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Chablis: Chardonnay's Purest Expression?

If you’re looking for the purest possible expression of Chardonnay, you may well find it in Chablis, but you need a guide, at least at first...

- Adrian Read

It used to be said that more wine labelled Chablis was sold around the world in one day than the village of Chablis itself produced in one year.

Before Europe reclaimed its wine place names the word Chablis was used without constraint all over the wine-drinking world as shorthand for ‘crisp, dry white wine’.

In Australia some may remember Lindemans Hunter Valley Chablis, made from Semillon, and Wyndham Estate ‘Chablis Superior’ a popular dry white blend of the 1970s.

Today, Chablis has a very specific meaning. Chablis is white Burgundy -- so 100% Chardonnay -- from the village of the same name in the region’s far north.

Chablis is 100km north of Beaune, at the limit for ripening Chardonnay intended for table wine. This results in a style that is indeed ‘crisp and dry’ -- less overtly fruity and with higher acidity than the Chardonnay grown further south in Burgundy’s heartland.

Normal or regular Chablis is also less likely to be oak-matured and this can lend the wines a certain steeliness.

Chablis is also noted for its minerality, a vague term for many that can suddenly gain real meaning when you smell and taste a good, chilled Chablis, with its characteristic, faintly smoky, flinty or struck-flint edge.

Another way to get at minerality when tasting Chablis is to imagine crushed oyster shells, complete with sea-water and lemon juice.

Minerality can also be more gentle, like sucking on a mouthful of wet, quartz-like pebbles fresh from the bed of a cool, fast-flowing stream.

The best Chablis is made possible by the area’s distinctive (Kimmeridgean) soils, rich in limestone together with clay and, yes, fossilised oyster shells.

The Chablis appellation covers about 5000ha of vineyards in four classifications, the largest of which by far (at close to 3000ha) is Chablis itself. Below this is Petit Chablis (about 600 ha) and above it are Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis.

There are just seven Grand Crus, totalling a little over 100ha, on adjoining slopes across the Serein River from the village of Chablis itself.

The 40 Premier Cru sites, totalling a little under 800ha or 15% of Chablis vineyards, are spread across the region.

It’s important to remember that the appellation system applies to places, not wines. It is only in a perfect or ideal world that Grand Cru Chablis would always be the best and Petit Chablis always the least, or that Premier Cru Chablis would always be better than plain ‘Chablis’.

Many factors affect wine quality, perhaps most importantly the varying skill and commitment levels of grape-growers and winemakers themselves.

If you’re looking for the purest possible expression of Chardonnay, you may well find it in Chablis, but you need a guide, at least at first, and that’s where Langton’s comes in.

We are just as keen to find the very good Chablis wines that are better -- and more affordable -- than lesser Premier Crus, as we are to offer you the finest wines from the most famous of the Grand Cru producers.

As we say, Langton’s is the home of Burgundy in Australia -- and it’s easy to forget that Burgundy includes Chablis.

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