On the Trail

Arrival in Chablis

David Driscoll

Trey Beffa and I rolled into the village of Chablis at around 3 PM this afternoon; just in time for our appointment with Laroche in the town center. It's about a two hour drive from Paris, southeast towards Dijon and Lyon, to one of the world's premier white wine capitals. Chablis, as many of you know, specializes in chardonnay and its most famous vineyards are on display along the majestic hillside as you turn off the main road. Burgundy classifies its wines by region, village, and vineyard, depending on which designation is more prestigious. Vineyards can be unranked (usually known as a lieu dit, or a simple place with a name), classified as premier cru, or bumped up to the grandaddy of them all: the glorious grand cru level. There are seven grand cru vineyards in Chablis and they're all located right next to one another on the right side of the Serein river. It's quite a sight to behold, but it's not a phenomenon simply by chance.

We hiked up the hill into the famous "Les Clos" vineyard and ran our hands through the chalky soil. All the best sights in Chablis face southwest and get incredible sun exposure in the late afternoon. We basked in the warm glow of the early evening sunset and got a sense of the layout. Just setting foot between the vines and looking further south along the hillside, you can clearly see why these vineyards are the cream of the crop. The gentle slope that allows for drainage, the wide and expansive vista, and the limestone rich terrain that imparts an incredible minerality into the wine itself. There's just something in the air here. We could both feel it. It energized us, especially after a ten hour flight and a long drive in the car.

The town of Chablis is quaint and charming, but on Sunday everything is closed. There's an entire boutique dedicated to Andouille sausage, as well as a number of tempting wine shops with prices that seem downright unheard of. We stopped at the local bar for a quick beer to whet our whistles and noticed a few premier cru selections on the menu for less than thirty euros a bottle. That's where we met up with Alex Pross, our other Burgundy buyer, to map out the week's agenda. Between the three of us, we're a trio of fairly capable wine guys. Alex has been in the Rhône for the last week tasting wines with Trey's dad Clyde and our French specialist Keith Mabry, so he was fresh and ready to rock. We took in the lazy Sunday afternoon with a few cold ones and a renewed focus. This was going to be a great week.

The river splits off into a series of canals through Chablis, one of which flows right under our hotel room. There's a little promenade that runs along side it. I'm already imagining an early morning walk when the jet lag rips open my eye lids tomorrow. Many of these waterways were the early methods of transport for customers in Paris and beyond the landlocked region. Moving wine barrels by horseback was too painstaking. Boat was the easier method than the open road.

Being on the road for K&L isn't a vacation, however (no matter how much it seems that way). You've gotta do your appointments first and your due diligence. We tasted through a number of the 2015 selections at Domaine Laroche before even checking in at the hotel. The best part was the ten minute film featuring a live monk who narrated to us the history of the Chablis region with a deep and almost sinister voice. If you don't know the history of Burgundy, it dates back to the sixth century (yes the 500s!) and much of its development was due to the sincerity of the Benedictines with their winemaking. The cellars at Laroche were built in the twelfth century and the domaine's history of growing grapes dates back to the French Revolution. When France was under attack from viking invaders many of the monks fled further inland to hide the relics of the monastery. A devout group of St. Martin's devotees (a former bishop known for his generosity—also the man on horseback featured on the town crest in the first photo) happened to settle in Chablis where their winemaking tradition has since flourished for almost a thousand years. 

There's an old wine press at Laroche that dates back to the 1200s, built with wood that was originally harvested in the 10th century. Believe it or not, it's still in use! Every November the domaine has a "fête de vendage" to celebrate the harvest where they make a pressing of Chablis with the ancient contraption. There's a lot of history in Burgundy, which is why the idea of its wines are so romantic to us Americans—our own history being limited to a mere three centuries. It's not just the history, however. Burgundy is the epicenter for the terroir-driven culture that dominates our food and drink industry today. People want to talk about origins and a sense of place. Well, the monks were talking about that concept over a millennium ago. They were taking notes. They were ranking their wines and striving for quality from the very start. As our host Régis Salagnac said to us today: "Burgundy is difficult to understand because you can have a completely different wine from plot to plot." In order to demonstrate that reality to us, he proceeded to open several grand cru bottles from 2015. Each was incredibly distinct from the next, despite being vinified and aged in the exact same way. 

That's the magic of Burgundy in a nutshell, but I'll be back soon to dig a bit deeper. We're just getting started.

-David Driscoll