Monday, May 30, 2005

Our Wine Route, Part I

The Gounder-Sandersen-Wahl wine route started in Chablis, before moving to the Cote d'Or, Beaujolais, and finally, the Northern Rhone. The first half of the wineries we visited:

William Fevre (Chablis)

In 1936, the land in Burgundy was divided into several classifications, which are still upheld today by law. Grand Crus produce the best wines, and Premier Crus produce the second best wines. Most Burgundian wines fall in neither of these two classifications. Generally speaking, Grand Crus and Premier Crus are from the steepest slopes. The rationale is that grapes' roots struggle more to find water the steeper the land. The more the grapes suffer, the more complex the wine.

This steepness factor points to a big philosophical difference between French wines and the wines of Napa. Traditionally, French winemakers have tried to make wines that are representative of their terroirs (the land). While a good Napa winemaker believes in the quality of the grape, he also believes that he should play a large role in what to do with the grapes once they come off their vines. Hence, the obsession with new oak in Napa -- while a Frenchman growing Chardonnay in Chablis would likely let his wine take the minerally, more subtle taste of the terroir, an American is more likely to try to infuse the Chardonnay grapes with the oaky/buttery taste that we love. Perhaps the difference stems from Napa's newness and our lack of knowledge about our terroir. Or, perhaps American tastes (bigger = better) account for the philosophical difference.

William Fevre has vines that cross all the various classifciations. While the terroir classification could seem like a governmental ploy to protect the French wine industry, it's pretty right on. That's not to say that a Grand Cru can't produce a bad wine or that a non-cru terrior can't produce a good one. From our experience, however, we enjoyed the Grand Crus we tasted to the lesser classifcations.

Chablisienne (Chablis)

Wine Spectator grants high ratings to many of the wines produced by Chablisienne. Given this, we were surprised to notice boxed wine stockpiles when we arrived for our tasting. Moreover, unlike the other wineries we visited, Chablisienne relies on mechanical picking due to the high labor costs that would be incurred with hand picking.

How could this be the same acclaimed winemaker we had read about? We soon learned that Chablisienne is a cooperative of over 200 vineyard owners. With so many grapes to choose from, Chablisienne is able to produce everything from Grand Cru wines to, well, wine in a box.

Alex Gambal (Cote de Beaune)

Alex Gambal is an American who embraced the classical French philosophy behind winemaking, producing quality wines that reflect their terroir. He doesn't grow any of his own grapes, but works as a negotiant, buying grapes from others. He, however, maintains a close relationship with and eye on his suppliers to ensure that he only uses quality grapes.

I very much enjoyed the wines we tasted. My sister suggested that if we were to ever want to enter the wine business in France (very wishful thinking), Alex's negotiant, small scale approach might be a good one to follow.

Louis Jadot (Cote de Beaune)

Louis Jadot is a label easily found in the US. Given this, we were skeptical about how much we'd enjoy our tasting, fearful that the wines would be Americanized and commoditized.

The sommelier leading our tasting addressed this exact issue without our prompting at the beginning of our tour. He explained that Jadot's aim is both in producing excellent table wines, those commonly found in the US, as well as more complex wines.

We tasted more wines at Jadot than at any other winery, tasting unfinished wines from the barrel and finished wines, as well as wines across various terroirs and of different classifications. I came away with a 1998 Premier Cru Chassagne-Montrachet. 1998 is well-known as a horrible year for wines, but the sommelier had discovered that with a couple years, the wine had turned into something quite good. My taste buds agreed.

Maison Joseph Drouhin (Cote de Beaune)

Joseph Drouhin is located in the heart of Beaune (it's vineyards are obviously elsewhere). Its caves are an ancient labyrinth of paths stretching beneath the city. Totally cool.

Drouhin's vision moving forward is very different from Jadot's vision. Our guide explained the Drouhin wants to focus entirely on high quality, complex wines from the Premier and Grand Crus. He believed that focusing on the more attainable, table wines would only hurt Burgundy's ability to compete in the world market, since such table wines are not Burgundy's core competency.

Stay tuned for Our Wine Route, Part II.


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