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A Chablis Primer, With Good News Regarding 2012
By Michael Apstein
Aug 19, 2014
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Forgive me for beating this drum again, but Chablis remains one of the best--and perhaps the single best--white wine value in today’s world. As for recent developments, the 2012 vintage now on retailers’ shelves is not to be missed. Although the wines from 2012 are not quite up to the superlative level of the 2008 and 2010 vintages from Chablis (which are largely sold out), the 2012 vintage is not far behind. Making them even more appealing, the 2012 Chablis have retained their quintessential vibrancy and electricity, which are characteristics lacking in many whites from the Côte d’Or in this vintage.

I have never understood why Chablis remains such an under-valued wine, especially in light of the current tsunami of enthusiasm for “unoaked” Chardonnay. Chablis is, after all, the quintessential example of Chardonnay in that style. Along with the unoaked versions, consumers are searching for lighter, crisper, mineral-styled Chardonnay in general--which is precisely what Chablis delivers. However, Chablis prices remain reasonable at the moment, despite the fact that recent growing seasons have produced short crops.

The Vintage

Based on my tastings of hundreds of 2012s from over 80 producers earlier this year in Chablis (at Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne and subsequent tastings), I recommend the vintage highly because the wines have an engaging ripeness buttressed by a distinct backbone of acidity.

Fabien Moreau, whose Domaine Christian Moreau made a stellar lineup of 2012s, thinks the 2012s are more akin to the 2010s than the 2011s because of greater acidity and verve.

Véronique Drouhin, whose family owns the Beaune-based négociant Joseph Drouhin with extensive holdings in Chablis, is extremely happy with the vintage, noting, “The wines are well balanced, the classic minerality is there. They have good concentration without over-ripe flavors.” Jean-Pierre Cropsal, the Public Relations Manager of Domaine Drouhin (who Véronique Drouhin refers to as “Mr. Encyclopedia of Burgundy” because of his knowledge of the region) describes the 2012 Chablis as a combination of the 2009s and 2010s, with a hint of the ripeness of the former and the acidity of the latter vintage.

Didier Séguier, director of Domaine William Fèvre, says that 2012, which he describes as one of Fèvre’s best in the last 15 years, delivered grapes with excellent concentration. They harvested early to capture acidity.

Not Just Acidity

Bernard Billaud, of the top-notch firm Billaud-Simon (which also made a stunning array of wines in 2012), cautions that Chablis is not solely about the acidity. He is emphatic that it is the minerality and what many refer to as a hint of iodine--not the acidity--that makes Chablis unique and makes you salivate. “Chablis should be a dry white wine, not an acidic wine. Acidic Chablis is bad Chablis.” For him, it’s all about the timing of harvest: “You need to harvest between the heaviness or ripeness of the fruit or the under ripe acidity. You are on the edge of a sharp knife. The grapes must be harvested when they are mature, not before or after. The right harvest timing gives you freshness and lightness, but not aggressive acidity. Too much acidity is wrong.”

Chablis 101

In a thumbnail, for those consumers relatively new to wine, Chablis is the northern-most outpost of Burgundy, lying about halfway between Beaune and Paris. It takes its name from a tiny village in the heart of the growing region. The character of its wines is attributed to a cool climate and distinctive soil, namely, “Kimmeridgian” fossilized limestone derived from an ancient seabed.

One doesn’t need to be a geologist to see the fossilized seashells in the rocky soil, as they are apparent everywhere. This combination of soil and climate imparts what many refer to as “minerality,” which tasters may experience as a flinty character, or a subtle smokiness, or a “steeliness” in the wines. With those descriptors in mind, it may not be surprising that Chablis is an ideal accompaniment to shellfish. I find its edginess and bracing acidity a marvelous accompaniment for sushi, simply grilled fish, or even lobster with drawn butter, for which it is a wonderfully refreshing foil. This last dish is usually paired with much heavier wines, but you’d be well advised to experiment with both to determine your own preference.

Regardless of the sad fact that many Americans know the word, “Chablis” based on cheap jug wines from the USA named “Pink Chablis” or “Mountain Chablis,” all “true” Chablis is white, made from Chardonnay, and sourced from the area around the aforementioned little village in northern Brugundy. (Since American producers are not bound by European Union regulations, they can use the name “Chablis,” just as they can use the name “Champagne,” but beware whenever you see these words on a wine from the USA).

As with the rest of Burgundy, Chablis has a pyramid of vineyard classification according to soil, exposure to the sun, and drainage. Petit Chablis is at the base of the pyramid, just below wines labeled simply as “Chablis.” Petit Chablis typically has more fruitiness and less minerality than Chablis. That said, in the hands of top producers (such as Domaine Billaud-Simon, Domaine Isabelle et Denis Pommier, Domaine Servin, or Domaine Gerard Tremblay), you could be forgiven for mistaking Petit Chablis for a village Chablis.

Chablis Premier Cru sits above Chablis, and Chablis Grand Cru occupies the peak of the pyramid. The higher on the pyramid a wine sits, the longer it will take for its true character to unfold. Petit Chablis and Chablis should be ready to drink within a year or two of the vintage, whereas Premier and Grand Cru Chablis will benefit from five to ten years of cellaring, respectively. (If you can’t wait that long, do what my friend and fellow wine writer John Anderson suggests--open a bottle of young Grand Cru Chablis, have a glass, and then put the open bottle in the refrigerator. Pour yourself a glass every night for the next few days. You’d be surprised how beautifully the wine opens).

If all of this seems a bit complex, here’s some good news: the regulations of the Chablis appellation have made it easy for consumers because, unlike the rest of Burgundy, the label of a bottle of Premier or Grand Cru Chablis will always state its pedigree--there’s no need to remember which vineyards are classified Premier or Grand Cru.

The total Chablis appellation is small, comprising only about 10,500 acres, and sizing up to about a quarter the total area of Napa Valley’s plantings. Grand Cru Chablis accounts for only about 250 acres or 3% of the total volume. Premier Cru Chablis covers 1800 acres, while village Chablis comprises the bulk of production with 7000 acres. Petit Chablis, an often-overlooked category, accounts for the remaining 1500 acres.

It’s More than Just Appellation

Although the Chablis appellation hierarchy is quite clear and straightforward, don’t get sucked into the idea that a Grand Cru is always going to be better than a Premier Cru. Certainly a premier cru should always be more complex and have greater “stature” than a straight village Chablis, and a straight village Chablis should always have more complexity and depth than Petit Chablis. But that doesn’t mean you’ll always prefer a wine of higher pedigree to one from a lower classification. More prestigious wines have the potential to outshine those from lesser appellations, but often they will need more aging for that potential to be realized. For example, for immediate drinking, the 2012 Chablis will likely deliver more enjoyment than a bottle of 2012 Grand Cru Chablis. In five or six years, that Grand Cru will start to come into its own.

Producer, Producer, Producer

While consumers might under-appreciate Chablis, the major Burgundy négociants certainly haven’t, at least based on purchases since the 1950s and have accelerated recently: Maison Joseph Drouhin has had substantial holdings in Chablis since Robert Drouhin saw potential in the region in the 1950s and purchased vineyards there. Their wines are sold under the Drouhin Domaine Vaudon label. You can’t go wrong with their 2012s. Albert Bichot acquired Domaine Long-Depaquit with its famed La Moutonne vineyard, in the 1970s. Joseph Henriot, the Champagne producer who purchased Bouchard Père et Fils in 1995, added the highly regarded firm of William Fèvre to the fold in 1998. Maison Louis Latour acquired Simonnet-Febrve, a topnotch producer, in 2003. And just this year, Faiveley purchased another stellar property, Domaine Billaud-Simon. Maison Louis Jadot continues to look for property in Chablis, according to many of those familiar with that producer’s plans.

My mantra for buying Burgundy--indeed, all wine--is producer, producer, producer. So here’s my list of producers I recommend based on my tastings of the 2012 vintage. Some, such as Drouhin or William Fèvre, are widely available, while others, such as Billaud-Simon or Jean Collet, have more limited distribution. If my list seems long, it’s because there are many excellent producers in Chablis, and I’m sure I’ve omitted some.

Barat; Billaud-Simon; Samuel Billaud (Samuel broke off from Billaud-Simon about seven years ago and started his own négociant business); Pascal Bouchard (no relation to Bouchard Père et Fils); Jean Marc Brocard, La Chablisienne (an excellent co-op that, with its 300+ members, controls about 25 percent of the region’s production); Jean Collet; Jean-Paul et Benoît Droin; Drouhin (Domaine Vaudon); William Fèvre; Corinne et Jean Pierre Grossot; Long-Depaquit; Christian Moreau; Oudin; Pinson, Isabelle et Denis Pommier; Gerard Tremblay; Servin; Simonnet-Febvre, and Vocoret et Fils.

My list of personal favorites (which is to say, wines that I regularly buy for my cellar) taking into account price and quality, is not much shorter: Barat; Billaud-Simon; Jean Marc Brocard; Jean Collet; Jean-Paul et Benoît Droin Drouhin (Domaine Vaudon); Long-Depaquit; Christian Moreau; Pinson; Gerard Tremblay; Servin; Simonnet-Febvre, and Vocoret et Fils.

There are a lot of very good producers in Chablis. You should have no trouble finding some of their wines.

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Email me your thoughts about Chablis at Michael.apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on twitter @Michael Apstein