Sunday 15 April, 2012

The Bliss of Chablis


Being that this Friday is National Oyster Day, it seemed like a good time to talk about what almost everyone considers the best wine for pairing with oysters, Chablis. I will admit, I’ve never been a big fan of Chablis. Part of that is probably because a huge amount of boring white wines from around […]


Being that this Friday is National Oyster Day, it seemed like a good time to talk about what almost everyone considers the best wine for pairing with oysters, Chablis.

I will admit, I’ve never been a big fan of Chablis. Part of that is probably because a huge amount of boring white wines from around the world are labeled ‘Chablis’ though they aren’t actually from the relatively tiny region of Chablis. But much of it also has to do with what Chablis connoisseurs refer to as the “restrained” and “subtle” qualities of the wines. That doesn’t always make them interesting, even if it does make them some of the world’s best food-pairing wines.

A few weeks ago, I attended an illuminating seminar in downtown LA, led by James King, an ex-pat Brit now based in Texas (nb: Chablis are extremely popular in Britain, more so than anywhere in the world, including perhaps France itself). Mr. King tasted the assembled group on eight classic Chablis—but first, gave us a good deal of background on the region, most of which I admit I hadn’t previously known.

All Chablis is Chardonnay. It is one of the few French wines which is virtually 100% from one grape (French wines, if you’ve never thought about it, are named after their source locations rather than the grape varietal, which is a surprisingly more modern practice).

There is a rather simple explanation why Chablis pairs so well with oysters. Following the general theory that wines of a region go best with that region’s food, Chablis is grown on slopes that were once the shores of a tropical sea in the Jurrassic era, and are full of ancient oyster shells, with Kimmeridgian limestone-rich soil.

King offered a lot of background about Chablis’ extensive history: Chablis (and Grand Auxerroirs) is one of the five regions of Burgundy. Vines have been cultivated here since Roman times, then taken over by Cisterician Monks by the 11th century (the Les Clos climat is considered to be the original Cistercian plot, FWIW). The proximity to Paris gave the region its primary opportunity to flourish in the days when shipping was far more challenging.

At the end of the 19th Century, like most of France, Burgundy was hit by phylloxera and other disesase, though it was one of the last to be affected. As a result, vineyard sizes were obviously reduced, but they were also refocused. By 1938, the AOCs were established (Chablis being one of the few defined by its geology) and in ’49, Chablis celebrated its first wine festival. Still, Chablis’ vineyards represented less than 500 hectares even in the 1950s, and few of the estates were profitable until the ‘70s.

Today, with over 300 estates, Chablis still only grows on 4950 hectares, producing some 37 million bottles (though an estimated 100 mil bottles are labeled “Chablis”), which remains only 3.5% of the AOC white wine of France. Between 60 and 70% of this is exported, primarily to England, which drinks an amazing 29%, the US (only 3.5%) and Asia.

If you’ve heard the term ‘Climat,’ it is one that originated in Burgundy and refers to a smaller sense of place than a ‘Terroir,’ particularly noticeable in the many micro-climates of the Grand Cru slopes. There are literally thousands of Climats throughout Burgundy (further, a ‘Clos’ is a ‘Climat’ contained by walls).

Don’t expect to see anything labled “reserve” or “estate.” Instead, there are strictly controlled Grand Crus, then Premiers Crus, then Village Appellations and finally Regional Appelations.

The Grand Crus (only 2% of the total output) all grow on one southern-exposure slope, though they still have seven climats (Premier Cru has 17 main climats). It is farther north than Napa, which presents an endemic problem: Chardonnay buds early and is very susceptible to spring frosts, which are fought still with traditional smudge pots as well as sprinklers. Those kinds of variables continue to produce dramatic variations in vintages.

Winemaking follows typical techniques—only about 5% of the wines are oaked and aged 2-4 years, most use malolactic acid

Though it isn’t often thought about, Chablis can and do age well, from 8 (for Premiers) to 18 (for special Grand Crus) years showing best, bringing out more complexity and notes of honey, butter, caramel and perhaps iodine/salinity.


With all of that said, Mr. King led us through a tasting of eight genuine Chablis wines of varying characters:

• La Chablisienne 2009 Petit-Chablis, 12.5% alc, had a nose of bright lemon, granny smith apple, minerals and a little chalk. On the palate it was soft, with grapefruit notes dominating. Fairly simple.

• Domaine Daniel Dampt et Fils 2009 Chablis, 12/5% alc, had an earthier, floral nose, with just a little citrus/apple. The palate was a bit heavier than the Petit, with strong lemon and iodine/salinity.

• Domaine des Malandes 2009 Chablis, 12.5% alc, had a softer nose of green apple, pear, a little citrus and honeysuckle, with a similar palate and long finish.

• Domaine Vocoret et Fils 2009 Premier Cru Chablis, Montmains, 13% alc, had an almost “curdy” nose with a little apricot and soft citrus notes. The palace was considerably more complex: sweet citrus and young orange, granny smith apple, and a sharp green pepper finish.

• Domaine Simmonet-Febvre 2009 Premier Cru Chablis, Mont de Milieu, 13.5% alc, had a nose of grape, Muscat, and maybe lychee, with flowers and herbs. The palate was rounder, with a little oak, stronger apple and pear notes, and a dry finish.

I confess, though the above wines had some qualities, none made a strong impression on me until the final three:

• Domaine du Chardonnay 2008 Premier Cru Chablis, Vaillons, 13% alc, had a very grape-forward, sour, orange blossom/oil nose. The palate was a creamy orange mixed with strawberry/grape candy and a bit of wood.

• William Fevre 2008 Chablis Grand Cru, Bougros, 13% alc, had a strongly iodine/saline nose, but in stark contrast, a lovely palate of honey, apricot and other stone fruits, with a nice balance of oak and acidity.

• La Chablisienne 2005 Chablis Grand Cru, Grenouilles, 13% alc had a very complex nose of herbals, fungals, flint, spice and flowers. The palate was apple and citrus with some soft oak and a little white pepper on the finish. While some of my fellow tasters thought the size of the wine might make it harder to pair, I found it remarkable and alluring.

Speaking of which, oysters and shellfish aren’t the only things that Chablis pairs well with: you will find they work excellently with most sushi or even stronger fish such as sardines, escargot, goat cheeses, and egg dishes.

Did the tasting turn me into a Chablis fan? Not exactly. But it did open me up to understanding there was much more to the appellation than I previously understood.

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