Here’s a shock, in a glass. A step out on deck in a winter gale; a leap into chill water.
Once acclimatized, of course, the affront is tonic; you’re glad you risked all. Provocation becomes stimulation; stimulation nourishes, even as it braces. Safety is, for all its virtue, airless; its redoubts must be quit, only to be regained, and then abandoned again before the hasty scuttle back. Thus we shuttle our way forward, like dancing crabs.
Every day’s first sip of wine (after the airless afternoon, the stale journey home) is a little like this. All wine, after all, is acid. Even the low-acid ones, the Condrieu or Gewurztraminer with an insoucient pH of 4, are three grand notches short of chemical neutrality. The further you descend toward a pH of 3, the sharper the shock, the cooler the pool, the more polar the gale.
This wine’s color is a kind of mercury, pointing to what lies ahead. An absence of gold, drained away to nothing, leaving just a glint of silver, a suspicion of green. Nose into the glass, toe in the chill water. Fresh. What does “fresh” smell of? Lemon juice, separated from the oils of its skin: raw, bare. Or ice. Not cubes, but the frozen fringe of a trickling winter stream: no reeds, no plant matter, no muddy carp. Just water rushing over stones, arrested in part by water turned stone itself.
Why is it that a shy scent of this sort can engage the attention so, or set the mouth watering even before the first sip? There’s no yeast here; it’s flayed plant, stripped juice. It’s the presence that is almost an absence: the clearing in the boreal forest, filled with cold light, with crusted snow. All the same, our noses must gauge something here that is not found elsewhere. There are other Chardonnays from cool places that do not smell like this, even if their point of difference is simply a more assertive aromatic presence. Here we feast on an ice-jewelled absence.
You taste the juicy driving sourness. The tongue plunges in, then splashes and shakes the mouth into life like a wet dog bounding into a warm kitchen. This is the taste of shivering. That, in a way, is all there is: it’s Petit Chablis. We might, as we smelled its aromatic absence, have imagined water running over stones, and water turned stone, but there is no particular stoniness in the wine to dignify its austere, close-shaven, convict-like almost-fruit; no texture, no layers. There is just the confrontation, the shock. Lemon juice again, without spurting fragrant lemon oil, without cream, without layers; bitter lemon, unapologetic with it. Terrific. It took all summer to limp its way, like Magwitch in irons, to a 12% ripeness. Just the job. Your mouth is alive again, and the redoubt is empty. You’re out; you’re on.
Crioux is a kind of brand (though there is a lieu-dit of this name, which has nothing to do with this wine); Fèvre’s Didier Seguier blends it from assorted parcels of purchased fruit. I bought this bottle in a supermarket for €12 or so. I waited a couple of years before opening it, though I don’t know why. I can’t say it’s improved, though there’s no evidence of decline, either. Perhaps the general profile of 2016, with its freshness, encouraged me, though 2016 Chablis is in general rather slight and supple.
The back label alludes to the familiar tropes of Portlandian and Kimmeridgean: lost semi-eternities of slow-dropping tropical bliss in the late Jurassic. It would be more useful to say that this is a wine of the highest, coldest hill sites and their hard, rattling cap rock, not of the warmer spots with their richer, yellowy, fossil-thickened marls. There is wine in here from above the forest above Les Clos. Though also, to be accurate, from cold clays in Lignorelles. And from sandy or silty patches when they wash up at the edges of the region, before the vines dissolve into fields of swaying green wheat. It’s the wine of marginal land, of disappointed hopes.
But good Petit Chablis dashes hopes no longer. Our planet’s intelligent life, as we now recognize with dismay, has inadvertently duplicated the effect of the volcanic provinces of even deeper time than the Jurassic, layering carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as effectively as the belching Siberian traps of the Permian-Triassic boundary. It’s easy, if you drink wine, to taste global warming. Wines are getting richer, Chablis included. There’s even a new roundness in the cheeks of their starveling cousins. The unbalanced have found equilibrium, while the perfectly balanced begin to totter. And what, after all, do we want from Chablis? We want a shock in a glass, the taste of shivering, and a jewelled absence. Petit Chablis, shaven-headed as it is, may do this better today than much Chablis.
Of course that’s not all we want Chablis to do; there’s a music in the marls that percussive cap rock will never give you. Every great wine has its own genius loci. These spirits don’t steal willingly away—since there is no other place for them to go; tear the genius from its loci, and it can only curl up and die. Chablis can only be Chablis in Chablis. Just give, if you haven’t already, Petit Chablis a new chance.