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Considering Chablis


The Chablisians are hitting the road to market their region and its famous white wine. It is a very ancient winegrowing region; the Romans brought vines and viticulture there sometime early in the Common Era, according to Rosemary George, MW, in her fine book, The Wines of Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois.

That the Chardonnay grape became a virtual monopole in Chablis no doubt is due to Chablis having been incorporated, in 1477, into the duchy of Burgundy. Red wine may be made there, but then, it would not be entitled to any of the official AOCs: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru or Chablis Grand Cru, but only the lowly Vin de Pays status.

My host yesterday, at a small luncheon at Boulevard, was the charming, young, voluble Jean-Francois Bordet, winemaker at Domaine Séguinot-Bordet (which his family has farmed for many centuries) and also president of the Chablis Wine Board. We tasted through 5 wines: Jean-Francois’s own Domaine Séguinot-Bordet 2010 Vielles Vignes (12.8% ABV, $16), La Chablisienne 2009 Premier Cru Côte de Léchet (13%, about $23), Domaine William Fevre 2009 Premier Cru Vaulorent (12.5%, $53), Domaine Christian Moreau 2008 Grand Cru Valmur (13%, $65) and Domaine Drouhin Vaudon 2008 Grand Cru Les Clos ($74; I did not get the alcohol). Each wine was immaculately paired with superb food, mainly sea food (crab, scallops, lobster), although Boulevard’s chef, Nancy Oaks, decided to make a steak tartare and oyster appetizer for Jean-Francois’s Vielles Vignes, and what a great match that was.

Several things were apparent: Chablis is great wine by any standard. It is reasonably priced, especially at the Grand Cru level; only a handful of domaines dare exceed $100. The wines are just what the anti-high alcohol lynch mob demands. And they are sublimely versatile with food. Of course, if you’re at a restaurant like Boulevard, you eat something classic with Chablis, such as the Maine lobster with risotto and mushrooms, which Chef Oaks paired with the two Grand Crus. But, as Jean-Francois observed, at home he will happily drink Chablis with anything including, he smiled, scrambled eggs for breakfast.

The wines themselves all possess the Chablisian traits of utter dryness, acidity and minerality. From Chablis through Premier Cru and Grand Cru one discovers, of course, increasing power and depth. In some respects, Jean-Francois’s unoaked Vielles Vignes stood out for me, so clean and vibrant and uplifting, and, at $16, an amazing deal. It was my first sip of wine of the day, so that may have accounted for much of its appeal, but I left some in the glass and, even two hours later after that splendid lunch, it retained and even increased its charms.

As if bracketing the five wines, my other favorite was the Les Clos Grand Cru. I called it “huge”, with “fantastic power,” “the biggest of the tasting,” but this is perhaps misleading, because those terms could be used for a California Chardonnay from, say, Williams Selyem, but no two Chardonnays could be more different. The Les Clos was huge in comparison with the preceding four wines, yet it also was sleek, elegant and streamlined, despite a year in oak (none of which, by the way, was new). The flavors vaguely suggested Asian pear and quince, with the wood bringing a spicy tone of butterscotch, but to over-dwell on any specific flavor is a mistake, because the wine comes across as a single entity, which is, after all, the essence of balance.

On the other hand, the third wine, the 2009 Premier Cru Vaulorent, was for me the least of all the wines. Jean-Francois explained that 2009 had been a very hot year in Chablis, and the wine right off the bat seemed heavy, lacking the vibrance of its colleagues. There also was something overtly mushroomy going on, which led me to believe it’s not going anywhere. We did have a discussion of the role of personal preference with these older wines, however, and it may be that my long experience with California fruitiness has prejudiced me against certain older white wines. Chacun a son gout, as usual.

Chablis was one of my go-to wines in the 1980s and I will always have a fondness for it, even if I don’t drink as much nowadays as I’d like. Nor do most Americans, it seems, and, as the U.S. is a very important market for domaines like Séguinot-Bordet, Jean-Francois and the Chablisians are criss-crossing the country, trying to persuade people to remember Chablis. My advice to them was to aim at the under-35 crowd, who seem so open to new drinking experiences, and communicate a very simple message: Chablis has been one of the most famous wines in the world for many centuries. There’s a reason why; no wine gets and remains famous for so long without possessing outstanding, unique qualities. They–these new wine drinkers–owe it to themselves to understand what makes Chablis so great. This is a pure, uncomplicated message, and it is made easier to digest by the fact that Chablis is Chardonnay, a variety everyone has heard of, not some grape type unknown to them.

There are hazards. Some people may have decided that Chardonnay is not for them. They will need to be convinced, and possibly, some of them cannot be. Their loss. Another hazard, which the Chablisians are intensely aware of, is the confusion in America over the use of the word “Chablis” on wines made largely from the Central Valley. This, as an issue, can be finessed, through a successful advertising campaign.

  1. Great post! After following your blog for years, it was a pleasure to finally meet you.

    It’s a shame that such a fine wine has to be evangelized here. Nevertheless..great advice for the Chablisians on how to penetrate the US market.

  2. Very nice thoughtful article, Steve. As lead singer and driver of the winnebago for the anti-alcohol lynch mob, my comments on your blog often have taken a contrarian nature.

    I think your advice to the Chablisians is spot on. Today’s $12 Muscadet drinker in his twenties is the perfect target for Chablis when he’s spending $25 to $40 for a bottle in his thirties.

  3. Gallo still sells “Chablis” in US? (I didn’t know and asked Gallo but no reply for 3 hrs…tired of waiting for reply).
    Is 2009 a typo? “…personal preference with these older wines…” Did you taste older vintages, too?

  4. Kathy, I don’t know if Gallo does, but wineries that were using it before U.S. outlawed it were grandfathered in, so I’m pretty sure there’s still American “chablis” out there. Re: older wines, I meant that the 09 tasted tired to me, like an old wine. We didn’t taste anything older than the 2 ’08s, which were fresh and wonderful.

  5. Steve,

    I have always loved the crisp, clean character of Chablis. Excellent that you are giving them some help, but don’t forget those two other non-Chardonnay AOC’s in the same area. One is red in Irancy: Pinot Noir with a hint of César (one of those Roman grapes), the other is Sauvignon St-Bris. Both are just a mile or two from Chablis Premier Cru and Petit Chablis vineyards.

    I am fairly sure that Carlo Rossi still has a Chablis labelled wine, which of course is owned by Gallo.

  6. Steve,

    Kudos for recognizing and promoting the greatness of Chablis. This is a fanstatic region just waiting to be (re)discovered with wines of outstanding class, distinction and terroir. The geology there is fascinating, and most people don’t realize that all of the Grand Cru vineyards are on a single hill just adjacent to the town, making understanding the area and wines much more manageable in scale than say Burgundy for those still coming up the curve.

  7. Advice to Chablis. Separate your branding from the rest of Burgundy. Anyone who has driven from Beaune to Chablis will tell you that these aren’t the same place.

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