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Spotlight on Chablis

A tasting of Chablis, La Vigneronne, Thursday 2nd November 2000

The name 'Chablis' obviously still has pulling power, judging from the clientele who showed up for this tasting at London fine wine shop La Vigneronne. Tastings at LaVig are usually the haunt of hardcore wine nuts, and often involve hard-to-find, relatively unknown wines from the French regions. This tasting, however, drew a whole spectrum of punters, including many non-geek types (typical question overheard: 'So is Chablis the grape, then?').

Why is this? Chablis, the most northerly of the Burgundian appellations, is the original white wine 'brand': until recently dry white wines from California and Australia were often rather naughtily labelled as 'Chablis', even though in the main they weren't even made from the Chardonnay grape, the only grape variety permitted in Chablis. 'Chablis' is a name, like 'Sancerre', that consumers can recognise, latch on to, and order with some degree of confidence in a restaurant, safe in the knowledge that they'll usually get a crisp, dry white, without too much flavour and with good food compatibility.

Understanding Chablis is relatively straightforward. Chardonnay grapes are grown on vineyards of differing status. Bottom of the pile are the lowly Petit Chablis vineyards. One rung up the ladder is AC Chablis. More serious wines come from the Premier Cru vineyards, which occupy about one-quarter of the 2000 ha of Chablis vines¾ commercially driven reclassification in recent years has meant that some of these are less good than others. At the top of the tree are wines made from the seven Grand Crus. Aside from the vineyard site, the producer is an important variable in wine quality. Most wines are fermented in stainless steel or old wood; a few producers have somewhat controversially fermented their wines in new oak barrels, but this is not the traditional style. Compared with the rest of Burgundy prices are pretty reasonable, with village level Chablis coming in at £7-£10, premier cru wines at £10-15, and grand crus at around £20. Vintage variation in this northerly appellation is quite significant. Although vintages are terrible generalizations, of recent years 1997 was thought to be pretty good, 1998 less so, with 1999 somewhere in between.

In any tasting of Chablis, the descriptors 'crisp', 'fresh', 'minerally', 'honeyed' and 'acidic' are going to come up pretty frequently. Wines from this cool region are usually bone dry and sometimes a bit neutral¾and this lack of flavour is the fault you are most likely to encounter in these wines, along with occasional excessive tartness. The better examples will often have a complex, mineralic streak cutting through the lean, taut fruit. Wines of Premier Cru and grand cru level will often benefit from ageing, developing additional complexity and weight that is absent in their youth (and some of the better wines absolutely demand this). Don't expect the big, bold flavours typical of Chardonnays grown in warmer regions: these are subtle, charming wines that can make great food companions.

The wines
The 12 wines tasted reflected a spectrum of prices, styles and ages. The real standouts were the wines from the producers widely acknowledged to be the two leading lights of the appellation (and certainly the most expensive): Dauvissat and Raveneau. The Dauvissat 1998 Grand Cru Vaillons, the only grand cru in this tasting, showed great complexity in a taut package that will need time to show its best. In contrast, the Raveneau 1997 1er cru Mont-Mains is an in-your-face, boldly flavoured wine¾delicious, complex and quite superb. The oldest wine in the tasting, the 1989 1er Cru from Defaix, was full of interest, with lovely, nutty complexity: it's still very much alive. This is more than can be said for the 1996 Chablis 1er Cru Fourchaume from Verget, which was completely oxidised and just about unpalatable. An honourable mention must go to the four 1998 1er Crus were all very good, considering the difficult vintage conditions. Of these, the 1998 Montmain from Louis Michel was showing superbly.

1998 Petit Chablis Domaine de la Tour
A pleasant commercial wine, showing a nice honeyed nose, and a balanced, rounded palate with good fruit/acid balance. Good +

1998 Chablis Domaine de la Tour
Doesn't give much away on the nose. Firm, full and mineralic wine with good acidity. Tight. Good/very good.

1997 Chablis Les Vieilles Vignes, Chablisienne
The Chablisienne coop control about one-third of the wines in Chablis, but despite their size they have a good reputation. This wine is quiet on the nose, with a touch of smoke and minerals. Light and quite simple on the palate, but with a nice mineral/acid streak. Good.

1999 Chablis 1er Cru Monts-Mains, Domaine de la Tour
Modest but pleasant, showing apples and minerals on the nose, and a tight palate with firm acidity. It's currently very young and may develop interest with some bottle age. Good+

1998 Chablis 1er Cru Vaucoupin, Grossot
A richer style of Chablis. Attractive full nose with rich, honeyed, smoky fruit. Forward and savoury on the palate, with rich flavours of honey and apples. Very good

1998 Chablis 1er Cru Montmain, Louis Michel
Rich, forward nose with smoky, mineralic notes. Lovely pure fruit on the palate with a herby edge and hints of apples and honey. Very good/excellent

1998 Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre, Louis Michel
Falling somewhere in between the taut and full styles, this is full flavoured but still tight knit, displaying some spiciness and honey, underlain with a mineral streak. Very good, and possibly age-worthy.

1998 Chablis 1er Cru Les Vaillons, Domaine Billaud-Simon
Modest but attractive nose, minerally, appley and complex. Full and richly textured on the palate. Complex. Very good+

1998 Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, R & V Dauvissat
A serious wine. Complex nose of honey, spice and minerals. Full, rich textured palate: appley, honeyed, taut and mineralic. Very good/excellent, with real ageing potential.

1997 Chablis 1er Cru Monts-Mains, Raveneau
A superb wine in a full-flavoured style. Lovely rich, forward nose, with smoke, minerals and a touch of honey. Great balance and complexity on the palate with good balance, nice acidity and forward fruit. Excellent.

1996 Chablis 1er Cru Fourchaume, Verget
Deep yellow coloured with a volatile, oxidised nose. There are some vinegary, butterscotch notes. On the palate this is disjointed and unpleasant. Should have been drunk some time ago. Poor.

1989 Chablis 1er Cru Côte de Léchet, Daniel Defaix
Really interesting older wine. Lovely full, nutty, herby nose with a slight trace of cabbage. On the palate there is nice balance, with firm acidity and more nutty character. It's beginning to thin out a little in texture, but it's still very much alive. Very good/excellent.


Other wines from Chablis recently tasted

Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis 1er Cru Vaucoupin 1997
Lovely concentrated-yet-subtle Chablis with a dense honey and mineral nose, followed up on the palate by honey, spice and mineral notes. Complex and well balanced with appropriate acidity, I'd drink this now. Good value, too. Very good+ (£9.99 Oddbins)

Chablis 1er Cru Beauroy 1996, La Chablisienne
A nice, mature premier cru Chablis from the impressive Chablisienne co-op. Exotic, ripe nose with evolved, butterscotch-like character and firm acidity on the palate. Very good, but drink up soon. (Majestic £4.99/half)

Chablis Les Beaumonts 1998, Moreau Naudet
Juicy citrus-like elements dominate this fresh, full-flavoured Chablis. Good + (Majestic £7.99)

Chablis 1er Cru Montmains 1999, Moreau Naudet
Refined nose with nutty, lemony fruit. On the palate it is lean and not overly unimpressive. Will this develop some interest? Good. (Majestic £9.99)

Chablis Vielles Vignes 1999, Vocoret
This is a crisp, fresh wine with a little richness and ripeness on the palate, but otherwise a little simple. Good. (Majestic £8.99)

Chablis 1er Cru Vaillons Vielles Vignes 1999, Vocoret
Another crisp, lean Chablis with a little ripeness and complexity on the palate, but still quite tight and simple at this stage. Good+ (Majestic £9.99)

Chablis 1er Cru Montmains 1999, Vocoret
Light, fresh Chablis showing some minerally complexity. It's pleasant now, but will likely gain character with some time in bottle. Good/very good. (Majestic £9.99)

Chablis Grand Cru Blanchot 1999, Vocoret
You really shouldn't be drinking Grand Cru Chablis this young: it only shows what it's capable of after some time in bottle. This is lively and citrussy with good concentration. Too austere now, but may well be impressive in a few years. Good/very good (Majestic £16.99)

Vocoret Chablis 1999
Lean and savoury, with a leafy, mineral-laced nose. Attractive, light and expressive, but probably a little bit too light for some. (£7.99 Majestic) 9/00 

Related links:
1998 White Burgundies, La Vigneronne tasting, June 2000

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