THE "GRAND CRU" OF "VINS JAUNES"
The Emperor Napoleon who, when sharing a drink at Johannisberg castle with the Prince de Metternich, declared "Here, you serve the best wine in the world". "Sire," replied the Prince "the best wine in the world is not from Johannisberg, but it is found in a small town in your empire, at Chateau-Chalon".
Since time immemorial, vines have covered most of the hillsides around the region of Voiteur. Their high quality wines were so appreciated by the Romans (from Pliny the Younger and Martial) that an edict from the Emperor Probus in the year 280, declared that many more vines should be planted on the favourable hillsides of Sequanie (the ancient name for Franche Comte). The history of the vineyards and the wine of Chateau-Chalon, also known as vin de gelee (ice wine) or vin de garde (literally, wine to keep) is indivisible from that of the Abbey. The oldest Act found concerning the abbey is a certificate from King Lothaire in the year 869. The abbesses had to prove noble birth for four generations to be admitted to the abbey, and this would explain the dispersal of the Chateau-Chalon wine amongst the noble families from all over Europe. This wine, so precious to the abbesses, was also very much appreciated by kings and emperors. Henri IV drank two bottles when signing his treaty with the Duke of Mayenne! The "vin de garde" of Chateau-Chalon took pride of place on certain special days, for example the enthronement of Tsar Nicholas II, and on the occasion of her coronation, Queen Juliana of Holland enjoyed a glass!
This famous elixir, that time cannot alter, has had all the same, a tumultuous past. The French Revolution dispersed the abbey vineyards, then various diseases of the vine - mildew, oidium mould and above all phylloxera - meant that vine stocks, many hundreds of years old, had to be replaced.
It the more recent past, various wars and rural depopulation led to the further decimation of the vineyards, which only survived due to the will and obstinacy of the winemakers and their wish to see their appellation recognised. This finally happened in 1936.
In the 1970's two further factors aided this regeneration. Firstly, the regrouping of land and an adjustment in land taxes enabled more vineyards to be reclaimed, and secondly, the improvements in oenology enabled the winemakers to maintain the standard of their Grand Cru amongst the elite wines of France.
A UNIC GRAPE VARIETY: THE SAVAGNIN
The only grape variety used to make Chateau-Chalon, along with all Vin Jaune is the Savagnin, which amongst other names used to be called "Le Naturé" or "Fromentin".
It's origin is not well known. From a botanical point of view, it is closely related to the Klevener d'Heiligenstein grape which is cultivated in Alsace and is part of the Traminer family. Legend has it that the grape variety is Hungarian in origin, or perhaps Spanish, but these are not really taken seriously. Certain documents suggest that the Savagnin was already being cultivated in the 13th century.
It is characterized by an upright habit, crinkled leaves with a downy underside, small pips and a thick skin which allows late ripening and is well resistant to rot.
The Savagnin is harvested in October, usually two weeks after the Chardonnay. The grapes are picked by hand, crushed and then pressed, the juice drawn off and fermented.
At the end of fermentation, the wine is put into oak barrels for a period of six years and three months. The barrels of 228 litres are then put into cellars characterised by their dry atmosphere and their difference in temperatures between summer and winter.
During this time, the barrels are never topped up to compensate for the evaporation or "angels share" that is lost, as is the practice in Burgundy and other winemaking areas. The wine develops a layer or "voile" of yeast on the surface, which works away in the darkness of the cellars to produce its own unique character, and to make it one of the great wines of France.
Everyone says that it is the composition of the soil that is necessary to produce Chateau-Chalon. The particular character of the wine is in part due to the blue and grey lias marl, augmented by the limestone outcrops that form the higher cliffs. This in turn helps the warming of the micro climate, and that enables the grapes to ripen fully.
The altitude of this particular band of marl varies between 250 and 400 metres above sea level. The orientation of the slopes gives the best exposure (south to south-west) and the optimum protection to the vines. All the slopes, between the D205 road to the north, down to Nevy-sur-Seille to the south, receive just about the same amount of sun from sun rise to sun set. The shelter provided by the limestone cliffs that dominate these vineyards protects the vines from the northerly and easterly winds. This means that this area retains its warmth long after the surrounding areas have cooled down.
The productive area for Chateau-Chalon is limited to the four communes (Menetru-le-Vignoble, Domblans, Chateau-Chalon and Nevy-sur-Seille) and the surface area currently planted with Savagnin is 50 hectares (120 acres) with an average annual production of 35 hectolitres per hectare (approx 1500 litres per acre) over the last 15 years.
The vines are all planted on slopes, some very steep, reaching up to 45%. This has made it necessary for the winemakers to develop certain skills, for example; working with tracked vehicles, replacing soil that has washed down the slopes, building terraces, etc. A land tax adjustment which was introduced in 1977 has brought a lot of additional improvements by channelling water and constructing better methods of access to the vine parcels.
DISTRIBUTION OF wINES IN THE CHATEAU-CHALON AOC AREA
MENETRU-LE VIGNOBLE surface area of the'appellation 42 ha 66 a 57 ca (105.4 acres)
Derrière l'Eglise, Bas de Charnay, En Bersaillin, En Charnay, En Baumont, En Crochant, Vigne aux Dames, Les Combes, Sous Gaillardon, Vignes du Pommier
DOMBLANS surface area of the appellation 21 ha 66 a 42 ca (53.5 acres)
Au Vioux, En Lya, Sur Lya, Gaillardon
CHATEAU-CHALON surface area of the appellation 19 ha 64 a 42 ca (48.5 acres)
Sous-Roche, Puits Saint-Pierre, Croix Sarrant, Les Niods
NEVY-SUR-SEILLE surface area of the appellation 5 ha 21 a 06 ca (12.9 acres)
Au Chapeau, Au Clieux de Trus
TOTAL : 89 ha 50 a 93 ca (221.18 acres)
Because of all the difficulties that the winemakers of the region had to face, they formed the Association of the Producers of Chateau-Chalon on the 14th May 1933. They instigated a policy of quality, and ensured a level of discipline, so that they were able to gain, fairly quickly, the decree that applied to Chateau-Chalon on 31st May 1936 within the framework of the appellations of origin. They accepted that to succeed they would have to apply a strict limit on the area of production, the grape variety, a minimum required level of alcohol of 12° for each harvest. In fact, all the conditions that were essential to obtain and maintain the quality. The future would vindicate their efforts.
To maintain the maximum of all the necessary conditions to ensure that the wine is of the highest class, quality and finesse, every year before the harvest begins, the winemakers submit their vineyards to an official, very severe check.
In 1952 a committee was formed under the authority of the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine Controlee, with representatives from the Jura Department of Agriculture, the Agricultural Analysis Laboratory in Poligny, the Chamber of Agriculture, negociants and professional winemakers. As soon as the harvest of grape varieties other than the Savagnin is complete, it is the committees job to visit all the vines that are eligible to benefit from the appellation.
The committee ensures that each parcel of vines undergoes the following tests: each parcel must contain only the Savagnin grape variety; each vine must be in a healthy state, suitable for harvesting; the committee only grant the right to use the appellation if the degrees of alcohol reach the required minimum of 12°; the committee announces the specific date that the harvest can start, (ban des vendanges) provided that all the quality control conditions are met; alternatively, the committee can declassify either a whole vintage as was done in 1974, 1980 and 1984, or declare a partial vintage, as for 1993; if necessary, the committee can impose sanctions on individual wine makers.
The winemakers understand that it is in their best interests to submit willingly to the, sometimes drastic, measures imposed on them to maintain the quality. This was really brought home in 1997 when it was agreed that a final tasting should be undertaken at the end of the ageing process, and before the wine was bottled to assess if the vintage would gain it's classification.
The wine is bottled in very special bottles known as "Clavelins" and each bottle has a glass plaque with the name Chateau-Chalon on it. The bottles are made at the glassworks at La Vieille Loye which has been making these specialist bottles since it gained the concession from Marguerite of Burgundy in 1506. Today, the bottles are no longer hand blown, but manufactured, but they still have Chateau-Chalon on the glass plaque.
The bottle is unique within the European Union in that it contains only 62 centilitres. A special dispensation had to be gained from the European Parliament to allow for this strange amount, which is the volume remaining after 6 years of maturing in barrels without topping up the "angels share".
Chateau-Chalon deserves it's old name of "vin de garde" or keeping wine, because it will keep happily for many decades, and with certain vintages, over a century.
The best temperature to serve this wine is 14° centigrade, and it is advisable to let the wine breathe for several hours prior to drinking, as this allows the wine to develop its subtle aromas of walnuts, hazelnuts, wheat, tobacco and sometimes, of curry.
It is the ideal accompaniment to Lobster Americaine, poultry with creamy sauces, with morel mushrooms, with haddock, with curried dishes and above all with Comte cheese. Some people recommend it with bitter chocolate. It is true that a great wine is not usually spoken of as a wine with which to cook, but it's enthusiasts confirm that it is worth sacrificing a small amount from the bottle to improve a sauce and this instantaneously transforms the cook into a "grand chef"!
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