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1950s Archive

Chablis Revisited

Originally Published October 1959

Chablis, famous the world over for its wine, is a rather cold and dreary little town—triste is the French word—even, and perhaps even especially, in late April and early May, when the whole surrounding countryside looks lush and green and the hedgerows are while with hawthorn blossoms. May, in most of France, is a festive month, with holidays crowding the calendar—May Day, V.E. Day, Ascension Day, the Day of Joan of Arc, Whitsunday. It is the season of village fetes and Sunday football games; of the first outings of the year; of lovers and fishermen and First Communions; of apple-blossoms. wisteria, and lily of the valley; of asparagus and field salad and the first wild strawberries, tiny and fragrant, up from Provence.

To Chablis, May, or at least the first half of May, brings few if any of these seasonal delights. It is the time of year when old men sleep badly and even the young men worry; when women get up at dawn to look at the thermometer outside the window; when the weather report by radio becomes by far the most important news of all; when a suggestion of wind out of the north is almost as frightening as a threat of war.

For, by the end of April, the rolling vineyards of Chablis, seen from a distance, show a hint of green: The first timid leaves are like small green candle flames on the low brown candelabra of the vines. They can be extinguished by frost in a matter of minutes, and this is a sentence of death with no appeal. The year 1945 produced a holocaust; 1957 was almost as bad; frost strikes and brings a measure of disaster to a few winegrowers almost every year and no one can predict its vagaries or its probable path. Until the fifteenth (some say the twentieth) of May, this sword of Damocles hangs over Chablis, and, by the time the danger has passed, the good people of Chablis are too unutterably weary and—even if the news is good—too relieved to enjoy the pleasures of their spring.

Happily, the spring of 1959 produced no real disaster, only a little superficial damage, and the prospects for the 1959 vintage—a month away as I write these lines—are excellent.

These winegrowers of northern Burgundy are a hardy and stubborn race, not easily discouraged, set in their ways. The total vineyard acreage of Burgundy, nevertheless, has declined by over fifty per cent since 1870, even in the face of an increased world-wide demand and higher prices. Most of the abandoned vineyards lie in northern Burgundy, a good many of them near Chablis.

So, if you would see Chablis in a more cheerful mood, pick your year and come in September, at vintage time. The cold little town can be almost warm; if not gay, it is certainly not cheerless; the food is good at the Hôtel de l'Etoile, fully deserving of Michelin's star; visitors are welcome everywhere.

Badly damaged in 1940, in the war, the center of the little village has been rebuilt, but, to tell the truth, it offers few attractions for anyone but a wine enthusiast: a rather picturesque old gateway; some attractive views along the reedy, slow-flowing river, the Serein; small cellars (for there are no large or impressive ones); small vineyards, tended, in this cold northern climate, with infinite, painstaking care.

The town is just over a hundred miles southeast of Pan's; it has a population of one thousand six hundred and fifty-five; it is about five hundred feet above sea level. Its little river, the Serein, empties into the Yonne and thence into the Seine—thus the water of Chablis, like a good part of its wine, goes north to Paris. Except for the wine, there are a thousand villages in France more worthy of one's attention.

Nor, in fact, is there as much wine as one might imagine—including the best and the worst, some seventy-five thousand cases a year entitled to the name, plus less than half as much again of lesser stuff called “Petit Chablis,” mostly drunk up en carafe. How then explain its celebrity? The truth is that, at its best (by no means very often), it has a character both unique and quite astonishingly good.

That it is the best of all possible wines with oysters is perhaps doubtful (in any case, I do not think so), but to argue this point would be heresy to many a wine-lover. I could (and propose to do so shortly) quote poetry to prove I am wrong, and if I happen to like Chablis better with cold pheasant, chicken, turkey, or cold beef à la mode, and think it incomparable thus, and prefer Montilla or Manzanilla with my oysters, please consider it nothing more than a personal aberration.

If not, how and why could anyone have written

Avec les huitres

Que le Chablis est excellent!

Je donnerai fortune et titres

Pour m'enivrer de co vin blanc

Avec des buitres.

This I have rendered rather loosely into English as follows:

Wish oysters

How truly delicious is this Chablis wine!

Such fortune and such titles as are mine

I’d gladly give if thus they’d let me dine

Daily forever … daily drink my fill

Of Chablis, pale and cool and still …

With oysters.

It was Swift, of course, who observed, “It was a bold man who first ate an oyster”; but perhaps Swift and his original oyster-eater were without benefit of Chablis. In the following verse it is hinted, at least, that oysters sans Chablis might not please everyone; our poet asks, somewhat rhetorically, to be sure:

Qui pourrait mettre en oubli

Le limpide et sec Chablis,

Qui joint à tant d'autres titres

L'art de faire aimer les buitres?

Anglicized under the influence of a good bottle, this comes out about as follows:

Who could conceivably deny

Honor to Chablis, limpid, dry?

Good by itself, it’s also able

To grace the oysters on our table.

All of which only proves that poets, like other people, have found Chablis good, and tried to praise it.

It is easy to praise when genuine and good: austere, gracious, as clean as the pebbles of a mountain brook, clear as water but pale green gold, low in alcohol, easy to drink, excellent with food but no less delicious by itself (well-chilled) on a warm, lazy afternoon in summer, tasting (some say) of hint but (for me) of the very essence of the incomparable Chardonnay grape of which it is made. At its best it is a wine like no other: not the greatest of wines, but unique and splendid.

And now what Chablis really is and how to find it.

All fine wines take their elements from three sources: soil, grape variety, and climate. Far from being an exception, Chablis is an obvious example of precisely this. Its zone of production and that of its better vineyards have been carefully delimited by law. Its soil contains an extremely high proportion of pure chalk, and is actually part of the same geological formation as the chalk cliffs of England (which might explain, but certainly does not, the popularity of Chablis in Great Britain). The better Chablis vineyards contain more chalk than the others, and this element, as in the Champagne country and invariably elsewhere, gives bouquet and a special lightness and fineness to the wines the soil yields.

The one grape of Chablis is the Chardonnay, also the grape of Montrachet, must Meursuuit, Corton-Charlermgne, Pouilly-Fuissé, but of course, on less good soil, of Mâcon Blanc as well. It is widely grown in the French Champagne country and the best Champagnes contain a high proportion of it. The Chardonnay produces what most of us consider the best white wine of California. Often called the Pinot Chardonnay, it is quite probably not a true nember of the Pinot family at all, although French law makes it legally so in France.

Finally, there is the question of climate. The grapes that produce wine seem to conform, even more closely than do human beings, to Mr. Toynbee's celebrated theory of Challenge and Response. Almost all the best wines of the world come from districts where the vine's very survival is almost a miracle, where its yield is irregular and its total production small. Chablis, like Germany's Moselle Valley, emphatically ranks as such a district: Its figure of gallons per acre, over a ten-year period, is, considering its fame, astonishingly low. Yet a man who has ten acres of vineyard is considered a large landowner in Chablis, and one who produces two thousand cases of wine a year is considered a rich man.

All Chablis, from the finest to the most inconsequential, is basically one sort of wine. It is of course always white (although a little passable rosé is made in the nearby village of Irancy. from the Pinot Noir grape, and sold as Irancy); it is always dry—pleasantly so in good years, yet hard, almost tart, when the weather has been less favorable. Recent vintages rate about as follows:

1958—Excellent Will be on the market by early 1960.

1957—Frost. Practically no Crop. To be avoided.

1956—Quite good, better than expected. Small production.

1955—Very good, the better wines becoming very scarce.

1954—Poor. No longer on the market.

1953—Extremely small crop; fine, full-bodied wines, now almost unprocurable.

1952—Excellent, now growing old unless ideally stored.

1951—Very poor.

Between the very finest Chablis, of which there is never enough, even in the most copious years, and the modest Petit Chablis, usually sent off in little feuillettes, or thirty-two-gallon barrels, to be drunk by the glass in Paris bistros, a world of difference nevertheless exists. And this difference, fortunately for the consumer, has been clearly and uncompromisingly set forth by French law.

  • Chablis, to begin with the commonest and most general appellation, is a wine made from the Chardonnay grape, with at least ten per cent alcohol by volume, produced on certain delimited areas of chalky soil in twenty specific townships, or communes. The maximum legal yield per acre is four hundred twenty-five U.S. gallons; the twenty communes are as follows; Chablis, Beinc, Béru, Chemilly - sur - Serein, Chichée, Courgis, Fleys, Fontenay, Fyé, La Chapelle-Vaupelteigne, Lignorelles, Ligny-le-Châtel, Maligny, Milly, Poilly, Poinchy, Préhy, Rameau, Villy, and Viviers.
  • Petit Chablis (which used to he called “Bourgogne des Environs de Chablis”) is a very similar wine of a somewhat lower class, coming from the same twenty townships, but with no restrictions as to the chalkiness of the soil. It need contain only nine and one-half per cent alcohol; fresh and delightful when young, it is generally short lived, and a Petit Chablis much over two years old is a poor risk.
  • Chablis Premier Cru is of a definitely higher grade than cither of the preceding. It must come from one or more of twenty-one specific vineyards, in the nine best of the district's twenty townships. It may be sold simply as “Chablis Premier Cru” or under the vineyard name, as, for example, “Chablis Fourchaume” or “Chablis Montée de Tonnerre,” or under a combination of the two. as “Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume” or “Chablis Fourchaume Premier Cru.” Here, more or less in order of quality, are the twenty-one “First Growth” vineyards together with their townships. It is worth remembering that the right bank of the Serein is sunnier, and offers a better exposure.
  • Chablis Grand Cru. This vintage, literally “Chablis Great Growth,” or, better translated, “Chablis Great Vineyard,” is something very special, and with it we have reached the top of the ladder. Only seven small vineyards are entitled to this rank (although an eighth name, Momonne, is involved—sec further on). All seven lie on the right bank of the Serein, in the commune of Chablis itself; their average annual production runs in the neighborhood of six thousand cases, all told, and of course in many years it is far lower. Production may not legally exceed three hundred seventy-five U. S. gallons per acre, and the wine must be at least ten and one-half per cent alcohol by volume (it is usually about twelve per cent and may run thirteen per cent). The wine is rarely sold as “Chablis Grand Cru,” far more often under the name of the vineyard, and the words “Grand Cru” may, but need not. appear. More or less in order of quality, here are the Grand Cru vineyards: Vaudésir, Clos (or Les Clos), Grenouilles, Valmur, Blanchots, Preuses, and Bougros.

Since all seven of these tiny plots are strung along a single narrow hillside, their wines have, to say the least, a marked family resemblance, and even the most expert tasters would find it hard to distinguish, unfailingly, a Chablis Vaudésir, for example, from a Chablis Preuses. This is particularly true since none of these vineyards is owned outright by a single grower; more than a dozen different producers have holdings (often of half an acre or less) in Chablis Les Clos, for example, and it is therefore possible to buy authentic and estate-bottled Chablis Lea Clos under at least a dozen different labels. And they will be, in truth, a dozen quite different wines, some made from grapes picked earlier than others, pressed, fermented, clarified, and bottled independently, and under different conditions in different cellars. In general, although not by any means always, the best of them are bottled by their producers, and carry on their labels the words “Mise du Domaine.” And this, by the way. is equally true of Chablis Premier Cru.

Although it is certainly not possible to set down in any specific, precise fashion the distinctive qualities of each of the seven Grand Cru Chablis wines, we can perhaps do so in a general way, for they do have their separate personalities and their differences. Here, then, is an attempt, at least, to define them:

  • Chablis Vaudésir. Almost always ranked at the top. this is the fullestbodied wine that Chablis produces, usually a shade higher in alcohol than the others, a big, splendid, forthright wine of obvious distinction and class.
  • Chablis les Clos. Another big wine, generally a little more austere and developing more slowly, harder, flintier, very long-lived; it has been called the “Chablis-lover's Chablis.”
  • Chablis Grenouilles. Very small production, a great rarity. Perhaps a little more “feminine” than the others, charming, fragrant, with extraordinary delicacy and breed.
  • Chablis Valmur. Very close to Vaudésir in quality and much the same sort of wine, full, well-balanced, faultless.
  • Chablis Blanchots. A rather hard wine that develops slowly, “classic,” somewhat comparable to Les Clos but less attractive and certainly less fine.
  • Chablis Preuses. An interesting wine, rather different from the others, hard when young, developing a special “hazelnut” bouquet and flavor as it matures.
  • Chablis Bougros. Not the greatest, but a charmer; spicy, soft, fragrant, soon ready. Of all the Grand Cru Chablis, it is perhaps the one that the average wine-drinker will find most pleasing.
  • Chablis Moutonne. This is not a legally classified vineyard but a Grand Cru wine, coming from an individual property partly in Vaudésir and partly in Preuses. It is entitled to the appellation “Grand Cru,” but the word “Moutonne” is registered and is more or less in the nature of a brand.