There’s no Bread
By the turn of the 19th century the effects of the “Little Ice Age” was beginning to ease in northern Europe but the residual struggle for the people of France was about to explode. As the monarchy and the church used its resources to settle vendettas against the English crown by funding a bunch of long hair dreamers an ocean away the people of France were ready for their own revolution though this one would be much bloodier then anything we would see in 1776. They were poor, they were hungry and this northern freeze that was perpetuated by a series of volcanic eruptions made the availability of wheat in sparse. As a result King Louis XVI, foreseeing an angry population began importing potatoes to feed his starving subjects. But this did not entirely entice or appease the common woes. By the time the benefits of potatoes were realized it was too late for the monarchy. It was with vengeance that this substitute for the famous French bread was rejected although it is funny that the hamburgers best counterpart bares the name of the country that most likely did not create it. These events would unwittingly turn the wine making world on its ears and give rise to what in my mind must be the most gracious and beautiful French word… Terroir
As Napoleon Bonaparte’s army marched through the region of Burgundy he began to take land from the papacy. Some of the world’s most famous vineyards had already developed a reputation as he started to divide and sell these holdings to various countrymen. This redistribution of wealth enabled villagers the right to control the vineyards as they saw fit without the church telling them who was holy enough to drink their wines. What sets Burgundy apart from most wine regions is this attention to the vineyard. The land is to have a voice rather than be a blank canvas for a winemakers dream. In fact there is no term for winemaker in France. The person in charge of the growth of the wine is called the elevage. This is the person who raises the wine as a parent would a child. I personally take pride in knowing that the greatness of my children grows from within them. I am only here to guide and help in finding the right direction. This is how the elevage will approach his or her technique in the vineyard, winery or the tasting room for that matter. They are there only to guide the wines growth and try not to get in its way. This adherence to viticultural integrity is a religion in Burgundy. Now, I am not saying that this does not happen throughout the rest of the France or any wine growing nation for that matter but when I began learning wine some 20 years ago it was in Burgundy where this passion for the all encompassing terroir held the greatest transparency.
Burgundy is divided into 5 different regions. Each one with a different climate or micro climate and soil content. The majority of her great wines are based ultimately on two varietals Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Anyone who thumbs their nose at a California Chardonnay and believes that this specific style quantifies the reality of what the grape is has never tried Christian Moreau Les Clos, Grand Cru Chablis which is one of the greatest wines in the world. To get the best sense of terroir, Burgundy’s northern most region of Chablis will be our home and the misunderstood Chardonnay our muse. Burgundy holds the concept of terroir in her soul. Terroir is the all encompassing idea of earth, wind and fire i.e. the soil, the weather and the sun. It is also a cultural understanding of the grapes evolution in the earth and how the aroma and structure this localized world imparts from the blood of her vines translate into our glass. No other region exemplifies this to me more the Chablis.
Chablis should not be confused with a boxed wine or a big jug with a screw cap that has some old dude awkwardly smiling. These jug brands from Gallo and Carlo Rossi were made to fool a growing wine market in the United States and Canada as the lyrical names of Chablis and Burgundy began to captivate returning GI’s after the second world war.
The history of Chablis and its importance goes back about 1500 year when a band of monks settled the area after fleeing marauding Vikings. I’m sure it wasn’t the climate or weather that drew the monks but what soon became apparent was how well white grapes thrived here.
The downright cold climate forces the grapes to really struggle on the vines.
The summer sun can be warm, promoting healthy ripening but the frigged nights will give the wine an acidic backbone and lay the ground work for a mineraly palate with a creamy finish. The idea that Chardonnay smells like oak is highly misguided. Oak smells like oak, Chardonnay smells like its environment. When forced to struggle and compete with other grapes the strongest will have the richest dynamic and character. If left basking in the sun which in the case of California is ample and planted on the valley floor which in California is standard, the grape in the end may have little personality. Think of the tough kid who has had to struggle his whole life and makes good in the end. They tell the story we want to hear. In the new world it is often the wine maker who will have to create the story with malolactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation where the malic acids which we find naturally in grapes and apples are converted to lactic acids that you would find in dairy) and a generous helping of well toasted new oak barrels. Enter your oaky, buttery California Chardonnay.
Let me be clear that there is nothing wrong with these wines and some of them are outstanding like the great wines from Sonoma’s Hartford Court but the point of Chablis is to give a sense of place. A pin prick if you will on the map of the wine world. It is not the custom of Chablis to use oak and if it is used it is there to soften the wines harder edges. When this is done it is typically older oak barrels which impart little to no flavor but give the wine a rounder, honeyed aroma. It is not there to smell like oak. This is usually done for wines from the best vineyards where the acid is high and more concentrated sugar levels develop.
What makes the best vineyards you ask? Good question. The vineyards aspect to the sun, the height above sea level and the soil content are a part of it. There are 7 vineyards in Chablis that have been given the status of greatness. These are known as Grand Cru or Great Growth and they reside in the heart of Chablis. They all rest along les Serein River which helps regulate their micro climate. The elevation is slightly higher so after it rains gravity will naturally pull water down to the bottom of the vineyards or to the river. Because of the drainage and rocky soils that we typically do not associate with fertility, the struggling vines higher up the slope will have a richer concentration like espresso to coffee. This will give the grapes a bolder level of sugar and acidity, both vital ingredients for the survival of these great wines. The sugar gives body and alcohol, the acid its life line. This is what makes your mouth water when drinking wine. It is essential when pairing with food. This will help breakdown fats, open your taste bud and promotes healthy digestion. This is why wine dances best with food and in a way no other beverage can compare.
One reason why Burgundy and its Grand Cru vineyards stand alone is that no one person owns the vineyards. I suppose this is where I should make a distinction. The vineyard is where the grapes are born and mature, the winery is where these healthy little fellas are turned into wine. When Napoleon strutted into Burgundy and started to redistribute vineyards the most important where offered not to a single person or family but to the community. Within each of the Grand Cru vineyards or the next level down called Premier Cru or 1st growth which can be equally as stunning, a winery may only own a small parcel of the vineyard so Les Clos Grand Cru vineyard for example, is roughly 60 acres but a winery may only own 1 or 2 acres of it. Some parts are owned by a grower who makes no wine at all but sells his fruits to smaller wineries that have little to no land holdings. This is where the idea of terroir really holds true. The difference between each single vineyard or parcel of said vineyard can be striking. Often times I am offered a taste of a wine from one vineyard only to taste a wine of the same winery of a vineyard sight that is just across the road that is made in the same manor and the wines can be subtly or completely different. In my experience (which is not expertise) Chablis holds this to be her backbone, her blueprint and her legacy.
Read the Fine Print
Here is a breakdown of the labels. As you will notice the winery is hard to find and the grape not even mentioned. One should assume white Burgundy is always Chardonnay. This allows the grower and producer to focus on terroir. Burgundy is all about either the village or vineyard. You need to read the fine print. Here the elevage plays second fiddle to the land.
Lets do a little rundown of Chablis’ vineyards status. Of the nearly 7000 acre of Chablis only a handful have a designation beyond the humble name of Chablis. For the Grand Cru vineyards there is Bougros, Vaudeseir, Valmur, Blanchots, Les Preuses, Grenouilles and Les Clos. Each of these sights are literally rubbing elbows. There are another 40 vineyards that were granted Premier Cru status but only about 15 of them hold as much providence as the great ones. Many of them share the same attributes as the Grand Crus but if there is one phrase that suits Burgundy to a tee it is location, location, location. Nothing can top a Grand Cru. These wines are rare and can be pricey but thankfully Chablis still is uncharted territory for many wine connoisseurs and collectors as the winery names or vineyards don’t hold the distinction Burgundy’s southern vineyards do, or Bordeaux, or Napa, of Tuscany for that matter. There is still relative obscurity to Chablis, it vineyards and its eliveges and for this I am thankful. A Petite Chablis will cost about $15, basic Chablis may set you back about $20 to $30 but its Premier Crus will only set you back about $40 and its Grand Crus, maybe $80. Yes, this is good money but when other wineries or vineyards demand sometimes outrageous prices a few extra bucks to be on the right side of history is a pretty nice high.
So for this section I will not talk about making a cocktail. Not just because it is wine as I once made vermouth using a red Burgundy to finish a cocktail I had for a Burgundy dinner back in the summer but because the elegance and graciousness of these wines should be enjoyed with food so today I give a recipe for my dinner tonight. When I was at my local wine store, I picked up a couple of bottles of Domaine Chenevieres. Knowing the basic flavor profile of the vineyards and grower I headed on over to the grocery store and started assembling my menu for the night.
For the 1st wine I bought Cheneviers Petite Chablis which are wines grown just outside of the district where some of the more famous vineyards lie and can be a tremendous value. The minerality is not as complex with less concentration but it is a perfect introduction into wines that can demand top dollar. With this bright citric wine I opted for New England’s best, Wianno Oysters. With these I made a mignonette of lemon and tangerine juice (1/2 of each) diced shallot (1 whole) diced pink lady apple (1/4) a dash of freshly crushed black pepper and a tough of maple syrup (1/8 oz) to draw out the tangerines flavor and finished them with Lemon Thyme.
For the main course I purchased some local cod (I love highly acidic whites with the delicate yet buttery flavor of cod) and poached it in a tomato and fish broth which I added thinly sliced spring onions, watercress, baby potatoes and white asparagus. I completed the dish with a pat of butter to give it a rounder finish. With this I paired the Chenevieres Fourchaume Premier Cru. Fourchaume is one of the most famous Premier Crus. Just a one minute drive from its more prestigious cousins Fourchaume holds a similar aspect to the sun as do the Grand Crus, the micro climate is also similar with the same soil content but this is the beauty and mystery of great wines not just held to Burgundy because although the wine is well made it does not hold the acid as do the great growths of Chablis. In the end it hits just a tad short in length. Not that I am complaining as it was generous, racy and bright with a viscous buoyancy on the palate. This is a fantastic wine but does not have the longevity as the great ones. But that is why there are only 7 Grand Crus in Chablis.
The wine itself has an aroma of toasted almonds, tangerine, silt, clay and toffee with a salty edge. The mouthfeel it is bright, and focused with a ton of limestone on the mid palate and round sweetness on the finish. The bottle really opened up with the richness of the finishing butter.
- 5 oz cod
- 1 whole spring onion
- 1 cup fish stock
- 1/4 cup tomato puree
- 4 white asparagus
- 1/2 lemon (the squeezed out body of the fruit used for the mignonette)
- 1/2 tangerine (the squeezed out body of the fruit used for the mignonette)
- baby potatoes
- lemon thyme
- Boil your potatoes
- once boiled but them off to the side until you are ready to plate your dish
- Bring to a slow boil the fish stock and tomato puree
- season with salt and pepper to taste
- add one lemon thyme sprig and the lemon and tangerine rinds
- as this heats add the spring onion bulb thinly sliced
- in a saute pan add evoo and a pinch of chili flake
- once the oil heats on a medium heat add the white asparagus
- once they start to sear which will encourage a slight caramelized flavor add a ladle of the broth
- lower the heat to medium low and let the asparagus lightly steam with the broth
- remove the asparagus and add your cod.
- add enough broth until it almost covers the fish.
- plate your potatoes at the bottom of a bowl with your asparagus on top
- once your fish is cooked gently remove it from the broth and place it on the asparagus
- add you watercress to your broth with a pat of butter and reduce until the butter is melted
- as always taste as you go and season accordingly
- once the butter is melted spoon over the fish until it fills the bottom of the bowl
- add finishing salt, a drizzle of evoo and thinly sliced spring onion greens
Over the years of drinking with a purpose (maybe I’m just fooling myself) there have been a handful of moments that have given my path not just direction but momentum. Like great Single Malt Scotch Whisky which is all about terrior, nothing plays with my heart strings like the zesty and toasted aromas of Chablis. This really is the standard I hold all other beverages to and thankfully, although Chablis is a tough act to follow, many of my favorite spirits, beers, wines and cocktails take it in stride.
Amen Napoleon, Amen.