That's a bold claim, but I think it holds up to scrutiny. The only other contender would be Champagne, but once one takes price into account, the medal goes to Chablis because these wines are so well-priced. Albariño from Rias Baixas, a region tucked away in Galicia in Spain’s northwest, is in the running, except so little is made and distributed that it’s not a reasonable choice. So Chablis gets my vote, and here’s why.
Too few wines made from Chardonnay, excluding Chablis, have real complexity or reflect their origins. Ditto for most Sauvignon Blancs, Chenin Blancs or Semillons. I’m not saying there aren’t extraordinary examples of how well all of those wines are perfect with some food--there are. The International Wines for Oysters Competition held annually at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington shows that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a great match for oysters. Personally, I’m a big fan of Latour’s or Jadot’s Corton Charlemagne with lobster. But I would argue that--as a category--none of these compares favorably to the versatility of Chablis.
What About Riesling?
I know the likely reaction from the Riesling supporters. They say that Riesling is the best match for food. There’s no question that Riesling is versatile and a superb match for most dishes, especially those with a bit of spice. The major problem with Riesling for the average consumer is its unpredictable level of sweetness. I’ve had winemakers tell me they won’t order Riesling unless they know the producer because of the vast spectrum of sweetness in the wines that that grape can produce. Despite the terrific efforts of the International Riesling Foundation to put a sweetness scale on the back of every bottle, the customer is still left with the question, “How sweet will this wine be, and is it appropriate for my dinner?” The IRF scale is an attempt to quantify the perception of sweetness, a tall order because the perception of sweetness is not just the amount of residual sugar, but a balance among sugar, acidity, and overall grape ripeness. In short, it is tough to quantify the seeming sweetness of these wines.
Which brings me back to Chablis. The name has been stolen by wine producers from around the world, from Gallo’s White Chablis to Australia’s Hunter Valley Chablis. As recently as two decades ago in most of the United States, and in some locales still today, Chablis means an innocuous white wine, as in, “I’ll have a glass of Chablis.” So, let me be clear. I am speaking of the region in Burgundy halfway between Paris and the Cote d’Or that covers about 12,000 acres where, by regulation, only Chardonnay grapes can be planted. As Eric Szablowski, winemaker at Domaine William Fèvre for over two decades, notes, “All Chablis is Chardonnay, but not all Chardonnay is Chablis.” The region encompasses about 20 small villages, the best known of which is Chablis, from which the appellation takes its name.
“Chablis makes you salivate,” according to Bernard Billaud, head of the high-quality firm, Billaud-Simon. He’s emphatic, “It isn’t not the acidity, it is the minerality in the wine.”
Chablis is a fresh and lively dry white wine that conveys a glorious combination of subtle fruitiness, from grapefruit to green apple to even a hint of pineapple, underpinned and enveloped by bracing and firm minerality. Often there’s an appealing flinty or smoky character. It is never heavy. Although many Chablis wines, especially from Premier and Grand Cru vineyards, spend some time in oak barrels either during fermentation or aging, it is rarely an overtly oaky wine. Good Chablis has an enlivening edginess to it.
Only Four Appellations
There are only four appellations in Chablis, which are based on soil composition and exposure (rough area in acres is in parenthesis): Petit Chablis (2,000), Chablis (7,500), Chablis Premier Cru (2,000) and Chablis Grand Cru (250).
Petit Chablis comes from less exalted soil, namely, Portlandian as opposed to Kimmerigdian limestone. Paradoxically, some vineyards classified as Petit Chablis lie adjacent to Grand Cru vineyards because of the way the Serein River has carved the landscape, exposing underlying Kimmeridgian limestone while leaving higher elevations with their Portlandian soil untouched. It’s an uncomplicated, easy-to-drink wine that typically has more fruitiness and less minerality than Chablis. It is virtually always fermented and aged in tanks, as opposed to oak barrels, to capture its fruitiness and is often served as an aperitif.
Almost two-thirds of the vineyards fall into the Chablis appellation. These wines, labeled simply Chablis, can be sensational values, usually retailing for under $25 and often $20. They are rarely fermented or aged in oak, show the bright minerality of the region and best consumed within a couple of years of the vintage. Ones labeled Vieilles Vignes (old vines) can show additional complexity.
Within the Premier Cru appellation there are about 80 vineyards whose names could appear on a label, but for marketing reasons producers group them under about 15 primary names, such as Fourchaume or Vaillons, the two largest. For example, Chablis Premier Cru from the vineyard, L’Homme Mort, could be labeled either as L’Homme Mort or Fouchaume. Similarly some producers opt to label wine from the Sécher vineyard as Vaillons, whereas others, such as Drouhin, opt to use the Sécher name. Premier Cru Chablis wines from top-notch producers are remarkably affordable for the quality and complexity they deliver, usually selling for under $40 a bottle and frequently less than $30.
The names of the seven vineyards that comprise the Chablis Grand Cru appellation, Blanchots, Les Clos, Valmur, Les Grenouilles, Vaudésir, Preuses and Bourgros will always appear on the label. You may also see an eighth name, La Moutonne (a monopole of Domaine Long-Depaquit that lies primarily in Vaudésir but encompasses a small part of Preuses) also carrying the Chablis Grand Cru appellation on the label. Grand Cru Chablis typically is half the price of other Grand Cru white Burgundy.
Similar to other great white Burgundies, both Premier and Grand Cru Chablis benefit from five to ten years of bottle age, respectively, gaining wonderful complexity. Daniel-Etienne Defaix, who releases his wines eight to ten years after the vintage, is fond of quoting the monks who first planted Chablis, “n’est grand vin que celui qui soit vieiller” (there is no great wine except those that can age). Mature Premier and Grand Cru Chablis take on nutty flavors without losing its steely backbone and vibrancy.
A Versatile Wine
Chablis is extraordinarily versatile. Petit Chablis makes a lovely stand-alone aperitif. Wine labeled Chablis is a perfect foil for sushi, shellfish and simply grilled fish. Their verve and vibrancy cuts through the spice and bold flavors of Asian cuisine. With more concentration and density, Premier and Grand Cru Chablis serve as a terrific match for dishes with rich creamy or buttery sauces. They even have enough power to stand up to seared scallops with leeks and bacon (http://winereviewonline.com/WW_Seared_Scallops.cfm).
Consumers are lucky because of a string of excellent vintages in Chablis and, as you will see from my list of recommended producers, because of a wide array of excellent sources for Chablis.
Bernard Billaud lists 2010, currently on the retail market, and 2002 as the best vintages in Chablis, at least for his firm, in recent memory. Although generalizations about vintages are hazardous, the 2010s are excellent, but overall, the 2008s show more depth. I would snap up any remaining 2008 Chablis you can find and then grab the 2010s. The wines from the 2011 vintage are very good but lack the concentration of 2008 and 2010. The 2009s are generally rounder and riper but still maintain adequate vibrancy.
Producer, Producer, Producer
There are a multitude of sources for top-notch Chablis, including the very good cooperative, La Chablisienne, which controls almost one-quarter of the appellation’s production. Similar to the rest of Burgundy, the line between négociant and grower in Chablis is becoming blurred. Beaune-based Maison Joseph Drouhin produces outstanding wines from their vineyards in Chablis, the Domaine de Vaudon, and also produces excellent wines from purchased grapes. Similarly, Domaine Long-Dupaquit, owned by Beaune-based Maison Albert Bichot, makes top-notch wines from purchased grapes in addition to their great ones from their vineyards, including the aforementioned La Moutonne.
Maison William Fèvre, owned by Champagne magnate Joseph Henriot, who also owns Maison Bouchard Père et Fils in Beaune, is the largest owner of Grand Cru vineyards in Chablis and also acts as a négociant there. You can’t go wrong with either their domaine or négociant wines. Similarly, Simonnet-Febvre, now owned by Beaune-based Maison Louis Latour, makes high-quality wines, primarily as a négociant in Chablis, but also makes a small amount of stunning wines from their own vineyards.
On the flip side of the coin are growers, such as Domaine Pascal Bouchard (no relation to Bouchard Père et Fils) and Séguinot-Bordet who have expanded their line by becoming small négociants.
The bottom line for me, as with the rest of Burgundy, remains producer, producer, producer. I don’t think you can generalize whether négociants, cooperatives or growers make better Chablis. It’s how your taste meshes with the individual producer’s style.
With my list of 27 recommended sources you should be able to find excellent Chablis whereever you shop.
Domaine Barat, Domaine Billaud-Simon, Domaine Pascal Bouchard, Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard, Domaine Collet, Domaine René and Vincent Dauvissat (sometimes labeled as Camus-Davissat), Domaine Daniel-Etienne Defaix, Domaine Jean-Paul and Benoit Droin, DRB (Damien Romain Bouchard), Domaine William Fèvre, Domaine de la Grande Chaume, Domaine Laroche, Chateau Long-Depaquit, Domaine des Malandes, Domaine Louis Michel, Domaine Christian Moreau, Domaine Pinson, Domaine Isabelle and Denis Pommier, Domaine Raveneau, Domaine Guy Robin, Domaine Séguinot-Bordet, Domaine Servin, Simonnet-Febvre, Domaine Gérard Tremblay, Domaine Vaudon, Domaine Vocoret, and Domaine Vrignaud.
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