Chablis is a pretty but inconsequential looking town just over 100km north of Burgundy. There are none of the great chateaux or domaines of Bordeaux or Burgundy here. Spend half an hour loitering in the town square and it is hard to believe this is the epicentre of one of the world’s most famous wine regions.
In fact, until last autumn I had almost given up on Chablis. I had been served so many glasses of thin, tinny, pale liquid purporting to be “Chablis” that I had simply lost faith in the place. Mass production and brand exploitation were not doing it any favours.
But I had a moment (or in this case a mouthful) of epiphany just before Christmas, when I opened a bottle of Chablis Premier Cru, and was reminded what all the fuss was about. It was a delicious wine, with a hint of oak and the wonderful citrusy, flinty taste the wine is renowned for. Interestingly enough it came from Vocoret, which is one of the less highly-rated winemakers in the region. Considering the prices for white burgundy, its southern neighbour, are whizzing into orbit (a drinkable bottle of Meursault will now set you back £25-£30), I thought it was time to reappraise the region and the wines. Not all Chablis is created equal and you need to buy carefully, here more than almost anywhere.
The question is: how can a single appellation produce such good and bad wines? The answer is partly one of geography and one of commerce. Chablis is one of France’s most northerly wine making regions, so growing grapes here is tough. Many years there’s simply not enough sunshine and the growers face an annual battle to prevent late frosts destroying the blossom. So, when drinking Chablis, pick your vintage carefully – opt for hot sunny summers and skip the wash outs. At the moment that means stocking your cellar with 2010, drinking up 2005 and avoiding 2011 and 2009.
There is a caste system in place in Chablis that is directly relevant to what you drink. Bottom of the heap are the so-called “Petit Chablis”. To my mind this is rather like an estate agent telling you somewhere is “Maida Vale borders” when you know it’s Kilburn. Many Petit Chablis display the worst aspects of the region. The local growers and winemakers know that Chablis is a global brand they can exploit – and they don’t hold back. Many pick the grapes by machine, so the ripe and unripe are piled in together, and then make mean-spirited wines in large steel vats and sell them for more than double what they would fetch elsewhere. But then comes Chablis proper, then Chablis Premier Cru, and top of the heap Chablis Grand Cru. Taste some of the Premier and Grand Crus and you would be forgiven for wondering if they come from the same planet as the cheap imposters. The vines are all grown on south-facing slopes, catching every last ray of sun, the grapes picked lovingly and the wines matured for just long enough in oak barrels. The best are simply sublime.
So choosing Chablis is like choosing any wine, only more so. Don’t be gulled by the brand – get to know your growers and vintages and be aware that cheap Chablis is the opposite of a bargain.
THREE TO FOLLOW
One for the weekend
Chablis Vocoret 2010 (Majestic, £9.99) The lesser cousin of the wine that made me change my mind. Nicely balanced with a lemony finish
One to impress the neighbours
Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos 2008 (Marks & Spencer £38).
This is a bit of a find. Les Clos is one of the most sought after fields in all of Chablis and wine of this quality is scarce. Snap this up and serve when you want to impress.
One to tuck away
2011 Chablis Grand Cru Valmur, Jean-Paul Droin (Lay & Wheeler £205 for six, duty paid).
An excellent wine at a good price. It won't age like the 2010s but well worth keeping for 2 to 4 years.