Media Conversations

Chablis keeps it clean, unadorned

“When people return from a trip to the wine country, they often bring back a few bottles of liquid memory. I bring back rocks. A solid piece of a vineyard is my best memory touchstone.

“Of all my vineyard rocks, my favorites are my chunks from Chablis, the chardonnay producing region at the northernmost reach of Burgundy. They are blazingly white, the compacted seabed formed by billions of exoskeletons of minute sea creatures during the Jurassic, some 200 million years ago. They are chalk, just like what the nuns would flick at me when I mouthed off in grade school; I sometimes use my petite Chablis to write on my own teaching blackboards.

“They are, to me, the key to the greatness of Chablis. It is this subsoil of Chablis, Kimmeridgian clay to use its geologic name, that breaks out in places so greatly that it appears as if the vineyards were swaddled in snow. Other winemaking districts in France such as Sancerre and Champagne share this same soil and you can see the family resemblance — that incisive, lean, crisply acidic, sometimes-piercing linearity of these wines.

“Chablis is 100 percent chardonnay and, although it is Burgundian chardonnay, it is quite different from its cousins made of the same grape south of it, such as in Puligny or Macon. Chablis is not as rich in fruit as they are or can be; it is not voluptuous nor juicy.

“Compared to other white Burgundy, Chablis reminds me of something the character Antonio Salieri says in the 1984 movie, ‘Amadeus,’ about a single note in Mozart’s music: ‘high above it, an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight… filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing.”

“Chablis is about the persistence of line, of how chardonnay can focus and be pure. Sometimes, not very often at all, a bit of wood; oftentimes, and a great delight, minerals, white rock, chalk. But basically, it’s just clear, unadorned, sun-bright chardonnay.

“You get this experience at all levels of Chablis, from the little-seen Petit Chablis, to the great single vineyard ‘climats’ of grand cru Chablis such as Les Clos or Vaudesir. For my money, the best buys in Chablis come from the vineyards ranked premier cru, of which there are several in good distribution. They’re in the same price range that most of us are willing to pay for top-drawer American chardonnay.

“Here are several recommended Chablis:

“2009 Domaine Laroche Chablis Premier Cru “Les Vaudevey”: This vintage release is still on shelves, so there’s nice softening age and the beginnings of tertiary aroma development (mango jam, honeyed nuts).

“2009 Domaine Laroche Chablis Premier Cru “Les Vaillons Vieilles Vignes”: Perhaps the old vines lend it a richness and electricity you see more in Puligny than in Vaillons, but this is one delicious Chablis.”

Bill St. John, May 9, 2014
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Chablis keeps it clean, unadorned