Stone me, it’s Chablis
Monday 11th March 2013, 10:00AM GMT.
Our wine man Richard Allisette continues his journey through France in search of the grape varieties hiding under the appellation controlee laws. This week it’s the turn of a far-from-humble chardonnay. Bridget Jones, where are you?
EVERY wine merchant has their own apocryphal story of a customer who walks into the shop and asks for a bottle of Chablis because they can’t stand chardonnay.
Chablis, as even the most recently clad wine anorak will tell you, can be made only from the chardonnay grape.
Why the confusion?
At its greatest, Chablis tastes of stones, minerals rippled through with the purity of a clear blue sky. It is perhaps the most ‘winey’ of all French white wines. Chardonnay at its worst tastes and smells of toffee and toast, tinned pineapple and peaches.
The problem is not chardonnay, it’s oak. Most of these flavours come not from the grape but from oak barrels, possibly oak chips, or worst of all, oak essence – used to give at least a flicker of interest to over-produced, diluted, lemon-streaked fruit juice.
Last week we left the Loire Valley in the town of Sancerre. Head further east, to Chablis, and you come across the sauvignon blanc grape masquerading under the St Bris label (it used to be called Sauvignon de St Bris but, heads ever in the sand, the authorities decided to drop the sauvignon part).
St Bris is less aromatic and fruity than its cousins in the Loire, Sancerre, Pouilly Fume, Quincy and Reuilly. Here, minerals and mouth-feel play an important part and the wines have a steely edge. They give important clues as to the sort of wines to expect as you head into nearby Chablis.
This really is white wine country. A few reds are made, nearly all from the pinot noir grape, but they’re generally thin, weedy affairs maybe worth trying at lunchtime if you are holiday in the area – look for Irancy or Coulanges la Vineuse. Try to find a warm year like 2007, but even then don’t expect too much – you won’t be getting Gevrey-Chambertin at bargain prices.
Stylistically, Chablis owes more to champagne in the north than burgundy further south – political boundaries put Chablis in Burgundy, not viticultural ones.
The vineyards surround the town of the same name, a pleasant place to stay for a day or two if you fancy a bit of peace and quiet, though there is not much to see that is not wine-related.
Understanding Chablis ought to be easy. Basically you have Petit Chablis as the first rung of the quality ladder, followed by Chablis itself. Next comes Premier Cru Chablis, with Grand Cru being the pinnacle.
As in Burgundy itself, though, the person or firm who makes the stuff can be as important as the AOC designation.
I’ve never forgotten being taken many years ago to a hotel restaurant in St Peter Port. My host chose a Chablis from 1984 – possibly the worst vintage in the latter part of the 20th century. My heart sank.
I was looking for a plant pot into which to pour the stuff but I thought I should take a sip. It was utterly delicious, with a vivacity and purity that I can still bring to mind now.
I learnt a lesson: ignore the vintage charts and concentrate on the person who made it.
Growers who seldom make bad Chablis include Vincent Dauvissat, Jean-Marie Raveneau, Samuel Billaud-Simon, Jean Brocard, William Fevre, Michel Laroche, Louis Michel, Louis Moreau, Frederic Prain, the Garnier brothers, Jean-Paul Droin and Laurent Tribut. Unusually, the co-operative in Chablis (La Chablisienne) also make excellent wines and they are usually well priced.
There has been much debate in Chablis in the past 30 years or so over the use of oak. William Fevre used to be a great advocate of it, though Fevre wines I have tasted in the recent vintages seem to be far less oaky than I remember. Some growers, like Samuel Billaud-Simon, will use oak only in a couple of grand crus and age the rest of their range in stainless steel.
Don’t forget, too, that some growers make wines for the long haul – Jean-Paul Droin’s wines take ages to open up. His Petit Chablis, even at four years old, is still firmly closed. Yet the Garnier brothers make Chablis that is ready almost as soon as it is in the bottle.
Rather like Alsace, you simply have to try a few different growers and stick with one whose style you like.
Come what may, Grand Cru wines should be aged – the complexity of flavours becomes apparent only with time. You can drink them young, but why pay £30 for a Grand Cru when you will get more enjoyment from a village Chablis and have £15 or more left in your pocket?
You might as well have drunk a bottle of chardonnay.