The region of Chablis is officially part of Burgundy in France but is 100 km north of the famous Cote d’Or near the city of Beaune. Because of its northern location its climate is more like the Champagne region.
Chablis produces unique wines. Chardonnay is the only white grape grown in Burgundy, yet the wines of Chablis are very different from the rich offerings of Puligy-Montrachet and Meursault to the south. Many wine drinkers may not be aware that chablis is made from chardonnay grapes.
My eminent wine columnist colleague Annabel Jackson wrote recently that in Chablis “the chardonnay grape is allowed to sing, unadorned with the conceits of winemaker intervention”. She expressed the key concept more elegantly than I can, saying the grape is more a “conduit of the place”, rather than a straightforward expression of chardonnay.
Chablis’ 4,000 hectares of vineyards produce wines that reflect the region’s terroir, sometimes translated as the expression of the soil. Experts on terroir say the Kimmeridgian soil – made of limestone, clay and fossilised oyster shells – gives the wines a salty, steely and mineral quality. It is sometimes described as “tasting of gunflint”.
Domaine Laroche is a major vineyard owner in Chablis, with 100 hectares. It is known for the high quality of its wines. Michel Laroche is often spoken of as the “king of Chablis” and was the winemaker from 1967 until this year. Gregory Viennois became the winemaker last year.
A Domaine Laroche tasting to mark the 160th vintage – the family have been making wines since 1850 – showed the majesty of the domaine. The domaine was also a pioneer in the use of screwcaps instead of cork.
Chablis has four ranks of production: petit chablis, chablis, premier cru chablis and grand cru chablis.
Petit chablis tends to be a simple wine. Grapes come from Portlandian rather than Kimmeridgerian soil, and produce wines that are less elegant than the other categories. The 2010 Laroche petit chablis smelled like sun-bleached sheets and had a lively acidity. It is a wine to drink now.
The 2010 Laroche Saint Martin chablis had a creamy taste that complimented the steely acidity – a reflection of the Kimmeridgerian terroir – plus a lingering acid tang. Saint Martin is the patron saint of Chablis. The wine had an aroma of nectarines and white peaches.
The 2009 premier cru chablis, from old vines in the Fourchaumes region, was an absolute delight. Aromas from the glass made me feel I was walking by the ocean at dusk, cradling a ripe pineapple. Some of the vines are up to 80 years old, with an average age of 45. They give the wine an elegance and complexity, and lingering acidity that also seemed slightly honeyed. My tasting notes referred to flavours of iodine and kelp.
Highlight of the tasting was the 2006 grand cru reserve de l’Obedience.
The Oxford Companion to Wine says only 100 of the 4,000 hectares of vines in Chablis are grand cru. They are all on one slope facing southwest outside town and are called Les Clos, Blanchots, Bougros, Vaudesir, Valmur, Preuses and Grenouilles. Only 300 cases are made each year of L’Obedience, from the ripest fruit and best barrels from the Blanchots vineyard.
Up to 70 different components enter the final blend. This wine is intense in flavour yet delicate. The amount of oak it receives depends on the quality of grapes each year, but is typically seven to eight months in a combination of new and old barrels. L’Obedience is a rich and generous wine with aromas of peach and pineapple. At the same time it felt refined and elegant.
Laroche brand ambassador Isabelle Lejean said L’Obedience refers to the order of monks who first planted vines in the region.
Annabel Jackson said that unlike some regions of France, such as Alsace and the Right Bank in Bordeaux, the grand cru category in Chablis is stable, and managed by an association that Michel Laroche established in 2000.
She described all of the Laroche wines as having “a streak of steely acidity, a firm flintiness, and a decisive mineral quality”. They would match perfectly with seafood with similar mineral qualities such as oysters and crabs.
In Taiwan Domaine Laroche wines are distributed by Creation Wines.
In Indonesia, Domaine Laroche wines are distributed by Bogacitra.
* Published in China Post, 31 May 2012, page 10, under the headline “Wine from France’s Chablis show region’s uniqueness”. Find a link here.