21 June 2011

The fine wines of Chablis

Chablis, population 2600, is a village in the northern part of Burgundy where one of the finest French white wines is made. The village, located just a few kilometers east of the big town of Auxerre [oh-SEHR], is surrounded by vineyards growing up hillsides. I think everybody knows how to pronounce [shah-BLEE].

The Chablis vineyards cover 4870 hectares (nearly 50 sq. km) of prime Burgundy grape-growing land. That's 12,000 acres, or nearly 20 square miles. The vineyards were first planted more than 1000 years ago by monks who took shelter in Chablis after being chased out of the city of Tours by the Viking invasions of the 9th and 10th centuries. So there is a Touraine/Loire Valley connection.

A sign at a wine bar in Paris

Chablis wines have a very long history, then. But the vineyard used to cover eight or nine times more land than it does now. Chablis supplied Paris with white wine because barges could carry barrels of it to the city, 160 kilometers away, on the Seine River. That was the situation until the construction of the first railroads in the 19th century made it possible to bring to Paris the less expensive wines of the South of France, or even Spanish wines.

Three bottles of 2009 Chablis wine, which is made from
Chardonnay grapes in northern Burgundy

A vineyard so far north in France, like Chablis, is a high-risk enterprise, as wine expert Hugh Johnson points out in his Modern Encyclopedia of Wine (1983). Remember, Chablis is actually farther north than Quebec City, Minneapolis, or Seattle. The weather these days is iffy, at best, with some summers turning cold and damp. In spring, late frosts can — and often did, in the past — nip the grape crop in the bud. On top of all that, in the late 19th century the grapevine mite called phylloxera was accidentally imported into France from America and nearly killed the French wine industry altogether. Chablis suffered a triple whammy.

A wine shop in Chablis —
Le Cellier des Vignerons Bourguignons

It wasn't until the 1960s that the Chablis vineyards fully recovered. Modern practices that limit damage to the vines caused by late springtime frosts have made grape-growing around Chablis practical and profitable again. First, smudge pots were used, and later growers put in sprinklers that can coat the new shoots on the vines with a thin layer of ice to protect them when temperatures go below freezing. If Chablis white wines hadn't been recognized as some of the finest produced in France (and beyond), the vineyard would probably have disappeared generations ago.

Street scene in Chablis

The wine industry in California did a lot in the 1960s and 1970s to sully the reputation of Chablis wines in America. In California back then, red wines were marketed under the name Burgundy or Mountain Burgundy, and white wines were marketed as Chablis. No matter that Chablis is a place, not a grape. Even in the 1980s, Hugh Johnson writes, the name Chablis was synonymous, in Calfiornia and elsewhere, with white wine — wherever it came from.

A lot of the time, that white wine called Chablis was pretty bad. So people got the idea that Chablis was low-quality wine. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Chablis is made exclusively with Chardonnay grapes. Saying that, given the controversies surrounding the oaky, buttery California style of Chardonnay that used to prevail, doesn't help the reputation of Chablis very much either, I admit.

The main street in Chablis

Oak barrels used to be the only containers wine-makers had to store wine in. Nowadays, there are concrete, fiberglass, and stainless steel vats. While some Chablis vintners still prefer oak, many say oaking the wine changes — even denatures — its essential character. Chablis wine should be very dry and even flinty when young, according to many connoisseurs, like the Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé wines produced a little farther east using Sauvignon Blanc grapes and not aged in oak barrels.

The shop where I bought wine in Chablis a couple of weeks ago

The fact is, Chablis develops fullness of flavor with age, even if it hasn't been aged in oak. Chablis Chardonnay comes in four styles:
  • Petit Chablis, a light, acidic wine that is good with shellfish (oysters, etc.) or for summertime sipping
  • Chablis, which is a fuller-bodied wine that will stand up to a sauced fish dish
  • Chablis Premier Cru, a wine for aging, made from grapes grown on south- and west-facing slopes
  • Chablis Grand Cru, made from grapes grown on the very best parcels of land (at the center of the vineyard where grape-planting first started 10 centuries ago); it's obviously the best and most expensive
I bought two bottles each of Petit Chablis, Chablis, and Chablis Premier Cru for just over 50 euros from a grower/producer who has a shop in the village. I plan to keep the Premier Cru for a while, but we'll drink the others this year. I couldn't justify buying the expensive Grand Cru Chablis because we don't have a real wine cellar to store it in.

15 comments:

  1. Ken,
    It was only 2009 when we travelled from seeing you both, then driving on to Dijon via Chablis and Auxerre. Your photos bring back memories, especially because we went to the same cellar to but the same wine.
    Thanks for that.
    Leon and Sue

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  2. I don't think I've ever tasted a real Chablis. I'm glad you were able to bring a taste of your trip back home with you. Wine memories are good things.

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  3. Well, I've never liked Chablis and I'm now sure this is because I only tasted that California Chablis from the 60s and 70s. Perhaps someday I'll drink the real Chablis, but I only drink about six glasses of wine a year, in a year of wild extravagance.

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  4. I learned a lot from this post. Thanks for putting the information together.

    Is Chablis usually more expensive than other French wines?

    There is a new chain of Target-sized wine stores on the west coast and the in the southeast: Total Wine. They carry LOTS of different French wines. I see they have stores now in NC. They will no doubt have the true French versions of Chablis.

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  5. Interesting info; I didn't know about the Tours/Loire connection. Enjoy the drinking :-)

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  6. Next project then.... the wine cellar!

    We've been told that virtually any of the 2009 wines from central France are likely to be a good purchase... have you heard that, Ken?

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  7. And the wine has got to taste better when you buy it in a place like that! I'm envious.

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  8. Thanks, Diogenes, for the tip. There's one near us...I'm on my way!

    Ken, your mention about Quebec reminded me that there are some very good wines produced around Montreal(unlike NY state which are too sweet for my taste)...we found out about this on a trip a while back. We smuggled several cases across the border on the way home. Shhhhh.

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  9. Bill, when Walt and I spent a week around Albany in 2006, we bought and drank only NY state wines. The reds were very good. I don't remember trying many or any whites. There in California, you aren't far from El Dorado and Amador counties, with their good wines.

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  10. I remember when, if you said "white wine" or "chablis", it was one and the same.

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  11. Your blog is so enlightening. I just love opening it up and learning something new.

    Thanks, Ken. I hadn't been aware of my predisposition against ordering Chablis, but it probably was due to the California "Chablis" I had in my memory.

    When I next have the chance, I will have to give the vrai Chablis a taste.

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  12. In his World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson points to three white wines that he finds comparable in quality even though made with different grapes: "These three white wines share qualities of flowing freshness, of firmness and of clear-etched character that transcend their different grapes."

    They are Chardonnay from Chablis, Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre, and Sylvaner from Franconia in Germany. Johnson says he thinks it's the cold climate and the pale, chalky soil of all three regions that explains how good the wines are.

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  13. Talking of Chablis wines, it reminds me of my motto when in wine whops when I was last in Florida some years ago:

    ABC = Anything But Chardonnay

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  14. I'd reckon Chablis is at leasst 120 miles from Paris, certainly a lot more than 60!

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  15. Thanks, Anon., for keeping me honest. I took Hugh Johnson's word for it when he wrote that Chablis was "the main supplier to Paris, only 60 miles (100 kilometers) away to the northwest." Never trust a British writer when it comes to information about France, I guess. LOL.

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