Silly me with my silly Anglo-Saxon mind and its clunking obsession with logic and its silly need to categorise.
“So, Chablis, it’s all on the minerally side, isn’t it?”
“Ah. It’s basically unoaked, though, right?”
“Oh. But it’s always good with oysters, surely…”
“Hm. It’s an alcoholic beverage, though?”
I may have made that last one up, but that was the basic tenor of the tasting, with the charmingly frustrating Hervé Tucki from La Chablisienne disabusing me of all my half-formed ideas of what Chablis is or is supposed to be over the course of a couple of crisply acidic, green appley, melony and very occasionally pineappley hours.
My biggest discovery had to be the one about the oysters. Chablis, kimmeridgian soil (limestone soil formed from deposits of fossilised oyster shells), oysters – always a failsafe combo. So I thought. But trying the various wines on offer with the oysters and smoked salmon also laid on (good work, by the way, 28-50), I found that while some combinations definitely did sing, others just did not.
This became easier to understand by looking at the 3D map of the region with the other Chablis ambassador on hand, Sébastien Gay from Jean-Marc Brocard. Chablis, you see, is split in two by a river, the Serein (see blue squiggle below). Different winemaking styles, as well as different terroirs, exist on either bank.
It’s always the same grape – chardonnay – but seldom the same wine. On the left bank, you’ve got colder, windier weather conditions that generally (sorry, Hervé) produce a leaner, crisper, more mineral style. Here the winemaker is also more inclined to use steel tanks for maturation, rather than oak, meaning greater purity of fruit. These are the Chablis wines that you should enjoy with oysters. And, my God, what a pairing. In this case, look out for the Premier Cru names (or climats) Cote de Léchet, Montmains, Vaillons and Vau de Vey.
On the right bank, you have greater sun exposure and more dabbling with oak (though rarely to the extent seen in the rest of Burgundy), producing a richer, fatter style. These are the Chablis wines you should enjoy with smoked salmon, or fried/battered fish, rich, creamy sauces or creamy, stinky cheese. If you’re after something richer and fuller, look out for the Premier Crus Mont de Milieu, Montée de Tonnerre, Fourchaume and Vaucoupin.
Note also that the right bank is the location of all Chablis Grand Cru (go to this place for an explanation of the Chablis appellation system), which are the wines that are aged for longest and will almost always have been aged in oak, giving them the toastiness more associated with classic, rich white Burgundy a little bit further south.
Chablis are you oaky? Are you oaky, Chablis?
Chablis wines are very sparing in their use of oak, which is a plus point for me. AOC Petit Chablis and AOC Chablis avoid it altogether. You will rarely be able to detect a big hit of new oak (oak flavours gradually fade with each successive vintage for which the barrel is used) as you might in, say, a Meursault. Though I do love Meursaut as well… everything in its right place.
This has its roots in the wine’s commercial history. In the dim, distant past, Chablis wines were delivered in barrels by boat to Paris. These barrels were returned empty to Chablis to be filled again. By contrast, in Meursault, the barrels of wine were not returned after delivery, so the winemakers would always use new ones.
This generally (again, a thousand pardons, Hervé) means you get a crisper, leaner (wine buffs often use the word ‘austere’) wine. More apple, pear and citrus, less tropical fruit, and definitely less butter, vanilla and toast.
Young Chablis, especially from the left bank, is chardonnay at its most crystalline. An expression of the grape at the very threshold of ripenability (it’s almost on the same latitude as Champagne). Its so pale and watery-looking that its liveliness and flavour can almost come as a shock.
I haven’t tried a lot of older vintage Chablis, but I know it can develop complexity of flavour easily on a par with the best fine white Burgundy out there – yet you can buy a Grand Cru Chablis for about half the price of Corton-Charlemagne.
Mineral? Sometimes, but not always. Unoaked? Again, can be but it’s far from a defining characteristic. Good with oysters? Again, yes and no. I suppose I am going to have to try to give up these easy Anglo-Saxon categories. Thanks, Hervé and Sebastsien, for turning my world upside down.