The cool fresh scents of early spring have arrived and gardens of green are beginning to sprout. The new season is here so its incumbent on us to pick ideal spring wines.
Sauvignon Blanc, Albarino and fresh sparklers are all good candidates but to me the perfect spring wine is Chablis. More than just a few of my fellow wine enthusiasts consider Chablis to be the most pure and genuine expression of Chardonnay.
Tale of struggles
Most great wines, like humans, must struggle before attaining greatness. Vines that have it easy tend to make friendly yet indifferent wines while vines that struggle sometimes make great wines. Chablis is a perfect example.
First there’s the weather. Next to Champagne and Alsace, the region of Chablis is the most northerly in France. Separated by 100 kilometers from the Cote d’Or, this northern outpost of Burgundy experiences cold temperatures and weather extremes. Spring frosts are a particular threat to immature buds before they become grapes. Severe weather at harvest time is another risk.
Despite climatic challenges, the history of winemaking in Chablis is long and rich. The 3rd century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus was said to have favored Chardonnay.
First planted in the region in the 12th century, the earliest documented mention of Chablis dates back to 510. Chardonnay was first planted in the region by the Cistercian monks in the 12th century.
Chablis’ proximity to Paris meant wines could be easily transported to the capital via the Yonne River and therefore the wine became a favorite of French kings and nobility. For nearly a millennium the region prospered until the mid 16th century when the Huguenots ransacked the town of Chablis and surrounding vineyards. It would be two centuries until winemaking recovered.
Much of the 19th century was a period of prosperity for Chablis with production growing and the wine trade thriving. By mid century there were 40,000 hectares under cultivation. Then a triple whammy of odium mildew, phylloxera pests and a new railway system that connected other wine regions to Paris caused a steep drop in production.
The 20th century was no kinder with two world wars. By the 1950s only 550 hectares of vines were under cultivation. In 1957, a severe spring frost decimated the crop and an astoundingly meager 132 bottles of Chablis were made. The future of this once great wine seemed bleak indeed.
But even during its darkest hours Chablis had loyal fans who craved its stylish, pure and lean characteristics. New technology helped protect against frost and slowly Chablis started ascending to its rightful position as one of the world’s great white wines. But it’s not just the region’s august history that makes Chablis the ideal spring wine.
Spring like qualities
In the wine world we love to say that Chablis is the perfect wine for those who don’t like Chardonnay.
Of course, Chablis is 100 percent Chardonnay but due to the climate, soils and winemaking, Chablis wines are fresher, more delicate and racy than the more fruity, oaky and rounder Chardonnays of the more southern regions of Burgundy. Chablis wines also exhibit distinctive steely or mineral characteristics.
Another very spring like property of Chablis has to do with the color green. When deciding the topic for this week’s column one of my perspicacious friends at Shanghai Daily suggested I should pick a green wine.
At first thought this seems strange but indeed there are wines that can be described as greenish and Chablis is one of them. The classic color of young Chablis wines is a vivid greenish-yellow that often becomes more golden yellow with age.
Understanding the various appellations or levels of wines in France is a challenge. When introducing the quality levels of Chablis I like to make an analogy to commercial air travel. First class is Grand Cru Chablis, business class is Premier Cru, super economy can be viewed as Chablis AC and economy is Petit Chablis. If Chablis actually were a commercial airline it would be one of the best as even the economy wines can be quite good. With this in mind, let’s start our liquid journey at the back of the plane.
Petit Chablis denotes wines made from vineyards that are the farthest away from Chablis town. These are the lightest and least expensive Chablis wines and they should be consumed young. Chablis AC wines are the largest category by far and vary in quality from good to very good. Both wines have no or very little oak used in the winemaking process and their light and fresh qualities make them very suitable for salads and light seafood dishes. I often serve them with sashimi and sushi.
Premier Cru Chablis wines range from good to excellent and in my opinion feature the best price-quality ratio. Compared to the Premier Cru wines of Cote d’Or they’re quite reasonably priced and they deliver a sophisticated and elegant drinking experience. There are approximately 40 Premier Cru vineyards in Chablis and three of my favorite are Montee de Tonnerre, Mont de Milieu and Montmains. See one of these names on the label and you’re likely getting an excellent wine.
Grand Cru Chablis wines are among the greatest white wines in the world offering refinement, intensity and complexity. While by no means cheap they routinely outperform much more expensive Burgundy whites from the south. The seven grand cru vineyards are Les Clos, Vaudesir, Valmur, Grenouilles, Blanchot, Les Preuses and Bougros. Both premier and grand cru Chablis wines are best with elegant seafood or white meat dishes as well as high-quality soft French cheeses. I also love to serve them with robustly flavored Shanghai style fish dishes.
Once you decide the level of Chablis you desire the next step is picking a producer.
One easy-to-find producer is La Chabliseinne, the largest cooperative in the region that accounts for almost 30 percent of production in the region. Their wines are well-made, reasonably priced and representative in style. Other excellent Chablis specialist producers I look for are Domaine Larouche, William Fevre and Christian Moreau. Big Burgundy producers like Joseph Drouhin and Louis Jadot also make good Chablis wines.
Region and style at a glance
Chardonnay is the most famous white wine variety that makes some of the world’s best wines with many of the most dry and distinctive examples coming from Chablis.
Minerality — a positive descriptor used to describe wines that have mineral or stone like aromas and or tastes. Bone dry — used to describe totally dry wines, the driest of dry wines.