Chablis, or deadwood

21 January 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal. Previously: Hatzidakis. Huet. J.B. Becker & Eva Fricke. Prévost, and Chartogne-Taillet. Lelarge-Pugeot, Brochet, Agrapart, Ulysses Collin, and others. More general stuff about barbarians, sugar, and coats-of-arms. A now-outdated introduction. Revisions.]


Let’s talk chardonnay for a second. Still known occasionally in Chablis by one of its many aliases, beaunois (‘from Beaune’), the white grape of the region didn’t start going by its modern spelling until the beginning of the 20th century. By then the name (original 17th century spelling: chardonnet) had converged with the village of Chardonnay down in southern Burgundy, in the Mâconnais. It may or may not actually have originated around there, but soundalikes have their own power. The village’s name comes from the vegetation: thistles (Latin carduus, Old French chardon). Chardonnet is also Old French for goldfinch, “a bird that haunts the thistle,” known also in German literally as the “thistle-finch,” or distelfink.

So, chardonnay: vine from the thistle-covered place.

Chablis is in the French départment of the Yonne (Celtic Icauna), name of both the river and the river-as-goddess. (See Celts, conflation of water source & fountains & divinity.) The appellation’s PR website says the root of Chablis is Celtic, cab (house) + leya (near the woods), which is certainly possible, since the village’s 9th-century name was Capleia. On the other hand, “chablis” literally means something like deadwood, or, as the Institut Géographique National’s Noms de Lieux en France: Glossarie de Termes Dialectaux puts it, the—I’m roughly translating—”pile formed by uprooted tree trunks that have lost their value as merchandise.” Maybe somebody decided “dead trees” wasn’t sexy enough for a consumer-facing website.

You could argue Chablis needed the help. Something like 40,000 hectares under vine in the Yonne at the height of the 19th century, but you know the price of international commerce. Epidemics hit across the highly-developed globalized wine world, first powdery mildew, which could have been worse, and then the louse phylloxera, the devastator, which was. If that weren’t bad enough, two world wars where you were close enough to the front lines to be a target of artillery bombardment and then a crazy devastating frost in 1945 pretty much sealed the deal. From 40,000 hectares of a century earlier you were down to less than five hundred under vine. Winters were cold. Citizens went skiing down the vine-denuded slope of the grand cru vineyard over the town in 1956, which must have felt like the fun side to the apocalypse, and the next year was so fucked with frost nobody made any wine at all.

Today there’s a lot more stuff planted, about 5,000 hectares of it, and Chablis has clawed its way back to commercial respectability and brand name recognition (“I hate chardonnay, but I love Chablis!”), but the farming’s still pretty shitty taken as a whole: high yields, 95% machine-harvested, dead soils, and a third of the entire region’s production is controlled by a local co-op. An old sommelier truism, you’ll find more dynamism and value in Muscadet these days. Still, if you know where to look, there’s always people doing the work, and I’ll wind down the sermon now, since, I don’t know if you remember anymore, but the only point of this was supposed to be literally translating a wine list, and the last thing I want to do is start an argument about wine qua wine when etymologists will already have enough to take issue with. (Cue up a bunch of old-school sommeliers trying to sell me on the merits of La Chablisienne.) Anyway: deadwood indeed.

There aren’t many regions better than Chablis for illustrating Burgundy-style vineyard hierarchy in the cleanest possible way, though. It’s so far north, and ripeness so hard to come by; it’s almost too cute. All of the grand cru vineyards are on one maximum-exposure southwest facing slope looking down at the river Serein (“unclouded,” “calm,” “tranquil”). Why are they grand cru? They’re the ripest. The premier cru vineyards radiate out on either side of the grand cru slope, like wings, and across the river along long, southeast-facing side valleys, and why are they premier cru? They get pretty ripe, riper than those poor village plots, but not quite as ripe as the grands. Everything comes down to sunlight. The whole picture is kind of shaped like a ghost orchid.

These days, after some fiddling over the years (in 1967 a list of twenty-six named places was reduced to eleven official premier crus; in 1986 the official list was extended to include seven other sites, some of which have their own Russian doll–nested named places inside of them), there are forty lieux dit (“named places”) inside seventeen commonly-used vineyard names rated premier cru (“first-class vineyard”). A nice manageable chunk of names for all of those aspirational Advanced-level chasing sommeliers to work on. There’s dozens of twentysomething wine professionals kicking around Manhattan that would love to recite the seven grand crus of Chablis to you in order, top to bottom, right after the ten cru villages of Beaujolais.

chablis map

So here we are: Bougros, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Les Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos, and Blanchot. I’m going mostly by the work that a Chablisienne winegrower named Jean-Paul Droin did for the website their PR company put together.

Bougros (once Boguereau/Boquereau, Latin bucca, Old French bouque—narrow passage, canal or strait, eventually “mouth”) would be narrow passage by the water, the path along the often-flooded river from Chablis to the village of Maligny (which, sidebar, was once a leper colony).

Les Preuses may take its name from this same river-chasing Roman road, later known as  La Voie Pierreuse: the stony path. Valmur (Vallemeur) is either a valley of walls (meurs) or wild blackberries (meures). Blanchot, as in a pale, ashen expression, or blanched asparagus, refers to color of the plot’s whitish limestone soils. (French blanc, Germanic blank.)

Les Grenouilles is the fun one everyone knows, literally “frogs,” probably because it’s lower down by the marshy riverbank, the ‘g’ an onomatapeic addition (to Latin ranunculus, Old French renouille) for a little extra oomph. The croaking-place.

Vaudésir is a little bit of a roller coaster, strap in! It scans at first glance as valley of wishes (désir=desire, hope, wish), but it’s just as likely to be the Val Desay, belonging to a gentleman of that name. Desay could be a person from Sai (Orne), or Say (Indre), or Saix (Isère), which might be from the Gallic personal name Saius, or the Old French “rock” (saix). The French locational surname came into English (Say, Sey, Sei), probably with the Norman Conquest, and became synonymous in that country with a maker or dealer in an eponymous type of finely-textured cloth (‘say’), although it also might also denote a man who always went around wearing a “military cloak” (sale, sagum). And, indeed, there were winegrowers in Chablis in the middle ages named Desay. But all of this is so tortuous, and with so little payoff, I’ve got to tell you it’s pretty tempting just to let Vaudésir have it: valley of hopes.

 Les Clos, as with any other clos, is an easy-peasy reference to a vineyard enclosed (or once enclosed) by stone walls. An old law, or maybe an old sommelier’s tale, since I can’t find any primary evidence, defines the walls that qualify for a clos: high enough that a horse with a rider cannot jump over them.

As in many Burgundy vineyard names, the premier crus are comments about the quality of the land (“Beauroy,” from clymat de beau rouard, good vines belonging to Rouard; “Beauregards,” for the nice view from the top), or its shape (“Vaillons,” little valley; “Montmains,” the hill between); or the vegetation cleared to plant the vines (“Les Epinottes,” thorn-bushes; “Forêts,” forest; “Roncières,” brambles; “Sécher,” cut down”). Although in Sancerre “butteaux” is the alluvial land by the river, in Chablis, the vineyard formerly spelled butiau might refer to tree-stumps (but) or a hilltop (butte).

And everybody spells everything a little differently, and the differences are perfectly legal on the labels, so words might be single or plural, there might be a “Les” or not, “Forêts” could be “Forest,” “Sécher” could be “Sechet.”

And of course, yes, I haven’t forgotten about you, Thunder Mountain, or that the more accurate guise of Montée de Tonnere is something like, “Path Rising to the Place of Thundering Water.”

So who’s on the list for us to drink?

Raveneau, and Vincent Dauvissat, obviously, the canonized twin poles —Raveneau, which trusty French internet says is a nickname (“the black radish!”) for a grower & seller of radishes, and Dauvissat, another tedious locational surname, “from Vissac,” a hamlet in the Haut-Loire so small it’s no longer administratively independent, older recorded name Vissât, which has the unfortunate distinction of being the third-person singular imperfect subjunctive of the verb “to screw,” oldest recorded names something around Visolie / Vésolle / Vissa.

My longshot dim-bulb guess comes from a Languedoc dialect name, vis, for white mistletoe (Old French wîhsila), which, if you remember your Pliny’s Natural History was venerated by Gallic Druids who cut it from sacred oaks with golden sickles (Sophocles named the oak ixophoros, “mistletoe-bearing,” although the parasite also has a fondness for apple trees). “The only tree that leafs freshly in wintry weather” (Virgil, among others), its green in the midst of snow symbolic of eternal life, it was regarded as universal healer, counter to any poison, cure for sterility. Anyway, not totally ridiculous to me that this tiny village to the south, on the edge of forest, could be one trace of erased and long-buried sacred groves, tree-cults, and, originally, before a white bull took their place, ritual sacrifice of sacred kings pierced by spears of mistletoe wood…

Dauvissat has a son-in-law, Laurent Tribut (Latin tributum), an old Roman occupation you can translate along lines bureaucratic (“tax collector”), fantastical (“the one who takes tribute”), or Beatlesque (“taxman”).

Who else? Thomas Pico, whose last name might be Italian, Galician, Portuguese, or Spanish, and which might refer to someone with a pointed nose (pico, “beak”), or who lived by a mountain (pico, “peak”), or had a thick upper lip (Catalan, picó), or was a woodpecker (Italian, pico). He makes wine under the name Pattes Loup, “wolf paws.”

Gérard Duplessis (it’s son Lilian in charge now), from plessis, which in Berry, Poitou, Saintonge or Venômois was a house enclosed by a hedge of interlaced branches.

The formidable Athénaïs de Béru, who is from exactly where it sounds like she’s from: Béru, in the Yonne, where a walled vineyard bearing that name is attested since the 13th century, when it was called “Bru.” The short names are always the hardest, but it’s probably either brunn (Germanic: fountain, well, water-source) or one of the innumerable French place-names from bruyères, heather. (Issac Taylor counts over 200 in his Names and Their Histories, and the Glossarie de Termes Dialectaux lists almost as many regional dialect variants: bruelle, bruère, bruc, brouc, brug, brujobron, bronde, bronz, brossa…).

I’m running with the latter, because heaths are heaths and not forests because of acidic soils, which means limestone, which is all over the shop north of the Massif Central and, especially—you guessed it!—Chablis, home to a strata of clay & limestone rich in spiral-shelled ammonite fossils from the upper Jurassic that is probably the one geological era your average sommelier can name, the Kimmeridgean, for a town, Kimmeridge, in Dorset, overlooking the white cliffs of Dover, once the bottom of an ancient sea.

What’s kind of nice is that even the language ends up coming back around to the soil beneath the vine.

+ Deadwood +
Of the Heath, “A Sense of Place on the Heath” 2015
Of the Heath, “A Sense of Place on the Heath” 2014
Of the Heath, “A Lent-Out Slope” 2014
Of the Heath, “Walled Vineyard on the Heath — Solely Ours” 2013
From a House Surrounded by Hedges, Little Village Wine 2015
From a House Surrounded by Hedges, “A Hill Between Hills” (Vineyard First-Class) 2014
From a House Surrounded by Hedges, “The Walled Vineyard” (Great Vineyard) 2010
Wolf Paws, “Slope of God’s Favorite” (Vineyard First-Class) 2014
Wolf Paws, “Beautiful View” (Vineyard First-Class) 2012
Wolf Paws, “Tree-Stumps” (Vineyard First-Class) 2012
Taxman, Village Wine 2014
Taxman, “Good Vines of the Family Known for Strength” (Vineyard First-Class) 2012
Taxman, “Slope of the Plant that Grows in the Damp” (Vineyard First-Class) 2012
From the Last Trace of a Sacred Grove, Village Wine 2008
From the Last Trace of a Sacred Grove, Village Wine 2006
From the Last Trace of a Sacred Grove, Village Wine 1991
From the Last Trace of a Sacred Grove, “Old Forest” (Vineyard First-Class) 1995
From the Last Trace of a Sacred Grove, “Stony Path” (Great Vineyard) 1997
Radish Merchant, “Medium-Sized Hill” (Vineyard First-Class) 2012
Radish Merchant, “Tree-Stumps” (Vineyard First-Class) 2010
Radish Merchant, “THUNDER MOUNTAIN” (Vineyard First-Class) 2009



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