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Village Chablis

Based upon my recent assessments, wine from Chablis is as relevant to our market today as it’s ever been. Despite the Recession-fueled downturn in French imports overall and Burgundy in particular, village level Chablis remains viable at a relatively moderate cost and, perhaps more to the point, it provides an aromatic and flavor thrill that is totally unique. In other words, despite the ironic twist that some California producers continue to “borrow” the name, authentic Chablis is still one of the ultimate terroir wines and nothing else comes even close to mimicking its unique personality.

The 2OO7 Burgundy vintage provided a challenge that, more so than usual, separated quality producers from the rest of the pack, especially up north in the Yonne where Chablis is situated. Due to the region’s highly atypical, early, hot springtime followed by rain and unseasonably cold temperatures through August, the imperative was to keep yields low and select only the healthiest grapes at harvest. Achieving adequate ripeness levels in Chablis was problematic for many growers. Even so, an unusual number of wines in my annual blind tasting left a flat unstructured impression on the palate. Instead of featuring too much acidity, they unexpectedly had too little. To me there is no greater sin in Chablis than producing a wine whose flavors fall flat. It’s akin to making a dull Sauvignon Blanc. Chablis should have a shimmering purity on the palate, there should always be a sharp somewhat bone dry edge to the flavors because, even though these are Chardonnays, the grape is only a medium here for the stony cool climate terroir to express itself.

Happily, I can report that the good village wines of 2OO7 are very fine indeed, more classically “Chablis” in structure than we’ve seen in a number of years. That is, they have sufficient “cut” and freshness as well as complexity and flesh on the palate to be well worth recommending to a new generation of wine consumers who may not know much about Chablis or even why it might be of interest. If any shellfish lover has previously experienced Chablis, however, they should be aware that well chosen 2OO7s deserve an honored place at their table. Additionally, their freshness, mineral saltiness and fine acids suggest the possibility of four or five years of development in the bottle. But the best news could well be that the 2OO8s appear equally high in quality, so there is no urgency as such to buy 2OO7s. If anything, a preliminary tasting of 2OO8 AOC Chablis indicates that the wines may have even a bit more ripeness and creaminess, without sacrificing structure or definition at all.

The following Chablis are all blind tasting winners, wines that are not only typical of what the village level offers but have special attributes that make them stand out.  What most shares is vinification and maturation without recourse to aging in oak, although they do all spend an extended period aging on the lees.  Not that there isn’t some amazing wood aged Chablis (see Raveneau, Dauvissat, etc.) but at the village level the phenolics imparted can often overwhelm one’s perception of fruit.  The wines below are listed in ascending order of preference and I’ve included notes on one particularly good Premier Cru at the end which strikes me as classic in its aging capacity.

This first generation estate producer has been particularly impressive, in an understated somewhat low key chalky style, the past few vintages.  Medium in color, the wine’s aromas show an intriguing green herb, almost vegetal complexity, with lactic, yeasty and mineral characters prominent.  Fresh baked soft doughy pretzels is how the nose struck me at first whiff.  The acids are particularly fine and vibrant, reinforced with tart saltiness, while there is only a light graceful touch of alcohol.  If you like an uncompromising, somewhat aggressive Chablis style, as I do, one comfortable flaunting its citric muscle, this is a well crafted example that would be quintessential with raw shellfish.

Michel was one of the first producers to make a break with the past and vinify solely in stainless, back in the 197Os.  At a period when estates were vying with one another to pack more extract into their wine, there was always a steely crystalline directness that Michel’s Chablis featured.  More recently, however, others have bypassed them.  “Clean but not interesting” is a common note tasting the wines blind over the years.  It’s my impression that 2OO7 is a return to form.  This pale colored Chablis features a delicate apple, earth and herb aroma with pleasing tart fruit and a stony mineral finish.  It is moderate in style, with adequate acids, a touch of yeast (from eight months on the lees) and just enough ripe fleshiness to complement a filet of sole in a lemon buerre blanc.

This is a venerable Chablis domaine the negociant firm Louis Latour purchased in 2OO3 that also makes wonderful Cremant and Sauvignon de St. Bris.  Their wines are generally very precise.  This village Chablis exudes a floral aroma, with heady accents of lemon peel, bread dough and salted nut minerality.  On the palate its juicy lemon and fresh herb flavors are direct and engaging.  The overall impression of freshness is balanced nicely with a slightly bitter herb character on the finish.  This would work nicely with a goat cheese salad.

This producer’s wines have done unfailingly well in my Chablis tastings over the years, but this village Chablis certainly has the most personality (and represents a significant quality step upward from the preceding three wines) since the benchmark 2OO4 vintage.  Like the other fine 2OO7s, it’s defined by high acidity and light body.  There’s more of a spray of lemon juice on the nose, with a toasted grain impression and hints of chalkiness and green apple.  What sets it apart though is a layered feel on the palate that adds dimension, as well as the lingering tang of salinity in the finish.  This strikes me as a fine match for mussels or steamers.
This Chablis, from a producer whose wines I’d never previously experienced, really stood apart from the crowd.  It’s delicate, in the manner you’d expect from a village Chablis, but there is nuance and balance all the way through from the aroma to the initial palate impression to the finish.  A quintessential bone dry, minerally seafood wine that is understated and savory by turns, this is clearly made to a higher standard, with the undefinable “class” and concentration that you’d see in a good Premier Cru.  The aromas vibrate with lemon and lime, sea salt and scents of flowers and herbs.  On the palate, the crisp, minerally, green apple-like flavors are both taut and juicy.  This is a wine that would complement a fleshier more flavorful fish, such as branzino or mahi. 

Fevre has gone from strength to strength in recent vintages and this Premier Cru continues the streak.  Toasty and warm on the nose, with a perfume of ripe apple, it’s also got plenty of mineral, sea spray aromas that are quite appealing.  Measured and moderate but complex in style, this Montmains clearly has fuller fruit extraction than the village wines.  The finish is a great mélange of Meyer lemon and persistent saltiness.  This would be great for the cellar or to enjoy now with a buttery lobster dish.