Friday, 11 December 2009

Chablis and culture shock in Italy

This week the two Heathers have been dipping their toes in culture – and getting culture shock – all in the pursuit of their love of wine.

Heather Aitken
So there I was in the Royal Opera House Covent garden, soaking up the atmosphere from under a crystalline chandelier. The cast – mostly French - were singing the praises of the star of the show, that well-known and ancient export from northern Burgundy – Chablis.

The first time the wine Chablis was recorded was 312AD, so it has been around a very long time. It is made purely from the Chardonnay grape variety grown on limestone soil formed in the Kimmerigian period, which retains a wealth of fossilized oyster shells from this upper Jurassic era. This soil imparts the acidity and the sun gives the balance of the fruitiness to the wine. There is a village in Dorset called Kimmeridge which is well known by geologists for its rich fossil finds but to my knowledge this area does not produce wine.

The Chablis symposium was held in magnificent splendour and we the delegates were talked and tasted through Petit to Grand Cru.....little to big quite literally, that is French vineyard speak! As they say “it’s a hard job but someone’s got to do it!”

It is worth noting here that the word “symposium” , now taken to mean some sort of educational teaching and discourse, actually comes from the Greek word sympotein which translates “to drink together”, so very apt in this instance. Next time your partner says that he or she is going to be late home as they are at a symposium - take it that they are in the pub!

After the symposium there was the opportunity to talk with the growers and exporters of Chablis and the chance to try the often distinctly different styles of this wine. I learnt that the four appellations of Chablis, Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru are grouped around the river Serein, with arguably the best wine found on the right bank. Within these appellations there are distinctive differences in taste and longevity.

Maud Manfredini –Mullard (doesn’t sound French to me) of Lamblin & Fils was very informative and in her opinion Petit Chablis is at its best at 2 years old, Chablis at 5 years old, Premier Cru 6 to 8 years and the Grand Cru 15 maximum. Some people will tell you that these wines will last for longer, but they would have to be of exceptional vintage.

Daniel Etienne Defaix owns one of the most ancient estates in Chablis and his first claim to fame is that the Romans regarded this stretch of land so highly that they built a road around it rather than crossing it in a straight line as was their usual practice! His more recent claim to fame is that he supplies many Michelin restaurants such as the Roux brothers with his wines

Biodynamics is the new buzz word for natural methods of cultivation, really a throw back to the ways our ancestors observed. In a nutshell, plants are treated with only natural products such as cow manure and medicinal plants, and as much as possible the rhythms of the solar system are followed to perform certain tasks. The idea is to be in harmony with nature. Well I’m all for it as Joseph Drouhin has produced some magnificent quality wines which have benefited enormously from this old, but newly re-instigated practice.

Finally and most importantly a quick word on the compatibility of the different types of Chablis with food. Petit Chablis is perfect with aperitifs and goes wonderfully well with Chevre, goats cheese. Chablis is great with seafood and fish, and also complements swiss cheese and mature cheddar. Chablis Premier Cru can accompany chicken dishes, ham and is renowned for being the perfect foil for the famous Burgundian cheese Epoisses. Chablis Grand Cru works well with creamy dishes, but as it is a special wine it really deserves to be drunk with its equals – foie gras and lobster.

Life is short, enjoy its pleasures. To quote that famous poet, Anon, “Life is too short to drink bad wine”!

Alto Adige – It’s Italy, but not as we know it….
Heather Dougherty
While Heather A was getting cultural at the Royal Opera House, I was jetting off to what I thought was Italy. Well we landed in Verona, that’s definitely Italian, no problem there. But after a two hour drive north, we were in the Italian Dolomites in the region that is officially known as either Alto Adige, or Südtirol – and there lies the clue.

Most people here are native German speakers (though they are all bi-lingual); the scenery is most definitely Alpine; I spotted men in Lederhosen; our welcome address was outside in the cold and dark because “it’s good for the heart”. I put it to you m’lud, that Alto Adige is not Italian at all, but a long lost bit of Austria.

This most northerly part of Italy borders Austria and clearly has much in common with that country – indeed it was part of the Austrian Empire until as recently as 1919. I went to bed feeling rather confused.

The next day dawned and there were the mountains – but equally, I spotted fig trees, cypresses and the odd olive tree. They may be gearing up for the ski season now, but in the summer this place can be hotter than Rome…maybe it is Italy after all.

The wines are a fascinating mix of those Alpine and Mediterranean cross currents – mostly white, clean and crisp, but with a sense of warmth and ripeness to the fruit. Look out for Pinot Grigio with character and shape, the usually overlooked Pinot Bianco, stunning Gewurtraminers and occasionally thrilling Rieslings. They even take Müller-Thurgau seriously here – the grape forever damned for its part in creating lolly-water Liebfraumilch. You might also find a smattering of Pinot Nero (aka Pinot Noir) reaching the UK.