The Secrets of Chablis, a Northern France Wine Region

Bristol Bar & Grille Master Sommelier Scott Harper shares the secrets of the beautiful French wine region, Chablis:

For the longest time, the name Chablis conjured up sweet, cheap, white California bulk wine; the kind of wine, if it was the only wine offered, that would make the modern wine aficionado have a beer. American wine marketers stole the Chablis name from the Burgundy region of France, of the same name; they used the term Chablis for generic white wine that was extremely inexpensive and, as a result, very poor quality. If you were dining at a restaurant and asked for a glass of Chablis, you were likely requesting this super cheap white house wine. While most wine drinkers may recognize today that Chablis is not from California, they still are uncertain what Chablis is and are surprised when they find out.

The Region

Chablis is about one and a half hours southeast of Paris and is the northernmost region of Burgundy. In fact, it is one of the more northern fine wine regions on the planet. Chablis produces only white wine and is made from 100 percent Chardonnay. But the style of Chardonnay made there is quite different from the Chardonnay we experience from California or other new-world countries and other parts of Burgundy.

The northern climate is cool, and in cool climates, grapes produce wines that have tarter tasting fruit, moderate alcohol and high acid. They are light-to-medium bodied wines with more fragrance and elegance, and they tend to be more enjoyable with a wide range of foods. Additionally, the soil has a high content of limestone and contains millions of tiny marine fossils – remnants of a vast sea hundreds of millions of years ago. Tis soil – called Kimmeridgian – helps cause the wine’s acute minerality.

While a few producers use oak, the majority of Chablis producers do not. Some experts will say that Chablis is the quintessential expression of Chardonnay, as it is unadulterated by oak and expresses the fingerprint of Chablis and not the fingerprint of winemaking. While there are certainly exceptions, warm climate grapes produce wines that have very ripe and almost sweet-tasting fruit, high alcohol and low acid. They tend to be medium-to-full bodied, rich and powerful wines that are very enjoyable to drink by themselves or with simple foods. Trying a cool climate Chardonnay, such as Chablis, next to a warm climate Chardonnay, such as a Napa Valley, is an enlightening experiment that is definitely worthwhile.

The region of Chablis has an important hierarchy. There are four levels of Chablis, all of which are good but range from the lightest to the most bodied, complex and what is considered the finest: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru. There are seven Grand Cru Chablis: Les Clos, Vaudésir, Valmur, Les Preuses, Blanchot, Bougros and Grenouilles. Aspect and soil are the determining factor in this quality hierarchy. In a cool climate such as Chablis, ripening is aided by better sun exposure of south-facing vineyards, such as the location of all of the Grand Crus vineyards and the best Premier Cru Vineyards. The previously mentioned Kimmeridgian soil is the soil of the finest Chablis vineyards and all of the Grand Crus. While most Chablis should be consumed three to four years from the vintage, a Grand Cru can develop aromas of dried honey, a broader mouth feel and multiplicity of favor for a decade.

The Wine

Chablis is an exceptional wine to pair with food. When pairing Chablis, think seafood. The naturally high acidity goes well with seafood but especially shellfish, such as oysters, shrimp and clams. Try the wines of Chablis with goat cheese and with roasted chicken as well.

Recommended Chablis

Drouhin Vaudon Chablis 2009

The Drouhin Family have been winemakers in Burgundy for over 125 years, and Chablis is their specialty. The wine is pale gold with green highlights. Dry and very crisp with the delicious bright favors of green apples, lemon zest and grapefruit. Linear and intense with enjoyable wet stone minerals that add a level to the complexity. Elegant, vivacious, fresh and medium-bodied. Drink as a flavorful aperitif or as natural accompaniment with seafood.

Scott is General Manager of the Bristol Bar & Grille-Jeffersonville and is Wine Director/Sommelier for the 5 Bristol Bar & Grille’s in Louisville and Indiana. Scott is a Master Sommelier and a Certified Wine Educator.