It’s possible that you have consumed gallons of “Chablis” in your life but never really tasted Chablis, thanks to lots of misleading wine brands and labels. It is entirely possible that you have avoided the legendary wine style based solely on this false reputation.
The “Chablis” that some people are familiar with, in mass-production jugs from California, lined the shelves of supermarkets in the 1970s. It was cheap white wine, often with a touch (or more) of sweetness. This is not an exact analogy, but buying that wine was kind of like buying knock-off Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton bags from sidewalk vendors. Just as those hawked accessories aren’t authentic, branded, from-the-source products, neither was a lot of the wine that many people believed to be Chablis.
It was Chablis in name only.
True Chablis hails from the eponymous subregion of Burgundy, France. Chablis is not sickly sweet and is made from 100 percent chardonnay. (There is no such thing as the chablis grape.) It could not be more different from the oaky, buttery, thick-as-syrup chardonnay that comes from warmer New World climates like California.
No, classic Chablis is clean, crisp and dry, an expression of chardonnay that goes perfectly with fresh oysters. It is also great on its own, as a way of arousing the palate with bright acidity, tangy lemon and lime flavors and aromas, and waves of minerality, including the wine style’s signature notes of what is often described as gunflint, metallic, sharp and stony.
Stainless steel tanks are most often used in the fermentation and maturation of Chablis, but some producers employ oak barrels in the process, particularly the Grand Cru and Premier Cru classifications. Even in those cases, though, the resulting wines are nowhere near what New World chardonnays offer. On the other hand, in certain expressions, Chablis can be so clean and crisp, so stylistically different from New World chardonnay that it can fool you into thinking you are tasting a steely, citrusy, mineral-laced sauvignon blanc.
Within the Chablis appellation, which dates to the 1930s, there are four classifications. In terms of prestige (and often price, too) from highest to lowest, they are: Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Chablis and Petit Chablis. A Chablis Grand Cru bottle may carry the name of one of seven Climats (a Burgundian name for top vineyard sites) on its label: Blanchot, Bougros, Grenouilles, Les Clos, Les Preuses, Valmur and Vaudesir. Chablis Premier Cru bottles also may include specific sites on their labels, such as Montee de Tonnerre and Montmains, among more than a dozen others.
The vast majority of Chablis wines — more than 60 percent of all bottles — carry the general “Chablis” classification. Chablis Premier Cru bottles make up only about 12 percent of total Chablis production, and Chablis Grand Cru bottlings represent an even tinier slice of the pie (about 2 percent). But some of those top Chablis bottlings are able to age well in the bottle for a decade or more. Although they are not exactly cheap, they are also not outrageously expensive, considering that they are among the top offerings of one of the great wine styles of the world. Chablis is worthy of your attention and respect.
Below are notes from a recent tasting of Chablis, through all four classifications and in a wide range of prices — from $15 to $80. The 10 wines are listed in ascending order, according to price, and half of them retail for $28 or less.
2015 Bernard Defaix Petite Chablis. Chalky and full of minerality, this wine, aged in stainless steel tanks for eight months, offers lively acidity plus a whiff of fennel and citrus. $15
2015 Jean-Marc Brocard Sainte Claire Chablis. Pear and apple give way to lime, nutty character, lively acidity and a tangy lemon finish, with 12.5 percent alcohol. $18
2015 Jean-Paul & Benoit Droin Chablis. With floral notes, lime, a touch of lemon, minerality and smoke, this wine is crisp and nutty on the finish. $24
2015 Domaine Servin Vieilles Vignes Selection Massale Chablis. The most lush of the tasting, this wine has stone fruit and tropical notes but was still light and refreshing. $25
2014 Domaine Denis Race Montmains Chablis Premier Cru. Bracing acidity gives way to a floral essence, with additional notes of gooseberry, lime, anise and stony minerality. $28
2014 Domaine Laroche Les Vaudevay Chablis Premier Cru. Apple, pear, honey, lemon and spice join signature notes of gunflint in this clean and delightful wine. $45
2015 William Fevre Montee de Tonnerre Chablis Premier Cru. Notes of almond, wet slate and fennel lead to lime and bright, mouthwatering citrus, with 13 percent alcohol. $56
2012 La Chablisienne Vaulorent Chablis Premier Cru. Crushed rock and minerality are joined by pear, lime and other citrus notes, which lead to a clean, crisp finish. $65
2012 Domaine Louis Michel & Fils Grenouilles Chablis Grand Cru. This beauty, matured in stainless steel tanks, offers wet slate, citrus, stone fruit, nuts, bright acidity and a slight spice on the finish. $78
2015 Domaine Drouhin Vaudon Bougros Chablis Grand Cru. Elegant, with ripe lime and subtle notes of melon and tropical fruit, this wine has a nutty finish that also suggests warm bread crust. $80
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