It’s no particular surprise that wine trends, like so many others, are cyclical. Of course, there are long-term, lasting changes, brought about by technological developments and the like; but very often, what’s old is fated to become new once more. So it is with Chablis right now, which finds itself the beneficiary of three such cycles coinciding.
Top-end Chablis, typically produced in small quantities, has remained largely untouched by the cycles I’m thinking of. The wines of Raveneau and Grand Cru or even Premier Cru samples from many producers will find homes with happy connoisseurs regardless of whether Chablis earns a place on the by-the-glass list of mainstream restaurants. But village-level Chablis, so suited to the bistro or dinner at home on a Tuesday night, had been in eclipse for a time.
In matters of taste, fashions come and go, of course: this is the first rotation of the wheel of fortune that Chablis has contended with. Once so well-known that California chose to bottle much generic wine under its auspicious name, Chablis faded from view for a time. In terms of taste, it was ill-matched to a white wine market that craved the roundness and weight that California’s Chardonnays was offering, or, later, the assertive aromatics that New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blancs made popular. Chablis’s climate is too northerly and cool to reliably achieve the former dimensions, and its grape, Chardonnay, lacks the aromatic intensity of the latter. Today, however, rich and ripe renditions of Chardonnay, abetted by high alcohols and oak staves, are in retreat, and the success of Pinot Grigio is ample demonstration that many wine drinkers are content with a less pungent bouquet. More and more wine drinkers are once more disposed to appreciate Chablis’s leanness and less overt expression.
Chardonnay itself has also undergone a rehabilitation. As a wine, Chardonnay has been the U.S.’s best seller for decades, so it seems strange to talk about it going out of fashion. However, its ubiquity engendered a counterresponse, opening the door for Sauvignon Blanc and a number of other options. The “swing” in this case is probably less dramatic; Chablis was so distinctively different from the Chardonnays that motivated the Anything-But-Chardonnay movement that it flew somewhat under the radar of their wrath. Chardonnay as a varietal wine has taken a turn, and while there are still a great many buttery, oaky examples to be had, less oaky or unoaked, restrained, and more acid-driven examples are becoming more common all over the world, lessening the urgency of the ABC message. Chablis is now in a position to trumpet its 100% Chardonnay nature not as a surprising outlier, an exception that proves the rule, but rather as a classic and distinctive marker at one end of Chardonnay’s stylistic range.
“Distinctive” is an important part of that. While there are a many excellent unoaked Chardonnays to be had around the world today, “Chablis-like” remains an unconvincing bit of marketing lingo if you’re not talking about the real thing. There’s more to Chablis than avoiding oak-aging (and in fact, some Chablis do indeed spend time in oak vessels), and when handled well, wines grown on Chablis’s climate and chalk soils serve well in reminding us why so many European wines don’t use varietal labeling. Chablis is made from Chardonnay, but that does not make a Chablis wine a “Chardonnay” in the glass.
That uniqueness was not always apparent in the village-level wines, and the third pendulum swing I have in mind is not one of fashion, but one of focus. It’s not hard to think of wines or wine regions that go through periods of complacency, when the brand of the region is so popular that producers can move their wine even while coasting on quality. Within the world of white wine, Soave and Sancerre come to mind, both having endured periods when mediocrity was the calling card of too many producers; so, too, with Chablis. Eventually, the brand loses its luster, and after that, its momentum. But that failure breeds innovation, or at least a fight for survival, and, ideally, quality reemerges, especially if the conditions that make it possible – in wine, first and foremost, the terroir – are still present.
So, while village level Chablis went through a period when it was a safe but boring bet, I’ve found increasing numbers of exciting examples in the past few years. And with that, the third tumbler of the lock clicks into place: quality viticulture and winemaking are once more in the ascendancy, a grape restored to its proper, noble place, and a style that matches with what many of us would like to see in our white wines right now. I’m not the only one to notice the quality of Chablis of late; exports to the U.S. have been rising steadily for a decade, stalling in 2017 due to a short vintage that were plagued by hail and frost. Despite the tariffs currently facing these wines, they remain great opportunities to enjoy terroir-driven wines at weekday prices. Here are a few I’ve cracked open of late, all from the 2018 vintage.
L&C Poitout ‘Bienommée’ Chablis 2018
Shows the classic citrus and mineral notes one expects, along with a hint of an oatmeal character. Rounded, but still fresh.
Domaine Vocoret Chablis 2018
Dense and focused, with lemon, lime, mineral, and spice notes. Medium bodied, with a fairly long finish.
Brocard ‘Sainte Claire’ Chablis 2018
More overtly floral and aromatic, with touches of tangerine and more tropical notes on the palate. Light-bodied, but not lacking in texture, and long.
William Fevre ‘Champs Royaux’ Chablis 2018
A racier expression, with green apple, lemon, and flint notes. Very present and fresh on the palate.