“During these times, we all need an escape,” says Victoria James, sommelier of Cote in New York City. “Traveling via a bottle of Chablis is the perfect way to do so.” For James and so many other wine professionals, Chablis not only represents the region’s deeply rooted tradition in growing and producing white wines of outstanding quality made from 100 percent chardonnay, but also offers an example of its potential for diversity and versatility in the years to come.
Located halfway between Paris and Dijon in the north of Bourgogne and divided in two by the Serein river, Chablis has been the site of vineyards since the Romans’ first forays into winemaking between the first and third centuries A.D. Later, in the 12th century, Cistercian monks cultivated vineyards that became the model for the following millennia.
“We love Chablis for its ability to easily convey what we mean when we use the term ‘terroir,’” says Beau Rapier, of Flatiron Wines in San Francisco, referring to the appellation’s Kimmeridgian soils, which were formed over 150 million years ago and contain chalky marl, a rich layer of oyster shells and seashells and marly limestone. “Talking to customers about the Kimmeridgian soils that are necessary to the laser-like focus and delicious, saline minerals of Chablis AOC while comparing that to the slightly softer, fruitier Petit Chablis AOC—which does not require the same geology—is a wonderful lesson,” says Rapier. The latter appellation, Petit Chablis, which falls on both sides of the Serein, has soils from the Tithonian age composed of hard brown limestone or silt and sand, producing rounder, fatter wines balanced by lively acidity.
- Located halfway between Paris and Dijon in the north of Bourgogne, Chablis’ first vines were grown by the Romans between the first and third centuries A.D.
- Though some growers are experimenting with other grape varieties, chardonnay is the main grape grown in Chablis.
- Chablis is grown on Kimmeridgian soil, which is made up of chalky marl, marly limestone and a layer of oyster shells and other seashells, lending the wines a focused minerality and their typical crisp, clean flavor.
- Petit Chablis is grown on sandy, silty soils infused with hard brown limestone, giving the wines aromas of fruit and white flowers, balanced acidity and a salty crispness.
- The appellations offer options for drinkers seeking easygoing, everyday wines as well as those interested in classic French Bourgogne.“[Chablis and Petit Chablis are in the] magical category between crowd-pleaser and wine geek cerebral,” says Justin Coleman, of Monarch Wine Merchants in Charleston.
- “Chablis and Petit Chablis have another great trick up their sleeve: value,” says Beau Rapier, of Flatiron wines in San Francisco. Many excellent producers on the market today offer releases that start around $20 and rarely break $50.
“People should try Petit Chablis, because the warmer vintages make the wine more densely fruited and more complex, with more nuance because the grapes can get riper,” says June Rodil, a partner in Goodnight Hospitality in Houston. She recommends looking out for René and Vincent Dauvissat’s Petit Chablis, which tends to be more accessible and affordable than its allocated counterparts from Chablis.
Perhaps the single most common sentiment when it comes to Chablis and Petit Chablis wines regards their approachable nature. The poster child for the current white wine zeitgeist of crisp, clean and crowd-pleasing, the appellations deliver all three while maintaining clout with collectors and professionals, too. John Paterson, of the Frankies Spuntino Group in Brooklyn, stocks a range of options in his restaurants. “Though there are plenty of special-occasion options deep in our cellar, we try to put relatively affordable options front and center, with an eye for dryness, fresh acidity and just a touch of fruit. The stuff you want to drink all the time.”
The approachability extends to price point, too. Rapier cites producers like Louis Michel, Gilbert Picq and Patrick Piuze among others as excellent examples of the appellation’s wines, which start around $20 and rarely break $50. Paterson recommends looking out for the wines of Moreau-Naudet made by Virginie Moreau, which he calls “a fantastic bargain” and “a far cry from the old guard.”
Though Chablis wines have a long history in the canon of French wine, many industry professionals are looking for the region’s producers who are pushing boundaries. “Rich in history and tradition, it’s also a site of so much forward-thinking activity, of winemakers who really let the vineyards speak for themselves,” says Paterson. Justin Coleman, of Monarch Wine Merchants in Charleston, recommends the wines of Eleni and Edouard Vocoret as an example of those that straddle progressive thought and classical ideals. By making wines across a broad range, he says, the young couple “have a new energy and perspective on a traditional place” for wines with a “delicious brightness.”
Likewise, Justin Vann, wine buyer for Theodore Rex in Houston, looks to Alice and Olivier De Moor for the ideal balance between progressive and classic. “What stands out to me about De Moor is that they fall into a rarified wine category,” Vann says. “That is, beloved by both the established, classic wine world and the natural wine world.” When visiting the estate earlier this year, he had the opportunity to taste through the couple’s cellar, discovering much beyond chardonnay, including their aligoté, riesling, sauvignon blanc and red and white blends.
Resoundingly, both retailers and sommeliers find Chablis to be infinitely versatile with food. “The combination of focus and minerality makes them easy pairings,” says Rapier, who tells customers to try them with oysters (“obviously”), sushi and tempura. James likes to think beyond seafood: “Just as these wines are served in traditional Parisian cafés with a pot of cornichons and Dijon mustard, they go brilliantly with our Korean fare—fermented and pickled vegetables as well as hot Korean mustard.”
Affordable, approachable and infinitely pairable, the Bourgogne stronghold “has stood the test of time” in James’ view, yet its wines have evolved to sate a new generation of drinkers. Where once they were a touch more austere, today, says James, “They’re full of sunshine and cheer.”
PRODUCERS OFF THE BEATEN PATH
In its fourth generation, Domaine Besson is a 21-hectare family estate producing Chablis, Petit Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru.
Domaine Charly Nicolle
Having learned the craft of winemaking and growing from his father, Charly Nicolle now lives in his great-grandfather’s house near his vineyards in Fleys, where he makes all four levels of Chablis.
Working in partnership with estates across Burgundy, La Manufacture makes wines with a rigorous eye for quality based on long-term relationships in the region.
Nathalie et Gilles Fèvre
With a history that goes back to the early 19th century, the Fèvre family today makes wine on 47 hectares.
Domaine Gilbert Picq
A new generation has taken over this renowned estate, tending the land by hand, using indigenous yeast fermentations and aging in stainless steel across all bottlings.