Wine Notes – Chablis
Learning to enjoy fine wine is a journey, and everyone begins at a different place. Mine began when I was 18 (that was the legal drinking age at the time). I recall bellying up to the bar and ordering a Chablis. The bartender promptly grabbed the big silver gun, pushed the “c” button and poured a glass of white something that I didn’t care for too much. I moved on to other options.
In a wine store several years later I spotted the word “Chablis” on a fancy bottle, along with a bunch of words in French that I didn’t understand. Surely this wasn’t the same liquid that flowed from the gun. It seemed expensive, but curiosity got the best of me and I spent the money. After chilling the bottle at home, I realized that this was the best wine I’d ever had, and wondered how the same word, Chablis, could be used to describe what had come out of both the gun and the bottle.
Chablis is a town in France, and the area around it is a government-certified “appellation d’origine contrôlée” (AOC) where they primarily grow chardonnay grapes for winemaking. Chablis is one of the northernmost towns in France where wine grapes are cultivated, and is considered to have a rather cool climate for this purpose. The cool weather prohibits the grapes from reaching their full sugar potential, and resulting wines tend to have a higher acidity. Winemakers struggle each season to let the grapes ripen before the frost arrives. Some years they’ll even spray water on the vines and use fire pots to keep the vineyards warm.
The soil in the Chablis region is a gray colored limestone that imparts a “minerality” to the wine that some people describe as slate or gunflint. These mineral flavors give Chablis its most unique characteristics. The best wine from Chablis comes from one southwest-facing hillside that is divided into seven different “climats,” in this case plots rich in limestone soil.
The wine from these seven climats is referred to as Chablis Grand Cru and represents only 3 percent of the total wine production of the AOC. All of the fame this premier region enjoys comes from one 247-acre hillside.
I went on a mission to find some of the wine I was so fond of many years ago, but what I really found was that Chablis isn’t very popular. Most stores had a limited selection, if they had any. One store owner found a single bottle that had been on his shelf a little too long and convinced me to take it off his hands at half price so he could make room for something that sells better. Some large U.S. winemakers have for years used famous French AOC names such as “Chablis,” “Champagne” and “Burgundy” to label generic low quality wines. This has caused great confusion among consumers and degraded the popularity of these premium French wines. I persisted and eventually brought home six of the best bottles of Chablis I could find. Prices ranged from $20 to $48. The most expensive was a “Premier Cru,” which is the second best wine from Chablis. It was good, but since I’m not a big fan of white wines, I needed something truly exceptional to light my fire. I had to find a Grand Cru to taste, and no one in the area carried even a bottle.
Then one day I had business to conduct in Boston, so I asked a friend who works for a large wine distributer where I could find a Grand Cru. He directed me to Charles Street Liquors. It was a difficult location, with no parking except for the valet across the street. So, in Bostonian fashion I simply parked illegally. I have to say, the trip was worth the trouble. The owner introduced me to Nick, his wine director, who was extremely knowledgeable. Still, they had only one Chablis Grand Cru, a 2012 Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin from the climat of Valmur. Nick insisted it was a great buy at $67, since most Grand Cru Chablis generally costs $75-plus. I finally found what I was looking for. This wine had great minerality and structure. It had a nice, crisp acid lift that complemented the cheese and crackers that accompanied our tasting.
This summer, while you are enjoying lobsters and steamers, I suggest that you try a good bottle of French Chablis, perhaps a Premier Cru. If you want to be impressed in this wine category, you have to pay to play, and pass on the big gallon jug that says “Chablis,” because it isn’t. Salute.
Charles Street Liquors