There is one wine that I find myself constantly coming back to as an all time favorite. It is the white wine Chablis. It has a truly unique steely minerality and strident sense of place. For me Chablis is one of the best manifestations of the Chardonnay grape. Here are some reflections on Chablis, and some bottles to get you started.
Where Is Chablis Made?
The Chablis wine region is located in the most northern part of Burgundy, not far from the beautiful city of Auxerre. The vineyards for the most part lie along the river Serein (which translates as serene). Winemaking here dates back to the 12th century and the arrival of the Cirstercian monks.
Soil has a huge impact on the quality of Chablis wines. The best sites are limestone and kimmeridgean clay, which is rich in marine fossils. This soils underpins the palpable minerality for which Chablis is revered.
The Chardonnay Grape
Chablis wines are made from Chardonnay which is a white grape. Interestingly, many Chablis producers have explained to me on several occasions that they don't consider their wines as Chardonnay wines. Rather they are Chablis wines — a proclamation of the importance of terroir as opposed to a manifestation of the grape variety.
The 'Quality Hierarchy'
Within Chablis there is a hierarchy or official quality levels. Petit Chablis, which is the lowest level, then Village Chablis, followed by Premier Cru and finally Grand Cru.
This hierarchy is determined based on the quality of the vineyard site and overall terroir. For example the 'Petit Chablis' vineyards lie in the outer limits of the appellation, where the soil is heavier and has a higher proportion of clay. In contrast Grand Cru sites are the very best you can get in Chablis.
Village wines are labelled as AC Chablis. Forty villages within the Chablis region have premier cru status. Some of the most well known are Fourchaume, Montmains, Vaillons and Montée de Tonnere. The particular village name as well as the words Premier Cru appear on the label.
Only seven vineyard sites have Grand Cru status. These are Chablis' greatest vineyards. These are Les Clos, Blanchots, Bougros, Grenouille, Preuses, Valmur and Vaudésir. Grand Cru Chablis wines are the most complex and age-worthy wines from the region. Unfortunately, they carry a price tag to match. But it is worth it for a very special occasion or celebration.
Drinking Chablis Wines
Chablis Wines and Oak
In general, Chablis wines see little or no oak. Certainly, at village level, most wines are either fermented in stainless steel or in large, old oak vats, which impart no oak flavors. Some Premier Cru wines see some barrel fermentation. However, typically it is very restrained because the purpose is to create palate complexity and structure as opposed to any obvious oak flavor influence.
Grand Cru Chablis, coming from the best sites, and often from much older vines, is usually barrel fermented. Even so, the oak is never overly obvious or blowsy, but integrates seamlessly with the wines' unyielding minerality, adding complexity to the wine as it develops with age.
When To Drink
Petit Chablis wines are the most simple, and really should be drunk within a year or so of release. Village level wines are delicious when released, but can easily improve 2-3 year, or more. Premier Cru wines can be drunk on release, but can be a bit tight and overly steely. Best to cellar a few years. These wines improve for between 5-10 years. Grand Cru wines really do need some time to come around, and can appear closed and tight if too young. It is best to wait at least 5 years, but these wines will improve for at least 10-15 years.
The Taste of Chablis
There are words that always come to mind when I taste a good village Chablis. These are: Chalky, steely minerality, a racy crispness, pure definition and focus on the palate, Granny Smith apples, fresh cut hay. The sensation of minerality on the palate is palpable and lingering. It helps explain why so many producers say "I don't make Chardonnay, I make Chablis." The difference is substantial.
At the Table
Chablis wines are quite versatile at the table. Fish and poultry are popular pairings. The crisp acidity cuts through any rich sauces serves with either. I particularly love Chablis with a sauté of wild mushrooms, grilled salmon, snails, charred octopus and of course oysters.
It is important to remember that Chablis wines can only come from this region of Chablis in France. Unfortunately in the past there have been far too many rather dubious white wines, emanating from all corners of the wine producing world, labelled and masquerading as "Chablis' . These wines have nothing, never have had anything, and never will have anything in common with the splendors of true Chablis. Thankfully, today denominations of origin are better protected from fakery that they were in the past.
Chablis Wines to Try
Two Chablis producers that feature very regularly in our house are Christian Moreau, Père et Fils, and Domaine de Chantemerle. The 2009 vintage of each is widely available at the moment.
• 2009 Christian Moreau Père et Fils Chablis, $25 - These vineyards are in the very heart of Chablis and the vines are almost 50 years old. Intense minerally, flinty nose. Crisp, racy acidity and ample bright green fruit flavors. Wonderful focus, definition and flavor concentration. Excellent mid-palate weight and breadth. Very long minerally finish.
2009 2009 Domaine de Chantemerle Chablis, $24 - Slightly restrained nose at first but minerality shining through. Intense flavor impact on the palate with lots of citrus and granny smith apple notes in harmony with the chalky minerality. Well-defined and taut structure. Persistent long finish.
Do you have favorite Chablis wines that you enjoy?
Related: In Defense of Chardonnay
Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant.
(Images: Mary Gorman-McAdams and map from Burgundy Wines)