Article By: Sandy Block, MW
It’s not always obvious because of our rush to embrace whatever is new, but sometimes the classics are really the best. For instance, if you’re looking for quintessential seafood wine that is bone dry, minerally and understated in flavor, there is little to compare with Chablis. Grown on the calcareous fossilized chalk soils of Burgundy’s northernmost region, the Chardonnay grapes surrounding this venerable village attain a height of aromatic purity and finesse that make the wines they produce perfect foils for a plate of crustaceans. But in the right hands Chablis can be so much more than just a supporting player for seafood. Drinking a pale colored terroir-expressive wine from this commune is one of those thrilling experiences whose sensory essence is best summarized by the untranslatable French word: “nervosite”. From the first whiff to the savory swallow, serious Chablis can leave your palate shivering with pleasure.
Over the years there have been debates, still going on today, about what is the real or authentic Chablis, and about just how much of the wines’ quality is related to sourcing grapes from the region’s famed Kimmeridgian clay soils. These are not worth going into as the proof ultimately is in the glass. What’s notable is that there is generally a discernible difference in aroma, texture and depth among the various levels of official designation: village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru. The latter tend to be wines that I do not approach until they are 5- to 7-years-old, after which time they open out to be as glorious as virtually any of the more pedigreed Cote de Beaune white wines of equivalent rank. The village wines are sometimes very disappointing. Unfortunately there has been a long term trend of producers masking what I take to be true “Chablis character” to craft wines that are rounder, softer, gentler, and ultimately more bland. On the other hand though, aping the structure and flavor profile of warmer climate wines no longer appears to be so widespread as it once was, and I have noted a resurgence of character and personality recently in even many of the producers whose village wines tasted flat or dull in previous vintages. Of the Premier Crus, we can hope that they represent a little bit of the best of both worlds (approachability and structure), but few scale the quality heights of the top Grand Crus. They should show more nuance, more flesh and more length than the basic village wines, and this is generally the case.
A word on Chablis vintages. They matter. Because of the region’s marginal northern climate every year yields wine unique and sometimes dramatically different in style. Vintage conditions also tend to be different than those for Burgundy at large. For instance, it is generally felt that 2OO6 and 2OO4 were outstanding years in Chablis, with the wines across the board showing far better than for the majority of white wines produced further south. The good news is that Chablis is in the midst of a golden era. In fact, 2OO4 through 2OO6 each produced fully ripened grapes with true Chablis character and wonderful potential for aging. This is a great time to be discovering the wines. On display here, the 2OO6s represent one of the earliest harvests in memory; the wines have richness but, in some cases, stunning minerality. They are among the finest Chablis I have tasted. 2OO5 is a little less nuanced, with more honeyed fruit characters in evidence, while 2OO4 produced a classic, textbook crop of tightly structured, crisp aromatic wines of length and understatement rather than breadth. In my estimation it was easiest perhaps to produce high quality village wine in 2OO5, while the ultimate expressions, the Premier and Grand Crus, might be overshadowed by the finest of the 2OO4 and 2OO6 harvests.
The following blind tasting winners, mixing village level and Premier Cru together and ranking them in terms of absolute quality, are an exciting bunch from a district where quality is not always easy attained. There is, after all, a fine line between “dull” and “subtle”. All, however, are highly recommended. Currently quality Chablis represents a bargain. While not inexpensive, the wines provide a satisfying alternative to more commonly encountered Chardonnay styles of equivalent concentration from elsewhere. But then again, they are not Chardonnay, they’re Chablis and there is nothing made anywhere else in the world that tastes quite like it.
DOMAINE VOCORET, CHABLIS, 2OO6
This estate always makes interesting, somewhat uncompromising Chablis. While this is good, previous vintages stood out from the crowd more. The nose is marked with earthy, slightly smoky tarry influences, while on the palate there is an interesting lemon peel, sea salt and bacon-like mix of flavors. Ripe, dry and citric, with medium body and a satiny texture, this is a wine that would do grilled shrimp proud. $24
DOMAINE LOUIS MOREAU, CHABLIS, 2OO5
Moreau is a reliable 6th generation family domaine with holdings of 125 acres all in Chablis. The acids here are admirable for a 2OO5, with ripeness but also a clean, tart and excitingly vibrant feel on the palate. It is far more expressive than when tasted a year ago, with gentle apple, melon and white peach fragrances and a dramatic touch of sweet herbs as well. I enjoy the Louis Moreau style, which I take to be steely and pure, but this well structured wine has more than the usual flesh on the bone. Enjoyable with a plate of raw shellfish, as well as a goat cheese salad. $22
DOMAINE LOUIS MOREAU, CHABLIS PREMIER CRU “VAILLONS”, 2OO5
This is not an altogether bigger wine than the village product, but it is more nuanced in aroma and flavor, as well as a bit less pronounced in apparent cut and acidity. Vaillons in my experience is always one of the most satisfying of the Premiers, its south-southeast facing vines producing a bit rounder and warmer Chablis style than some of the other famous Crus. This one has a slightly smoky, caramel custard scent, underlain with notes of mushroom and apple. It is well balanced and clean on the palate, with a soft, mellow texture that would suit it well for a delicate filet of sole. $37
LOUIS LATOUR, CHABLIS, 2OO6
This negociant producer is not a name I generally associate with Chablis, but the 2OO6 is outstanding. Ripe and pure on the nose, with peach, floral and apple blossom scents, the palate reflects the stainless steel vinification and lees contact: gentle and creamy but well structured, with flinty tart lemon flavors. The flavors strike a delicious balance between elegant and assertive, while the finish is lengthy and intriguingly mineral. This is a wine of real tension, a village level bargain that it is possible to age for three to five years without question. $22
DOMAINE CHRISTIAN MOREAU, CHABLIS PREMIER CRU “VAILLONS”, 2OO6
Quite a delicious Premier Cru, the Christian Moreau is an estate wine that has no relation to the Louis Moreau entries. A portion of the cuvee is barrel fermented and the wine, while impeccably balanced with blasts of pure lemon, has a richer feel. There is a yeasty, malty sensation on the nose, an impression of grains and apple, while the acids are powerful, with a nice thread of mineral lending nuance. It finishes with an appley spice character that provides great punctuation. Enjoy this with crab or lobster. $35
JOSEPH DROUHIN, CHABLIS, 2OO6
One of the premier names of the appellation, the great negociant house of Drouhin is an owner of 1OO vineyard acres in Chablis. This is really a classic effort for a village wine, from the earth, herb and mineral salt aromas, to the bone dry lemony apple flavors. It has great cut on the palate, with lemon peel and grapefruit, but also a lush, ripe texture. Minerality is the constant thread, from the nose to the palate to the finish. It’s also quite versatile: a satisfying aperitif, accompaniment for raw shellfish, or more refined fish preparations sauced with beurre blancs or even veloutes. $22.5O
JEAN-PIERRE GROSSOT, CHABLIS PREMIER CRU “LES FOURNEAUX”, 2OO5
A lovely, rounded wine with extra layers of ripeness and nice delicate terroir influences on the nose and palate, this estate bottled Chablis shows off the best of the 2OO5 vintage. With touches of grapefruit, pear and herb on the nose to balance the persistent minerality, the apple-like flavors have an edgy vegetal spice component that is very intriguing. This is a wine that seems to me capable of at least five to seven years of evolution and strikes me as a steal at the price. $32.5O
DOMAINE WILLIAM FEVRE, CHABLIS PREMIER CRU “MONTMAINS”, 2OO5
One of the great historic names of Chablis, William Fevre has consistently hit high notes in my recent tastings, justifying the domaine’s lofty reputation. This is an absolute stunner: precise and pure in flavor, with a fresh apple, herb and vanilla cream perfume. It is beautifully balanced with moderate levels of alcohol and an easy going but very stylish acid balance that leaves the palate refreshed and full of anticipation for the next sip. Capable of cellaring, but too good to pass up now, I would enjoy this with the a roasted sea bass. $37