I love history! It never ceases to amaze me how differently you look at the present when you understand a bit about the past. In recent times this interest in history has collided and blended beautifully with my other big passion. Yep, you got it, wine and on this occasion a famous white wine that I really noticed properly for the first time whilst enjoying a meal at a fish restaurant in Scotland some years ago. The restaurant was the Crannog in Fort William (highly recommended) and the wine was Chablis. This modest restaurant convinced me forever that eating fish as near as possible to where it used to swim is good advice for us all.
Now whilst on the subject of things I’m convinced of, here are another two (stay with me, they are both connected to Chablis….honest!). Firstly, a little bit of luck sometimes goes a long way and secondly challenging times quite often give birth to new opportunity. How does this relate to Chablis? Well let me tell you a story.
Back in the 9th century what is now Northern France was constantly under attack from annoying Vikings. You know the types, helmets with horns on, big round shields, beards and a tendency to like smashing stuff up and slaughtering monks. Now these monks were the ones making all the wine in those days so in 867 the brothers of the chapter of St Martin at Tours popped in to see the King, Charles the Bald, to ask for a favour. Your majesty, any chance we could have a vineyard a bit further inland? As he was probably preoccupied with tidying up the mess after the latest Viking raid he quickly granted the brothers land at Chablis on the Yonne.
At the point the brothers were granted this land they probably didn’t realise how lucky they had been. Charles the Bald (who possibly had a full head of hair apparently?) had just granted them land very well suited to vines and also land nicely connected to Paris via the Yonne that flowed into the Seine. On realising this I can only imagine they hitched up their habits and spent the rest of the day ‘flossing’ across the hill sides. From here on Chablis became a name in Paris and for a long time, due to poor roads and transport, was the only wine from Burgundy that actually made it there.
The other thing about luck though is that it has a horrible habit of changing and where changes in luck are concerned the 19th century brought the Chablis region what might be termed a ‘perfect storm’. Firstly, arriving at Dijon in 1851, the railways enabled wines from all over France to reach the Paris market massively increasing competition. Then in 1886 the vines were hit by ‘Oidium’ (a type of fungus). Finally, to rub salt in the wound, the vine munching louse Phylloxera (efficiently transported across the Atlantic by new steam powered ships) arrived just a year later and wreaked havoc. It wasn’t really until the second half of the 20th century that saw Chablis recover, very slowly, to what it is today.
Nestling as it does at the NW tip of the Burgundy region and about 158km from Paris, Chablis is arguably the home of the the Chardonnay grape. Thought to have been first introduced in the 12th century it became law that Chablis must be made from this grape in 1938 when the region became a designated AOC. Chablis is widely regarded by wine experts, Jancis Robinson included, to be the ‘purest’ expression of the variety and this is because Chablis wine makers seek to express their limestone rich terroir to the fullest and for Petit Chablis and most Chablis they avoid oak ageing. Petit Chablis and Chablis vineyards are generally planted on Portlandian Marl, a limestone rich sedimentary soil which provides excellent drainage and imparts characteristic mineral notes. The only wines that may see either oak fermentation or oak ageing (never both) are the Premier Cru wines and the very small amount of Grand Cru wines. These wines are produced from fruit grown in vineyards planted on Kimmeridgean Marl and on the mid slope with the best aspects. These richer and more complex wines can successfully take on oak flavours without losing their other fruit characters.
So a couple of Chablis wines I’ve tried recently. Firstly, Louis Moreau from Virgin wine. A lovely surprise as it really punched above its weight. Lovely citrus and apple with characteristic lively acidity but also a lovely rich mouthfeel from incorporation of 20% Premier Cru fruit. A bargain at £14.
Then secondly, Chablis 1er Cru, Domaine des Malandes. Not cheap at about £28 from http://www.Frazierswine.co.uk but what a treat! With 30% of this barrel fermented you get a rich , concentrated and complex wine but still with a lovely floral bouquet and mineral palate. Pair this with a rich full flavoured fish pie and dine like a king!
Ps. I do admit to a bit of ‘artistic license’ in the above. Historical events, especially the ‘flossing’, may have happened differently!