A TOUCH OF STEEL
Back when big, oaky Ozzie Chardonnays were all the rage, an attitude called ‘ABC’ started to permeate the wine world. The in-your-face, one-dimensional nature of so many wines on the shelf meant that many consumers started to demand ABC: Anything But Chardonnay.
Most wine merchants and sommeliers will tell the same story from this era: customers who would knowingly tell them, “I don’t like Chardonnay – I’ll have a Chablis.”
The joke, of course, is that Chablis is, and always has been, made from 100% Chardonnay. But while such requests brought wry smiles to those in the know, actually it wasn’t such a silly thing to ask. Because whilst the most northerly of France’s still wine regions does indeed share the same grape variety as so much of the rest of the wine world, the bottles it produces are a world away from the oily, woody, mouth-filling stuff which gave Chardonnay a bad name.
The fact is that Chablis has never gone out of fashion, and it remains the elegant, steely, sophisticated wine that it ever was.
In theory part of the Burgundy vineyard, Chablis is in fact rather detached from the rest of this august region, being some 100 kilometres north of Beaune. Wine has been made here since Roman times, and it was a thriving region in the 19th century – its proximity to Paris gave it a ready market in the days before the railways opened up the south to this lucrative market.
Although badly hit by Phylloxera at the end of the century, it was the economic blow dealt by the railways which really led to Chablis’ nadir. From more than 4000 hectares under vine in 1899, it had declined to just 500 hectares by the 1950s. Even being given its own appellation in 1938 did little to halt the decline.
This wasn’t helped by geographic factors. Being so far north, frost and cold weather was a big issue, and making a stable living was pretty much impossible, especially given cut-priced competition from the south. It looked like Chablis would become just a historical wine name.
It was the development of effective protection against frost, coupled with a determined quality drive to differentiate Chablis from its over-producing southern competitors, which really put the region back on the road to recovery.
The renaissance of the brand wasn’t instant; even in the early 1980s, Chablis was largely unloved in France itself, with the vast bulk of production heading for export markets.
Although around a third of all Chablis is still made by the La Chablisienne co-operative, this is a region of staggering diversity – at least within the confines of a single-grape, largely homogenous-climate appellation. This is down to two factors: terroir, and oak.
There are seven named Grand Cru vineyards, all on one south-facing hill just outside the town of Chablis itself, and this rarity delivers intense wines and an intensive assault on your wallet. Next on the scale come the 40 Premier Crus, which account for just over a quarter of the Chablis appellation. The most common name you will see is simple Chablis, which can range from the mundane to the fabulous. Last comes the humble Petit Chablis appellation.
But within each of these denominations, you will find a surprising variety, and as well as the location and aspect of the vineyard itself, what goes on in the winery is important, especially the use, or not, of oak.
Until 50 years ago, Chablis was unique in the Chardonnay-producing world for using oak only as a storage medium, rather than a fermenting vessel. Then in the 1970s and 1980s, Chablis was not immune to the march of the oak barrel, and while some producers have returned to inert stainless steel vats to give a consistent, steely, minerally wine, others have stuck with the wood, making richer, more complex wine. There is no right or wrong answer; you simply have to taste and find out which suits your palate.
Although it may lack the rich opulence of a Côte d’Or Chardonnay, Chablis can lay claim to being one of the great white wines. The minerality, the steely acidity, the zingy freshness and, for the better wines at least, the capacity for ageing, all combine to ensure that this is one bastion of Chardonnay which is set to defy the fickle vicissitudes of fashion.
Three wines Andy has enjoyed this month
Picpoul de Pinet Les Flamants
Majestic, £7.32 when bought as part of a mixed case of six bottles
Picpoul is an increasingly popular grape giving crisp, fresh white wines with citrus flavours and floral, even salty notes. From its heartland around the Etang de Thau in the Languedoc, this is a great example; its lemony, minerally notes are the perfect foil for shellfish. And at this price, it’s something of a bargain.
Hidalgo Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana
Another wine with a salty tang is Manzanilla sherry, the driest style, made in the seaside town of Sanlucar de Barameda. Pasada means that the wines have been aged for longer before bottling, giving a richer style. This has a nutty, apply nose, with almonds, orange peel and a salty tang on the palate. A very fine aperitif.
Whispering Angel Côtes de Provence Rosé
Majestic, £17.99 when bought as part of a mixed case of six bottles
Nearly 20 quid for a Provence rosé might seem a lot when most of us regard this style of wine as something frivolous to be enjoyed on the patio, but this has substance to go with the strawberries and cream nose, with added notes of peach, rose water and orange blossom. On the palate it has summer berry fruits with citrus zest acidity and a sophisticated finish.
This article was first published in Feast Norfolk magazine.