Chablis brings up an image of “purity” – Chardonnay purity, at its best – and one could certainly argue that if the world could have only one white wine to drink with food, it would be Chablis. One could also argue that there are “better” whites, even more-luscious and more-complex Chardonnays produced just down the road along the Côte d’Or, but as a universal food white wine, Chablis can hold its ground.
Beyond its place in the pantheon of wines, perhaps the most-interesting thing about Chablis is its taste. Or “tastes,” plural. It is a rarity, because if we close our eyes and open our palate memories, all of us can summon up the taste of Chablis. Jean-François Bordet, proprietor at Domaine Séguinot-Bordet and head of the Chablis Commission of the Burgundy Wine Board (BIVB), describes the taste as “minerally, crisp and rich.” At the same time, we can start putting all sorts of asterisks after that description to footnote the great diversity of Chablis tastes within that basic format.
Why is that?
Some of the explanations would hold true of any wine, and some are unique to the Chablis terroir. Or terroirs. Some reasons are duh! simple, while others are much more complex and shaded. During a recent tasting trip to Chablis, I asked former William Fèvre enologist and current Chablis brand ambassador Eric Szablowski and Domaine Billaud-Simon proprietor Bernard Billaud to help explain.
The Terroir. Soil that is primarily limestone will give “more floral and white flower” flavors, Szablowski says, while more clay will yield “more body and more flint” in the taste.
Right Bank, Left Bank. Just as in Bordeaux, Chablis has different banks. Although there are gradations in aspects made by several little valleys that cleft the slopes, the Left Bank, the same side as the town of Chablis, faces generally northeast and is the cooler of the two. The Right Bank faces southwest. “In general, the Left Bank has more apple and pear and is more floral,” Billaud says, “while the Right has more spice.”
Oak Treatment. In spite of the fact that we think of Chablis as being without oak, that generally holds true only of the Petit Chablis and Chablis, the two basic appellations. Many Premier Crus and, according to Billaud, almost all Grand Crus wines see some time in oak, either during fermentation or aging. “The more minerally the soil, the more iodine is has and the more it needs wood,” Billaud says, adding that wood neutralizes the iodine taste. As a result, few of us get the opportunity to taste Grand Crus and basic Chablis to compare the tastes without oak. Oak gives creamy and toasty flavors, and most Chablisiennes fear that too much will make them taste like “Burgundy,” that is the Côte d’Or. That being said, I sipped some Chablis Grand Crus that could pass in blind tastings for Russian River Valley.
Lees and Battonage. Letting the wine mature on its spent yeasts and bits of grape pulp, whether or not it is stirred (battonage), gives it both more texture and body and a creaminess that could be mistaken for light oak flavors. Sometimes, it can also give “tanginess” like sour cream or more-savory flavors like mushrooms.
Age of Vines. “Old vines give you more concentration of flavors,” Szablowski says.
Picking Date. “The earlier the grape is picked, the more acidity it has,” says Szablowski. Later-picked grapes generally have less acidity but often more body due, in part, to increase sugars and alcohols. (By the way, Billaud pleads with us not to confuse minerality and acidity or use them interchangeably.)
Vintage. As everywhere, the vintage can make a wine richer or simpler, fuller or leaner, fruitier or more acidic.
Time in the Bottle. Older wines will, of course, gradually become oxidized, giving them “more honey, mushroom and waxy flavors,” Szablowski says.
Most wine people who drink only an occasional bottle of basic Chablis will note its minerality, dryness and acidity – whether they call it that or not. To them, that is Chablis. But a collector or a sommelier realizes that beyond that definition, Chablis can provide many subtleties of tastes to go with the subtleties of what we are eating.