When I began in the restaurant business 20 years ago, a request for a glass of “Chablis” meant “any dry white wine.” This misnomer caught on in part because of the success of semi-generic wine labeling of bulk wines in the 1970s and 80s (does “hearty red burgundy” ring a bell?), and partly because Chablis is just nice to say. But Chablis isn't just any white wine, far from it in fact.
Chablis is a small French village located about an hour and a half southeast of Paris, and the wine comes from the surrounding countryside. Chablis technically belongs to the Burgundy wine region, home to the world's benchmark examples of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Chablis, too, is made exclusively from the Chardonnay grape variety and yet no other Chardonnay tastes like Chablis. Chablis' cool northern locale contributes to the wine's lean and refreshing character, but climate is only part of this wine's unique identity.
If you've ever doubted the existence of terroir — the French concept that minute differences in the environment, such as geography, geology and climate of a place, can dramatically affect the flavor of the end product — then I encourage you to try a Chablis. You won't find the vanilla, popcorn and butter notes common to oak-aged Chardonnays from California. Nor will you find the tropical taste of pineapple and banana that warm-climate Chardonnays tend to have. What you will experience instead is the aroma and flavor of the chalky soil from which it's grown. You'll also find aromas of green apple and lemon, and possibly even cut hay or chamomile.
The soil found in Chablis is named Kimmeridgian, a gray-colored, limestone-based soil originally identified in Kimmeridge, England, at the White Cliffs of Dover. This basin of chalky limestone dips below the English Channel and resurfaces again in the French vineyards of Champagne, the Loire Valley and most famously in Chablis. So powerful is the flavor of wine grapes grown on Kimmeridgian soil that a Chablis could easily be mistaken for a Champagne that has been allowed to go still.
Seeking out a good bottle of Chablis requires some knowledge of its hierarchy of quality. Petit Chablis is the basic tier and wrongly suffers from an old wine industry saying, “it's neither petit, nor is it Chablis.” The saying came about because Petit Chablis covers a rather large territory and is probably the least distinctive in its taste. But top quality producers (like the one mentioned below) will always put their best effort into their Petit Chablis as it is often an affordable wine and serves as an introduction to newcomers to the region's wines.
It's best to look for wines simply labeled “Chablis.” This is the regional wine and in some cases it will contain declassified wine from Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards, and it is also a very good value. Chablis labeled Premier Cru or Grand Cru indicates that the wine is from one of Chablis' very best vineyards and will cost more than Petit Chablis and Chablis.
The austere, mineral character of Chablis makes it perfect for simple, clean flavors such as sautťed white fish, and can serve as an excellent counterbalance to rich dishes or cream-based sauces.
A few Chablis wines to look for in Omaha:
2010 Val de Mer Petit Petit Chablis (Patrick Pieuze)
Canadian-born Patrick Pieuze produces an excellent entry-level Petit Chablis from his nťgociant project named Val de Mer. It has notes of green apples, lemons and white flowers and more density and length than a typical Petit Chablis. Available at Corkscrew Wine & Cheese, $24.
2009 Domaine Roland Lavantureux Chablis
From a riper than normal vintage, the 2009 Chablis from Domaine Lavantureaux is round and rich in texture. A classic expression of Kimmeridgian wine growing with chalky minerality and firm acidity. Available at The Winery, $28.
2006 Christian Moreau Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru
Les Clos is often considered the finest of Chablis' seven Grand Crus. Rich and powerful with intense fruit and mineral flavors. This is especially attractive since it is almost seven years old and its drinking window has just begun. Available at Omaha Wine Company, $87.