Chablis – setting the stage for the Phantom
Chablisenne terroir is a phantasmic, white ghost of a thing; interminably hard to put your finger on, yet always present. The beauty of Chablis is that the natural veil of fruit and winemaking tradition only thinly covers this wispy sense of place. From the simplest village level bottling through to Grand Cru Le Clos, it is always there, speaking to us from that indefinable amalgamation of environment and soil.
But what is this terroir thing? How does it come to be? How does one capture and define the essence of a place as unique as Chablis?
Traditionally these are not generous wines, nor is their essence easily proved by the neophyte or those accustomed to the demonstrative over the demure. I would caution that this apparent lack of generosity is not due to a meanness of spirit, but rather that the translucence of the fruit causes a cautious propriety. For if expression of terroir is the heart of a wine, then few wines wear it closer to the vest than Chablis.
I recently had the pleasure of working with a winemaker from a seminal Chablisenne producer, Domaine Laroche, here in Texas and of sharing his wines with a group of sommeliers and connoisseurs. The story of Domaine Laroche is not uncommon in French viticulture- a dynamic and driven prodigy revitalizes his family domaine to create a market leader in the span of a generation. As is also commonly the case, once the domain reaches a certain size it is purchased by a much larger entity, the prodigy steps down, and the story starts again.
This is where I re-discovered Domaine Laroche, just after the ‘changing of the guard.’ I had tried the wines before this change; they had struck me as modernist, somewhat foursquare and spoke to a more dynamic winemaking philosophy. As a sommelier, I saw the advantage of having a transitional style of Chablis which positioned itself between the classic leanness of the region and the more powerful expressions of their neighbours to the south, but the wines were of little personal interest. When, jumping several years forward, I had the chance to spend the day in my hometown with the new Laroche winemaker, Gregory Viennois, I was forced to redefine my reference point for the producer.
Interpretation and experience define a winemaker and the latter typically is the progenitor of the former. What I find most interesting is the inverse relationship between the two. That is to say, with confidence in ability should come a simplicity of interpretation.
The wines were not as fleshy as before, nor were they as seasoned by winemaking and oak. That classic leanness was there, the white bones of terroir could be easily seen through a delicate draping of fruit expression. Lithe but not meager, well structured but not over proportioned. I was impressed with what I was tasting. As I spoke with Gregory of traditional vineyards, of classic winemaking techniques and of the classic elegance of the region, I had to assume that he was a native Chablisenne, raised on the traditions of those who had gone before. This was not the case. Although he did get his start in Burgundy, he soon traveled far afield geographically and stylistically. Having worked for producers like Smith Haut Laffite, with flying consultant Stephane Derenoncourt and lastly as the technical director for Michel Chapoutier, one would expect his style to more closely follow that of his predecessor at Laroche. How then did he come to redefine the wines in a style so removed from the sturdy fruit expression of the Northern Rhone and Bordeaux? I was intrigued.
Romantically, I would like to imagine that anyone can be bewitched by the enchanting terroir of Chablis who has had a chance to spend time in her presence. Realistically, however, it is likely that Gregory’s ability to capture the savory essence of Chablis is more due to his talent as a winemaker. Regardless, the elegance of the wines I tasted would not have led me to believe that the winemaker had just come from the roasting slopes of the Northern Rhone. There had to be more to the story and I was determined to find out.
After a day of getting to know Gregory, we had a chance to share Laroche’s top wine “Reserve de l’Obedience” with a table of local sommeliers and aficionados. My surprise came shortly afterwards when Gregory invited me to join them in Chablis the following year. The offer also included the rare opportunity to be a part of blending the very same wine we had just shared with our guests. I, of course, jumped at the opportunity to discover these answers first hand.
The tasting took place in the cellars of the ancient monastery (8th century) in which Laroche still ages their finest wines. The group was mainly comprised of Laroche employees with the exception of Stephane Derencourt, myself and two other sommeliers. The task was simple- taste through 42 barrel and plot selections from within the company’s 11.3 acre holdings of Grand Cru ‘Blanchot’ and narrow it down to at least three selections that best represented the vineyard. The parameters were also straight forward. Only those examples, which captured the essence of the vineyard without falling to the extremes (too much acidity, too powerfully aromatic or too much cuvee, would make it to the table. Of these, only the most exceptional (those in the center of an imaginary triangle drawn on the table) would become part of the final cuvee.
Each of the 42 selections was tasted blind and each one was given serious deliberation by the assembled team. Glass after glass was poured as we stood in a circle around that massive stone table. The pattern was the same each time:
1. We all paused, intent on the dancing greenish yellow apparition we were about to consume.
2. In robotic fashion we tasted, swished, swirled and spat as wine folks do.
3. We paused again, staring blankly as we tried to frame an opinion on this ephemeral representation of soil and place. Was this what we were looking for? Did it represent essence? Poise? Balance? Was it worthy?
4. No one spoke. We looked up at one another and then fixed our gaze on two men: Gregory the winemaker and Stephane the consultant.
5. Gregory would speak first, of his own volition or after a short query, and address his words to Stephane or the management team. They typically responded in the affirmative after which the floor opened for comments from the rest of the group.
The conversation was in French, typically charged with emotion, and devoid of all that techno jargon like PH, dissolved solids and skin phenolics. Being a left-brained taster, I was struggling. There was very little of anything resembling the scientific process of which I was accustomed, no real talk of how or why. Granted, I understood well the parameters of excessive qualities of acid, aromas and body, but there seemed to be something fundamental that I was missing. Even if my notes ran parallel to the consensus of the group in terms of structural analysis, those wines which garnered the most excitement from Gregory and Stephane left me flummoxed. What was it they were tasting?
I started speaking less and listening more, curious to discover what I was missing. The bottles came and went as the imaginary points of the triangle slowly filled. Several bottles were clearly marked by oak, others by notes of fermentation or reduction, and these were quickly rejected. Interestingly, several wines that showed what most people would describe as an elegant fruit profile reminiscent of Chassagne-Montrachet or a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay were just as decisively removed. Even samples which had the balance and drinkability of a finished wine, which we somms all found quite agreeable, barely made it on the table, if at all. Why? Wasn’t balance the goal of the tasting? Not too much of this or that?
What I realized about three-quarters of the way through the tasting is that I had it wrong. What we were looking for were not the samples that had the best balance of acid, aromatics or body but rather those examples in which the essence of terroir wasn’t obscured by any of these three elements.
I had noticed on rare occasions, in the past, where it seemed like the terroir, specifically this quixotic “minerality” we are all battling to define, seemed to dance above the structural components of a wine. That is to say that the fruit, the alcohol and the winemaking elements all seemed to underpin and passively frame an expression of the soil in a wine. (I am always impressed when I have the chance to taste a wine like this, knowing that I am witness to something special.) What I came to realize during my time at that tasting at Domaine Laroche was that this was what these men were trying to achieve. They were setting the stage for the phantom.
Gregory had told me earlier during a tour of the winery at Laroche, “Everything I do is to protect the expression of terrior.” He spoke of the ecosystem that surrounded the vineyards, of the necessity for organic methods and of allowing a chance for the transmittance of these elements into the wine. We drove throughout the commune of Chablis, seeing a range of vineyards, each with a unique soil type and exposition. We spoke of trellising methods, of soil porosity, of viticultural hazards and of local traditions. I had even spent an afternoon wandering alone in the Blanchot vineyard doing my best to understand how all these elements came together to define its unique “sense of place.”
I sought to establish as many empirical parallels as I could between what I had experienced in the vineyards with Gregory previously and what I was then tasting. And, although I felt like I had a much greater understanding of Chablis the region and Chablis the wine, I still didn’t feel like I could put my finger on Chablisenne terroir. I was missing something very important, I was trying to objectify a process that was based on subjective human interpretation.
The ‘gout du terroir,’ the minerality we are so infatuated with, is present in the wines we taste. Regardless of what science is or is not yet able to quantify, the gustatory analysis of millions of wine drinkers across a dozen generations is an empirical enough of a process for me to believe. However, I feel we often fail to realize that the presence of terroir in a wine is dictated more by the process of winemaking than by some natural occurance.
There is no such thing as non-interventionist winemaking; wine does not occur naturally. We have removed the grape from its natural habitat, we have promoted genetic variation, we decide when to pick, etc. etc. Granted certain wines are less manipulated than others but laissez-faire winemaking itself will never provide us with the finest expressions of terroir. Just as a great chef is able to highlight the quality of his ingredients without obscuring them with technique, it takes a truly talented winemaker to recognize and define terrior in a wine.
Quality is a human invention; it is based on our subjective interpretation of how well a thing represents a theoretical standard of perfection. Quality in winemaking is achieved when a wine best represents the intention of what the winemaker is wanting to represent. Is it the best representation of a varietal? Is it the most dynamic and expressive wine ever made? Does it best represent some idea of historical typicity or does it represent the flavors of where it is grown? Each one of these potential ideals can only be realized through the hands and the palate of a talented winemaker.
Terroir therefore is a thing to be crafted, or at least to be captured and framed with the other elements in a wine. The peculiarities of a place may allow a wine to be naturally more expressive, such as leaner fruit expression in the case of Chablis, or intensely focused structure in the case of Priorat, but it takes a talented winemaker to really highlight its essence.
Are these “earthy” wines necessarily better wines? One can only answer in the affirmative if the goal of the winemaker was to demonstrate that particular quality. A wine that accurately demonstrates the traditions of a particular region or the intended consumer-friendly style should be technically rated just as good.
Personally, I find the ability of wine to represent a sense of place in such a specific way as one of its most alluring qualities. However, I think we as sommeliers are doing ourselves a disservice if we think it’s the only marker of quality. We need to always remember that what we are tasting is a handmade product, not something just plucked out of nature. Our definition of quality must always be tied to the subjective process involved in making a truly fine wine.