On the Trail

The Wines of La Chablisienne

David Driscoll

It's not always clear to wine drinkers how the business of grape-growing works, especially in a region like Burgundy where parcels have been divided and sub-divided for generations, and vineyard names are often more important than the brand. When we see the name of a winemaker on the bottle, we might also assume he or she is the owner of the vineyard or the person who did the growing, but that's often not the case. In many instances, the person handling the viticulture is completely removed from the production of a branded wine. They're more like landlords or independent contractors. In the case of Burgundy, where famous vineyard plots have a number of different owners, a wine from a prestigious grand cru site can often comprise fruit from a number of different farmers, each having contributed their grapes to the cause. In 1790, after the French Revolution, the region's historic vineyards were stripped from church ownership and distributed amongst the area's farmers with a decree stating that all property must be divided evenly amongst the owner's subsequent offspring. More than 200 years later, you can imagine how many different owners some of these legendary vineyards have, each holding their own personal rows or individual vines. It's not a given that every generation will want to make wine, either; but you can bet they definitely want their share of the grapes. That's where cooperatives come into play, or "houses" like we see in Champagne. These are the companies who gather together the must (the pressed juice from each farmer's supply) and create single vineyard expressions (or larger cuvées) from the collection of these small parcels. One such example in Burgundy is La Chablisienne, a renowned producer in the region we started working with directly earlier this Spring. With an impressive portfolio consisting of some of the best vineyard sites in Chablis, we'd been eager to do business with these guys from years. Now that our first container has arrived and the bottles are finally hitting the shelves, it's safe to say there may not be a more exciting selection of white wines at K&L right now.

While it is easier for many of these small farmers to sell their musts to a co-op rather than manage their own winemaking businesses, La Chablisienne wasn't formed simply out of convenience; it emerged out of crisis. Economic struggles in the twenties banded together a group of Chablis farmers who formed the company in 1923 to consolidate their efforts. Back then the wines were still vinified by each grower who delivered the finished product to La Chablisienne for blending and marketing purposes. By the 1950s, however, the group wanted more control over the style and the flavor of the wines, so they purchased the unvinified musts (the pressed juice) and began doing their own fermentation on site. Today there are nearly 300 farmers who contribute their must to La Chablisienne from a number of different vineyard sites around the region, from the entry level Petit Chablis grade to the top level grand cru.

Part of what makes our direct relationship with La Chablisienne so exciting is the inherent quality of Chablis itself. The region is one of the last Burgundian appellations whose wines have remained reasonably affordable over the last decade. Whereas a grand cru Montrachet from the Côte de Beaune might run you three to four hundred dollars a bottle, an outstanding grand cru Chablis is still well under a hundred bucks. With our direct pricing and stronger dollar, our grand cru "Grenouilles" selection from La Chablisienne is under sixty. The premier cru selections are a startling $19.99, and we're not talking everyday quality here; we're talking serious stuff. Chablis is only about an hour south of France's Champagne region and the same Kimmeridgian limestone that gives Champagne its piercing acidity and minerality lies beneath its vineyards. For that reason, the best wines from Chablis have a chalky, oyster shell note imparted onto that impressionable chardonnay canvas. Its location at the very northern tip of Burgundy makes it a difficult one for achieving optimum ripeness, hence the wines are almost always crisp and racy on the palate. For those who appreciate nuance and depth in addition to refreshment, Chablis's depth of character and attractive price points should be a no-brainer. La Chablisienne has a great short film on its website that should elucidate any further insight (as well as smother you with romanticism). We just received our first direct container this past week and we should have another landing down the line. For a look at what we have in stock right now, click here.

Our Burgundy buyers Alex and Trey made their appointment at La Chablisienne their top priority this past Spring during their visit. They knew that a relationship with the cooperative could be an incredible opportunity for both our store and our customers. After having drunk three different bottles of Chablis this week from that initial order, I'm beginning to understand just how incredible this partnership is going to be.

-David Driscoll