This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Monday, Dec. 17, 2007 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20071217.php.
After a generation in which the lofty French names "Chablis" and "Burgundy" were co-opted as generic monikers for cheap American wines, order is gradually being restored to the universe. Such abuse nowadays occurs only at the extreme low end of the jug-wine universe, and few people are fooled by the borrowed name.
This is quite a contrast with the situation when I started writing a newspaper column about wine in the early 1980s. In those days it was impossible to discuss "real" Chablis without spelling out the difference between the cheap domestic stuff and the excellent but comparatively pricey white wine from the Burgundy region in Northeastern France.
True Chablis, as I had to explain in those days, is made from 100 percent Chardonnay grapes in a small appellation well to the north of the main Burgundy region. It's bone-dry, acidic, rarely oaked; steely and "stony," an almost classic demonstration of the principle of "terroir," the character inextricably associated with the sense of the place where the grapes were grown. Chablis tastes good because it is good, and it's expensive but worth it.
Domestic Chablis was a lackluster imitation at best. Made by industrial processes from a grape blend that rarely included any Chardonnay (overcropped Chenin Blanc and French Colombard were typical), it was a soft, slightly sweet quaff, often displaying pungent, un-wine-like flavors with no sense of the soil. It tasted cheap because it was cheap, and it was cheap because it was made for the mass market, the vinous equivalent of "lite" beer: drinkable, industrial, primarily of use as an alcohol-delivery system.
The terms do persist on the jug-wine and box-wine shelves, where, for example, both Carlo Rossi, a jug-only product of E. & J. Gallo's vast wine factory in Modesto, Calif., and Inglenook, a once proud but long devalued name now in the hands of giant Constellation Brands, both still produce "Chablis," not to mention "Burgundy," "Rhine" and "Chianti."
Curiously, in an apparent effort to serve more than one audience, both firms now make both a "Chablis" and a Chardonnay, as well as other popular varietally labeled wines such as Pinot Grigio, Merlot and Zinfandel; but not, apparently, the currently fashionable Pinot Noir.
Frankly, I'm just as glad to see the generic names disappearing from the market, or at least the upscale market. Domestic "Champagne" still lingers in the premium category, largely thanks to the marketing efforts of a few major American producers, but even this abuse seems to be fading as more consumers come to recognize it as misleading.
Today I dig down for a few extra bucks to invest in a recently arrived young Chablis, 2005 Domaine de Chantemerle made by A. & F. Boudin. It's a good but perhaps not a perfect benchmark example of classic Chablis; reflecting a more recent trend, it's made in a somewhat more fruit-forward and fat manner than the historical Chablis, a new style that some wine fanciers dub "international" to distinguish it from the more traditional "Old World." My tasting notes are below.
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Domaine de Chantemerle 2005 Chablis ($23.99)
Transparent pale gold. Ripe cooking-apple aroma with hints of honey and delicate spice. Flavors are consistent with the nose, tart green-apple flavor over crisp fresh-fruit acidity and a subtle suggestion of chalky minerality. Flavors persist in a long, clean finish. Good wine if a bit "New World," fruit-forward and fat by the standard of traditional Chablis. U.S. importer: Vintner Select, Mason, Ohio; North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Calif., and other regional importers. (Dec. 14, 2007)
FOOD MATCH: Chablis is a natural with a good range of delicate to medium-rich pork, poultry or fish dishes; it was fine with a hearty but not overly cream-rich fish chowder.
VALUE: The $24 price tag might horrify a jug-wine fancier looking for a generic white wine, and wine-price inflation plus the weak dollar have moved "real" Chablis close to special-occasion territory. It should be noted, further, that my local retail price was exceptionally high. Wine-Searcher.com shows several vendors pricing this wine in the $17-$20 range, which is more than fair.
WHEN TO DRINK: The conventional wisdom holds that basic Chablis should be drunk up soon, while the more lofty première cru and grand cru bottles wait in the cellar. I don't see any need to panic about consuming this well-balanced wine in the next year, however, and two or three years in a temperature-controlled cellar should do it no harm.
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