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The highs and lows that mark Chablis history

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The soils of Drouhin Vaudon Chablis

The history of the vineyards that surround the town of Chablis is a long one as they were planted by the early Romans about 2,000 years ago.

The soils of clay, chalk and billions of oyster shells from a Jurassic-era sea, impart a “gunflint” and “steely” character to typical crisp apple and pear.

In the early 1800s just over 98,000 acres of Chardonnay supplied nearby Paris and other markets, but then the railroads came and inexpensive wines from further afield were easily accessible. Next that dreaded root louse called Phylloxera was accidentally introduced from North America and by the 1950s a mere 1,235 acres were left.

Chablis became a generic name for white wine on our side of the ocean and in my old days at JE Lightbourn we imported Chablis Blanc and Pinot Chablis from California, both which proved to be very popular, so much so that the French decided to challenge this common use of the name Chablis.

A court date was set here and I was asked to be a witness for the general use in the New World and I even bought a new suit for the occasion. Ernest Gallo himself arrived to defend his position, but at the very last moment he decided not to go to court and instead to label his wines “Californian white” and “rosé”.

Happily the Chablis region is recovering at a good pace and today the Chardonnay vines surrounding this town of about 2,500 people cover more than 11,800 acres. A total of 1,482 acres are from 40 vineyards designated Premier Cru, and at the pinnacle are seven vineyards of Grand Cru covering 248 acres.

In the 1960s, when this area was all but abandoned, Robert Drouhin recognised the potential and was one of the first to set about revitalising it. The family now owns 68.25 acres that they farm biodynamically and their Drouhin Chablis Reserve Vaudon 2013 is aged in stainless steel tanks. The nose is of minerals with hints of citrus, fern and even a touch of salt which some believe reflects the fact that this area was once covered by a sea. $28.50

Domaine Laroche has a history in Chablis going back to 1860 and their Chablis “St Martin” is named for the patron Saint of Chablis who is buried on their property that since 2010 has been under organic cultivation. It is fermented and aged in stainless steel and has the aromatic richness typical of the Laroche style that appeals to me very much. It has a powerful fruit sensation, a freshness and minerality that give a lingering finish. Laroche St Martin Chablis 2013 will cost you $29.95.

To step up to the next level our 2011 Domaine Laroche Premier Cru “Les Montmains” would be a fine introduction. Montmains is actually an umbrella name for nine lesser-known Premier Cru vineyards and out of a total acreage of 69, Laroche owns 1.25. At this level, oak creeps in and about 25 per cent of this wine is fermented and aged in barrels. So now a touch of vanilla oak is added to lemony hints along with gunflint, pear, peach and pineapple. This is really a lovely Chardonnay that for me represents the best of New and Old World attributes. $42.90.

The best known, and some would say the best, of the seven Grand Cru vineyards is “les Clos” and Joseph Drouhin owns 3.212 acres that they farm biodynamically. One of the things that makes Burgundy so different from other areas is that a single vineyard can have multiple owners and in the case of Les Clos the total acreage is about 60.

Drouhin has fermented this wine in large used oak barrels and this is to moderate the influence of the wood as used oak imparts less of its character and as a barrel gets bigger there is less wood contact per gallon of wine. Their 2011 Les Clos Chablis Grand Cru displays aromas and flavours of ginger, apple and quinine. It is supple, rich and silky, but with the stony minerality that one would expect. This is really a classic Chardonnay for $77.40.

• This column is a paid for advertorial for Burrows Lightbourn Ltd. Michael Robinson is Director of Wine at Burrows Lightbourn Ltd. He can be contacted at mrobinson@bll.bm or 295-0176. Burrows Lightbourn has stores in Hamilton (Front Street East, 295-1554), Paget (Harbour Road, 236-0355) and St George (York Street, 297-0409). A selection of their wines, beers and spirits is available online at www.wineonline.bm.

“Steely” character: The vineyards that surround Chablis