Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Chablis Evolution

Chablis typically finds itself at the far end of a Chardonnay-lover's evolution: One typically begins with fruity, powerful oak monsters, moves on to more detailed yet still round-and-ripe California-style bottlings, heads in the direction of white Burgundy, and then, finally, dips a tentative tongue into the taut wines of Chablis.

For all the time it takes to get there, though, a wine-lover’s first great Chablis experience is often a paradigm-shifting one, and therefore worth the wait: The purity of expression, the clarity of the terroir, the cleanliness of the juice: All of these conspire to make great Chablis among the best white wines in the world.

The problem, however, is one that makes so many would-be Franco-oenophiles nervous: The details. From the seven legendary grands crus to the technically lesser yet still often magnificent premiers crus all the way down to regional wines, Chablis has always posed a problem for consumers. (So has the confusion, at least on this side of the Pond, between real Chablis and the oversized handles of California “chablis,” a laboratory concoction that bears as much resemblance to the real deal from Northern Burgundy as, say, the poor hapless fellow who performed “Pants on the Ground” in this past season’s “American Idol” does to Pavarotti.)

Still, for all the confusion and misinformation associated with it, Chablis is a part of the wine world worth knowing and learning about, especially now.

This past weekend, The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article on recent developments in the region, and noted that, despite the longstanding primacy of the seven grands crus in Chablis, “in a region ruled by terroir, things are becoming more complicated.

Standout wines are appearing from more humble sites. And new talents are appearing in a region whose top names are so established that the war memorial in Chablis' town square reads like a wine list.”

Not only are new producers finding their way onto the Chablis scene, but they are slowly shifting perception of what’s possible throughout the region, no matter how famous or humble a particular piece of land might be: Some producers are starting to pull back on their use of oak in the GC bottlings, terroir-specific wines are being bottled even from non-grand cru or -premier cru parcels of land, and organic viticulture is on the rise.

Chablis, then, is one of the most interesting regions in the French wine world right now. It may be confusing, but the effort required to unravel its mysteries--both ancient and modern--is more than worth it.


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