Chablis, the people behind the wine and the wine is their life

Chablis, a wine for pleasure; warm summer evenings; for dinner parties, comfortable nights-in. Special occasions.

A name recognised on shelves as having a pedigree.

When I visited Chablis for the Saint-Vincent Tournante du Chablisien Festival in February, I was lucky enough to meet some of the people behind the wine – the characters and the traditions that rely on the Chardonnay grape for a living; a way of life.

The Piliers Chablisiens brotherhood exists to honour all those who, by their activities, writings, or simply their way of looking at things, serve or have served the cause of Burgundy and more especially of Chablis, its wines, its spirit and its traditions.

During the festival, The Piliers Chablisiens led the procession to the village square where, in front of the war memorial, a crowd gathered. In their golden robes they looked every bit as elegant as the wine the region produces; but in the speeches that followed the service they personified the down-to-earth people that live in and around Chablis. Enthusiastic, unassuming, with an unerring spirit of tradition and respect for the land.

And all this to celebrate wine. But it’s not just wine. It’s a life.

Eric Szablowski, Chablis
Eric Szablowski

I left the celebrations to explore the vineyards. Eric Szablowski began as a chemist, but branched out into the study of wine.

What he doesn’t know about the landscape of Chablis, could fit inside the glove box of his little Citroen 2CV.

From a hilltop we could see the sweeping vineyards beyond and hear the distant music as Chablis continued to celebrate.

Little palls of smoke could be seen as some vineyards were pruning ready for the year ahead; the chopped-off branches burnt so as not to disturb the fine balance of the soil.

A breathtaking view of this one part, but famous part, of Burgundy.

From him I first heard the term Kimmeridgian soil.

It is in fact the lifeblood of Chablis, which gives the wine its distinctive flinty taste; almost like sucking on a pebble. It is a grey-coloured limestone based soil originally identified in Kimmeridge, England … hence its name.

But it is the life which once lived there that breathes life into the Chablis wine we know today. In a couple of minutes Eric put a fossilised oyster into my hand. They are everywhere.

Wine-growers enthuse about the little fossils. Jean-Marc Brocard created his domaine with his own hands more than 40 years ago. A shy, unassuming man, he energises as he talks about the heart of Chabliswine. He is convinced that the respect for land would be the way the wine would express itself.

Jean-Marc Brocard domaine
Jean-Marc Brocard domaine

His domaine sits on one of the Kimmeridgian hillsides overlooking the Serein valley.

He said: “It is from these fossils that the vines draw minerals and drive them, force them, impel them, into the fruit.”

Which is then transformed into wine by a magical alchemy.”

Such enthusiasm about the land is echoed by Herve Tucki from La Chablisienne, which is a co-operative of Chablis wine-growers.

Herve said: “The truth to a great Chablis is not in the cellar but in the vineyards. It’s not a question of teaching. Everyone can listen and go to some school. Great wine is made in the vineyard. It’s good, great terroir.

“The grapes are only one element of the chain. Chablis is from the soil, not from the grapes. The Gods of Chablisare the soils; but to make the wine we also need the men.

“It is a partnership and the men respect the ground, the terroir.”

“Wine is about pleasure it’s not necessarily about talking about how good it is. If you think about it, it is about direct sensations; direct reactions.”

Jean François Bordet is vice president of the Chablis Commission and belongs to one of the oldest wine-making families in Chablis … the Domaine Séguinot-Bordet has been

Jean François Bordet, Jean François Bordet, Chabls
Jean François Bordet

based there since 1590.

A forward-thinking man, I’m greeted by his grandfather Monsieur Seguinot who at 88 planted his first vine at the age of 14.

For a family in the business for many many years, Jean Francois believes there’s no point in rushing a wine.

He says: “Different types of wine should be drunk at different times. Think of wine as like being a little child. It grows with age; it learns new things as it gets older.

Wine is like people, it continues to learn.”

It’s clear that it’s the ground which is literally the rock of Chablis. But the men, the people, add the personality.

I’ll raise a glass to that.
Read other pieces from my Chablis visit, published in Liverpool and Wirral in February 2011

Click here to see pictures from the festival.