Chablis: Part 1

A totally unique expression of that wonderful grape–Chardonnay.

Chablis is a wine that seriously divides people. Many wine drinkers love it –that austere, gunflinty background, the mineral backbone and noble complexity that comes with age.  If you can afford about 60 or 70 dollars for a great Chablis, Le Clos Grand Cru for example, you will get a superb wine with real elegance and depth of flavor.

On the other hand, there is a phenomenal amount of dilute, flavorless Chablis being produced, especially at the lower price levels. Restaurants often sell mediocre Chablis at inflated prices, banking on the fact that it is a famous name and people will pay 30 to 40 dollars for a bottle. The price might not seem so bad for such a famous name and after all, you fancied a treat. Then the bottle arrives and it tastes of pretty much nothing at all. Thin, lean and mouth-puckering, it reminds you of your uncle’s “special reserve wine” grown in Yorkshire. It’s like booking a holiday to the Bahamas and being flown to Barry Island.

The problem is that Chablis Appellation laws allow high yields at the lower levels, which is why stores can sell Chablis at 10 dollars a bottle. That can’t be done without a loss in quality, and there are simply some lazy producers in the region making poor wines.  Many people have said to me that they love Chablis, but they are sick of flat, characterless examples. Well, the key is to know your producers. I will list what I believe to be the top ten producers of Chablis in Part 2 (including the best vintages) of the guide. If you buy from these producers, you are reasonably assured of getting a good wine!

So what defines that unique Chablis character? A fine, stony mineral character and citrus and apple aromas are typical–above all it should be ripe, not lean. Some wines are more floral or citrusy or peachy, but there should be an unmistakable mineral aspect and great depth, with a toasty, honeyed complexity with age. The vintage matters greatly; most wines from a weak vintage will fade quite soon and never lose that austerity on the palate.

The Chablis vineyards are located on limestone soil to the southeast of Paris and the north of Burgundy. There are currently around 4,600 hectares under vine. The region is subject to a strict hierarchy, with vineyards classified according to the perceived quality of the wine they produce. Chablis comes in four levels: Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Chablis, and Petit Chablis.  There are seven Grand Cru vineyards covering 100 hectares of vines. Their names are Blanchot, Bougros, Le Clos, Grenouilles, Preuses, Valmur, and Vaudesir. My favorite wines come from Le Clos and Blanchot, although each Cru can make great wine in the right hands. Such is the importance of grower in Chablis that the Premier Crus from the best estates can easily outperform weaker Grand Cru efforts. Almost eight times the area is designated Premier Cru Chablis, encompassing forty names. Some of the best wines come from the names of Fourchaume, Mont de Milieu and Montmains. The quality of regular Chablis is very much reliant on the producer whilst Petit Chablis is for the most part, best avoided.

Despite its long, proud history of wine making, Chablis is not a region that is resting on its laurels. One major area of debate in the past two decades has been the use of new oak. Producers such as Drouhin and William Fevre use new oak to add a richness and complexity to their wines, while others feel it damages the unique character of the region. Nothing, however, divides Chablis producers like the great closure debate. Michel Laroche, a very reputable producer of fine Chablis, caused a stir in 2002 when he became the first estate to use screw-caps for his Grand Cru wines. He came under considerable fire and has defended his decision vigorously, claiming they preserve the freshness of the wines and eliminate the risk of TCA and sporadic oxidation. Michel has of course been vindicated. His wines are some of the best in Chablis, across all ranges.  The have a wonderful freshness and purity and are almost a risk free purchase.  Other producers have started to follow his lead. I support the use of screw-caps, and carefully judged new oak for that matter.  What matters is that the unique Chablis style is maintained, it should always taste of it origins. I have seen no evidence that screw-caps are harming that.

James Lawrence

James Lawrence is a self confessed wine obsessive, passionate about discovering and promoting the lesser known wines and wine regions of the world. He is a frequent contributor to decanter.com and runs an interactive, community led wine forum, thewineremedy.com In 2004, he went to study in Bilbao, Northern Spain. Luckily for him, the famous wine region of Rioja was just over an hour away by car. He began to spend a great deal of time there, visiting the wineries in Rioja and speaking to local wine makers. Their passion for the subject and their pride in the wines was infectious. He began to realise what an amazing subject wine is and how wide and complex the world of wine could be. Subsequently James moved into wine retail while finishing his degree, and was hooked. James also enjoys food and travel writing - he lives for Italian and Thai cuisine!

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