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A cure for bad chardonnay

Chablis, the lean, flinty classic from Burgundy, is as good as ever. Jon Bonné sings its praises.

I know you: You hate chardonnay. You hate it because it’s boring and obvious. You’d rather suck down a glass of eighth-rate viognier than dare utter the C word.

I know, because for years that was me: a card-carrying member of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) guild, hating chard for its big, buttery disposition, and for flavors that had more in common with a Carmen Miranda hat than a glass of white wine. I’d demur at cocktail parties. I’d demand that tasting-room employees start me on the bottle after the chard. I was that guy.

A cure exists for this affliction, dear reader. Its name is Chablis.

Not the sort of Chablis in oversized bottles that still occasionally lurks on the wine store shelf like a ‘70s holdover. Real Chablis doesn’t come from California.

It comes from France — in particular from the northernmost patch of Burgundy, where vineyards are planted almost exclusively in chardonnay. That far north, the winters are cold and days quickly grow short, which means vintners struggle nearly every year to get ripeness from their grapes. Yet those hard luck conditions make the highly malleable chardonnay into something beautiful and delicate.

The classic flavors of Chablis are lean and clean: steely, crisp, with the region’s limestone clay soils lending a distinct mineral profile that often translates as slate or gunflint. The cold weather helps build acidity in the grapes, further honing its edge.

This clarity of flavor can lead to confusion. Buttery chardonnay drinkers might find Chablis too sour for their tastes — though the clean lines of Chablis are a taste easily acquired. Often, the recommended pairing is oysters, as an echo of that mollusk’s salty taste. But it can serve as a match for hors d’oeuvres, lobster, sole, chicken, pasta — nearly anything short of a steak.

“I think that Chablis is fairly misunderstood,” says Geraldine Tashjian, owner of the Burgundy Wine Company in New York, which sells a wide range of Chablis. “It’s a very versatile wine, actually, that works nicely as an aperitif and moves right to the table.”

Chablis is unique not only because of its unforgiving northern climate (only in Champagne is chardonnay grown farther north in France, and then only as a component in sparkling wine) but for its resistance to the modern winemaker’s desire to tinker and manipulate.

Far northThe norm in Chablis, located some 75 miles north of Burgundy’s Cote de Nuits (with Paris just 110 miles in the opposite direction), is to ferment wine in stainless steel or ceramic vessels, which allows the clear flavors of unmanipulated fruit to shine through. If most chardonnay is relentlessly generic, the end product of a grape with little intrinsic personality that bends easily to a winemaker’s will, Chablis is the very definition of a wine that reflects its roots.

Named for the village of 2,700 that sits in the region’s center, the winemaking region of Chablis is composed of 17 villages. Regular Chablis can be made from grapes grown nearly anywhere among 10,600 acres of vineyards, though a small percentage is produced as lower-grade Petit Chablis.

Seven vineyards have been designated as grand cru, and another 40 as premier cru; theseyield not only superior grapes but are treated to longer aging and occasionally some time in oak, even new oak, which often results in a richer taste. Master sommelier Shayn Bjornholm, wine director of Canlis restaurant in Seattle, recommends these to lovers of the heavier, modern style of chardonnay.

“Often, they're a great intro to Chablis,” he says.

Chablis’ high acidity and pronounced mineral character give it terrific aging potential. Though entry-level Chablis is ready to drink almost as soon as it hits the shelf, it benefits from a year or so of aging in the bottle. Upper level Chablis generally needs a few years age for the fresh fruit flavors to transform into more complex flavors. In a good vintage, those perfect gunflint and cool stone flavors are what endure, offering an additional layer of depth. Premier cru Chablis from 1999, for instance, is drinking great right now.

The 2004 vintage, now available in stores, is classic. The wines are already brimming with bright, clean, approachable flavors — a marked change from 2003, when left much Chablis without that crucial backbone of acidity and resulted in wines that offer the unsatisfying combination of butter and gunflint. Lovers of rich, fat chard styles might dig the ‘03s, but otherwise you should steer clear.

If you’ve turned your back on chardonnay, consider this a chance to respark the relationship. There is much bad chard in the world, but wines like Chablis make you realize just how good a grape it can be.

TASTING NOTESWe taste plenty of so-so wines, but sometimes a tasting assignment is a true pleasure. Chablis, for instance — because even mediocre Chablis is still way better than most chardonnay. Given the problems with the ‘03 vintage, we actually found that many standard-issue ‘04s surpassed premier cru ‘03s, which are also on the market now. If you can’t find one of the wines listed, your wine shop should still be able to steer you to a decent bottle. Unless it comes in a three-liter jug, in which case … run!

Christian Moreau 2004 Chablis ($18, Frederick Wildman & Sons): Takes a little while to open up, but then it’s vibrant, with granite notes and a hard mineral edge. Tart fruit curls around the edges of that mineral core, and extends into an impressively long finish. A true food wine, with clean flavors and great balance. The ‘03 premier cru “Vaillon” isn’t bad either: not enough acidity in its core, but layered, with crisp edges and a crunchy mineral tone.

William Fevre 2004 Chablis “Champs Royeaux” ($19, Cliquot, Inc.): Full-bodied, with a cool-stone minerality, ripe apple, lemon and a grassy note in the mix. Balanced, clean lines and a lingering, tangy presence that tapers to a finish with a slight bitter bite.

Louis Jadot 2004 Chablis ($22, Kobrand): This basic bottle from one of Burgundy’s biggest negociants was surprisingly good. Steely, with clear lines and all the right notes in place, if a bit heavy on the sulfur. It’s got perfect ripeness, without too much weight, and a long, focused finish.

Domaine Laroche 2004 Chablis “Saint Martin” ($30, Remy Amerique): A special bottling made from a parcel named for Chablis’ patron saint. Weighty lemon and fig, with bright floral notes in the background. Steely up front, with a bit of flint and fresh fruit, and a lingering, tangy finish. You feel the weight again at the end. A bit lush, but not overly so. Bottled in screwcap — a growing trend in Chablis — and way better than the basic Laroche ‘04.

Louis Moreau 2004 Chablis ($25, Paterno Wines International): A full nose, built around tart apple and hard, smoky minerality. On the delicate side, but with a racy, expansive finish and a weight that shows up on the back end. Sort of sneaks up on you.

Domaine Gilbert Picq 2004 Chablis ($19, Polaner Selections): A crisp wine built around aromatics of wet, flinty minerality, with some scents of damp soil. The mineral notes dominate, though a delicate tart-fruit profile expands on the finish. Starts quiet and delicate, but grows as you drink it.