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Chablis: The World's Greatest White Wine Bargain
By Michael Apstein
Apr 3, 2012
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Chablis has a long history of being misunderstood.  The appropriation of this regulated site-specific name to generic white California jug wine--Gallo White Chablis (as if there were red wine in Chablis)--ruined Chablis’ image and cachet for decades.  Now, with the movement away from super ripe, buttery, oaky New World Chardonnay and the increasing popularity of “unoaked” Chardonnay, interest in Chablis is making a resurgence.  Still, Chablis remains under-appreciated, which is a boon for consumers because it continues to be under-priced and one of the great bargains for top-notch white wine.
Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne

To get a better understanding of this appellation, I spent another full day in Chablis during the recently completed Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne, a weeklong series of tastings held in Burgundy every two years.  Each day producers from an appellation, such as Chablis, or group of appellations, such as Fixin, Marsannay, and Gevrey-Chambertin, show their wines in a single locale.  (The logistics of hosting this event are enormous, which explains why it occurs only every two years.  A special thanks goes to Camille Barnier and her team from the BIVB for this year’s flawless organization.)

On Monday, 107 Chablis producers (along with Union des Grands Crus de Chablis) assembled under two giant tents adjacent to a small assembly hall and poured more than 600 different wines, mostly from the 2010 vintage.  This extraordinary tasting provided a unique opportunity to learn about an appellation, chiseling in your brain the differences among vineyards (what is the difference between the wines from Montée de Tonnerre and those of Fourchaume?) and among different producers’ styles (oak or no oak?).

Climate and Soil

“We have an Atlantic, not a Mediterranean, influence,” explains Bernard Billaud, head of Billaud Simon, one of Chablis’ best producers.  “That’s
why Chablis is different from the remainder of Burgundy.”  Peering over his glasses, he continues to educate in an avuncular manner: “The dividing line for water table drainage falls between Chablis and Beaune, which means that our waters drain into the Atlantic while theirs wind up in the Mediterranean.  But it’s not just the pattern of water drainage.  The entire climatic influence--the light, the temperature, everything--is different.”

And of course, there’s the Kimmeridgian Chain, which, in this locale, is composed of layers of chalky marl riddled with fossilized oyster shells.  The soil and climate account for this unique style of wine because they are suited perfectly to Chardonnay, the only grape allowed.  Winemakers around the world have used Chardonnay to make superb wine, many of which can compete with white Burgundy.  But, despite the focus on unoaked Chardonnay, no wine region has been able to reproduce the crisp, flinty and penetrating style of Chablis.  It’s truly one of the great examples of the importance of terroir.

Chablis Grand Cru

There are four appellations in Chablis, which, in ascending order of prestige (and price), are Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru.  Unlike the rest of Burgundy where each grand cru is its own appellation, in Chablis, there is only one appellation (Chablis Grand Cru), which is divided into seven (or eight, depending on how you count) individual vineyards (climats), Blanchots, Bougros, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Preuses, Valmur and Vaudésir, whose names appear on the label.  An eighth, La Moutonne, a nearly 6-acre monopole of Albert Bichot’s Domaine Long-Depaquit, lies mostly (95%) in Vaudésir but overflows to include a small piece of Preuses.  

Differences in exposure more than the soil composition seem to distinguish the Grand Crus from the Premier Crus.  The vineyards on the right (north or east) bank of the Serein River, where the Grand Cru are located, have a steeper slope affording better drainage and a better angle to the sun than the Premier Cru vineyards on the left (west or south) bank of the river. 

Great discussions ensued, complete with energetic gesticulations and an occasional Gallic shrug, when I asked producers to rank the Grand Cru vineyards.  They, along with well-respected Burgundy authorities, such as Masters of Wine Clive Coates and Jasper Morris, almost invariably list Les Clos as the top Grand Cru.  After that, the fun starts.  Vaudésir (including La Moutonne), Valmur and Preuses are ranked high because they combine great power without losing Chablis’ quintessential minerality.  Blanchots, Bougros--except for the lower-lying steeply sloped Côte de Bougerots--and Grenouilles seem to have fewer supporters, but in truth, it’s a bit like counting angels on the head of a pin.

Indeed, the age of the vines and the vines’ location and exposure within the vineyard makes comparing one climat to another difficult.  In truth, not even all the parcels of Les Clos, for example, are equal.  And this being Burgundy, some producers excel while others falter even given comparably exalted vineyards.  The Burgundy mantra--producer, producer, producer--is especially important in Chablis.

Chablis Premier Cru

Although a total of 40 vineyards are entitled to Chablis Premier Cru status, for marketing purposes regulations allow many to be sold under the name of one of the 17 best known ones.  For example, wine from the L’Homme Mort (literally, “dead man”) vineyard could be either sold under that name or under the more famous (but less memorable) one, Fourchaume.  Similarly, Sécher can be sold, as Drouhin does under its name, or as the better known, Vaillons.

Consumers invariably ask, “What are the best premier cru vineyards in Chablis?”  When I polled producers for their top three choices, Montée de Tonnerre was on everyone’s list.  Lying adjacent to the string of Grand Cru climats on the right bank, the wines from that locale combine power and flintiness.  Marc Cameron, a representative of Domaine Servin, says that the vineyard gives such gorgeous raw material that the producer needs only to be careful, “not to screw it up.”  Michel Barat, of the eponymous firm that makes wonderfully expressive wines, adores Montée de Tonnerre, despite making no wine from the vineyard, because of its “firm minerality.”

Some producers listed Fourchaume, which lies adjacent to the Grand Cru on the north, as their favorite, describing it as the most “Burgundian,” with an “easy and open” character.  Victor Pepin, William Fevre’s export manager for Europe, points out the fallacy of these generalizations as he pours their Vaulorent, a vineyard that abuts Les Preuses and could be sold under the Fourchaume label.  Fèvre opts to label the wine Vaulorent, not Fourchaume, because it’s firm, flinty and tight, contradicting the image of an “open and easy” Fourchaume.

Although the Grand Cru climats all lie on the right bank, the best premier cru vineyards are not necessarily located there.  Producers included Vaillons and Montmains (left bank) as often as Mont de Milieu (right bank).  I found the wines from Côte de Léchet (left bank) particularly engaging, reminding me of a mini Montée de Tonnerre with their crisp mineraly style, regardless of producer.  Vincent Thébaud, a spokesperson for La Chablisienne, the region’s superb cooperative, agrees that the Côte de Léchet is a good reference for Chablis, “for true Chablis lovers.”  Vau de Vey (left bank) produces a beautifully elegant, lacy, finesse filled wine that is charming and hard to resist.

The differences between vineyards are clear and sharp when tasting wines from a single producer, ranging from more floral and fruity (Fourchaume) to powerful and mineraly (Montée de Tonnerre) with lots of nuances in between.  But once you move from one producer to another, the lines between sites become blurred.  For example, Gilles Collet from Domaine Jean Collet et Fils, one of the leaders in Chablis, pours their Sécher after their Montée de Tonnerre because of its firmness and minerality. 

Chablis and Petit Chablis

Village Chablis--those vineyards not classified as Premier or Grand Cru--comprises about 8,000 acres and Petit Chablis another 1,800 acres.  While both appellations have been known to produce thin, acidic wines lacking character, both also can offer terrific value when made by top producers.  Petit Chablis, from vineyards that are less well exposed, offers clean crisp wines that usually lack the intensity of village Chablis.  Often, however, the pecking order is not so clear-cut.  Cameron, from Domaine Servin, continues, “The appellation system is not perfect.  There are many Petit Chablis vineyards that should be [classified as] Chablis.”

Indeed, there are so many exceptions to the generalizations about appellations and vineyards that they practically become meaningless, which brings me back to my Burgundy mantra--producer, producer, producer.

Next month, in part 2, I’ll highlight particular producers and talk about their use of oak.

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Questions or comments?  Write to me at mapstein@winereviewonline.com