Chablis: Ice queen

A brief introduction to the wines of Chablis…

You’d have trouble making drinkable wine further north than Chablis. Every year the local winegrowers sleep fitfully during spring, keeping one eye on the thermometer. Frost is a tireless threat, and can decimate a crop. But if the delicate buds make it through the spring, and the grapes soak up enough sun during the growing season, they can produce brilliant wines.

Chablis is a comfortable, touristy town lying between Burgundy and Champagne in north-east France. Its wines are always dry whites; and, like much Burgundy and Champagne, made from Chardonnay. It’s a versatile grape. In hotter regions it makes rich, golden wines that taste of pineapple and mango. Here, the fruit flavours it offers are at the leaner end of the scale; fresh green apple and lemon juice.

But it’s the other flavours these wines produce that make them unique. They smell of the sea; iodine, seashells, fresh scallops. Their taste is frequently described as ‘mineral’. Is it a coincidence that the best wines grow in a soil teeming with the fossils of tiny shellfish? Who knows; but they certainly go well with oysters.

When at their best, they resemble precious stones; transparent in colour except for flecks of green. The flavours are bright and sharply defined, all underpinned by a precise, glassy acidity. At the cheaper end, many drinkers expect too much from them: you tend to pay a premium at this end just for the name. Conversely the best are too often ignored by collectors, though they are unquestionably amongst the finest whites of France, and some of the best value.

The best vineyards stretch out along hills like fingers radiating out from the town. The best ones, the Premiers and Grands Crus, face the sun. The slopes are the key to the best quality, and give the wines intensity, richness and the ability to age – sometimes for decades. Wines with the simple ‘Chablis’ appellation can be enjoyable, if often quite straightforward, from the better growers. Those from the sprawling ‘Petit Chablis’ appellation don’t bear comparison close up; costume jewellery compared to the real thing.

As always, sticking to a good producer is the most reliable guarantee of quality. For an accessible introduction to the wines, try Domaine Laroche. Domaine des Malandes make excellent wines in a luxurious style. In terms of both quality and value, the classically-styled wines of Domaine Billaud-Simon are exceptional and well worth seeking out. Domaine Raveneau’s are cut from diamonds.

First published in Living France magazine.