For Ann Vogel’s Sea Scallops with Asparagus and Bacon, a Chardonnay is just the ticket. But not your ordinary everyday Chardonnay. You need a cool climate Chardonnay that has a steely purity and a limestoney, mineral quality that pairs with seafood in a beautiful way. You need a Chablis.
True Chablis is from the northern most vineyards of Burgundy, France. Just two hours from Paris, the appellation is actually much closer to Champagne than Burgundy.
Like most of the vineyards in France, it was the Romans who first planted vines in the area. Later under the guidance of the medieval Cistercian monks, winemaking flourished up and down the banks of the Yonne River, conveniently close to the best means of transport to the thirsty Parisians.
With Chablis, you don’t expect something rich, it’s a different kind of complexity. The effects of terroir are clearly demonstrated in Chablis with its cooler climate and limestone soils that contribute significantly to its singular style of Chardonnay.
Chablis is loaded with raciness and minerality that makes it a perfect pair for seafood. The wines can make your mouth water from the acidity and the mineral flavors, which can range from wet stone to flint. The fruit flavors are typically lean and vary on the citrus side with some green apple.
Unlike its Burgundian cousins, Chablis is usually free of oak. Oak is definitely not used in the Petit Chablis and Chablis, resulting in wines that are very clean and straightforward. Upper classification Chablis may see some oak, but the wines would never be oaky. After all, it’s Chablis, not a Chardonnay.
Chablis vineyards are divided into four classifications. The bottom tier, Petit Chablis, is usually found at higher elevations where the soils are considered less than ideal.
Then there is Chablis, which accounts for about two-thirds of the vineyards, Chablis Premier Cru, scattered throughout the area and Chablis Grand Cru with only seven designated vineyards. Wines in the Chablis appellation may claim the classification on their label held by the vineyard where they were grown.
The key difference within the Chablis tiers lies in the soil. Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis soils contain greater levels of mineral rich clay, as well as significant lime content; the source of the trademark minerality. In contrast, Petit Chablis soils are not as rich in clay, and produce less complex, slightly fruitier wines with a bit of minerality.
Chablis Premier Cru is not really a distinct appellation like the other three classifications, but rather a subdivision of quality from the standard AOC Chablis title. The cost is around $30-$50.
Chablis Grand Cru is more expensive, with Les Clos, the top Grand Cru vineyard, fetching the highest price. Grand Cru wines are produced from just 250 acres planted on southwest facing slopes. Chablis Grand Cru can be cellared for 10 and 15 years for a wonderfully aromatic wine with lots of complexity.
Many of the wines you’ll see on the market now are from the 2011 and 2012 vintages with a couple of Grand Cru 2009s. Wines from 2009 have good ripeness along with ample acidity. 2011 was more variable. And 2012 and 2013 produced very small crops. After two short years in a row, supplies are a bit tight.
As you can guess, anything with a Premier Cru or Grand Cru on the label are more expensive, but basic Chablis can represent a good value, considering its quality. Most will be in the $20-$30 range. A few producers that have good availability are William Fevre, Jean-Marc Brocard, Domaine Chenevieres and Drouhin.