Thu 22 Aug 2013

The Home Of Glorious Chardonnay

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In the first part of his tour of Burgundy head of copy Paul Trelford is cooled by heady Meursault and then heads for the glories of the north in Chablis

With Roy RichardsWhat to do in Beaune when the mercury is pushing 40 degrees with energy-sapping humidity to match? Meursault is the answer. At least that was long-term Society supplier, and champion, Roy Richards’ answer. And how well it went down.

I was in Beaune (along with The Society’s Toby Morrhall and Emma Dorahy) to escort a group of four members and their guests round some of the vineyards and cellars of Burgundy. The members had won a prize draw run earlier in the year to reward those who had proposed a wine-loving friend or relative as a new Society member.

You could have forgiven them for wondering what they’d got themselves into when we rolled out of Lyon airport having skipped lunch into the relentless heat and begun the long sweaty journey up to Beaune.

Cue Roy and his delicious cooling bottle of Meursault – I really don’t think anyone looked back after that first sip. The bottle in question was Meursault Premier Cru Charmes, Domaine Coche-Bizouard 2002. A great vintage and an absolute delight 11 years on. It would have inspired great happiness on a rainy night in Cleethorpes, but drunk under the dappled shade of a lime tree in Ray’s lovely garden in his house in Beaune on such a sweltering day it was magnificent. Everything mature Meursault should be: a luscious golden colour, with butter, nuts and honey and exquisitely long. Just the thing to wash down the fresh gougères, the delicious local cheesey savoury pastries.

Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, Domaine Tollot-Beaut 1985‘Roy taught me more about Burgundy and wine then anybody else in the trade,’ Toby Morrhall, The Society’s Burgundy buyer and not one given to hyperbole, explained. And Roy, known as the ‘wine merchants’ wine merchant’, certainly proved to be a lively dinner guest telling wonderfully indiscrete stories about his favourite growers – but my lips are sealed. Generous to a tee he produced a magnum of Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, Domaine Tollot-Beaut 1985. 1985! That was seven years older than the youngest member of our party. But you wouldn’t have known it as it was so fresh still with touches of citrus to go with the honey, almonds and caramel. Superb.

HEADING FOR THE COOL NORTH
Burgundy isn’t one big vineyard but made up of at least three separate groups: Chablis to the north, the Côte d’Or in the middle and the Mâconnais to the south being the most important. Toby had organised our tour so that we would visit two domaines in each region and today was Chablis’ turn to shine.

It’s a long drive up from Beaune – Chablis is in fact closer to the Aube department of Champagne than Beaune – but you know when you’ve arrived thanks to the dramatic change in the soil. Chablis sits on the outcrop of a rim of a submerged basin of limestone made up of layer upon layer of prehistoric oyster shells. The soil is named after the Dorset village of Kimmeridge that sits on the far ridge. And it is this soil that gives the wines their unique mineral, stony character.

At Louis MichelOur first stop is at Louis Michel. Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel is the sixth generation of the family to be at the helm and he patiently and expertly took us through his wines. Guillaume’s winemaking philosophy is simple: to respect the unique terroir of the vineyard and region. The use of oak is quite controversial in this part of Burgundy, but Guillaume uses none whatsoever in order to let the terroir speak clearly.

We tasted his Petit Chablis 2012 – green apple, quite austere and firm. And his Chablis 2012 which is a blend of six well-placed parcels from the left and right banks of the Serein river. It has biting acidity and a stony, crunchy red-apple freshness. Great potential for a wine so young.

Next we tried Chablis Premier Cru Forêts, Domaine Louis Michel 2011 which has a glorious rich yellow colour with a delicious baked-apple nose. The steely high acidity was balanced by the sweet ripeness of the fruit.

Guillaume has started to use only natural yeasts in his winery. ‘Yeast is an element of the terroir,’ he explained. ‘Natural yeasts give greater complexity in the wine, but the process is very stressful.’ Guillaume said that the natural fermentation process took three months, much longer than normal, leading to high risks of volatile acidity so the wines had to be monitored night and day.

But this sublime complexity was there for all to see in his Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons 2011. A wonderful wine showing all the fine attributes of Chablis and the chardonnay grape at its most pure. Long and complex with minerality and steely freshness yet balanced by pure ripeness of fruit.

Montee de Tonnerre

Montée de Tonnerre is a right bank premier cru very close to the grand cru sites and is a great source of long-lived nigh-on grand cru Chablis at a premier cru price. We tried the 2011 and it was sensational with wonderful length, depth and complexity. This will last for 20 years at least.

The seven grands crus of Chablis are on the great sun-soaking slope above the village on the right bank of the Serein. These prime slopes are all on the white Kimmeridgian limestone and produce the richest whites of the region generally at least half a degree of alcohol more than the premiers crus. Louis Michel produces approximately 13,000 bottles of grand cru Chablis each year from their plots in Grenouilles, Les Clos and Vaudésir.

We were lucky enough to try all three. Chablis Grand Cru Vaudésir 2011 was richer, rounder and fuller than anything we had tried to date but still with that nervy, steely Chablis edge. A great wine. Fleshy and generous with superb white-peach character. Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles 2011 was much more delicate. This needs time for that tight steeliness to turn into noble complexity.

Les Clos is considered by many to be the finest of the grands crus and we were lucky enough to try the 2011. I can still smell the chalk bouquet– it was like being back at school before they introduced white boards. This had just been bottled so one would expect the wine to be closed but 2011 is such a ripe vintage that it was already round and generous. The potential is all there.

Guillaume, acknowledging his appreciative and knowledgeable audience, nipped off down the corridors of his spotless cellars and came back with a special treat for us to try: Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles, Domaine Louis Michel 1991. It was real pleasure to taste such a mature wine in such a wonderful environment. So gloriously rich and long! The mushrooms on the nose turned to honey and caramel on the palate. Simply delicious, and testament to the fine keeping ability of top-class Chablis.

We returned blinking into the sunshine after such a long time in the dark cool cellars quite breathless with the quality of the morning’s tastings.

We couldn’t possibly visit Chablis without a trip to long-term Wine Society favourite Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard, the name behind The Society’s Chablis and Exhibition Premier Cru Chablis and numerous other bottles besides. So that is where we headed for lunch.

BALANCE AND EQUILIBRIUM

Julien Brocard (right) on the famous white Kimmeridgian soils of Chablis

Julien Brocard (right) on the famous white Kimmeridgian soils of Chablis

Jean-Marc Brocard started in the wine trade in the 1970s when he married his childhood sweetheart, a vigneron’s daughter, and was given a hectare of vines by his father-in-law. With much hard work he now has control of about 180 hectares, and has gradually become one of the leading lights of Chablis. Julien Brocard describes his father as a true man of the soil and ‘an adventurer who saw his opportunity and took full advantage’.

Since 2012, Julien has taken over day-to-day control of the vineyards and business from his father. Julien had earned his stripes when his father invited him back from Paris where he was training as an engineer and rented the Boissonneuse vineyard so that Julien could trial biodynamic viticulture there. We got the impression that there was quite a competitive spirit and a degree of cynicism about the whacky new techniques Julien employed. But Julien convinced his father through the sheer quality of the wines he produced and he is now converting all the vineyards of the estate to biodynamic.

‘It’s all about balance and equilibrium,’ explains Julien. ‘Traditional techniques just treat the symptoms not the disease. Biodynamism makes you be better farmers as you need to predict and understand problems. We want to create a healthy, lively soil which leads to healthy vines and less reliance on chemicals.’

Swallows nesting at Brocard

Swallows nesting at Brocard

Julien pointed out the swallows nesting in the roof of his cellars: ‘These weren’t here before – just shows that our land is now healthy and back in balance.’

Whatever one thinks about cow’s horns and ‘fruit days’ there is no escaping the fact that biodynamism makes winemakers think about their land in a different way and understand it better. Those reasons alone must help them make better wine.

Like Louis Michel, the Brocard house style has been for maturation in stainless steel. The winery itself is extremely impressive; built in stages from 1980, it houses stainless steel temperature-controlled fermentation vats to accentuate the purity and freshness of the wines. They have also had success with foudres (large oak barrels) for certain wines, such as Les Clos, and are trialling concrete egg-shaped vats. Julien talked at great length about the different techniques used. It’s good to see that the experts are still trying new things even after all this time in the wine business.

One of Brocard’s greatest assets is a particular slope of vines called Malantes. It has the same soil and exposition as premier cru Montmains but is classified just as village Chablis. This is entirely to our advantage as it is these underrated grapes that make up most of The Society’s Chablis and the reason why it is such a great buy.

Julien Brocard discussing biodynamism against a backdrop of Chablis vines

Julien Brocard discussing biodynamism against a backdrop of Chablis vines

We kicked off our tasting over lunch with The 2011 Society’s Chablis and the quality shines through. Wonderfully intense and linear.

From the 2012 vintage we tried his Chablis Sainte Claire, and his premiers crus Montmains and Vaillons (which will be sold under our Exhibition label). 2012 was a tiny vintage but the quality is very high. These wines were young and tight but you could feel the potential bursting to come through like a dog needing a walk.

2011 was also a difficult year and only the best-tended vines coped with the challenging alternating conditions of drought then flood. The wines are ripe, with intense aromas with full and fruity palates. We tried The Society’s Chablis, Les Vieilles Vignes de Sainte Claire – where the extra old-vine concentration really shines through. Chablis La Boissonneuse from the vineyard where Julien had earned his stripes and the wine was excellent: fuller-flavoured and more complex. And the premiers crus of Vaillons (our current Exhibition vintage), Vau de Vey, Fourchaume, Butteaux, Montée de Tonnerre and Vaulorent.

Brocard winesTo me premier cru Chablis is perhaps the greatest expressions of the region with plenty of flavour and that lovely Chablis cut of acidity. The grands crus are richer and stronger and therefore rounder; they are delicious but perhaps less classic. They also take much longer to come round and can be hard to taste when young. Having said that, Julien showed us three grands crus from the 2010 vintage, Bougros, Les Clos and Les Preuses, which were ripe, aromatic with exceptional concentration.

Chablis is truly a blessed place and it was a real pleasure to see two growers who were so respectful of their environment and so clearly determined to make the most of the their family legacy and create the very best wines that they can.

The weather had been glorious but close, and as we returned to Beaune all went dark and the heavens opened. But that’s for next time…

Categories : Burgundy, France

Comments

  1. John Judge says:

    I enjoyed Paul Trelford’s description of the Burgundy visit and have learnt the reason for the ‘Chablis’ steely taste—Prehistoric oyster shells!

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