Spotlight on White Burgundy: A Grand Cru Chablis Dinner

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Burgundy’s monks were the original fetishists in wine. Grapes were but vessels for the voice of god that expressed itself as the manifestation of place in fermented grape. Terroir was, originally, a fetish for the divine. Those tireless centuries searching for god in the dirt have embedded themselves in the culture of wine to such an extent that almost all modern interactions with wine are reactions to this original apotheosis of place.

In a society so focused on rationalist, scientific explanations of phenomena, why does something like ‘terroir’ not only persist but also form the holy grail of an entire swathe of human endeavor? Why is it that the most highly revered wines are gifted the mythical quality of terroir? In many ways the modern fetish for terroir seems a reaction to a kind commodity-fetishism in wine. This commodity fetish imbues the fungible quality of ‘capital’ to each and every object in existence, even the soil on which we walk and grow vines, and turns what is ‘subjective’ into an abstract ‘objective’ quality that is treated as that thing’s very essence. In other words, the essence of all things is found in their economic value and they relate to each other only through this economic essence. It doesn’t matter where a wine is from so long as it can be sold.

But the ‘terroirists’ fervently hold the principle that wine is not commodity. Its meaning comes from elsewhere. But is it so clear that ‘terroir’ holds the key to that meaning?

The What and the How

There are few places in the world where a mere slope can mark the difference between profound and mundane experience. In Chablis, the Grand Cru slope on which the region’s greatest vineyards are situated faces south and west – a key exposure that lends the wines longer exposure to sun and heat and therefore greater richness and density as compared to premier cru and below. So there is, at least, one reason why Grand Cru sites taste different (and better) than their peers.

Two others are the limestone clay soils formed from prehistoric oyster shells and the region’s harsh climate, which together provide greater acidity and ‘minerality’ to Chardonnay grown here as compared to elsewhere in Burgundy, where acidities and ‘minerality’ tend not to be so expressive and abundant.

Each of the seven Grand Cru vineyards has its own character and an alleged hierarchy of quality. Les Clos, the apex, is the richest, most powerful, most complete of all the Grand Crus. Its great rival Vaudesir is said to be more sensual and ripe. Les Preuses offers finesse. Valmur austere intensity. Grenouilles and Blanchot the accessible, softer touch. And Bougros the lightest and sometimes most maligned of the bunch.

Our dinner played out some of these differences quite clearly, and others less so. Our wines paired exceptionally well with superb courses from Tableau’s executive chef including oysters, an expertly executed seared scallop course and a decadent lobster risotto.

The first flight offered four wines from the tight, nervy 2007 vintage. A 2007 Long-Depaquit Moutonne (a climat that is part of the Grand Cru hill, though not officially one of the seven sites) offered an initially closed nose with light oak notes, but ultimately a saline, powerful finish. It was a complete wine and Excellent. In contrast, a 2007 Long-Depaquit Blanchot smelled of sulphur and mineral, tasting harsh and awkward on the palate. Some felt this was also due to over manipulation of the lees. A Very Good rating, but not recommended given what you expect for Grand Cru Chablis.

The remaining two 2007s both showed superbly, a Billaud-Simon Vaudesir (Very Good+ to Excellent) for its subtle, floral nose and delicate texture and a Christian Moreau Valmur (Very Good+ to Excellent) for its tight, austere, acid and mineral driven core.

Our next set of 5 wines jumped around between the 2006, 2008 and 2009 vintages. The Moreau 2006 Les Clos felt powerful, rich and dense but also a bit over developed for its age. Nonetheless, the rich sweet fruit coupled with classic Chablisean acid made this an Excellent. Surprisingly for a 2009 vintage wine, the Drouhin Vaudon 2009 Bougros (Excellent) was quite open and expressive, with seaweed, umami and bruised apple characteristics and an impressively long finish.

Flipping from the ripe 2006 and 2009 vintages to the much cooler 2008 saw a beautiful Bougros from Jean-Marc Brocard, a producer that is not usually making wines at this level. This was a vegetal, high acid wine that paired remarkably with the lobster risotto. I rated it Excellent.

On next to a 2006 Le Fief de Grenouilles and its sexy, easily accessible texture (Excellent), and a Christian Moreau 2009 Valmur, which still showed a reasonable degree of oak, but was also fresh and pretty with superb depth (Excellent).

The stylistic differences in each of the wines was particularly noticeable on the nose. However, the distinctiveness of each site was something that only became evident (at least for me) on the palate. I think this has to do with the wine’s focus on acid – it was the quality of the acid levels and the texture of each wine that gave up its site more so than any particular aroma.

Further, despite variations in quality and characteristics between these wines, there was an equivalency as well – a unifying factor. The savory, unforgiving backbone that goes beyond the simple descriptors of minerality or saltiness. This dry savory quality is evident in Chablisean Chardonnay far more than any other Chardonnay from both Burgundy and the rest of the world.

These are wines of passive intellectualism. They don’t need as much work from the drinker as Nebbiolo (the last great intellectual wine my group tasted through). Rather, they have an open, easy intellectualism that presents itself to the drinker with minimal effort. But, these wines are also not gregarious. They are confident (which is why it is so odd when you find one that is so self-conscious as the 2007 Blanchot from Long-Depaquit). These wines have nothing to prove, but when you start talking and listening to them, the wisdom of a wise, world-weary traveller flows with abandon – and you get drunk on the sheer wonderous joy of the story.

So, we know that Grand Cru Chablis tastes different from other wines, and we have a broad sense of in what ways they are different from other wines. However, why do we give these differences meaning – why are these differences of value?

The Value of a Thing

Determining a thing’s value is immensely complex. What combination of qualities imbues a thing with a particular value. We hold Grand Cru Chablis in greater esteem than any other place in Chablis (and in fact than most other places in the world). Is it because Chardonnay grown in that particular place is a better and clearer vessel for the divine? Does the value truly arise from the fetish?

On the other hand, can the science of soil and climate provide an adequate explanation for why we value Grand Cru Chablis (or any other great terroir) over other wines?

Clearly soil and place is not enough. Wine comes from the vine – a living thing, with a genetic history of its own and all the vagaries, random fluctuations and experiential distinctions that accompany all living things. So Grand Cru Chablis is also Chardonnay. And not just Chardonnay with a capital C, but each and every chardonnay vine, bud, shoot, flower and grape. The Grand Cru sites are special because they seem to consistently allow the deepest, subtlest aspects of the life of each of those chardonnays to manifest and thrive. In this way it is ‘terroir’ that is the medium for the life of the vine, not the grapes that are the vessel for the divinity of place.

This helps us understand why we value Grand Cru Chablis. We don’t taste and value these wines because they are, in essence, an expression of one of seven divine sites – holy words to faun over and worship. We taste them and love them and give them meaning and value because their particular distinction says something about life that cannot be said any other way.


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