THEY say that to truly understand a wine, you need to know about the people who make it and the ground from which it comes.
Well, I don’t know if they do say that to be honest … but I think they should.
Mention Chablis and you think of a class act. It has become accepted into everyday language as a general term for dry white wines. A style of wine we are all familiar with. But are we?
On a cold but beautifully crisp February weekend my eyes were opened to a world beyond Chablis the name, the bottle in a wine rack. I discovered a community enthused by the skill of wine-making, its tastes, its smells; but more importantly a community in awe and tremendously respectful of the ground from which springs such delicious tastes.
The first weekend in February, the Saint-Vincent Tournante du Chablisien festival takes place. Saint Vincent is the official saint of wine-makers and it is in Burgundy that he is honoured the most. It takes place every year in a different village, but 2011 saw Chablis as host.
As I arrived in Chablis, little pine trees appeared by the roadside. It seemed they were everywhere. Each meticulously decorated with hundreds of little yellow paper flowers. It didn’t stop there. Whole streets were festooned with garlands, villagers had decorated their homes, multicoloured paper parrots hung from trees over the River Serein, garlands and flags stretched across the streets.
This was a village determined to have a good time that day.
Not just this village … the Saint-Vincent du Chablisien first took place in 1966 and it takes place every year in one of the 20 villages producing Chablis wine.
It was an honour to begin the day with hundreds of those villagers in St Martin church. Communities united by a passion for their livelihood. The handover of the Saint Vincent symbolic statue to Chablis and then a procession of the 19 delegations of the Chablis villages with the brotherhood of Piliers Chablisiens.
The Piliers Chablisiens 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.
The Piliers Chablisiens led the procession to the village square where, in front of the war memorial, a crowd gathered. My French is not very good, but laughter is universal.
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.
The sun shone, the wine flowed, the food was eagerly sampled. I tried little snails in pastry cases; also tartiflette (potatoes, lardons, cheese and cream) which was vigorously stirred in huge pans. Traditional songs and dancers entertained.
And all this to celebrate wine. But it’s not just wine. It’s a life.
This was the culmination of two years of preparation: 400 to 500 volunteers had helped to decorate the streets, 100,000 paper flowers had been made and even 20,000 bottles of a special Saint-Vincent wine were ready to be served free at several little street bars dotted around the village. About 35 wine growers had given their 2009 Chablis to blend it.
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.
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. 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 Chablis wine. He is convinced that the respect for land would be the way the wine would express itself.
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.”
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.
“Chablis is from the soil, not from the grapes. The Gods of Chablis are the soils; but to make the wine we also need the men.
“It is a partnership.”
It’s clear that it’s the ground which is literally the rock of Chablis. But the men, the people, add the personality.