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SITUATED to the north of the Burgundy region, and to the south of Champagne, in France is the region know as Chablis. This is 4,500 hectares of chardonnay country. Chablis is divided into four different sub-regions, which are given different rankings according to the quality produced from the different sites.

To really understand the area of Chablis you are best advised to spend a few days sampling from the various producers but, as this may not be immediately possible, here’s a basic run down of what Chablis and its appellations are about.

Appelleation Grand Crus

Super quality from tiny vineyards that comprise just 101ha and are divided up into seven individual Grand Cru vineyards.

Appellation Premiers Crus

The next best, situated in four sites around the region of Chablis. To complicate understanding the region even more, the Premier Cru vineyards are further divided up into 40 or so separate cru and there are a few of these vineyards that are more highly regarded than others. But you are safe to assume that most of the wines are pretty good.

Appellation Chablis About 3036ha scattered around the region

Appellation Petit Chablis. Still produces chardonnay and only chardonnay but vines are grown on ‘lesser soils’ in ‘lesser areas’. Producing more modest wines

Chablis has a relatively marginal climate, so producers often battle against the elements, especially those located further north. Winters are a tad cold, with temperatures often getting down to freezing, while producers are always preparing for frost in spring.

On a visit to the region I volunteered one night/early morning to help the producer I was staying with light his fuel burners – burners that look like a little pot belly stove and are placed among the vines. Frosts are the producers’ major concern around this time as there is the chance of significant losses.

Much of the importance of Chablis and its wines comes from the soil. Everyone has seen pictures of the White Cliffs of Dover that run along the south coast of England. Well, it is that same chalk ridge that runs through Champagne and right through the Chablis region. The soils are made up of fused prehistoric fossilised seashells. Kimmeridgian limestone has a major influence on the character of the Chablis region. It is an influence that is described as steely, mineral-like or perhaps even flinty.

One of Chablis’ leading producers is Michel Laroche. A fascinating man, he is respected worldwide for his wines. Mr Laroche was named ‘wine man of the year 1997’ by the very respected and leading French magazine La Revue Vinicole Internationale.

Although the Laroche family has been making wine in Chablis since 1850, it wasn’t until Michel took over the reins in 1967 that the profile of Laroche began to excel. When he took over the company it had just 6ha; today Laroche has about 13ha. The Laroche offices are located in a heritage-listed monastery called l’Obedience, which was the birthplace of Chablis. It was the where the monks first made wine in the town of Chablis.

Michel Laroche is also a very progressive man who has not been afraid to initiate change in his wines. He says his philosophy is that: “We make the quality of the wine in the vineyard”. He has dramatically reduced the amount of chemicals used in the vineyards, describing it thus: “In the 70s we took aspirin every day in case we got a headache; in the 80s we took one when we had a headache and these days we try and understand why we have a headache so we can prevent it.”

The vineyard is his major focus. Laroche has introduced an integrated pest management scheme and has avoided the use of chemicals since 1989.

Michel Laroche Chablis ‘Saint Matin’ 2000 rrp $35.99 rating 17.5/20

This is like a champagne house NV style. Machine-harvested fruit, a proportion of which undergoes natural yeast fermentation. A slight green tinge runs through the wine with a subtle mineral oyster-like character with a creamy nose.

The palate shows off classic mineral hints with a touch of citrus, hazelnuts and flint. It has good length and intensity with a persistent finish.

Michel Laroche Chablis ‘Les Blanchots’ Grand Cru 1999 rrp $125 rating 19/20

Described by Michel Laroche as the “queen of the Grand Cru sites”. He suggests serving from a decanter. This is a wine he believes will last upwards of 15 years. The wine is almost austere with its citrus minerality and touches of toast and smoke.

The palate is seamless with mineral flavours and almost chalky tannins, fantastic length and persistence. A delight.

Michel Laroche Chablis ‘Les Clos’ Grand Cru 1999 rrp $150 rating 19/20

Discribed as the “king of Grand Crus”, this is a wine that Mr Laroche suggests will last the longest. It showed an enormous complexity and intensity of fruit. There are some oak nuances with some citrus, almost pear drop, aromas.

The palate is stunning, with mineral characters and yet has a refined balance and structured acidity that is rounded. Complexity abounds and this one is a delight.

Wines available through selected outlets. Phone Domaine Wine Shippers for details 9243 0288, email durell@eftel.com.au

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