We had a tasty Chablis last night with dinner. It got me to thinking how the wine is called ‘Chablis’ and not ‘Chardonnay’. You see, all the grapes growing around Chablis are Chardonnay. So go figure.
In most countries we would say ‘Californian Chardonnay’ or ‘Australian Chardonnay’. Before I lived in France (and before I lived with a wine maker), I never understood why French wines were called something different. I gather it is all about Terroir (pronounced tare-whah).
But What is Terroir?
I had my first taste of this rather holistic concept when we did a house sit in the Cahors region of Southern France. I was talking to a neighbour and mentioned that I liked Malbec. Malbec is the type of wine from the Cahors region. Malbec is to Cahors as Chardonnay is to Chablis. Confusing? You betcha. But hang in there.
This neighbour told me that they never called their wine by its grape variety. Instead it was about where it came from, hence Chablis, Bordeaux, Champagne, etc. These are all regions or even towns in France. Well that’s a tad tricky to understand if you are not very familiar with France and it’s regions.
He explained to me, “grapes grown in one place, in the type of soil of that place, with the weather of that place would not have the same ‘flavour’ as another place with different soil, weather, etc.” This is why a Chardonnay from Chablis tastes so amazingly different to a Chardonnay from Australia.
But is it all about Terroir?
Essentially, yes. Without the base ingredient of grapes, there is no wine. The wine maker has something to do with it of course. But the raw ingredients, eg the grapes, really differ in taste from place to place and this is what sets wines of a singular grape variety apart. It is this place, or rather, this combination of location (south facing, elevation, steep slope…), soil type, weather, and more that makes up the concept of ‘Terroir’.
So, when one mentions ‘Chablis’ there is an expectation of a certain type, style, or flavour if you prefer, of Chardonnay. This is because the soil around Chablis is from an ancient sea bed of limestone and fossilized sea shells. If you have ever tasted Chablis you realise there is a freshness, not oak-y, but rather minerally aspect to the taste. When you think about the soil the vines are growing in, that taste starts to make sense.
Let’s not forget the Weather
Chablis is in the northern end of Burgundy. Burgundy, or Bourgogne in French, is a long north-south region or county between Paris and Switzerland. This area is a lot cooler than the south of France, with very changeable weather. Hail in June or even August is not unheard of and why these wines are so valued. They are up against it weather wise compared to their southern neighbours.
In fact last year the weather was so terrible, with late frosts, hail in June and then rain, rain, rain, that many vineyards didn’t produce grapes or grapes of a quality that you would want to make wine out of. We had no harvest at all in our own vineyard in 2016 due to weather. It is natural events such as these that explain why one years wine could taste better than another.
Go on, have a Taste
If you have never been to a wine tasting, I truly recommend it. My personal favourite is a comparison of one type of grape variety. Why not try it yourself? It’s a great theme for a dinner party with some friends. Gather 4 or 5 bottles of Chardonnay, each from a different country. (Hint, hint, make sure one is from Chablis.) Now blind taste them. You will be amazed at the differences. See if you can tell by taste which were made in hot climates, which were grown in a rich or mineral soil.
Better yet, if you really would like to understand ‘Terroir’ then take a trip to France. Go to any wine region and visit a winery. But in support of this write up, we recommend Chablis. There are many wineries to choose from in the town. I personally recommend Brocard for the best tasting and explanation – in English or French.
Although all the wines are made by one winery and wine maker, you will find yourself tasting a wonderful variety of wines, from Petite Chablis to Chablis to Grand Cru (the cheapest to the more expensive). Each bottle will be from a different vineyard and location around the town. I can guarantee you that you will be amazed at the taste difference between each bottle. And yet they are all the same grape variety. A truly wonderful way to learn about Terroir. Santé.
Oh, and by the way, Terroir doesn’t just apply to wine. It can also apply to cheese, meats, fruits and more. As it is that combination of soil, weather, etc. all of these things can affect what is grown or, in the case of animals, grazed there.
Shop Wine Lover Gifts
As wine makers ourselves, we are always on the search for interesting and unique and particularly French wine items for our vintage and antiques shop. Here’s a taste of some of the things we have found: