One of the world’s most overlooked wines is one that, ironically, bears one of the most familiar names: Chablis. Though it’s made from Chardonnay, far and away the most popular white wine varietal, Chablis is not found en masse on every restaurant wine list. And though it’s from the region of Burgundy, Chablis doesn’t command the prices and awe of Burgundy’s most famous whites—Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, etc. Yet on both counts, it should. For when someone asks me what Chardonnay should taste like, I answer Chablis. And when I’m asked to recommend a white wine for various foods, quite often I find myself saying Chablis.
Why the lack of respect? A lot of it probably has to do with the fact that in the early days of American wine, the name Chablis was appropriated by giant producers like Gallo for their cheap, white jug wines. Chablis became generic; people would ask for a glass of Chablis when what they meant was “white wine.” Though the name Chablis is now restricted by international law to mean wines from the Chablis AOC (French appellation), the damage has been done, because many people have no idea what Chablis is supposed to taste like. You can understand why a region like Champagne is fighting so ardently to prevent other sparklers from using its name, and how much a specific cheese region like Parmigiano-Reggiano has suffered at the hands of Kraft.
The abuse of the Chablis name becomes all the more poignant if you visit the small out-of-the-way village of Chablis, as I did not terribly long ago. Although it produces quite a bit of wine, the town has only a few thousand residents, and it features cobblestone streets, colorful awnings, and gray stone buildings. Its surroundings are unremarkable in an agrarian way, making Chablis an unlikely island of fine wine in a sea of grain fields on slowly rolling hills. Wine is everywhere, as are signs advertising it. In short, Chablis feels like a unique and meaningful place with a lot of character, not the generic wine that its name means to many people.
Numerous vineyards in Chablis can be seen from a lookout point at the grand cru vineyard of Les Clos (all the grand crus, by the way, are clustered together on this hill). From the lookout you can gaze on the patchwork of vine-covered hills that make up the AOC. Beyond the grand crus, there are Chablis premier cru vineyards, vineyards simply titled Chablis, and finally the lesser vineyards that make a wine called Petit Chablis. The determination is made by soil type, as the vineyard manager for Domaine Drouhin in Chablis demonstrated to me: A vineyard on one side of the road was rated grand cru, while the one lying just across the street was simply worthy of making Chablis. And the fallow field just next to it? “Nothing,” he said. “It’s not even legal to make wine on it, because the soil is not very good.” The grand cru sites are on a pure strain of limestone called Kimmeridgian, composed of ancient oyster beds, known for its minerality and ability to hold just enough water to nurture the vines through the hot summer. The entire region is famous for its white, calcareous rocks, although worse soil will have less Kimmeridgian.
For drinkers of American Chardonnays, the obvious charm of Chablis can be elusive. For one, the wines typically have no new oak, a flavor often associated with Chardonnay. Lacking toast, vanilla, and spice from barrels, Chablis relies on the native flavors of the Chardonnay grape. These—bright green apple, pear, lemon—may be unfamiliar to most American palates, which are used to Chardonnays produced in hotter places and taste of melon, pineapple, banana, and crème brûlée. And finally, all good Chablis is underlaid with a firm texture of minerality, that sensation of dissolved minerals that gives the wines a pebbly, grainy feel, as well as a firm yet pliant structure. Put together in a typically pale, yellow-green wine, a good Chablis might occasionally be missing the direct punch of massive fruit and body that some people expect from Chardonnay. The light flavors, delicate structure, and defining minerality of Chablis are subtle and ephemeral.
Grand cru Chablis is wonderful, but relatively expensive and often takes years to come into its own. More accessible pleasures come from premier crus, standard Chablis AOC, and even the inexpensive wines labeled Petit Chablis. Have them with almost anything, from chicken or fish to an omelet, vegetables, or salad. Certainly have them with cheese, and have almost nothing else (save the occasional Muscadet, Champagne, or Sancerre) with oysters. (Slurpy oysters and fine Chablis both, you see, come from calcareous shells.) Look for houses that make unadorned, crystalline wine. On the inexpensive side, I am fond of Louis Michel & Fils; the wine labeled Champs Royaux of William Fevre; and the wine called Domaine de Vaudon from Joseph Drouhin, which is perfectly balanced, flavorful, and simply a delight. As for vintages, don’t sweat it. Since 2004, every vintage has been attractive (2006, 2007) if not outright spectacular (2004, 2005). And remember, despite the overused name, Chablis is Chardonnay.