When I think about wine of place, wine that can’t be made anywhere else, I think of Chablis.
A subregion of Burgundy, the vineyards of Chablis actually sit closer to Champagne, a mere 20 miles away, than the rest of Burgundy around 60 miles southeast. That makes for a pretty darn cold climate. With limestone and clay soils (many vineyards are full of tiny fossilized shells) the Chardonnay grapes grown here taste unlike anywhere else.
British wine expert Hugh Johnson wrote: “It crosses a succulent grape with an austere soil to a shimmering effect, an effect nobody anywhere else has been able to reproduce.”
By law, Chardonnay is the only grape grown in the region and for quite some time Chablis was extremely popular. In the late nineteenth century, American and Australian jug wine producers began labelling their generic white wine Chablis. While that practice was later outlawed, a few producers have been grandfathered in. You can still find jug wines labelled Chablis. Don’t be fooled.
Chablis today is no less loved, but far less popular. Part of the issue is the massive amounts of Chardonnay grown and produced elsewhere around the world. In warmer climates, Chardonnay develops rich and tropical fruit flavors, ripe and juicy on the palate. Add malolactic fermentation and aging in oak barrels to the mix, and most wineries today produce rich, soft, and buttery wines that have become popular the world over. While the oak bombs of the late 20th century are slowly losing their grip on the masses, these richer and riper styles of Chardonnay have become the expectation of everyday wine drinkers. Yet Chardonnay from Chablis sits diametrically opposed to this style.
Most Chablis wines are made entirely in stainless steel or neutral wood. They don’t display the vanilla, buttery, toasty and even popcorn flavors present in Chardonnay wines around the world. That being said, there are producers using small oak barrels or allowing their wine to age on its lees. Both techniques are used to deepen the wine’s flavor and add complexity. And while oak is not a dominant flavor in the wines of Chablis, many Grand Cru vineyard winemakers utilize oak for fermentation or barrel-aging because they believe the grapes are powerful enough to stand up to the impact of French oak.
The Flavor of Chablis
Chablis is all about bright and bracing acidity. The grapes just don’t get as ripe as elsewhere in the world and the wine shows it. Think tart lemon, green apples, and underripe pears. On top of that, there’s an almost saline quality to some of the wines, and in good Chablis, definite minerality. The French describe the unique flavor of a good Chablis as goût de pierre à fusil or gunflint. I can’t claim to have ever tasted gunflint, but I will say that if you imagine licking a flinty rock, that flavor is present in Chablis. And when you add those flinty flavors to the richness of Chablis’ finest Grand Cru vineyards, the effect can be mesmerizing and downright sensational.
What you get for the money
The wines of Chablis are broken down into 4 categories. At the simplest and least expensive of the spectrum is Petit Chablis AOP. You can expect to spend around $15-20 and get a white wine with zippy acidity and bright citrus notes. These are best enjoyed with a good chill and very young. You don’t want to let a Petit Chablis age.
Next up in the price/quality scale is Chablis AOP. While these are still basic table wines, the bright acidity gets a little more complex with apple and pear joining in the mix and minerality shining through. Expect to pay in the $20-25 range to get a very tasty bottle. Quality level is pretty consistent with Chablis AOP. While I may have favorite producers like Drouhin or William Fevre, I can’t say I’ve been disappointed often by any Chablis AOP producer. Like Petit Chablis, a standard bottle of Chablis AOP is best drunk young.
At this point, you start to get into more serious wines. Premier (1er) Cru Chablis AOP bottles include their designated vineyards on the label. About 15% of the vineyards in Chablis have been granted Premier Cru status because of better sun exposure and concentrated soil. The wines will show richer character with more complex fruit profiles and flinty minerality. Price points start at $25 but well-known/highly-regarded producers can command prices up to $100 for their Premier Cru wines. Some of the most popular vineyards include: Fourchaume, Mountmains, Vaudevey, and Vaillons. Premier Cru Chablis can happily enjoy some time in the bottle. These are not wines to age for a decade, but two to three years after release a well-made Premier Cru can surprise you with lovely complexity.
At the highest end of the spectrum are Grand Cru Chablis. Just seven vineyards (Blanchot, Bougros, Grenouilles, Les Clos, Les Preuses, Valmur, and Vaudésir) have this distinction, all with clay marl soil and ideal sun exposure for ripening. These bottles start at around $60, but again, highly-regarded producers can easily command $150-200 per bottle. The flavors and styles of Grand Cru Chablis vary widely by producer. From honeyed apricots to lemon curd, the fruit flavors are riper and more intense while the bracing acidity and strong flinty minerals keep the wine focused and balanced. These are wines of incredible complexity as well as age-worthiness. You will want to wait at least 5 to 7 years before opening, though the high acidity means many will happily age for much longer.
Producers to know
Some of the best known names in the Chablis world include:
♦ Chateau Grenouille ♦ Jean Dauvissat
♦ Domaine de la Maladiere ♦ Long-Depaquit
♦ Domaine Laroche ♦ Louis Michel
♦ François Raveneau ♦ René et Vincent Dauvissat
♦ Guy Robin ♦ R. Vocoret
Pairing Chablis with Food
The high acidity and clean flavors of a basic Chablis make it a versatile wine for pairing. It is a natural choice for shellfish and raw seafood, but Chablis is also lovely with cheese, especially tangy goat cheese. Chicken, veal, vegetables, my rule of thumb is – any dish that I would consider a squeeze of lemon is a good choice for pairing with Chablis. Steak, not so much, but roasted shrimp or chicken? Absolutely!