When I tell people that I don't drink much Chardonnay, I'm not exactly speaking the complete truth. True, I hardly ever buy varietal wines named 'Chardonnay,' or order them in restaurants. But I certainly drink more than my fair share of Chablis, other assorted white Burgundies that I can afford, and Blanc de Blancs Champagnes, all of which are made entirely from the Chardonnay grape. It's just that the rich, oaky style of New World Chardonnays--whether they be from California, Australia, Chile, etc.--doesn't appeal to me. Instead, give me the liveliness, minerality, and firm acidity of cool-climate whites such as Chablis, wines that really go well with food at the dinner table.
I always feel a bit guilty when my fellow wine writers are bashing Chardonnay (and I join in!) because, for me, many of the world's best wines are made from Chardonnay--they just all happen to be from France! Two regions in France, Chablis and Champagne's Côte des Blancs, have a great deal in common: generally cool climate, and lots of chalky limestone in the soil, ideal for growing Chardonnay. Chablis has a type of chalky clay called Kimmeridgian, which contains fragments of billions of fossilized oyster shells, deposited by the sea which once covered Chablis, eons ago. All of this makes the Chablis district a perfect white wine location, when the climate cooperates.
And consumers seem to be agreeing. Even though many wine regions in France have been losing ground in sales, particularly in the U.S. with the dollar so weak vs. the euro, export sales have been increasing for Chablis (and Champagne), in the U.S. and worldwide. One reason cited for Chablis' success is that it is primarily an unoaked Chardonnay, what consumers seem to be looking for nowadays. Generally speaking, about two-thirds of all Chablis is unoaked; the more expensive Chablis, Grand Cru and some Premier Cru, are fermented and aged in oak, but usually not new oak.
The wines of Chablis have four different appellations:
1. Petit Chablis (from the area farthest from the town of Chablis; not the most desirable soil; least expensive; most of it stays in France).
2. Chablis (largest category by far; also known as 'Chablis AC'; can be quite decent in good vintages; retails in U.S. for about $25; drink within five or six years of the vintage).
3. Chablis Premier Cru (usually, the name of the Premier Cru Vineyard is on the label; sometimes just '1er Cru'; quite a big step up in quality from Chablis AC; generally retails in U.S. for $35 to $40; can age and improve for ten years or more in good vintages).
4. Chablis Grand Cru (the name of one of the seven Grand Cru vineyards: Les Clos, Vaudésir, Valmur, Grenouilles, Blanchots, Les Preuses, or Bougros is on the label; retails for over $60, with a few prestigious producers, such as Raveneau and René & Vincent Dauvissat, over $100; can age and improve for 15 years or more in good vintages).
Certainly Grand Cru Chablis are the most intensely flavored, the most concentrated and most long-lived Chablis. But for my money, Premier Cru Chablis offer the best value, being only slightly more expensive than Chablis AC and yet a big step up in quality. About 40 Premier Cru vineyards exist around the town of Chablis; the six most widely known are:
1. Montée de Tonnere
2. Mont de Milieu
6. Les Forêts (aka Forest)
The Premier Crus beginning with the letter 'M' are usually my favorites.
Generally, the producers who ferment and briefly age their Chablis in oak--such as Raveneau or René & Vincent Dauvissat--make a more full-bodied style of Chablis; producers who use no oak or very little oak, such as Louis Michel or Christian Moreau, opt for a more elegant, racier style of wine (Christian Moreau judiciously uses a little used oak along with stainless steel tanks for aging). Most styles can age well; I've recently tasted 1997 (a warm vintage) and 1998 Louis Michel Premier and Grand Crus; neither year was considered a particularly good Chablis vintage, and yet the wines have aged well (although some '97s are showing their age).
I am very concerned about the recent global warming for many reasons--not the least of which is the effect it is having on my favorite cool-climate wines, such as Chablis. I remember a Chablis tasting of the 2000 vintage about five years ago; some guy was raving about the wines, and announced that he was going to buy cases of it. I smiled weakly at him, and said nothing. What I thought to myself was, 'This guy really doesn't know Chablis.' Now I know that I was being intolerant --or worse yet, a wine snob--but I was upset because I really love Chablis, but only when the vintage is NOT TOO WARM!
Over the past decade, Chablis vintages that I have tried to avoid are 1997, 2000, 2003, and 2005. The last vintage mentioned is a fascinating case in point: 2005 was a terrific vintage for Bordeaux and for red Burgundy, but not that great for white Burgundy, especially Chablis. (I should note here that some wine writers have written favorably about 2005 Chablis; I disagree, with the exception of a few top producers.) A simple fact: in general, white wines do better in cooler vintages.
Bordeaux vintages get so much publicity that they often color consumers' judgments re: other regions. Take 2002, not a very good year in Bordeaux. And yet, 2002 is a great year for both red and white Burgundy, and is a fabulous year for Chablis. My favorite recent vintages for Chablis, all on the cool side, are 1995, 1996, 2002, 2004, and now 2006. Chablis, when young, is pale straw in color, with hints of green, turning light gold with age. It is medium-bodied, bone dry, and in a good vintage has lively acidity, concentrated, delicate, minerally aromas and flavors with hints of green apple that linger quite long on the palate.
I just returned from Burgundy, and spent a day tasting the 2006 vintage in the village of Chablis. It was cool and rainy in this tiny village of less than 3,000 inhabitants--a two-hour drive southeast of Paris. The damp weather did not dampen my spirits because I really enjoyed tasting the 2006s. The wines are generally a bit light-bodied and will be ready to drink soon, but they are delightful. They exhibit delicacy, concentration, firm acidity, and minerality. For me, they're considerably better than 2005 Chablis, and possibly better than 2004, but not quite in the same league as the 2002s.
One final word about Chablis: even with the weak dollar, the wines of Chablis remain one of the greatest values of any fine wines in the world.
The following are some 2006 Chablis that I tasted recently (with a few older wines added). The 2006 vintage has just been released, and so I did not assign point ratings to individual '06 wines. Nor are prices always listed; some were not available. But just about all the Grand Cru and Premier Cru '06s that I tasted are 90+ wines:
Domaine Jean-Claude Bessin, Chablis 1er Cru (France) Forêt 2006 (Kysela Pere et Fils): Lighter-bodied, elegant style; very minerally aromas and flavors just sing across the palate. Delightful and lovely even now. Even better than Bessin's Fourchaume 1er Cru.
Domaine Daniel Dampt et Fils, Chablis 1er Cru (France) Côte de Léchet 2006 ($33, T. Edward Wines): Daniel and Dominique Dampt share the Côte de Léchet Premier Cru Vineyard with the DeFaix Family. What they also share are some of the great-value Premier Cru Chablis available from this lesser-known vineyard. The '06 Dampt Côte de Léchet has excellent acidity with very fine, delicate citrus aromas and flavors. A great buy.
Domaine Louis Michel et Fils, Chablis 1er Cru (France) Montmains 2006 ($35, Vineyard Brands): For those who prefer the stainless steel/unoaked approach to Chablis; Louis Michel is perhaps the greatest proponent of this style. His entire lineup of '06 Chablis is impressive. The Montmains is just excellent, with super minerality, lemony flavors, elegance and racy acidity.
Domaine Louis Michel et Fils, Chablis 1er Cru (France) Montée de Tonnerre 2006 ($42, Vineyard Brands): Montée de Tonnerre is the most prestigious Premier Cru Chablis, and generally more expensive than the others. The '06 is bigger, firmer, and more full-bodied than the other Louis Michel Premier Crus, and not as forward. In short, it's almost like a Grand Cru Chablis, without the high price tag. According to Jean-Loup Michel, Montée de Tonnerre has the finest soil and exposition of the Premier Cru vineyards. I loved it, but I would hold on to this wine a few years, and let it develop.
Domaine Simonnet-Febvre, Chablis 1er Cru (France) Mont-de-Milieu 2006 (Monsieur Touton Selection): Now owned by the Burgundy négociant Louis Latour. Mont-de-Milieu is this producer's most important Premier Cru vineyard. The '06 Mont-de-Milieu has a fineness and purity of citrus peel flavors, plus excellent minerality; Simonnet-Febvre's '06 Montée de Tonnerre is bigger and richer, but the Mont-de-Milieu captures the essence of the elegant 2006 vintage better.
Domaine Christian Moreau Père et Fils, Chablis 1er Cru (France) Vaillons 2006 ($40, Frederick Wildman): The name 'Moreau' is an institution in Chablis; the original Moreau Chablis firm was founded in 1814. Christian and his son Fabien are true descendents (the original firm, J.Moreau et Fils, was sold and has no connection to the family). The '06 Vailons, aged in 30% used oak, comes from vines that are up to 55 years old. It is racy, delicate, and intensely flavored with citrus and a touch of pear. Very minerally.
Domaine Jean Collet et Fils, Chablis Grand Cru (France) Valmur 2006 ($70; various importers): Jean Collet is one of the better producers ageing his Chablis in barriques. Valmur, his top Chablis, was aged100% in oak, 25% of which was new. The Collet '06 Valmur is powerful and rich, with aromas of citrus and a bit of oak, and strong notes of minerality. It needs several years to develop, but it will be excellent.
Domaine Bernard Defaix, Chablis 1er Cru (France) Côte de Léchet 2006 ($27, Winebow): Didier Defaix believes that his Côte de Léchet is his most age-worthy Premier Cru. When you consider that this wine is retailing for the price of a Chablis AC, it is a fantastic value. Fairly light-bodied, but minerally and crisp, with flinty flavors.
Domaine Jean et Sébastien Dauvissat, Chablis 1er Cru (France) Montmains 2006 ($40, Rosenthal Wine Merchant): Jean and his son Sébastien Dauvissat use both stainless steel and used oak to age their Chablis. All of Jean Dauvissat's '06s are excellent; the '06 Montmains is my favorite among his Premier Crus. It is clean with great acidity and minerality. Great Chablis!
Domaine Joseph Drouhin, Chablis Grand Cru (France) Les Clos 2006 ($88, Dreyfus, Ashby): Joseph Drouhin's 2006 Chablis wines clearly outshine his 2005s. As expected, the '06 Drouhin Les Clos is big, powerful, and complex, and needs several years to develop. The great thing about Joseph Drouhin is that his wines are so available nationally, and yet this firm has always been one of the quality leaders in Chablis.
Domaine Daniel-Etienne Defaix, Chablis 1er Cru (France) Côte de Léchet 2006 ($32, Rosenthal Wine Merchant): Daniel Defaix's 2006 Chablis wines are excellent; all aged in stainless steel. His vines' average age is 40 years old. The '06 Côte de Léchet is a real standout among his Premier Crus; it's very fresh, clean, and lemony, with great acidity. A great value!
Domaine Laroche, Chablis Grand Cru (France) Les Blanchots 2006 ($75, Rémy- Cointreau): Domaine Laroche, one of the largest Chablis producers, now has all of his wines with screwcaps, truly revolutionary for Burgundy and for France! Laroche's 2006s are clearly better than his '05s. I was particularly impressed with his Blanchots and Les Clos grand Crus. The '06 Blanchots is remarkably clean and fresh, with appealing minerally flavors. Give it a few more years to mature.
Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard, Chablis 1er Cru (France) Vau de Vey 2006 ($32, Martine's Wines; Lauber Imports): Jean-Marc Brocard is another champion of unoaked Chablis. Some of his vineyards are over 70 years old, and yet Brocard's prices are very reasonable. His '06 Vau de Vey is lovely; light-bodied, clean and fresh, with flinty, minerally aromas and flavors.
Domaine Jean Durup Père et Fils, Chablis 1er Cru (France) Montée de Tonnerre 2006 (various importers): Jean Durup also uses mainly stainless steel to age his Chablis. The '06 Montée de Tonnerre is excellent, very fresh and minerally, and quite forward for this Premier Cru. It should be ready to drink soon.
Domaine Long Depaquit, Chablis Grand Cru (France) Les Bougros 2006 ($60, Atherton Wine Imports): Owned by the huge négociant, Maison Albert Bichot, Domaine Long-Depaquit has extensive holdings among Grand Cru vineyards. Long-Depaquit's Grand Crus are among the most reasonably priced around. The Domaine uses about 20% oak for aging its wines, with hardly a trace of new oak. The '06 Bougros is a rich, minerally powerful Grand Cru, with a long, dry finish. It should be ready to drink within a few years.
Domaine William Fèvre, Chablis Grand Cru (France) Les Preuses 2006 ($95, Henriot USA): Since Joseph Henriot (of Champagne Henriot) purchased Domaine William Fèvre, along with Bouchard Père et Fils, there has been a remarkable upgrade in quality in both brands. All of Fèvre's Grand Crus are fermented and aged in barriques, almost entirely used, while the rest of its Chablis sees stainless steel. The '06 William Fèvre Les Preuses is a powerful wine, with aromas and flavors of apple, and excellent minerality. It will be a long ager. Very serious Chablis.
Domaine Louis Michel et Fils, Chablis Grand Cru (France) Vaudésir 2005 ($64, Vineyard Brands): I include this 2005 Chablis in my tasting notes because Louis Michel's wines often defy general vintage assessments; its 2005s are excellent! The Louis Michel '05 Vaudesir is a triumph; a powerhouse of a wine, with great acidity (Michel's '05 Les Clos is even more powerful!). The Vaudesir has a long, minerally finish; it will need more time to mature than the '06s. 93
Domaine Christian Moreau Père et Fils, Chablis Grand Cru (France) Les Clos 2005 ($75, Frederick Wildman): Christian Moreau's 2005 Chablis proved to be very fine--I wasn't surprised because he is consistently one of the top producers--although I believe his 2006s are even better. Les Clos (and 'Clos des Hospices,' from a small parcel of Les Clos owned by Moreau family) is the Chablis most associated with Christian Moreau. His '05 Les Clos is rich, powerful, and a bit ripe, with flavors of lemon and grapefruit, and excellent minerality. 92
Domaine Louis Moreau, Chablis Grand Cru (France) Clos des Hospices 2004 ($105, Terlato Wines International): Louis Moreau is a nephew of Christian Moreau and runs his own winery, although both share the ownership of the famed Clos des Hospices (part of Les Clos). The '04 Clos des Hospices is Chablis at its best in this vintage. Although a good vintage, 2004 has been criticized for being too lean. Not this excellent wine! It is powerful and rich, with floral and citrus notes, fine acidity and complex flavors. A Chablis that can easily age for 15 years. 95