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The Mystery of Chablis
By Robert Whitley
Mar 18, 2014
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CHABLIS, France – The mystery of Chablis is hardly a case for Sherlock Holmes, despite the fact that this famous wine from the Burgundy region tastes like no other white wine in the world, including its kissing cousins from the nearby Cote de Beaune.

The village of Chablis, from whence the wine takes its name, is the northernmost wine-growing region in Burgundy. The only French wine-growing regions to the north of Chablis are Champagne and Alsace. This is an important aspect of the taste profile found in Chablis, though hardly the only factor, and perhaps not the most important.

The soils of Chablis, at least where the most highly rated vineyards are planted, are a chalky combination of mostly clay and limestone, similar to the soils found in Sancerre, another famous wine region located in the Loire Valley, and Champagne.

The flinty taste of Chablis is no doubt produced by the combination of cool climate, minimal influence (if any) from oak barrels, and soils that profoundly shape the character and personality of the wine we call Chablis, which is 100 percent Chardonnay but bears only a passing resemblance to the wines of Puligny, Chassagne and Meursault in the Cote de Beaune, where it is warmer and the wines possess a richness seldom achieved in Chablis.

In some circles that might imply lesser quality, and indeed the premier cru and grand cru wines of the Cote de Beaune command a higher price, but that is merely an example of consumer preference. Puligny, Chassagne and Meursault surely have more cachet in the market, but they are not necessarily better wines.

An argument can be made that Chablis loyalists prefer the more austere character of Chablis, particularly when paired with shellfish, such as the freshly shucked oysters that were showcased at the Chablis tasting that kicked off Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne this week in Burgundy. Les Grands Jours is a tasting tour of the region, with stops each day in a different part of Burgundy to sample wines from the two most recent vintages.

Chablis producers wrestle with nature to achieve ripeness each vintage, but ripeness in Chablis is not the same as ripeness to the south or ripeness in the vineyards of the New World. The grapes of Chablis typically struggle to reach sugar levels that will yield a potential alcohol of 12 or 12.5 percent. In Californa, by comparison, alcohol levels for Chardonnay range between 14 and 15 percent.

Chablis, as a result, is less fruity that other Chardonnay, exhibiting a stony, mineral character that appeals to many connoisseurs. The 2011 and 2012 vintages on display at Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne were challenging for the vignerons of Chablis, producing uneven results, but there are many fine wines to be had from both harvests.

The following producers are shining examples of how exceptional skill and selection in the vineyard and the cellar can overcome difficult conditions:

Domaine Drouhin Vaudon showed only wines from the 2012 vintage, and they were excellent across the board, especially two from the grand cru vineyards Vaudesir and Bougros. Drouhin, one of the top negociants in Burgundy, has extensive vineyard holdings under its Domaine Vaudon wing.

Domaine Gerard Duplessis offered a selection of premier cru from 2011 and one grand cru, from the Les Clos vineyard. These wines were outstanding across the range.

Domaine Jean Collet et Fils had an impressive lineup of mostly 2011 Chablis. The wines were among the most complex I tasted at the exhibition, including a terrific 2011 Chablis Grand Cru Valmur.

Domaine Laroche presented an array of premier cru Chablis from 2011, including a steely, flinty premier cru Fourchaume. Laroche, widely distributed in the United States, also showcased two 2010 grand cru, from the Les Clos and Blanchot vineyards, that were among the finest wines at the exhibition.

Domaine Vocoret et Fils did very, very well in 2012, but yields were small and the wines could be difficult to find. The 2012 Premier Cru Vaillons and 2012 Premier Cru Vaillons Vieilles Vignes were some of the finest premier cru wines of the vintage, and the Grand Cru Blanchot, Valmur, Vaudesir and Les Clos, batting cleanup, were the equivalent of a grand slam home run.

Domaine William Fevre, another producer widely distributed throughout the U.S., exhibited five wines from the 2012 vintage and all were outstanding, particularly the Grand Cru Les Clos. The 2012 Grand Cru Bougros was barely a step behind the Les Clos in class.

Maison Simonnet-Febvre poured a silky, elegant 2011 Grand Cru Les Clos, and an array of crisp, premier cru wines with beautiful minerality from the 2012 vintge. Simonnet-Febvre’s Cremant de Bourgogne sparkling wine also was a standout.