Chablis was never a place that could succeed in doing fancy. Now, it seems, that might have been its salvation. Today, it remains the great insider wine: Not because it hails from some unknown corner, but because this northernmost region of Burgundy offers the world’s clearest defense of terroir. Chablis is chardonnay in pure form, stripped of its bullshit.
A good Chablis virtually screams with a sort of gunflint smokiness, a signature of its chalky, mostly Kimmeridgian soils—those ancient seabeds, in Chablis’ case full of oyster fossils, that also help define the character of Champagne and other parts of Burgundy. In fact, the mineral character of the wine is so strong that the term “Chablis-like” has become, hilariously, something of an aspirational badge among chardonnay makers. (It’s not new; California wines of an earlier era, Mountain Chablis and such, similarly tried to steal the notion.) But you can’t be “Chablis-like” unless you’re in Chablis.
In recent years, though, Chablis has been whiplashed by a dose of raised expectations, of the same sort that have transformed Burgundy into a luxury good. The seven grand crus of Chablis, arranged on an expansive hill just across the Serein River from the town itself, may still be overcast by Burgundy’s shadow, but they have become tradable names themselves: Les Clos, Valmur, Bougros and so on. For that matter, the region’s top bottles—in particular, those from François Raveneau and René & Vincent Dauvissat—are today as desired as any top Burgundy.
Such are the perils of fame. Bottles from those two vignerons, in particular, have been populating Instagram in the past few years with such regularity that, if I could sell all the Raveneau that’s graced my phone’s screen, I’d be writing this from my own baronial estate rather than an Airbnb in Burgundy. The supply of those wines, always limited, has naturally become scarcer than ever; wine buyers today erupt in howls of consternation that there’s not enough to go around. (Although you have to wonder, per Instagram, how many are getting high on their own supply?)
This is a frustrating situation, to be sure, but it is also ironic because, until the past decade, demand was never really an issue in Chablis. Even grand cru bottles could be found without much trouble, and there was, if anything, too much regular Chablis, from yields that were often way too high—all of which explains why it was long regarded as something not terribly interesting, aside from its Frenchness.
That was the past. Chablis as it stands today is very much a totem for the type of wines—full of character, free from intrusive winemaking—that are defining wine’s current zeitgeist. Yes, there are other newly fashionable whites from more obscure postal codes, so many that it’s easy to overlook this most non-edgy of wines. But then you would be missing something that even most of the special examples elsewhere in Burgundy don’t offer: a crystal-clear prism into why chardonnay remains insanely beloved.
That irony with Chablis is magnified by the fact that, if you can stop clinging to the region’s few culty names, there is a remarkable diversity to drink today, thanks to a blossoming of talent there from both new arrivals and established names that are finally reaching American shores. This began a while back (even six years ago a Chablis lover could find a new treasure trove to embrace), but the roster has expanded quite a bit; if you haven’t been hanging in the Chablis section of the wine shop in the past couple years, take another look. You will find a host of new and worthy names: Moreau-Naudin, Duplessis, Jean-Pierre Grossot and so on.
The flurry of new arrivals wouldn’t have come if the wines didn’t have a new set of eager suitors. It’s also testament to a lot of new energy in a region that certainly needed it—earnest winemakers who are glad to leave Chablis’ old reputation in the past while also fending off this bad habit of turning its grand crus into more fodder for rich guys in sport coats and True Religion jeans. They want Chablis to fully thrive on its timeless charms, living in but not succumbing to the modern age. And they’re making it so.
2014 Patrick Piuze “Terroir de Courgis” Chablis | $25
Seeing as just six years ago, he was essentially the new kid in town, it’s hard to imagine applying the word “classic” to Canadian-born Piuze, who got his Chablis legs as cellarmaster for Jean-Marc Brocard. But after some growing pains, his wines have found their footing and become benchmarks for what classic means in Chablis today.
Old barrels for texture without wood flavors, hand-picking, a lot of oxygen exposure before fermentation (which can mute aromas but makes for a longer-lasting wine)—his wines have all the marks of smart, traditional white winemaking.
While Piuze makes a range of grand and premier crus, his most novel idea might have been to bottle his entry-level wines by their respective villages—a rare window into the variability of Chablis terroir at affordable prices. I’ll admit a sentimental fondness for the quaint village of Courgis—pop. 271—tucked in a valley four miles southwest of Chablis, which is short on premier crus, but perhaps because of a bit of clay topsoil, seems to yield a fuller, softer wine.
Such is the case here, with more ripe citrus fruit to balance its stony side—and a rush of 2014-style acidity. Ripe, yes, but not creamy or plump; its pointed edges and flinty minerality are all you could want from Chablis. [Buy] Importer: David Bowler Wine
See also: Christian Moreau, Louis Michel, Laurent Tribut, Jean-Pierre Grossot
2014 Moreau-Naudet Chablis | $29
As Stéphane Moreau took over his family’s domaine in 1999, he seems an unlikely discovery, but only recently have the wines found a real audience in the U.S. Moreau is of that mold of Chablis rebels—Dauvissat, once upon a time—in aiming for longer aging and a particularly meticulous sort of farming, even implementing elements of biodynamics, which remains rare in chemical-loving Chablis.
The wines don’t necessarily shout on first encounter. His basic Chablis, from the town of Préhy, comes across as quiet, almost brittle. But it’s also stylish, with more than it lets on; with a bit of time, that stony aspect appears, and it finds its edge. Leave it in the fridge for a day and it’ll emerge precise and mineral-packed—a pristine, awesome example of Chablis. [Buy] Importer: Grand Cru Selections
See also: Domaine Pattes Loup, Domaine Les Temps Perdus, Château de Béru, Vincent Dampt
2013 Domaine Oudin Premier Cru “Vaugiraut” Chablis | $30
Daughters Nathalie and Isabelle have taken over from their parents, Jean-Claude and Christine Oudin, who left Paris in 1988 to take over vines owned by Christine’s family around Chichée.
The wines gained a solid reputation in the 1990s, but it’s only now, with the generational shift, that they’re finding a broader audience—perhaps because of the new blood, and perhaps because of the largely organic farming. More likely, both.
Vaugiraut is among the lesser-known premier crus, located a bit south of the grand crus on the right back of the Serein River, but its steep slopes and southerly exposure provide a bit more expansiveness and flesh, without going too far. The Oudins’ winemaking amplifies this, with a year in tank on the lees adding a silken density to match its saltiness and green flavors. It’s austere but plush—a yin-yang tension that marks a good higher-end Chablis—and, frankly, it’s welcome to find one at this price. [Buy] Importer: Jenny & Francois Selections
See also: Alice and Olivier de Moor, Gérard Duplessis
The Total Deal
2014 L&C Poitout “Bienommée” Chablis | $22
Catherine and Louis Poitout control 18 hectares in Fleys, and while their mode of Chablis is a bit more by-the-book—which is to say, a leaner, no-fat expression—the Bienommée is a reminder of how lovable that brisk, more old-fashioned style can be. From older vines in the east-facing Vaudat parcel (in Villy), this is a window into Chablis in a more traditional form. It’s lighter and stony, for sure, with more caraway seed spice than serious fruit. But that’s the point of Chablis, no? Fruit can be found elsewhere. And it’s priced the way Chablis used to be, before the hedge-funders started drinking it. [Buy] Importer: Vinotas Selections
Pro tip: Keep an eye out for Poitout’s L’Inextinct: It’s a Petit Chablis, thanks to the soils, but made from century-old ungrafted vines.
See also: Vincent Mothe, Daniel Dampt