Monthly Archives: June 2016

  • Demistifying Chablis

    What is Chablis? Is it a brand, is it a region, is it a grape variety?  Everyone’s heard of it, but not everyone knows what it’s all about. And it’s even more confusing, when the already complex French labelling add in various monikers, such as ‘Petit Chablis’, ‘Premier Cru’, ‘Grand Cru’, and a variety of vineyard names.

    No wonder many people get confused. The labelling isn’t easy to work out, and the prices go from great value to soaring off the radar; and there isn’t one style. There’s fresh, citrusy, tangy Chablis; there’s the rich, buttery, creamy style; and there’s the downright nasty and green style.

    Because Chablis is so well-known, many wine drinkers assume they know what it’s all about, and don’t like to ask, for fear of looking silly.  I’m sure there will be many reading this piece who know the ins and outs, but equally, many who don’t.  So here’s the simple guide to deciphering Chablis.

    First of all, let’s deal with one of the most frequently-voiced misconceptions about Chablis.  Ask any audience which styles of white wine they like, and there will inevitably be more than a smattering of ‘I don’t like Chardonnay’.  However, ask the same group if they like Chablis, and they will nod and approve.

    Fact number one – Chablis is produced 100% from the Chardonnay grape. A lot of damage was done to the reputation of Chardonnay by the influx of cheap, over-oaked Australian Chardonnays 15 years ago, and the grape has unfortunately become stereotyped to far too many.  But Chardonnay is a marvellous grape; capable of creating some of the most sublime wines in the world.  It is the ONLY grape variety allowed for Chablis, and indeed all white Burgundies, from the most humble, to the stellar reaches of some of the most prized, and coveted white wines in the world.

    Fact number two – Chardonnay doesn’t have to be oaky, and full of super-ripe pineapple fruit flavours.  Chardonnay can be nervy, highly-strung, poised and haughty, with an aristocratic, steely, restraint, and thoroughbred structure – if well made.  Chardonnay is a very friendly, adaptable grape, which adapts to its environment, and in Chablis the move is increasingly towards totally unoaked wines.

    Chablis is a region; it’s the most northern area of Burgundy, in fact separated by about 100km (to the north) from the rest of Burgundy.  In geographical terms, it’s only 4 degrees south in latitude from London, even less from the Kent and Sussex coast.  So it gets cold; very cold.  The grapes keep their freshness and their acidity, and couldn’t be more worlds apart than their Australian counterparts, who bask in the hot sunshine and yield up voluptuous, tropical styles of wine.  These weather conditions can however be risky business; harsh spring frosts can devastate vineyards and decimate the crop for the year.

    This in itself, is where danger can lie; there are still many producers, keen to hop on the Chablis bandwagon, who are making thin, green, acidic wines from grapes that haven’t ripened properly.  So it’s important to know what you’re buying and from where. There are a couple of incredible co-operatives in the region, where small growers bring their grapes; there are also the big well known Burgundy houses, who buy up the grapes and make the wines their own.  There are also some fabulous growers, who are committed to making their own wine from the grapes that they cultivate and nurture. These are family businesses, which have been passed down from generation to generation, and are the lifeblood of Chablis.

    What are the styles of Chablis, and what on earth does the complicated labelling mean?  French wine law demands wines to be labelled by region, and within this by sub-region – a vinous equivalent of the Russian Babushka nesting dolls, which fit neatly inside each other, becoming increasingly smaller.  It’s the same with Chablis!

    Domaine Bernard Defaix ChablisThere are four tiers of Chablis.  Let’s start with the core Chablis – an area, spiralling out from the town of Chablis.  Domaine Bernard Defaix Chablis 2015 is a cracking example of lovingly-crafted, well made Chablis, produced under the watchful eyes of two brothers, who manage the family firm.  With not a whiff of oak in sight, it manages to  combine racy lemon and green apple freshness, with a bold, ripe, creaminess of ripe orchard fruits. Elegant, poised, and balanced, good Chablis works well with creamy fish pie; the freshest of oysters, and langoustines; and is also a dead cert and posh choice for fish and chips.

    Domaine Louis Michel, Petit ChablisPetit Chablis is the simplest, and most lowly of the Chablis denominations – but actually, for those in the know, frequently some of the best value Chablis out there. It’s viewed as the least prestigious of the Chablis tiers, because of the less favourable locations of the vineyard sites, but these days, wine makers are turning out some deliciously fresh  lemon and lime-tangy dry whites, at cracking prices. Domaine Louis Michel Petit Chablis 2015 is a classic example; this family business, running since 1850, switched to modern, unoaked styles about 25 years ago. The Petit Chablis is refreshing, and lively, full of crunchy apple, and lemon zest character, and a zingy, steely finish.  These styles work well with all manner of seafood, chargrilled prawns, crab salad, sashimi or a bowl of steaming mussels.

    Domaine Bernard Defaix Chablis 1er Cru Les VaillonsMoving up the scale, wines labelled Chablis Premier Cru are a step up. The complicated French laws mean that wines from 89 different vineyards, deemed to produce higher quality wines can be called Premier Cru.  Some of these Premier Cru names are well known, such as Montmains and Vaudevey.  Domaine Defaix Premier Cru Les Vaillons 2014 is one such example – a ripe, buttery style of Chablis, with real personality and finesse; plump, supple, yet still with that characteristic steely edge.

    Domaine Louis Michel, Chablis Premier Cru ForêtsLesser known, but equally impressive is Domaine Louis Michel Premier Cru ‘Forets’ 2012, which recently won a gold medal at the prestigious Sommelier Wine Awards in London – rich in texture, yet mouth-wateringly dry, it has elegance, and a cool, steely edge , overlaying deliciously creamy baked apple fruit.

    Premier Crus Chablis are perfect with richer styles of food, and classics would include salmon with hollandaise, pan-fried scallops, and simply cooked sole or sea bass in a butter sauce.  They’ve also got enough weight to handle herb-roasted chicken, and a great match for the local soft cheese Chaource, as well as brie and camembert.

    Finally, at the top of the tree sits the majestic Grands Crus; wines produced from only 7 vineyards, deemed to be the pinnacle of excellence, due to location, topography, soil type and more.  Don’t be surprised if you see lots of grands crus from different producers.  They may be individual vineyards, but within these, there are lots of small plots and different owners (yet more complications of French Burgundian law).

    These wines have finesse, elegance, poise, and a lingering and beguiling complexity.  These are wines to keep, and their structure will have been enhanced by careful use of oak.  If you’re a fan of top Chablis, buy a case or two, try one bottle, and then pop the rest away and try a couple once a year, as they evolve, and go on the journey with them.  Domaine Louis Michel Grand Cru Les Grenouilles 2013 is imperial in its style, verve and freshness, with deep, brooding layers of intense minerally flavours, and a piercing edge to balance the depth of character.  An absolute classic.  Domaine Defaix Grand Cru Bougros 2012 is equally stylish, with entrancing aromas of toasted hazelnuts and baked apples, and a simply gorgeous, aristocratic elegance and depth, with richness, but without ever losing the classic Chablis steely edge.  Wines to be treated with the respect they deserve.

    What to drink with them?  Bring out the very best you can – Lobster; the creamiest of langoustines, juicy scallops, rich chicken dishes, or the very best of soft-rind cheeses.

    Chablis – complex, complicated, but in a class of its own.

     By Angela Mount




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