It used to be cute to mispronounce ‘Chablis’; to say it like Johnny Lunchbucket would if he didn’t happen to possess your enological erudition and snobbish grasp of French orthography, because it sort of made you sound ironic and clever at the same time—the single goal we all aspire to.
Frankly, I always figured that the pogues were right in the first place and the emphasis should be placed on the ‘bliss’.
That’s because Chablis is the purest, most bracing, most refreshingly uncluttered incarnation of that noble, styling, now over-planted chardonnay grape, whose flaws and foibles (when grown in less-than-optimum terroir—which you can read as being anywhere other than northern Burgundy) are often submersed beneath seas of oak until you can’t see the varietal for the trees.
In Chablis, tradition (born of ego—mostly justified) has called for terroir to be paramount in their wine’s face-to-the-world. When you hear wine described as cedary, buttery, vanilla-like or toasty, chances are the taster is defining qualities derived from the barrels used to ferment or mature the wine, not the grape. Mineral notes, whether chalk, slate, schist or even silex (powdered silica) are the domain of the fruit itself, pulled from the soil in which the grapevine grows.
You’ll find that Chablis tasting notes usually contain some variation of ‘stony’; often goût de pierre à fusil—gunflint. Chablis winemakers tend to be enamored of such soil-borne flavors (at 48 degrees latitude, chardonnay won’t ripen into the sort of tropical sumptuousness you find in Australia, Chile or even Sonoma grapes) and as for oak, most Chablis vignerons believe that the only time in history that wood and stone ever collaborated well is when Ron Wood joined the Rolling Stones.
Which is not to say that no Chablis ever sees oak; the best certainly do. It’s just that the whole approach to what oak is supposed to accomplish in a glass is viewed with a different pair of spectacles in this rocky, chilly, outpost.
One thing for sure; in Chablis, you don’t mask the flavor of your fruit; what you’re after is the cleanest line of expression available. Any blemish, taint of mildew or imbalance in acidity rears an ugly head through unoaked wine—and it is tasty testimonial to the Chablis amour-propre that the district is willing to count on breeding, not masking, to show off their wares.
It’s like the star of the Emperor’s New Clothes if the Emperor, by some stroke of fortune, turned out to be Scarlett Johansson.
Geologically, Chablis is its own star, shining atop Burgundy’s Christmas tree. The most northerly district in the region, Chablis is also in the middle of a kind of imaginary ocean like SpongeBob Squarepants—the kind of ocean where you can build campfires and plant grape vines but still enjoy eons of limestone and Kimmeridge Clay accumulation, remnants of big waters that once deluged northern France.
The result is the four appellations d’origine contrôlée that subdivide Chablis, based on quality factors which nearly all come down to soil and slope and grape yields.
The largest of these, simply called Chablis, covers about sixteen thousand acres; the smallest, designated Grand Cru, is only a couple hundred acres in size and is limited to seven vineyards. These are like the seven celestial Pleiades in Greek mythology if you tend to over think things; but their name on a Chablis bottle is tantamount to magic, and an expectation thereof:
Bougros, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos and Blanchot.
The Premier Cru designation can be affixed to any of seventy-nine vineyards on both sides of the River Serein; the best occupy the right bank near the Grand Crus; the rest are southwest of the city of Chablis.
Petit Chablis is the new kid on the bloc and it accounts for mostly average, occasionally affordable wines from the Serein flatlands. Only awarded an official designation in 1944, Petit’s promotion may well have been accompanied by cries of ‘There goes the neighborhood ’ but fortunately, the neighborhood has been around since Jurassic upheavals and isn’t going anywhere soon.
Otherwise, how we’d miss Chablis—if not the blue-collar rhyme scheme.
Jean-Marc Brocard, Domaine Sainte Claire Petit Chablis, 2007, about $16.50: Simple and probably too much outlay for the inlay when you’re comparing petit for tat; still, sharp and shivery with wet stone and lemon, a bit of flower power but a quick drop-off at the end.
Domaine Christian Moreau Pere & Fils Chablis, 2007, about $25: This Moreau clan is not the same one that cloned humans and hogs on that island; Fabien Moreau, in fact, is as non-interventionist with DNA as he is with vinification. From a sixth generation of organic winemakers, young Fabien has produced a pure green-apple and bitter almond chardonnay with an almost saline intensity, making this a letter-perfect oyster wine; nicely nuanced with graphite, grapefruit and lemon.
Domaine Laroche, 1er Cru, ‘Vaillons’ Vieilles Vignes, 2005, around $40: You’ll blanche at the screw cap and drool over the juice; concentrated and mineral-driven with natural sweetness, a touch of anise and lemon-peel balanced by smoke and earth. ‘Vieilles Vignes’, incidentally, sounds fancier than it is—it means ‘old vines’ and, unlike the other key words on the label, has no legal definition.
Joseph Drouhin, Grand Cru, ‘Les Clos’, 2004, around $70: So now you get the oak along with the calcite—a million marine invertebrates gave their lives so you could taste this one. The wine is going strong and will age further; Bartlett pear and lily on the nose, pineapple and honey in the mid-palate, violet and candied lemon on the textured, creamy finish. A wine of astonishing finesse.