I was walking through Chablis market this past Sunday and got to thinking how the wine from there is called ‘Chablis’ and not ‘Chardonnay’. You see, all the grapes growing around the town are Chardonnay. So, go figure. Elsewhere, for example, it would be, say ‘Californian Chardonnay’ or ‘Australian Chardonnay’. Before I lived in France (and before I lived with a wine maker), I never understood why some wines, Ok 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 the concept, and it is a 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, which was also the 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, rather by where it came from, hence Chablis, Bordeaux, Champagne, etc. Well, that’s confusing, especially if you are not very familiar with France, and particularly it’s regions. But you see, he told 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, but the raw ingredients, eg the grapes, really differ in taste from place to place and this is what sets wines, of a particular grape variety, apart. It is this place, 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 type of Chardonnay. This is because the soil around Chablis is from an ancient sea bed of limestone and fossilized oysters. If you have ever tasted Chablis you realise there is a freshness, not oak-y, but rather minerally aspect to it. When you think about the soil the vines are growing in, the taste starts to make sense.
Let’s not forget the Weather
Chablis is in the northern end of Burgundy, a long north-south region (like a 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 in our own vineyard in 2016. It is natural events such as these that explain why one years wine could taste better than an other.
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) and blind taste them. You will be amazed at the difference. 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, to Chablis and visit a winery. There are many to choose from in the town. (I personally recommend Brocard for the best tasting and explanation – in English or French.) You will taste a selection of wines, from Petite Chablis to Chablis to Grand Cru (the cheapest to the more expensive). Each bottle is 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.