Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Soul of Chablis

Wednesday, September 13, 2006: Forget anything you think you know about the generic term “Chablis.” The real story is an age-old tale of a product that springs from the Earth.

We are standing with our guide in a Grand Cru Chardonnay vineyard on the side of a hill that faces the small village of Chablis in France. There are only 2,600 residents in Chablis, but they are caretakers of an ancient tradition. The vineyards surround the village. While one might find a grand chateau at the center of a vineyard in Bordeaux, here the village and the farmers are at the heart of wine making in Burgundy.

The carefully-trimmed Grand Cru Chardonnay grape vines run sharply up the slope in a slight diagonal pattern. I see a patchwork of shades of luminous green in the mid-morning sun as my eyes follow the layers of hills and valleys. Chablis Grand Cru is a strictly controlled appellation and the grapes produced in this small area are considered some of the best in the world. There are only seven Grand Cru areas that produce grapes of this caliber.

The Grand Cru grapes cling close to the hill, where they extract their essence. Here in Chablis, the vines are grown in dense plots on rocky, challenging terrain. There is chalky, white gravel and fossils in the soil as it was once an ocean bed. Our shoes are dusted with white pigment. The vines are clipped low regularly, and the grapes hang close to the soil. The vintners intentionally stress the vines, forcing all the energy of the plant into the grape.

The wine is a product of its environment. The grapes absorb the essence of the earth, the sun and the weather. The flavor of minerals in the soil and the sweetness of the sun are concentrated in the small gem-like grapes. There is minimal aging in barrels. Most of the work of flavor development happens on the vine during the growing season. No two vintages are alike, as the character of any harvest is wholly dependent on the weather of the growing season.

Back in town at the winery, we taste 2005 Chardonnay Chablis from the tank and use a long glass tube called a “wine thief” to extract wine directly from the barrel. There are wonderful flavors of citrus, sunshine, honey and mysterious mineral sensations signaling the origin of this classic French wine.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

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