Friday, 23 January 2009

Half a gallon of your finest Chablis, please...

Chablis is, arguably, the most famous name in the world of wine. It is instantly recognizable to any wine drinker, even if they have never tasted it. Until the French authorities started to clamp down on such practices, almost every wine-producing country in the world made a “chablis”: a sign of the power of the name and its strong association with a classic wine style. Indeed, one of my earliest wine-drinking memories involved buying a “half gallon of Chablis” (I kid you not) while in the US.

Genuine Chablis, rather than its imitators, must come from a specific area in France, surrounding the small and rather sleepy town of Chablis, southeast of Paris. As a wine region, Chablis is lumped together with the Burgundy region – probably at least partly because its wines are, like white Burgundy, all made from the chardonnay grape. Stylistically and geographically, though, Chablis (the region and the wine) has more in common with Champagne to the north and with the classic Sauvignon Blanc growing areas around Sancerre in the Loire Valley to the west.

Classic white burgundies are characterised by the use of new oak barrels to ferment and age the wines, giving them extra weight and depth of flavour to complement the ripe fruit. Chablis, meanwhile, aims for a very different expression of the chardonnay grape. The hallmarks of the best Chablis are minerality, elegance and crisp acidity. Some oak is used here, but most of it is not new and does not, therefore, impart its unmistakeable vanilla stamp to the wines. It’s more about giving an extra nuance of flavour and some additional texture to the wine. The exact amount of oak used varies by producer, by the year and even by the vineyard from the same producer.

Given its northerly position in France (only Champagne is further north), getting chardonnay to ripen fully here is a gamble the Chablis wine makers undertake each year. As you would expect, there are big differences in the size and quality of the grape crop from year to year, so it is a region where it pays to know your vintages. Winemakers must hope for enough sun to get their grapes just ripe enough, while maintaining their hallmark acidity and finesse. They are able to do this at all only by virtue of a geographical accident.

Chablis’ vineyards are planted on an outcrop of what’s called Kimmeridgian, a particular type of limestone packed with fossilised remains of oyster shells. This soil provides a fantastic growing medium for the vines, which warms quickly and keeps the vines well-drained and helps the grapes to ripen in a marginal climate.

How Kimmeridgian got its name from a small village in Dorset is a rather convoluted tale. Imagine an enormous submerged bowl made of limestone which lies under the English Channel. One lip of the bowl emerges from the Earth around Chablis and the other around Kimmeridge, Dorset. Why an English hamlet unknown outside Dorset got the glory, rather than the historic wine-making region of Chablis is a mystery. I’m guessing the English got the chance to give the stone its name before the French noticed – and now it’s too late.

So what does Chablis taste of? Unlike many white wines, Chablis is not fruity – or fruit-driven, whatever that means. It smells and tastes of stones, minerals, sometimes flint and smoke. It is resolutely light-bodied, with high acidity – but the best wines are never harshly acidic and don’t lack flavour, despite their light body. Can the fossilised oysters which cover the vineyards really be imparting their chalky minerality to the wines made there? Impossible to prove, but an irrestistible theory – and Chablis with oysters is undoubtedly one of the classic food and wine matches. The evidence is out there…

Some Chablis to try

Tesco Finest* Chablis 2007, £8.99
2007 was a challenging year in Chablis – cool weather made the choice of picking date all-important, in order to have enough ripeness in the grapes to balance out the high acidity. This wine impressed me with a sense of where it comes from – racy, mineral and a hint of green apple fruit.

Waitrose Chablis 2007, £10.99
Made by the reliable co-operative, La Chablisienne, this has good depth of flavour and correct acidity. One for fans of Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé.

Chablis 2006, Domaine de Chantemerle, £10.99, Majestic
In contrast to 2007, 2006 was a hot vintage (we had a summer too, you might remember) and this translates into a more powerful and perfumed wine.

Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons Defaix-Raveneau 2001, Tesco, £18.49
If you want to know what maturing, classy Chablis tastes like, then give this splash-out wine a whirl. A huge streak of acidity runs through this wine, which has never been near an oak barrel.

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