There was a time when most Americans thought "chablis" was a generic white wine blend, often packaged in a jug. You might even find "chablis" that was pink.
What a travesty. True Chablis is chardonnay from the Chablis region of France, the northernmost part of Burgundy. And for my taste, Chablis is the one of the best and purest expressions not only of chardonnay but also of the complex concept that the French call terroir.
Aside from the grape, Chablis is about two things: climate and soils. Chablis is actually closer to Champagne than to the rest of Burgundy, and the climate is cool, even downright cold. That leads to wines that are high in acidity and not overtly fruity. The soils are a type of calcareous clay that drains well, and many believe that the soils also give the wine its distinctive minerality.
Chablis' raciness and minerality cry out for food. The wines make you salivate -- not just because of the acidity but also because of the mineral flavors, which can range from wet stone to flint to something that's almost salty. Fruit flavors are generally on the lean side and range from lemon to grapefruit to green apple.
"With Chablis, you don't expect something rich. You expect something precise," says Veronique Drouhin-Boss, winemaker for her family's wine company, Joseph Drouhin. Her father, Robert Drouhin, got interested in Chablis in the late 1960s, when there were fewer than 1,300 acres planted in the appellation. Now the family owns 100 acres there and also buys some grapes.
"We are lucky to make wine here," says Didier Seguier, cellar master at William Fevre, which owns about 125 acres in Chablis. "One grape, many expressions."
Chablis' vineyards are divided into four tiers. The bottom tier, Petit Chablis, is usually found on the hilltops, where the soils are considered less ideal. Next is basic Chablis, which accounts for about two-thirds of the vineyards, then premier cru and grand cru. The seven vineyards designated as grand crus are on a southwest-facing hillside across from the town of Chablis. Premier crus are more common and are scattered throughout the area.
Oak is little-used in the winemaking for the lower tiers, resulting in wines that are very pure and straightforward. The higher-tier wines may get some oak treatment, but most wines would never be considered "oaky." As Seguier says, "We want to make Chablis, not chardonnay."
The top wines from Chablis age very well. While I was in the area, I tasted a 2000 Domaine Servin Grand Cru Les Preuses that was rich and a little mushroomy, but it was still very fresh, with salty minerality. A 2007 William Fevre Grand Cru Vaudesir showed some aged, nutty notes but still had a lot of freshness and minerality. And a 2003 Joseph Drouhin Grand Cru Vaudesir, despite a very hot vintage, was also drinking beautifully.
Many of the wines you'll see on the market now are from the 2010, 2011 and 2012 vintages. Wines from 2010, when yields were low, have good ripeness along with ample acidity. 2011 was more variable. And 2012 saw a very small crop, but the wines I tasted are quite good. "It's not very standard Chablis style," because it's rich and open yet has high acidity, says Isabelle Raveneau of Domaine Raveneau. I visited soon after the conclusion of the 2013 vintage, which was also small. After two short years in a row, supplies could be a little tight.
"There won't be Chablis for everyone," says Paul Espitalie, director of La Chablisienne, the local cooperative winery.
Although the premier cru and grand cru wines can get quite expensive, basic Chablis can represent a good value, considering its high quality. Most will be in the $20-$30 range. A few that have good availability are the 2012 William Fevre "Champs Royaux" Chablis ($25), 2012 Jean-Marc Brocard "Sainte Claire" Chablis ($23), 2012 Domaine Laroche "Saint Martin" Chablis ($28) and 2012 Drouhin-Vaudon Chablis ($21).
Premier cru wines generally cost $30-$50, although the bottlings from some highly regarded producers like Raveneau are much pricier. Grand cru is more expensive still, with Les Clos -- regarded by many as the top grand cru -- fetching the highest prices.
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One Chablis producer offering great value at all quality tiers is Domaine des Malandes. The basic 2012 Chablis ($19) is a straight-ahead wine, with mineral, racy fruit and a persistent finish, while the 2012 Chablis Vieilles Vignes "Cuvee Tour du Roy" ($23) offers more concentration at a great price. (Vieilles Vignes, which you'll see on a lot of labels, means "old vines.") The premier crus have a lot of minerality; a good example is the stony 2012 Premier Cru Montmains ($27). The 2011 Premier Cru Mont de Milieu ($30) adds an intriguing note of anise. The 2011 Grand Cru Vaudesir ($55) is racy and a little austere. It's built for aging.
If I had a lot of money, I would stock up every year on the wines from Domaine Raveneau, which are expensive (the basic Chablis starts at $60) and nearly impossible to find. But the wines have a tremendous purity and precision. I tasted a number of the domaine's 2012s, which aren't being sold yet, and they are stunning. "We like the purity of the wines, and we haven't changed the method since my granddad," says Isabelle Raveneau, who works with her father and uncle on the wines.
Jean-Marc Brocard, with about 500 acres of vineyard, is the largest domaine in Chablis. With so much vineyard -- it's all farmed biodynamically, and about half of it is certified -- it's not surprising that there's a big range of wines. The basic 2012 Chablis ($23) is racy, with some minerality, while the 2011 Premier Cru Montee de Tonnerre ($45) is quite tropical, with some wet stone character. The 2011 Premier Cru Vaulorent ($45) is racier, with lemon, mineral and a persistent finish. The 2010 Grand Cru Bougros ($68) is floral and concentrated, with white fruit and wet stone, and the 2010 Grand Cru Les Clos ($86) is very steely, with good concentration. It's easy to taste the Brocard wines if you visit the town of Chablis: There's a shop and tasting bar right in town, with no reservations required.
Domaine William Fevre, which was started in the 1950s, was purchased in 1998 by Henriot, a Champagne producer that also owns Bouchard Pere et Fils in Burgundy. The 2012 "Champs Royaux" Chablis ($25), which contains some purchased grapes, is fresh and racy, with good minerality. The 2012 Domaine Chablis ($35), made from all estate grapes, has a finer texture. The 2011 Grand Cru Bougros ($80) is full-bodied, with racy white fruit and mineral.
Fevre has 10 acres in the famed Grand Cru Les Clos; the 2011 has round yet racy white fruit and considerable mineral. (The 2012, not yet released, is even better.) "I think Les Clos is the greatest terroir in Chablis," says cellar master Didier Seguier, explaining that Les Clos has a very homogeneous exposure to the sun.
Joseph Drouhin's Chablis wines are now labeled with the brand Drouhin-Vaudon, the name of the company's Chablis estate. The 2012 Chablis ($21) is lean and persistent, while the 2012 Reserve de Vaudon ($28) is a little fleshier. I particularly liked the rich, floral 2011 Grand Cru Vaudesir ($73).
The cellars at Domaine Laroche date to the ninth century, but the company is very forward-thinking. Michel Laroche was an early adopter of screw caps (in 2002), even on the top wines. "When we started, everybody in Chablis was shouting at my husband," says Gwenael Laroche, brand ambassador for the company her husband founded. The flagship 2012 "Saint Martin" Chablis ($28) is rounder and less acidic than some, making it an easy-to-drink wine. The 2009 Premier Cru Les Vaillons Vieilles Vignes ($52) is a little tropical, with wet stone and a long finish, while the 2009 Grand Cru Les Blanchots ($90) is opulent and a little toasty, with a lot of mineral and a long finish. The 2009 Grand Cru Les Clos ($121) is powerful but less opulent, with wet stone, racy fruit, good concentration and a long finish.
La Chablisienne is the local cooperative, with 300 growers controlling more than 3,200 acres. Its 2011 "La Pierrelee" Chablis ($20) is a good value, with generous white fruit, mineral and a slight herbal note, as is the 2011 Premier Cru Montee de Tonnerre ($30), which is lean and precise, with racy white fruit and mineral.
I recently tasted a good lineup of wines from Domaine Christian Moreau Pere et Fils. The 2012 Chablis ($27) is fairly generous, with white fruit and mineral. The 2012 Premier Cru Vaillons ($47) shows a lot of wet stone character, and the 2011 Grand Cru Vaudesir ($76) is racy and fresh, with lemon and mineral.
Some other basic Chablis to look for include the 2012 Bernard Defaix Chablis ($22), which is racy yet round, with nice sweetness to the fruit, and the 2012 Domaine Pinson ($23), which is zippy and minerally. The 2010 Domaine Servin Chablis Vieilles Vignes ($27) is richer and a little tropical. All three producers also make some very nice premier cru and grand cru wines.