millions and millions of fossils. Fossils of what mainly seem to be shellfish or oyster like items.
Of course this is only the fraction of what is going on. These fossils are a tiny fragment of the geologic landscape, deeper down is rock, sedimentary rock that is made entirely from decomposed and fossilised shellfish, billions of years of shellfish, dying and sinking into the seafloor only after billions of years to be endlessly compressed at unimaginable pressures into the limestone white cliffs of Dover, the chalks of Kent, Champagne, Sancerre and here in Chablis.
Today we have the benefit of 150 years of Darwinism, the publication of the Origin of The Species in 1859 utterly changed the way mainstream thought looked at how our world was created.
Until that point for the majority of the Western World, the earth was created by God in 6 days, beginning on a Tuesday afternoon a few thousand years in the past.
Plenty of natural scientists, philosophers and heretics disagreed but the god fearing majority knew exactly how we, the animals and the plants got here.
Standing in Chablis in a vast ocean bed graveyard, you are tempted to ask yourself, what took Darwin so long, but of course this is simply the obviousness of a pattern or a puzzle revealed.
And, of course, some people did know something was afoot.
Chablis and The Circle Of Life
Chablis is rightly one of the most famous wines in the world.
Ask a non wine drinker to name a few wines and right up there with Chateauneuf Du Pape, Chianti and Rioja will usually come, Chablis.
It has been this famous for centuries.
Which of course is why when winemaking pioneers in California, Australia and beyond began to make a white wine from the Chardonnay grape, they called it Chablis.
In England, Chablis and Bordeaux had been generic wine names for centuries. They were not the wines that we would recognise to day however. The Chablis region which extended to Tonnerre, Auxerre and the north of the Cote D’Or included plenty of red wine too. Only with the arrival of Phylloxera and the wiping out of all the vineyards in the 1880s did Chablis growers take advantage of this to plant only white wines.
The same thing happened in Sancerre and Pouilly Fume which had long red wine histories as well.
While red wines were made throughout the Chablis zone as we might call it, the white wines of Chablis were regarded universally as their best product.
Writing in1701, Louis Liger in a book called the Economy Of The Countryside singles out the white wine of Chablis for special mention. By the end of the 18th century you can find, if you are like myself an over-enthusiastic serendipity lover, hundreds of journals, gazettes and memoirs that talk about hovering down Chablis with oysters, shellfish from Ostend and every manner of ocean going creature.
Before we had a true understanding of what was actually beneath the soils of Chablis, people, wine lovers in fact had figured it out intuitively.
Every 18th and 19th century tasting note and diary entry that says they were inexpressibly drawn to bring Chablis and shellfish together is manifesting an almost eerie desire to complete some biological, geological circle.
The mother and child reunion of Paul Simon’s plate of chicken and fried eggs, but on a geologic time frame.
From death on a seabed a billion years ago, to resurrection in the palate of an oyster chomping human.
How Chablis Triumphed
Of course, meanderings about the meaning of life is not what got Chablis on the road to success as the most famous white wine in the world.
No, that was a desire for monastic contemplative isolation. As usual.
It was the Cistercians a thousand years ago that kick started Chablis as we see is regularly the history of wine regions.
Chablis is a deeply cut valley, or rather series of valleys that run for the main part east to west, giving many, but not all the slopes of Chablis a south facing aspect which means that they get the sun all day long from dawn till dusk. This is vital for full grape ripening.
Surrounding Chablis is a high plateau, not Everest like but high enough ground that has the car growling for an hour or so as you climb the autoroute from the Paris Basin southwards towards Chablis the first vineyards of Burgundy.
Burgundy’s Cote D’Or home to Morey-St-Denis, Meursault, Corton, Puligny-Montrachet and Gevrey Chambertin to name a handful, is another hour’s drive south, and down off the plateau and its signs indicating that transhumance of cattle is practiced. A word I had not heard often in the years since inter-cert geography
The region was isolated and so several monastic settlements were established including the Abbey of Pontigny, still very beautiful and worth a visit, St. Thomas a Beckett spent two years there hiding from Henry II, he was lured back from Chablis only as we know to be murdered.
The Abbey like all Cistercian monasteries wanted to be self sufficient, independent of the local lords, so this meant raising their own food, wine and generating their own revenue. Over decades the monks identified the spots where grapes grew best and planted then there.
These were considered better than Champagne then the source for most of Paris and the nobility’s still wines. The proximity to Paris and frequency of travellers stopping over en route for the south and to Santiago di Compostelo put the monk’s wines from the slopes of Chablis on the map.
Even as white wins from other regions and other countries became available with improving transport, first the canals, then the railways, wine lovers still demanded their Chablis in huge quantities.
This tells us two things, firstly that the name Chablis was a brand as strong as Apple or Coca Cola and secondly, there was something about the taste, the design, the package that made people ask for Chablis over al other white wines.
And it tells us something else too.
Terroir was the key. This is because chardonnay was the source grape for Macon which was more historical, Montrachet which was more profound, Beaune which was more elegant and Champagne which was cheaper, nearer and could be had in a sparkling form too.
People liked the acidity, the lean clean style and what we would today call the minerality, the austere stone and steel nature that we identify as being at the heart of great Chablis.
This could not be obtained unless the Chardonnay was planted in the soils of Chablis. The soils, rocks and climates of Chablis produced something that the other locations could not produce.
Slowly people began to ask, why and that brought them to look at the stones in their vineyards and little by little this brought the revelation of fossils and opened up the idea that the earth had changed, evolved. Those mountains were the floors of the seabed once, the stones were fish, and that left the lingering question, then what were we.
An apocryphal tale talks about Leonardo Da Vinci asking the Pope about a fossil he had found that was from high up in the Alps, Leonardo Da Vinci died just down the road from Chablis in the Loire. The Pope calmed any doubts by saying that the fish must have been trapped their in Noah’s Flood.
I am sure something like that calmed many questions throughout Chablis long history, but today, the entire village thrives off not just the wine, but the stone, fossil and dinosaur industry, with droves of children scouring the landscape for T-Rex bones.
In the wineries they are not unaware of this and producer’s like Brochard have an entire range of Jurassic Wines depending on the age of the sub-soils beneath his vineyards.
Tasting in Chablis has gone beyond mere statements that the wine is mineral like, local wine merchants and many vingerons claim to be able to identify the exact type of rock, kimmeridgian rock or Portland stone and so forth that a particular wine is located upon.
All this attention and high marketability for Chablis wines of course created a kind of Goldrush into the Chablis region since the 1970s.
The was backed up by legal protections to stop Californian producers in particular from using the word Chablis. Gallo of California was one of the largest producers of “Chablis” in the world until the late 1970s.
The drive to plant in Chablis lead to huge political battle that raged around what it meant to be a Chablis wine which was only recently and inconclusively settled.
On the Appellation Controllee issue the answer was simple, to accommodate the Goldrush of new plantings of would be Chablis vines the Chablis appellation was vastly expanded. Former marginal regions that could only use the AC Petit Chablis designation can now use Chablis alone, while absolutely new sections now travel under the Petit Chablis idea.
The Dangers Of Success
What reputation and sales success has meant for wine lovers is that although Chablis is a well known and understood, today it is quite a variable wine selection.
The Chablis hierocracy of wines is relatively straightforward. The Grand Cru wines are sourced from the very best tops and steepest parts of the best south facing slopes. There are seven Grand Cru. These wines last decades evolve into complex often full-bodied wines that are not unlike Cote de Beaune wines and for someone looking for lean, steely Chablis they are going to be disappointed.
Grand Cru wines have the steel, but they are also punched through with mineral complexity. When young they are often closed, tight and not infrequently exhibit a wet wool nose. If you buy a young Grand Cru and drink it then and there at say under 5 years of age you will, as I have said before, wonder what all the fuss is about and feel ripped off.
There are around 40 Premiere Cru and with named smaller sections, you can double this number. That is a lot of wine with the word Premiere Cru on it. Premiere Cru occupy the slopes from the Grand Cru downwards to wards the valleys, where the regular AC Chablis is sourced from.
A life time of study into each of these slopes is available and it is one of the reasons why wine lovers actually travel in such large numbers to Chablis, it is a very gorgeous hamlet to visit and I am afraid rather like transporters I have met fellow pilgrims who have tiny soils samples from every single climat, or subsection of every vineyard in Chablis. To me that’s going a touch to far.
The producer and their integrity is what counts for the un-obsessed, its fairly easy to grasp that on a slope which itself is a middle of a hill, there is a top and a bottom bit, the upper bit will be a tiny bit better drained, get a tiny bit more sun, be a tiny bit better ventilated. Each of these tiny factors making that upper bit a touch better. That sub-section of climat as it is called in French will usually be better even though to me and you they both look like and are named the same Premiere Cru, but one is from William Fevre, one from Le Chablisienne, another from Raveneau all good producers and the other is from a name you have not seen before.
Some generic producers will have bought in late and got a poor part, some are old tiny holdings that are superb but no one knows their name.
Below this level is AC Chablis, the mainstay of the business. If it is from a good and long standing producer they will have the better plots by and large and are producing the clean, steely wine that most of us are looking for, beyond that is Petit Chablis where you could be drinking from somewhere that was wheat fields 20 years ago or from a shadow laden corner of a north south facing valley. This is why some Chablis tastes plain bland and often unripe or watery.
The other reason is that Chablis is very far north, frost and rain are constant worries as enough sunlight, so that is why location matter some much more here than in the rest of Burgundy to its south or the Languedoc or Napa valley. In those locations the sunshine seeps everywhere in the end. Up here in Chablis you are at the margins of ripening every year.
The Wines of Chablis
Given the complexity, the vintage variation, the marginal climate and the Johnny come-lately bandwagon producers you would think the final advice would be, just move along to a safer choice, but as wine lovers know.
When its good, a cold glass of Chablis, frosted beads on the outside, cool, steely perfection on the inside of the glass and a mouthful of crispy pan-fried monkfish, mussels or salmon is so close to perfection you might think for one brief moment again about Intelligent Design.
Chablis In Ireland
Charles Vienot Chablis 2008 (86) at €13.99
Chanson Pere et Fils, AC Chablis 2004 (88) around €19.50
Domaine Simmonet-Febvre, Chablis 2008 (90) around 17.99
Maison Moreau et Fils, AC Chablis 2007 (89) around €16.95
La Chablisienne, LA Singuliere AC Chablis 1er Cru, 2007 (90) around €19
Chanson, Montee de Tonnerre, 1er Cru Chablis 2006 (90) around €29.45
Domaine Simmonet-Febvre, Chablis Premiere Cru 2006 (92) around 22.99
Domaine William Fevre, AC Chablis 1er Cru Montee de Tonnerre 2004 (92) around €28.95
Domaine Joseph Drouhin, Chablis Reserve de Vaudon 2008 (90) around 22.50
Julien Brocard, Domaine de la Boissonneuse (Biodynamic) AC Chablis 2008 (91) around €23.50