My visit to Burgundy at the start of a tour through France was certainly memorable, from visiting the vineyards of DRC to the winery tour at Dubœuf. Unfortunately with only so much time, it’s impossible to visit all the places one would like, and regrettably I didn’t get to Chablis. Fortunately, Chablis is widely available internationally, and today’s wine is the Gilbert Picq & ses Fils Chablis 2009.
Burgundy is a region that rewards closer inspection, and specialist knowledge can demand detailed information not just down to specific villages but indeed down to who owns which row of vines in which vineyard. With that intensity of focus, it’s no wonder that in the study of Burgundy, sometimes entire regions can be overlooked or forgotten. It most frequently happens with Beaujolais – I have a map supplied by the Bourgogne Conseil Régional that notes the region as being south of Macon but apparently there was not enough room on the paper to include it. The map does include Chablis, and while there is an argument to be made that Burgundy and Beaujolais would be better thought of as separate regions, it is a far less common sentiment with regards to Chablis.
That said, even a quick look at a map reveals the geographic distance between Chablis and the rest of Burgundy, and it could just as easily have been included with Champagne or the Loire’s Central Vineyards of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. However, in terms of wines, the still, varietal Chardonnays of Chablis are a better match for the other white regions of Burgundy despite the distance.
The region has a continental climate, and a cool to cold one at that. While summers can be hot at times, winters are typically very cold and spring frosts through May are one of the biggest factors in vintage variation. They can impact not just the quality of the vintage, but in extreme cases whether or not there is a vintage. So potent is the threat that since the 1950s various approaches have been pioneered to help the vines survive frosts, from heating units in the form of smudge pots to aspersion, or the spraying of water droplets to form a protective layer of insulating ice on the vines, preventing serious damage. Both approaches have their drawbacks, in terms of cost and effectiveness respectively. I’m also somewhat surprised that aspersion is permitted given its resemblance to irrigation. (I am kidding).
Chablis is largely based on a highly sought-after soil type known in English as Kimmeridgian (sometimes Kimmeridgean), or argilo-calcaire in French. Named after Kimmeridge, a town in Dorset, England, it is typically a mix of clay and limestone fossils dating back to an identically named stage in the Upper Jurassic epoch.
In terms of the Chablis appellation, established in 1938, Chardonnay is the only permitted grape, and there is a hierarchy of classifications. There are seven Grand cru climats, or lieu-dit, and a further 40 such vineyards with Premier Cru classification above the generic AOC Chablis. There is also the neighbouring and not as highly regarded Petit Chablis, also Chardonnay based, and established in 1944. However, it is on the fringe of Chablis and based largely on Portlandian soil, which is younger and has a larger sandstone content.
As this is my sixth varietal Chardonnay, I’m not going to talk about the grape too much, but how it is handled in Chablis does deserve a note. Chardonnay is a wine that can be subjected to a variety of treatments in the winery depending on the desired style. Within Chablis, the use (or not) of oak is a big point of differentiation in terms of style. The region as a whole is known for producing wines that have a steely intensity, and in some cases that is quite literal with fermentation in stainless and no oak treatment post-fermentation. (I am not suggesting you can taste the fermentation vats.) Others ferment in barrel, and others still start in steel and then have some oak maturation. However, other influences outweigh the use of oak, such that Chablis is generally thought of as an easy wine style to identify in blind tastings, perhaps because with age even those wines not subjected to oak treatment can pick up flavour characteristics often associated with oak, including nuttiness.
Gilbert Picq & ses Fils is a small, family run producer which has been working vines in Chablis for generations. The domaine and its 32 acres were established by the namesake, but were passed to his children in 1976, with Pascal tending the vines, Didier making the wine and Marilyn running the business side. In the vineyard, their focus is on low yields, with severe pruning and two rounds of crop thinning over the growing season. In the winery, the wine is fermented in stainless steel and does not see oak maturation, so as to most clearly express their terroir. It does, however, undergo malolactic fermentation. In 2006 they acquired a sorting table, enabling them to hand select their grapes, and in conjunction with that improvement they shifted to using wild yeast for fermentation.
In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with a pale lemon green colour and a thin film instead of legs on the inside of the glass when swirled. On the nose it’s clean and developing, with medium plus intensity and notes of lemon, seashell, quince, candle wax, a hint of smoke which may be what other people call struck match. On the palate it’s dry, with high acidity, medium body, medium plus intensity, medium alcohol, and medium plus length. There are notes of lemon, really tart lemon at that, quince, seashells, and some flint.
This is a very good wine. I want to call it austere, but I’m not sure that’s really what’s hitting me. There is a purity to the acidity, which is very intense, but not to the exclusion of the mineral notes. It certainly fits the profile of what I would expect of a somewhat young, unoaked Chablis, and while it’s at the expense of any richness or creaminess that some people enjoy, the steeliness is undeniable.
I can’t find a website for the producer, so no link and the pin in the map is approximate.