We recently took a trip to the wine regions of Chablis, Bourgogne, the Cote Rotie, and Hermitage. We celebrated our 10th anniversary in Paris, and as my husband and I just recently took our WSET Level 2, he planned this nice, five-day wine tasting add-on as a surprise that I must say was very, very pleasantly received. Today, I’ll discuss one special tasting in Chablis.
First things first – the cutest little red and white Citroen!
Trains are a great way to travel around Europe; they get you easily out of and into the hearts of the cities. If you’re going wine tasting though, you need to have some method of getting into the wineries, which are often in small towns, or out of town. You have a few options of hiring drivers or signing up for wine tour vans and mini-buses, but we like to be independent, so we usually prefer a car of our own. We knew from research that the French don’t appreciate it if you swallow their wine at a tasting. “You taste wine with your mouth, not your stomach,” is a common French philosophy, and we get it. They’re pouring you some really nice wines, and if you’ve consumed the first five at their place, and who knows how many others at the place before, they know your palate isn’t exactly what it was when you woke up that morning, nor is your mental clarity. As we were clearly planning to befriend the spittoon at every facility, driving was not going to be an issue.
We flew from our small city in the prairies to Toronto in the afternoon, then took the red eye from Toronto to Paris, arriving around 8am. We had to drive through Chablis on our way to Dijon, the town we had our Airbnb booked in. I’ve travelled enough now that I know myself pretty well; I said to my husband prior to the trip that no matter how tired I’d be from flying, as soon as we got there, and were driving through Chablis (me saying, “oh my gosh, we’re in Chablis right now!” over and over), I was going to want to stop at a winery, or a chateau as they call them, and stat! I knew I wouldn’t want to wait a day, so we made a couple of bookings for Chablis before we flew out (more on bookings later).
We rented the Citroen, and once we figured out how to change the GPS from German into English, we were on our way to Chablis! After filling up on baguettes and prosciutto from a grocery store off the highway, we arrived at Clotilde Davenne where we were in for a real treat. They recently began offering a Willy’s Jeep tour through the vineyards of Chablis, and we were their first customers to book the experience. We climbed up into the old Jeep, with Arnaud, the winemaker and owner’s son driving, my husband riding shot-gun, and myself in the back, hanging onto whatever I could find as to not fall over the side, and boy was it a ride! If you’ve ever seen pictures of Chablis, it’s not flat; I had some moments of sheer terror where I was bounced off the seat, or I imagined going over the edge or us rolling, but I was so thrilled to be riding in Chablis that I got over it pretty quickly.
First of all, this jeep was used in WWII to transport soldiers, and if that wasn’t amazing enough, we were driving between rows and rows of perfect Chablis vines, setting our eyes on the very slopes of the Premier and Grand Cru grapes of arguably the most reputable Chardonnay in the world, with a second generation French winemaker as our guide. “Here are some Premeir Cru plots, and over here are the Grand Cru plots…” If you wonder why Grand Cru is so expensive, it’s because out of the 6000 hectares of vineyards in Chablis, only 100 hectares are Grand Cru plots, meaning that only the grapes that come from those specific 100 hectares can be labelled as Grand Cru. The land is Grand Cru because of several reasons, some of which include the direction it faces which affects sun exposure, the slope of the hill affecting sunshine and water uptake, the soil make-up, the depth of the roots, the age of the vines, and the history that those particular vines have in producing the best quality Chablis. Arnaud took us to a viewpoint at which we could overlook the vineyards, and see a map of Chablis on a stone plaque that labelled all of the individual plots and their level of quality in an easy to read, color coded system.
Once we finished our tour of the land, Arnaud took us back to the chateau for a tour of the grounds, a history lesson on his family and how they started in the industry, and a tasting. He spoke fairly good English, which was great for us, as we speak little to no French. We began with about six wines on the table, and once he saw that we were spitting them out, asking detailed questions and taking the tasting seriously, we ended up with another four. We tried all four levels of Chablis: Petit Chablis, Chablis Villages, Premier Cru Chablis, and Grand Cru Chablis. These are all quality, Chablis Chardonnays, but they’ve been aged differently, and for different lengths of time, and they come from the specific plots of land that coordinate with their specific level of quality.
If you’ve ever had a bad Chardonnay, or heard the saying, “ABC – Anything But Chardonnay,” you’ve probably had experience with super oaky ones, or butter bombs, but Chablis is nothing like that. It’s crisp and refreshing at all levels, and the higher levelled ones are extremely complex, with multiple smells, and tastes that linger in your mouth and change over the course of the next 15 or so seconds after you’ve swallowed (or spat). You’ll get lemon, crisp green apple, citrus and floral blossoms on the nose, and there is a distinct minerality to it, kind of like a wet stone, limestone taste to Chablis that comes from the limestone soil the vines call home.
We also got to try some wines from other plots in the family that were really interesting, like some Pinot Noir Roses, a sparkling Cremant (made in the same way as Champagne, but wine can’t be called Champagne if it’s not grown in Champagne), and the Bourgogne Aligote, which is the only other white grape that’s allowed to be grown in the Bourgogne region, and is used often as a table wine or a blending grape. The most interesting wild card we tried was the Roman grape that Caesar used to drink, and was therefore named after him. This is grown in the Irancy region, therefore the wine is called Irancy, (regions are how France labels their wines), although it’s 10% Caesar and 90% Pinot Noir.
ALL of this – for the very reasonable price of €20 each.
Needless to say, we picked up a few of our favourite bottles to take with us, and gave Arnaud and Clotilde Davenne a spectacular review on Google. I would send anyone there, so if you’re ever in Chablis, look them up!
A note on bookings in France:
Always book ahead at the chateaus in France. The website that we used, ruedesvignerons.com, helped immensely. I did have a couple of glitches with their app when trying to cancel or change a reservation, so it’s not perfect, but it is a great starting point for booking. It shows which wineries are visitor friendly, because not all are open for tastings to the public. It also lists information such as the different times available, types of tastings, and the costs.
We found that when we showed up at most chateaus in France for our bookings, we were the only ones there. The families live and work on the property, and they’re the ones that run lots of the tastings and tours. They’ve got work to do; they’re not sitting around waiting for people to walk in the door. If you don’t book, there’s a chance the door will be locked, and nobody will be around. If you do book, they’ll be there waiting for you, having already learned your names and set up the tasting, just for you. Be sure to let them know if you need to cancel!
If you ever have the opportunity to taste in Chablis, or to taste anywhere in this world for that matter, go for it. You can meet some of the greatest people, and get to share in a small piece of their story, their craft, and their passion. Especially in Europe, it’s an amazing thing to be a part of.