There’s no better way to learn about Chablis than by visiting the wine region, even if to be truthful, I could really say that about understanding most wines. Chablis is not only a famous wine and wine region, but also a wonderful, compact little town and district to see terroir in action, and to understand in just a short time the wine designations Petit, Village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru.
That’s the theory. I had planned a day visiting Chablis with Anja and Georges of World Wine Tour 2010 and arranged in the early afternoon to visit the famous Grand Cru slope to see why it was so special. But this was not to be, for on this cold day in early December with snow threatened, the rain poured down and a tour of the vineyards was not possible.
All was not lost, for we were given a fantastic introduction to the wines in Danielle-Etienne Defaix’ wine shop in the middle of this little wine town. With Cécile there to guide us, she explained about the climate and soils, and the hierarchy of the appellations very clearly in English (and when she’s not there, Ken, a Canadian is there to help) with maps and suitable tasting wines to add to the lesson.
It was wonderful to re-discover that intense green-yellow coloured wine which almost epitomizes the tasting terms ‘mineral’, ‘steely’ or even ‘stony’. Whereas at most Chablis producers, you will taste wines that are just a couple of years old, at Defaix they opened two Premiers Crus from 2001, both matured in stainless steel on the lees for nearly two years and then in bottle for several years before release. Oak maturation is shunned by many producers in Chablis except, for some, for their Grands Crus.
Running around the corner through the rain, we arrived to visit the glorious 9th century cellars of L’Obédiencerie, home to Domaine Michel Laroche, one of the largest estates in Chablis with 100 hectares (about 250 acres), and currently in conversion to organic methods. This large company has interests elsewhere in France and abroad, and are also big proponents of screwcaps (unusual anywhere in France), but their quintessential Chablis wines are of very high quality ranging from their flagship Chablis St-Martin through the richer Premier Cru Les Fourchaumes right up to their excellent Grands Crus Chablis.
Laroche has a shop/wine bar in the main Chablis street, open normal hours for tastings, but to tour the buildings and cellars of Obédiencerie you need to make an advance appointment. Laroche Grands Crus are matured partly in oak barrels, though only a proportion is new, and the wines express a lovely austerity along with classic flintiness. Top of the range is a very special selection from Grand Cru Blanchot named Réserve de l’Obédience, and I recently had the chance to taste the stunning, still very youthful 2008 in London. This is a wine that develops for many years, lasting well over a decade, as was proved to me by a fascinating and gorgeous 1996 very generously opened for us by Michel Laroche.
Chablis has a plethora of small producers that you can visit outside the town in the surrounding villages, all fairly close to one another nestled in the vineyards. Writer Rosemary George MW, who has been a regular visitor for well over 20 years selects her favourites who welcome visitors in our travel guide. Even if you remain only in the compact wine town of Chablis itself, you will find several producers’ caveaux (shops) where you can taste and buy.
We visited Simmonet-Febvre, an old Chablis producer, purchased a few years ago by the well known Burgundy négociant Louis Latour. They are the only producer here to make Crémant de Bourgogne sparkling wine, which was fun to taste, and they also produce a range of Chablis from the lowest Appellation Petit Chablis up to the Grands Crus. I enjoyed their wines, especially their Premier Cru Forchaume, tasted in their welcoming shop, and I think this may be one to watch for the future.
As well as being rainy, Chablis was extremely quiet in December but the little town comes to life from about March onwards. Not very far from Paris, this is a wonderful place for white wine lovers to spend a couple of days or even just one day as we did en route to Beaune (note the car journey to Beaune is nearly one and a half hours, something people often forget when visiting Burgundy). A visit here also provides as a great introductory lesson into the Burgundy appellation hierarchy – it gets even more complicated once you reach the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune.
Daniel-Etienne Defaix owns a simple, modern hotel, Aux Lys de Chablis on the outskirts of town and Michel Laroche offers a more upmarket small hotel, the Vieux Moulin in a converted mill in the centre. We stayed at the welcoming Hostellerie des Clos, which was comfortable and also well placed. It is home to a Michelin-starred restaurant with chef Michel Vignaud, and the sommelier is happy to advise on visits to growers in the area. The owners also run the welcoming and straightforward Bistrot des Grands Crus just down the road, where we were able to enjoy a late, simple meal on the evening before our busy day of visits.
Georges and Anja of World Wine Tour 2010 were travelling around the wine regions of the world throughout the year, collecting donations of fine bottles for an auction, which will take place on May 26th 2011 in aid of the Lao Rehabilitation Foundation. They have some wonderful donations and expect to raise a significant amount of money for their chosen charity. I joined them for their week in Champagne and Burgundy and helped them with their European wine travel itinerary.