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Soil Mates

Soil in Les Clos, Grand Cru, Chablis

I have written before of the link between a village on the south coast of Dorset in England called Kimmeridge and some of France’s best known white wines. The Jurassic Coast meets Champagne meets Chablis meets Sancerre, from the chalk downs of England under the Channel through Normandy, east to Champagne, south to Chablis and west to the Loire. One long belt of Kimmeridgian limestone, or, to simplify, crushed oyster shells found in Kimmeridgian clay. It’s difficult to imagine Chablis as an inland sea, but…

Display of shells at Domaine Brocard, Sancerre

Anyway, by chance I happened to need to pick up some wines in Chablis and the next day in Sancerre, so I thought it might be fun to look at the two vineyard regions and catch up on any news. The weather has been radical, to say the least – a damp, cool nasty spring and then, in the middle of May, a seeming jump into high summer with soaring temperatures and drought. Whilst the English (Hampshire) chalkstream rivers were overflowing in late May after the dismal spring, the French equivalent in Normandy was a disappointing trickle – the aquifer simply not being refilled. For the first time ever, we had watering bans from May onwards to the west of Paris.

Grand cru limestone...

And yes, the Serein river that cuts Chablis in two and carves off the glorious south-facing Grand Cru slope was the lowest I have seen, not visibly flowing under the bridge at all, a stagnant stillwater covered in scum. Even the normally ubiquitous chub whose silver flanks catch and flash back the sun underwater when they turn, were absent. The place felt heavy and looked dead.

The Serein, Les Clos in the background

But, for now, the vignerons were ‘happy’. There had been some violent storms the week before (which caused irreparable damage further south in central France) but for once the vineyards in Chablis, Burgundy and Sancerre had come out okay. At Raveneau, they’d fired product into the storm clouds and it seemed to have succeeded – there fell large water droplets but they were water not ice, and the infant grapes survived. The vineyards were bone dry, but the crop looked healthy and relatively abundant. So far so good, but the whole summer awaits, and as they said at Brocard, anything can go wrong, and too often does. 2021 had been a catastrophe of spring freeze and then awful weather, disease and rot. 2022 had been better, though too dry until crop-saving rain in September which plumped up the grapes, but though the yield of grapes was abundant, the juice was not. Over in Sancerre, Francois Cotat commented that the 2022s were indeed plentiful, but though the wines seemed to have very good acidity on the finish it was in fact chalky minerality, not acid, as the lack of water meant the grapes seemed to have drawn mineral extract aplenty as if they were trying to suck the last drops of water from the soil.

heading to Les Clos, vine tractors everywhere in Burgundy!

The 2022s in Chablis tasted good, another sunny vintage yes, but not overly so. The 2021s were more classic and austere after the sunshine of 2018 and 2019. The other positive for me was that both 21 and 22 carry more ‘normal’ alcohol levels, or at least by normal I guess I mean the historical average, not the current day series of super ripe, sunny, high alcohol vintages.

Looking from Blanchot across Les Clos to the West, the Grand Crus

Walking up the slope of Chablis’ most hallowed vineyard, Les Clos, and realising reluctantly that increasing age and hot sunshine made me feel rather less fit to stride uphill, the soil was littered with chunks of white rock. To the right the hill slides a bit towards east-facing with Blanchot (the last of the grand crus to the east) giving way to Montee de Tonnerre, and as I climbed up to the tuft of forest on the forehead of the slope, I could look down to the village and west across the full extent of the grand crus and over to Vaulorent and Fourchaume, two of the finest premier crus (along with Montee). We’d been lucky enough to taste the Blanchot 2011 the week before, from Raveneau, a vintage that is ready to drink ‘young’ and as classically Chablis as you could wish, dry extract aplenty and perfect, tingling balance.

Downslope from Les Clos to Chablis the village

Fingers crossed, healthy grapes in healthy numbers, long may it last.

At dinner that night back home we had a couple of Fevre Chablis, the 2008 too coloured, too sherry-like, too flat and oxidised, a sad series of bottles to suffer the same fate, the 2010 Vaulorent ‘baby grand cru’ sporting the first of the long DIAM30 corks and luminescent in pale green with white flowers, greengage fruit and tooth coating extract and citrus cut on the finish. The utterly disappointing and the delicious, the two sides of the frustrating coin that is modern day white burgundy, or at least was in the first decade plus of this century. Have the new corks solved the problem? Time will tell. So far I have had no disappointments post 2010.

Expensive sink cleaner

Sancerre on the top of the hill

Chavignol under the Cul de Beaujeu (left) & Les Monts Damnes (right)

In Sancerre I always forget how pretty the village of Chavignol is, nestled amidst the vines and overlooked by the vertiginous slopes of Culs de Beaujeu and Monts Damnes. The first is way too steep for tractors, except for the very top part where it rounds off, and on the latter, we watched what looked like one tractor creep perilously up the scarily steep slope. These are not vineyards for mechanical help! Crampons and big, youthful lungs.

Culs de Beaujeu, super steep

The soil though looks not dissimilar to Chablis, and, yes, nice big chunks of white rock litter the ground. I know it’s utterly heretical, but with temperatures rising, I can’t help sneakily wondering what a chardonnay vine would give here? Perish the thought.

Francois Cotat may looked closed, but the welcome (if you are invited) is warm, honest and cheerful, a real pleasure. We tasted through the lovely more classic 2022s, all at 13% alcohol, my sort of wine, though the Culs de Beaujeu carried 3 grams of residual sugar. These are quintessential Sancerre but nothing to do with the caricature cats pee on a gooseberry bush sauvignon blanc, or the nettle/grassy/tropical fruit wines of New Zealand. They are very much left to Nature and what the sun gives. To be honest, sometimes I find this complicated as they wines can contain quite a lot of residual sugar and/or be ripe, fat and 15% which is not to my personal taste, but when the weather is cooler they are all about white flower hedgerows and chalky minerality that really does make you think of Chablis, and they age just as well – in fact a ten year old example of each can show more similarity than you’d believe possible from sauvignon and chardonnay. Both leave you licking your teeth.

Les Monts damnes overlooks Chavignol

After the 22s, he pulled out a 2001 that was, to his obvious surprise and irritation, gone, a genuine rarity as I think he sulphurs generously, then a 2006 that was still full of vigour though on the ripe, heavy style and then, well, a complete surprise.

‘Let’s try this. It’s been open 2 weeks and the temperature here is not cool’ (his tasting room being almost at street level). ‘…but it should still be good, the wines hold for weeks, I often leave an opened bottle for 3 weeks before re-tasting.’

The colour was more olden than yellow, the nose, well, just what was the nose?

I hate the modern wine journalists’ (let alone self-professed amateur experts like me!) penchant for ridiculous descriptions of wine that contain at least 10 distinct flavours and specific sub-varieties of fruit that you’ve never heard of. Makes me think of Pseud’s Corner. They are so ridiculous, or maybe my taste buds are just way too simple and my comments too simplistic.

So, when I see notes describing white truffle, I generally wince. Black truffle, well, ok, I get it, a snobbish way of saying very earthy, but white? First of all, how many people have eaten/smelled them in reality, and secondly, it’s a very powerful, distinct and unique aroma. And one that does not come from fruit.

Hmm, so what did that mystery wine smell of? I am not going to say white truffle, but for the first time I could understand why people might use the descriptor. It was fabulously aromatic and nothing to do with fruit. Amazing. The palate was still big and ripe, the 15% perhaps a little heavy, but a remarkable experience.

Oh, and the wine? 1989. Not bad, 33 years young, for a dry white. Open for two weeks at room temperature. Wow.

Long may the healthy growing season continue, without hail or rot, but with some rain at the right times. Please…

True wines at affordable prices

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