The wine lunch began with contemplation of a rock: a mottled, ancient stone, riddled with 150-million-year-old fossils. A Frenchman, Jean-François Bordet, had brought it to the table. We passed it around while sipping the wine that he had brought too, wines from vineyards that grow in this formidable soil where this stone is found: Chablis.
This was the real Chablis, made from the chardonnay grapes grown in the Chablis region on northern edge of Burgundy. Like other names of other fabled wine regions, Chablis has been misappropriated, slapped willy-nilly on cheap white wines from California and elsewhere that bear little resemblance to true Chablis.
One has only to study this rock to understand why chardonnay grapes may be grown around the world, nowhere but the small, rocky, frost-prone region of eastern France can make Chablis. It’s the wine of which British wine expert Hugh Johnson writes: “It crosses a succulent grape with an austere soil to a shimmering effect, an effect nobody anywhere else has been able to reproduce.”
Bordet had come to Solbar restaurant in Calistoga to pour wines at a lunch prepared by executive chef Brandon Sharp. Four courses, six wines and fascinating conversation.
“I have not brought just my wines,” Bordet emphasized. The youthful 13th-generation winemaker for his family’s Domaine Séguinot-Bordet, became president last year of the Chablis Wine Board and also serves as secretary and treasurer for the Federation for the Defense of the Chablis Appellation. He was there to speak for all of Chablis.
After studying viticulture and oenology at the University of Beaune, in Burgundy’s wine capitol, Bordet traveled to Michigan in 1997 to work in an American vineyard, before beginning to work with his maternal grandfather on their 16 hectare vineyard. “My mother wasn’t interested in wine,” he explained.
While he learned at university, he said, working with his grandfather provided an equally valuable education. “He told me you must take care of a vineyard as a parent cares for a child,” Bordet said.
Chablis is both an ancient and an exceptionally tenacious wine region, he explained. It appears that Romans first brought grapevines to this northeastern region of France sometime around the year 276; but it was the monks of the medieval church who turned grape growing into an essential component of the economy. The wines of Chablis were shipped to Paris and gained fame in Europe.
Master of Wine Rosemary George in her book “The Wines of Chablis” quotes the 13th-century writer Fra Salimbène: “It is a white wine, sometimes golden that has aroma and body, an exquisite and generous flavour and fills the heart with happy confidence.”
By 1664, wines from Chablis had crossed the English Channel: The wine steward of the Earl of Bedford, Gordon reports, “added 62 bottles of ‘Shably’ to the cellar, the first mention of Chablis, as far as can be known, and a very early example of wine imported in bottle rather than in cask.”
The vineyards of Chablis survived religious wars, revolution, phylloxera, competition from the south, and in the 20th century two world wars; yet one of its most persistent enemies has been the killing frosts of that region. Spring frosts were capable of wiping out a vintage, Bordet said. Like in the 1957 vintage only 11 cases (132 bottles) of wine were produced.
Only in the last few decades, Bourget said, has technology provided a weapon against the deadly spring frosts.
Now the winemakers of Chablis are ramping up an effort to overcome another assault, the misuse of the name Chablis. The Burgundy Wine Board recently signed the “Declaration to Protect Wine Place and Origin” becoming the second French region after Champagne to join this international organization made up of 15 other regions, including Napa Valley, Chianti, Sonoma County, Porto, Rioja, Jerez, Long Island, Oregon, Paso Robles, Victoria, Walla Walla Valley, Washington and Western Austria.
“Just (as) there have been issues in the U.S. of “fake Chablis” so in many other countries has the name Chablis been erroneously used,” a press release notes. “It has therefore become a growing issue for the region to secure the usage of this appellation.”
Within Chablis strict regulations govern the wine production in its four appellations, Petite Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru. The premier cru and chablis appellations are distinguished by its ancient limestone soil formed in the Kimmerigdian (Upper Jurrassic) era, which accounts for the fossils that fill the soil.
Only chardonnay is grown in Chablis, Bordet said, and winemakers, for the most part, have resisted the urge to produce wines in a heavily oaked style that is often favored elsewhere in the world. “We never used new oak,” he said. “It’s good to have different wines,” Bourdet said. “It’s good to have the diversity.”
“We want to blend tradition with innovations,” he said. But still to produce wines that can’t be duplicated anywhere else in the world —
He prefers instead to produce the elegant wines known for its flinty freshness and delicate aromas. — as his board puts it “one grape, one region, one of a kind.”
“Chablis always has a place on our wine list because it pairs well with our cuisine,” said Brandon Sharp, executive chef at Solbar at the Solage Resort in Calistoga. “Chardonnay can't be made this way in Napa Valley. When pairing food with particular wines, we rely on balancing the weight of the wine with the richness of the food and matching the acid levels closely so there is no personality clash.”
Sharp’s menu travelled around the world. “In the approach to this particular meal, we created dishes with recognizable flavor profiles — the Hudson Valley, southern Italy, eastern Europe and used each as a separate inroad to the premier crus and grand crus.”:
He began with an autumn squash veloute garnished with diced Asian pear and sunflower seeds served with Domaine Séguinot-Bordet Chablis Vielles Vignes 2010; (imported by Wine Warehouse) I have to say this was my favorite of the wines, but then again, I was sitting next to the wine maker. It was delectably fresh with the cream-based soup and when I found out it retails for $16, I nearly fell off my chair. And this was only the first wine.
Next, Sharp sent out an artful arrangement of coriander and dark rum smoked salmon with rye crisp, horseradish and lemon cucumber with the second wine, La Chablisienne Chablis Premier Cru Côte de Léchet 2009; $21-$22. Another hit out of the park, the table agreed.
For the third course, he went to Italy for a sunchoke agnolitti all’arrabiatta with broccoli romanesco and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to pair with the Domaine William Fèvre Chablis Premier Cru Vaulorent 2009 (imported by Henriot Inc henriotinc.com) $65. Absolutely no complaints here.
For the piéce de resistance, which is to say the two glorious, rich grand cru wines, Sharp served a simple seared diver scallop with apple-miso soubise, red mustard greens and an Easter egg radish.
The wines were Domaine Christian Moreau Chablis Grand Cru Valmur 2008 $65-$70 (imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons; the Bay Area retailer is K&L Wine Merchants);and Domaine Drouhin-Vaudon Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos 2008 $70-$75 (importer: Dreyfus Ashby & Co; dreyfusashby.com.)
The net result: We left the restaurant humming something like “I’m Dreaming of a White Wine Christmas.”