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2 August 2014

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Chablis

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When we want serious Chardonnay, all too often we overlook the northern French region of Chablis. But it’s time to revisit the sensational wines produced here, says Hamish Anderson


Chablis is an anachronism in today’s wine world. We are attuned to fruit, oak and upfront flavours but Chablis defies all these current conventions and displays none of these traits. It is notoriously difficult to pin down its appeal; tasting notes will include terms like ‘mineral’, ‘gunflint’, ‘stony’, ‘honey’ and ‘hay’. But, aside from honey, none of these tastes sounds particularly appealing. And yet, this is one of those rare wines that almost everyone adores from the first sip.

Chablis is often seen, even by serious oenophiles, as a light and refreshing white. The perfect wine to have with half a dozen oysters, perhaps, or to invigorate the palate before more serious bottles. And good quality, village Chablis certainly fulfils this role admirably.

Michael Laroche - the king of Chablis mark_de_wess__044_opt.jpg However, too many of us automatically head further south to villages like Puligny-Montrachet when we feel the need for serious Chardonnay. What a mistake. Good premier and grand cru Chablis are fine wines and, while they may lack the power of Chardonnay from the Côte de Beaune, they more than make up for it with their complexity and precision. They are also remarkable value. Great grand cru Chablis is on a par with Batard-Montrachet or Corton-Charlemagne, yet costs a fraction of the price.

Today Chablis continues to be hugely successful, although there can be disappointments, so you need to do a little research before you buy. The demand for the wines saw a huge increase during the 1960s and 1970s – an expansion driven by commercial rather than qualitative reasons – and, sadly, the wines are so popular that even poor producers are easily able to sell their wares.

This situation cannot last, however, and growers making industrial quantities of tasteless wine should heed the harsh lessons being learnt by other complacent regions like Bordeaux. With massive competition now coming from the New World, consumers won’t continue to put up with rubbish.

The region is in rude health, and each year a raft of top produers pushes quality ever higher

That said, at the quality end of the spectrum, the region has never been in such rude health and each year a raft of top producers pushes quality ever higher. Take Michel Laroche, for instance, who is often referred to as the ‘king of Chablis’. His estate is a lesson in how to run a big company, produce large volumes and yet not compromise on quality.

Laroche’s wines are essentially traditional expressions of Chablis’ myriad terroirs. However, he has never been afraid to challenge the status quo. Indeed, Laroche’s were the first wines in the region to go in bottles with screwcaps. And he didn’t mess around with the idea: the first releases made a statement by being his grand crus.

And another impressive aspect of Laroche’s range is that the same attention to detail is given to the entry-level Chablis as to the superb, tiny production grand cru Blanchots Réserve de l’Obédience.

While the Laroche story has been running for years, the recently formed Domaine Christian Moreau Père et Fils gives a good indication of the dynamism currently sweeping the region.

Having been leased out for many years, Christian Moreau’s family vineyards are now back under his control. He is in the enviable position of being top heavy with grand cru vineyards and owns a significant proportion of the biggest, Les Clos. Assisted by his son, Fabian, they make fantastic, pure wines that speak of their origins. As they clearly demonstrate, quality is the only way forward for Chablis.

At the top end, boosted by a string of good vintages and dynamic producers, the region is producing its best ever wines, so there has never been a better time to discover its delights.


CHABLIS AT A GLANCE


The Label

France - Chablis vineyard - Chablis - south - facing grand cru slopes mark_de_wess__015_opt.jpg Chablis’ classification system mirrors that of the rest of Burgundy, with one crucial difference in relation to grand crus. As with all Burgundy, the most important thing to bear in mind is that vineyard sites are only an indication of potential quality and it is up to the producer to realise it.

Chablis

This is by far the biggest appellation in terms of area under vine. There are some lovely examples of village Chablis, but also plenty that trade on the name. Be sure to pick your producer with care.

Premier Cru

These are individual vineyard sites. The system, however, is chaotic: there are around 40 vineyards ranked as premier cru, yet only a fraction appear on the label. As is common throughout Burgundy, growers are allowed to use the name of a more commercial premier cru if they wish. Hence, Chablis 1er Cru Séchet and Chablis 1er Cru Vaillons could actually be the same thing, as the producer of the former is permitted to label it as the latter.

Grand Cru

There are seven grand cru vineyards totalling 106 hectares – a mere 3 per cent of the region’s production. They are all next to each other, to the north of the village. Unlike the Côte d’Or, a grand cru will still carry the prefix of the village, Chablis. So while a producer in the grand cru vineyard of Richebourg (Burgundy) does not have to write on the label the name of the village the wine is from (Vosne-Romanée), the equivalent producer in Chablis must.

The Grape

All Chablis must be made from Chardonnay, yet it tastes far removed from most people’s perception of the grape. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, Chablis is a cool climate where grapes struggle to ripen each year. Secondly, it has soil structure that appears in only a few other regions. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, for those who cannot believe Chablis and Australian Chardonnay are made from the same ingredient, it is rarely matured in new oak barrels.

The Terroir

In this day and age when uniformity and homogeny of style are accusations levelled at wine producers around the world, Chablis stands out as being different. It embodies the French notion of ‘terroir’, the idea that in one place a combination of factors come together to create something unique. The Chardonnay grape is grown in a cool, marginal climate. However it is the soil that defines its character. Kimmeridgian clay gets its name from a village in Dorset where this band of soil is exposed. These chalky, fossil rich soils are what most believe give Chablis its distinctive mineral character.

Ageing Chablis

Village Chablis is designed for immediate consumption. However, premier and grand cru Chablis age magnificently. Indeed grand crus, sustained by a core of acidity, will often outlast their richer, more illustrious (and expensive) neighbours from the Côte de Beaune. The wines do go through mid-life crisis when four or five years old, so drink them young or be prepared to hang in there for the long haul.

Best recent vintages

2005, 2004, 2002, 2000, 1996, 1995


Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle - Summer 2007


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