Chablis Wine Tour & Domaine des Malandes
Updated: Feb 9
Salty, crystalline, floral, citrus and limestone-mineral ... undoubtedly it's Chablis. But having Chardonnay is way not enough for achieving a wine of this style. It's all about the terroir, or more specifically, about the Kimmeridgian soils of Chablis.
Poor soil - the neutral, ready to sing about terroir Chardonnay loves it!
By a beautiful serendipity I paid a visit to a winery which name translates exactly like 'poor soil'. Domaine des Malandes and my wine trip to Chablis for your attention below.
Kimmeridgian and Portlandien Soils of Chablis
Serein - a tiny river that flows through the valley where both right and left bank are planted with Chardonnay. These gentle slopes were carved out by geological erosion of Kimmeridgian and Portlandien origins.
The valley is a sedimentary basin that had this specific relief formed due to the weight of sediments that collapsed and formed the hills. Basically, Chablis was under the ocean... The sediments that were deposited on the seabed for millions of years became today's soil (precious!), the water retreated and uncovered it.
This specific soil belongs to the Kimmeridgian period and is 155 000 000 years old. When walking the Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards you'll find many marl stones on the surface - pay attention, you'll see thousands of tiny comma-shaped shells turned to stone in these marl. So as soon as you see fossils, be sure it's Kimmeridgian soil.
A completely different formation on top of the plateau, above the slopes. Very compact limestone that is a bit younger - 145 000 000 years. Here you'll find Petit Chablis and some of the Chablis village appellation, known for the Portlandien soil.
History of Chablis wine region
Chablis is a Celtic word, that means 'near the wood'. Today, we'd call it 'near the vines' :) There were some fateful moments in the history of Chablis wine region. Luckily, it all turned out the best way, as today we have a thriving wine region, worldwide known for its' complex whites.
Vines were planted here already by Gauls, and then by Romans, but it wasn't until the monks came that Chablis earned its' fame. First the Benedictine monks that were seeking for a refuge fleeing the Vikings in 867. They first settled in Auxerre (20 km away from Chablis) in the impressive Saint-Germain abbey. But Yonne river that passes through Auxerre was still large enough for the Vikings to be a threat. Thanks to Charles the Bald, the Benedictine monks were given the village of Chablis. Monks started to receive donations, including vineyards.
Then, in the 12th century a Cistercian monk founded an abbey nearby. The Pontigny abbey became soon renown and received many vineyards as donations.
In 1455 the first purchase of Chablis wine outside of the region was recorded. At that time the population of the village was larger than today - 4000 people against today's 2500.
Obviously, with this tiny population the region was weakened by the two World Wars. But before that by Phylloxera and mildew - in the end of 19th century.
Spring frosts are sometimes even more devastating than pests - in 1957 all the grapes were lost to frost. Soon after that mechanization and installation of heaters started and that helped to secure the vines.
How to make Chablis wine?
May the answer not disappoint you. To make a Chablis-styled wine one must be in Chablis together with his vines planted in the local rocky soil. Once step 1 is completed, we can talk about winemaking techniques used in Chablis :)
Right after harvesting grapes of perfect quality (we'll talk about autumn rot later), you press directly and wait for the must to settle. Afterwards, depending on the producer and desired style, must might be fermented either in oak barrels or in stainless steel tanks. Alcoholic fermentation begins and lasts for around 3 weeks under maximum 18°C. Actually, the duration is never known in wineries where the aim is to showcase terroir goes as far as using indigenous yeast that are found on the grapes. I'm being a bit sarcastic, but unfortunately outside of Burgundy and similar 'traditional' wine regions, using native yeasts becomes less and less common.
The second fermentation is optional, but it's difficult to find a producer that skips malolactic fermentation. In this process the unpleasantly astringent malic acid transforms to smooth lactic acid.
Chablis wines are aged either in stainless steel or in oak. Sometimes if the producer prefers fermenting in barrels, ageing might be in tank and vice-versa.
For Chablis Grand Cru ageing is mandatory until 15th of March of the year following the harvest. Then blending or single vineyard bottling follows and, preferably, ageing in bottles at the cellar.
You'll find most of the producers giving preference to used oak. The reason is not only in style of wine they want to achieve. Actually it's quite the opposite - history influenced this specific style. Way before railways existed, Chablis wine was sent to Paris by Yonne river in barrels. These barrels were always returned empty and the producers were refilling them. Meanwhile in other regions, for example, Meursault, barrels weren't returned, so producers had to use new oak every year.
Domaine des Malandes
I love wineries with a story behind. To be honest this is what influences my choice while travelling and even while drinking wine. It's not specifically about how 'old' is the winery, how many generations originate from this village... Sometimes it's about rapid development, like at Domaine des Malandes.
Everything started with André and Gabrielle Tremblay and their first harvest in 1949. As I mentioned above, until 60-70's mechanization was minimal and very often spring frosts were leaving almost nothing to harvest.
Amandine, their granddaughter, said that her grandfather was very charismatic and innovative. He brought the first straddle tractors to Chablis - that were lightweight and able to go above the vine rows.
The couple grew their vineyards to 7 ha and Lyne Marchive, Amandine's mother, established Domaine des Malandes in 1973.
She continued extending the vineyards and modernizing the winery, but also traveled a lot and spread the word about Domaine des Malandes all around the world. With only 200 000 bottles a year (a quite low production volume for Chablis region) they have an impressive worldwide sales coverage today.
Now the winery is managed by Lyne's children - Amandine and Richard. They're now focusing on the next wave of innovation - going organic and preserving the biodiversity of Chablis soils. Amandine told me that in order to do that they have to go out to the vineyard for ploughing and cutting grass three times more than they would if used chemical weedkillers and pesticides. It's much more work, but it pays back on all the fronts:
their workers' stay healthy as they don't have to spray the vines with harmful not only for nature, but for human, chemicals
the environment, soil, biodiversity is preserved and nourished
ploughing encourages grapevine root development, longer roots get more nutrition from the rocks (= minerality) and don't get 'thirsty' during summer heat waves (= acidity)
So even the quality of wine gets higher thanks to chemical-free winegrowing.
So what about rot and mildew? The Bordeaux mixture based on copper doesn't help, even though some people keep showering their vines with it. Amandine said that the only thing that helps is careful vineyard management - more pruning and even stripping all the leaves before harvest.
As for the rot, there is not much a winegrower can do, whether organic or conventional. Eliminating rotten berries, strict sorting before vinification. Although with white wine it's less crucial, as the must has very limited skin contact time.
Trunk disease is another issue faced by all the winegrowers globally. At Domaine des Malandes they apply curettage* pruning in order to cure the old vines, instead of uprooting them.
* Currettage - a re-discovered technique from the 19th century. Trunk is being opened by small chainsaws, the parts affected by the esca disease are removed. The plant is then detoxed and reinvigorated, and can bear fruit at its full productivity. Currently this technique is actively promoted by Simonit & Sirch (Pruning Guys), their success rate is around 90%.
Chablis wine tasting at Domaine des Malandes
Saint-Bris Sauvignon 2018 - for this cuvée they purchase Sauvignon grapes from their friends from Saint-Bris. The reason why the cuvée appeared in Domaine des Malandes portfolio is not the best - 2016' and 2017's harvests were so bad, that there wasn't enough wine to sell to distributors. As these years were tough for all winegrowers in Chablis, prices rapidly increased, and there wasn't any entry-level wine at a budget price.
But it's great to see how an unlucky situation turned out to be a success. I tasted 2018's vintage and it was a beautifully ripe Sauvignon with lots of exotic fruits and lovely minerality. The wine is fermented and aged in stainless steel.
Chablis 2017 - a blend of 9 different plots of 15 ha, most of them comes from very limestone rich soil. This is a classical Chablis - it has a pure expression of grapefruit and lemon with a hint of salt, the minerality is tense and lively with a pleasant round finish. Actually, 2017 was the perfect year in Chablis. Very high sugar and high acidity, no mildew in summer, and no rot before harvest. Winegrowers could really wait for the perfect time to harvest. The only problem was spring frosts - so very low production, but exceptionally balanced wines. Again, vinified and aged in tank.
Chablis 1er Cru Côte de Léchet - this wine comes from a very steep, east-facing slope. Lots of rocks, thus very stony wine. Because of this flinty terroir expression they decided to go for stainless steel again. If the wine is more stone than fruit, then you better preserve this unique characteristic. A very pure and linear wine, like a sharp arrow.
Chablis 1er cru Vau de Vey - not a very known Premier Cru as the slopes are 40% steep. People weren't planting vines here until the right machinery was available. In the beginning there were only 5 producers on Vau de Vey, including Domaine des Malandes. It's a very powerful and persistent wine, has higher acidity, more saltiness and a hint of oak. The fermentation was in 70% stainless steel and 30% old oak.
Chablis Grand Cru Voudésir 2017 - Voudésir is like an amphitheater, and Domaine des Malandes is lucky to have plots on both sides - a north facing and south facing. This way the finesse elegance from the north-facing vineyards is combined with rich ripeness of the south.
This wine was fermented and aged in oak solely.
It's a great wine that lasts long in mouth, has lots of sweet spices, but it needs 5-7 years of ageing to fully open its' bouquet.
Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos 2017 - a half-hectare vineyard that is right at the exit from the Chablis village. That's where I picked a Kimmeridgian stone to take home as a souvenir. The vinification is the same, solely in oak, just as ageing. A wine to remember. Vanilla, lychee and a buttery texture - definitely a wine to age.
Another lovely winegrowing family that will stay in my heart as advocates of Chablis terroirs.