Tasting Older Vintage Chablis

In January this year I was learning about the left/right bank contrasts of Chablis at a tasting hosted by BIVB Chablis at 28-50 in Maddox Street. I wrote about it here, using a picture in a deeply clever and innovative way to illustrate the story.

*** Chablis is not a grape, by the way. A drinks magazine editor pointed out recently that most wine consumers think that’s the case. It’s actually a region in the north of Burgundy that makes lean, generally mineral, apple-and-citrus wine from chardonnay grapes. ***

Anyway, at the tasting I was talking to a gentleman called Sebastien who was pouring the wines. He explained to me how Chablis develops in the bottle – the sort of flavours that bottle ageing produces which transform Chablis from lean, generally mineral, apple-and-citrus wines into something new and wonderful – with flavours of hazelnuts, mushrooms, honey, stuff like that.

I told Sebastien that, though I loved Chablis, I’d never tasted any older-vintage bottles and would have to seek some out. He told me that he worked for Jean-Marc Brocard, one of the big producers in Chablis, and that he would send me a bottle when he got back to France. I said that would be brilliant and wandered off to find the smoked salmon (much better with oaked, left-bank Chablis than generally unoaked right-bank Chablis, by the way).

A few weeks later a magnum of Brocard 2003 arrived on my doorstep and I felt very happy about that. I wrote to Sebastien, saying I would wait for the right time to open it and would let him know how I found it.

Several months later, over dinner with my girlfriend and a couple of friends, one of whom is a girl, or rather a woman; the other of whom is a boy, or rather man, I opened it.

Dinner was oysters with two sauces – one of passion fruit, the other sauce mignonette – then saltcrust sea trout with roast potatoes, samphire and saffron aioli.

Now 2003 is supposed to have been a disastrous vintage in Burgundy: loads of frost damage in April followed by one of the hottest summers on record, which meant grapes had to be picked ridiculously early throughout the region. Quantities were low and quality much the same (although cooler sites on higher slopes which usually produced inferior wines (eg Hautes Côtes de Beaune, Hautes Côtes de Nuits) had an anomalously good year).

Yet this 2003 Chablis was absolutely wonderful: hazelnut, honey and savoury notes combined with a much-softened lemon-apple fruitiness. Lovely texture, well-balanced, really complex and quite rich, which is remarkable if you consider that AOC Chablis is unoaked.

No oak, a cool climate and the famously unaromatic chardonnay – this might seem like a recipe for unremarkable wine, but here the combination of good-quality grapes, the flavour-producing action of fermentation, lees ageing and extended time in bottle has produced something wonderful. I wish I had 20 more magnums to savour.

A huge thank you to Sebastien for introducing me to the deliciousness of older vintage Chablis.

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Chablis: A World Turned Upside-Down

Silly me with my silly Anglo-Saxon mind and its clunking obsession with logic and its silly need to categorise.

The lesson I took from the Bourgogne Week Chablis tasting at 28-50? Don’t generalise. Just don’t.

“So, Chablis, it’s all on the minerally side, isn’t it?”

“Non.”

“Ah. It’s basically unoaked, though, right?”

“Non.”

“Oh. But it’s always good with oysters, surely…”

“Non.”

“Hm. It’s an alcoholic beverage, though?”

“Bah non.”

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.

Chablis map

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.