Chablis: The exceptional Chardonnay

Yes, it is made from the Chardonnay grape, so why do so many people put aside their Chardonnay prejudice when it comes to Chablis? What makes Chablis so acceptable to people who otherwise hate this fabulous noble grape variety?

Like all Burgundy whites, you could class most Chablis as elegant and easy drinking. For the top wines, you could simply recline into an armchair and spend the rest of the evening nursing a glass in your hand and a grin on your face.

In Ireland we probably concern ourselves too much with the grape variety, but in France and the rest of the Old World it is the regionality that dictates the style. That is particularly true of Chardonnay, which is a variety that takes on the characteristics of the region and the influence of the winemaker in so many ways.

In the winery of a Chablis producer it is what the winemaker doesn’t do, as much as what the winemaker does do. They are quite ‘hands off’ compared to some of the New World winemakers who might be slightly more heavy handed with the use of oak (or advocates of malolactic fermenation). In Chablis it’s less about the oak and more about the ‘terroir’, or in other words the characteristics bestowed on the wine from the specific geographical, geological and climatic conditions of the specific area.

The Chablis vineyards lie to the northwest of the main Burgundy region, only a stones throw from the southern end of Champagne. Its cold terroir of limestone clay suits the Chardonnay grape well. Just about, because this is pretty much as far north as you could go to for growing Chardonnay for still white wine.

The wines can be so minerally you could almost crack a tooth. With an almost green colour in their youth, the flavours are subtle. Green hay, citrus-lemon acidity, green apple, perhaps a touch vegetal, and sometimes with a lick of gun flint. The judicious use of oak by the winemaker, if any, allows for those subtle flavours of the grape and soil to fully express itself.

The most basic level of Chablis, Petit Chablis, is much like any regional white Burgundy. This covers wines from land just outside the main appellation, and those wines from within sourced from vines that aren’t old enough to go into Chablis AC.

Above Chablis AC we have Chablis Premier Cru, where the wines come from supposedly better sites, perhaps with superior micro-climates and sun facing slopes. In truth, Premier Cru can be hit or miss in terms of value for money, as some less expensive Chablis AC is every bit as good, and in some cases better.

This is less so the case with Chablis Grand Cru, which are the richest, heaviest and most complex of all. These are strictly regulated and are best after five years from vintage. They also see more oak ageing than Chablis AC.

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