There was a time when most Americans thought “chablis” was a generic white wine blend, often packaged in a jug. What a travesty. True Chablis is chardonnay from the Chablis region of France, the northernmost part of Burgundy. And for my taste, Chablis is the one of the best and purest expressions not only of chardonnay but also of the complex concept that the French call terroir.
Aside from the grape, Chablis is about two things: climate and soils. Chablis is actually closer to Champagne than to the rest of Burgundy, and the climate is cool, even down right cold. That leads to wines that are high in acidity and not overtly fruity. The soils are a type of calcareous clay that drains well, and many believe that the soils also give the wine its distinctive minerality.
Chablis’ raciness and minerality cry out for food. The wines make you salivate — not just because of the acidity but also because of the mineral flavors, which can range from wet stone to flint to something that’s almost salty. Fruit flavors are generally on the lean side and range from lemon to grapefruit to green apple.
“With Chablis, you don’t expect something rich. You expect something precise,” says Veronique Drouhin-Boss, winemaker for her family’s wine company, Joseph Drouhin.
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Chablis’ vineyards are divided into four tiers. The bottom tier, Petit Chablis, is usually found on the hilltops, where the soils are considered less ideal. Next is basic Chablis, which accounts for about two-thirds of the vineyards, then premier cru and grand cru. The seven vineyards designated as grand crus are on a southwest-facing hillside across from the town of Chablis. Premier crus are more common and are scattered throughout the area.
Oak is little-used in the winemaking for the lower tiers, resulting in wines that are very pure and straightforward. The higher-tier wines may get some oak treatment, but most wines would never be considered “oaky.”
Many of the wines you’ll see on the market now are from the 2010, 2011 and 2012 vintages. Wines from 2010, when yields were low, have good ripeness along with ample acidity. 2011 was more variable. And 2012 saw a very small crop, but the wines I tasted are quite good. I visited soon after the conclusion of the 2013 vintage, which was also small. After two short years in a row, supplies could be a little tight.
Although the premier cru and grand cru wines can get quite expensive, basic Chablis can represent a good value, considering its high quality. Most will be in the $20-$30 range. A few that have good availability are the 2012 William Fevre “Champs Royaux” Chablis ($25), 2012 Jean-Marc Brocard “Sainte Claire” Chablis ($23), 2012 Domaine Laroche “Saint Martin” Chablis ($28) and 2012 Drouhin-Vaudon Chablis ($21).
Premier cru wines generally cost $30-$50, although the bottlings from some highly regarded producers like Raveneau are much pricier. Grand cru is more expensive still, with Les Clos fetching the highest prices.
PICK OF THE WEEK
Liberty School 2011 Merlot ($16) Here’s a reasonably priced, easy-to-drink merlot from Hope Family Wines. It’s a medium-weight wine with bright cherry, a plummy note and firm but approachable tannins on the finish.