Chablis, thankfully, is no longer referred to as a cheap, inferior white wine. It has taken a couple decades for people to embrace what Chablis truly is: great chardonnay from northern Burgundy, France.
It is said that there are two white wine drinkers: chardonnay drinkers and anything-but-chardonnay drinkers. This is not always the case, but it is a relatively quick and easy way to find out what kind of white wine drinker one is.
Wines from Europe are typically named after the region from which they come. This is similar to what happens in the U.S. with Florida oranges, Washington apples and so on. As such, European wines can be confusing because in order to know what grapes are in each wine, one must know the permitted grape varietals from each region. A daunting, but also fun, wine study for certain.
Chablis is a sub-appellation of Burgundy in east-central France and lies in the very northern Yonne department, which is ironically closer to the Champagne region than it is to the rest of Burgundy to the south. Chablis is different than all other chardonnay for several reasons. First, the appellation is very far north and because of this, there is always an uncertainty as to whether the fruit can fully ripen from year to year. This crux of growing conditions ultimately produces wines with razor sharp acidity and precision – the antithesis of California chardonnay. Secondly, the soil composition in Chablis is unlike that of anywhere else. The soil is called Kimmeridgian and is composed of crushed marine fossils. This soil offers very little organic matter and is considered very poor, perfect for viticulture. Thirdly, the style of Chablis differs from its New World cousins as wines from Chablis are typically unoaked and do not offer the buttery, creamy, oaky style of wine that California chardonnay is renown for.
The wines of Chablis can satisfy the anything-but-chardonnay drinker in that they occupy the “clean and crisp” realm. When young, the wines offer notes of green apple, pear and crushed sea shells. Yes, one can literally smell the soils from which the wines come.
Depending on the quality of the wine, they can range from light to full body. Of course, the fuller the wine, the fuller your wallet needs to be. However, Chablis is a bargain compared to their southernly brethren from Meursault or Montrachet.
On the palate, the wines are dry with bracing acidity and a mineral-driven finish. It is often said that the wines display tension, referring to the struggle for balance between sharp acidity, fruitiness and mineral backbone. When aged, the wines become a soft, silky wine with aged notes of honey. In the best of vintages, these wines can age upwards of 20 years.
These tart gems make for outstanding food pairings. Like the wines of Sancerre (sauvignon blanc from Loire Valley, France), Chablis makes an ideal pairing with oysters, halibut or any seafood dish. As with all French wines, there is a tier system of quality that dictates viticultural practices and ultimately price. Entry-level Chablis start around $20 and can jump well over $100.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.