During the holiday season, we drink fair amounts of Champagne and other bubbly—appropriately so during this celebratory period. But for a snappy change of pace, I like to occasionally feature Chablis—which, for me, is a celebration in every glass. Chablis is a village in the northwest corner of the Cote d’Or in Burgundy, about equidistant from Paris and Dijon. And good French Chablis wine is well worth tracking down.
Chablis is made from 100 percent Chardonnay grapes, but it doesn’t taste much like the Chardonnay produced farther south in Burgundy. And that’s due primarily due to stony soil and a harsh climate. The climate in Chablis is cool and relatively challenging for growing Chardonnay grapes. However, that harsher growing environment produces grapes that result in lighter, more austere wines than typical Chardonnay. In fact, “austere” is a word frequently associated with Chablis, which is also lean, bright and acidic. In other words: a great food wine.
Vineyards in Chablis are strewn with chunks of limestone, which in turn gives character to the wine grapes grown there. The soil is rich with fossilized shells of bivalves from the Jurassic Period, which might explain the natural alliance of fresh oysters and Chablis. In case you hadn’t heard, oysters on the half-shell and Chablis is one of the classic food-and-wine pairings. At any rate, you can literally taste stones in Chablis. It rocks!
Unlike most Chardonnay in France, Chablis is almost exclusively aged and fermented in stainless-steel barrels. By contrast, virtually every producer of white Burgundy in the Cote d’Or uses oak barrels for fermenting and aging their wines. The result—even though the starting point is the same Chardonnay grape—is two very different and distinct wines. A mere hour’s drive south, the white Burgundies of the Cote d’Or are voluptuous, toasty and full-bodied. But the Chablis of the north is crisp, light-bodied (usually), bright and lean. It’s also very dry and flinty.
Chablis ranges in price from bottles in the teens to those for more than $100. The most expensive, of course, are those from the seven grand cru producers: Les Clos, Les Preuses, Bougros, Les Blanchots, Grenouilles, Vaudésir and Valmur. Those wines tend to be pricey and difficult to find. A step down in price, premier cru Chablis ranges in price from about $30 to $75. Overall, here in Utah, you’ll find a span ranging from the young-drinking Droin Chablis 2008 ($19.56) and Christian Moreau Chablis 2008 ($24.99) to the impressive Vincent Dauvissat Chablis Les Clos 2008 ($77.47) and Christian Moreau Chablis Vaudesir 2008 ($74.99). A great mid-range choice is the premier cru Droin Montée de Tonnerre 2008 ($32.78), a powerful, well-structured Chablis that actually is aged in oak barrels, lending hints of vanilla, along with a floral bouquet, but with a signature, strong mineral backbone. This is a wine that will age and improve with time—up to seven years or more—and one I wouldn’t mind finding under my Christmas tree.
For a slam-dunk food-and-wine pairing, do treat yourself to a bottle of Chablis and a plate of fresh oysters. Shellfish always cries out for acidity, which often comes from lemon juice or vinegar. So, when paired with oysters, the acidic tartness of Chablis takes the place of lemon or vinegar. Also, Chablis has lots of flinty mineral flavors that utterly compliment the seawater/mineral flavors of oysters. It truly is a beautiful marriage.