The rock that rules Chablis

As Current readers, y’all know that real Chablis does not come in large green jugs with ungainly handles, right? Of course you do. You’re probably also aware that it’s good with foods other than potato chips. Goat cheese, for example. Or even lobster in some special cases.

But you may not know (I didn’t, at least) that the former darling of the Parisian beau monde had lost much of its early luster by the turn of the 19th century due to changing tastes, evolving transportation systems (which made cheap wines from the Languedoc much more available), its extreme dependence on weather conditions … The wine was almost down and out: The acreage under cultivation in the northernmost appellation of Burgundy, halfway between Dijon and Paris, had shrunk to little more than 1,000 acres.

But effective methods of combating frost damage (wind machines, sprinklers, smudge pots, electrical cabling …) were developed, tastes evolved, and one of the wines most influenced by its soil — limestone with fossilized oyster shells from one edge of the Kimmeridgian basin (the other edge of the basin surfaces in Southern England) — is back in the public eye. Don’t just automatically ask for a glass of chardonnay, folks; try asking for Chablis. You’ll still get chardonnay, but it will surprise and delight you.

Our lineup of 10 Chablis certainly delighted the panel convened at the Fig Tree and hosted by the restaurant’s veteran head waiter and sommelier, Steven Michaud. The remaining panel members were Richard Toupal, a dentist with a serious wine tooth; Joel McKee of Domaines & Estates Marketers of Fine Wines; and yours truly. Exquisite appetizers were served by Executive Chef Byron Bergeron and his trusty sidekick, Chef Chris Spencer. Our table overlooked the River Walk, the light was beautiful, the wines were chilled … the swirling and sniffing began.

Word on the street (an admittedly highfalutin’ rue) has it that 2007 is the recent vintage of note. As we were tasting wines from both 2007 and 2008, did this hold true? In a word, yes. It should also be mentioned that most of these wines were of the simpler appellation contrôlée Chablis designation, fermented in stainless steel, and meant to be drunk relatively early.

Ready for some vicarious thrills? At the end of our task, two more bottles emerged from Dr. Toupal’s insulated bag, to be enjoyed, not judged. A 2002 Albert Bichot Moutonne Grand Cru Chablis Domaine Long-Depaquit took things in a much more voluptuous (and feminine, for that matter) direction. “In a good year and from a good producer, these can go 12-15 years,” said McKee, and halfway there, there was no slowing down this still youthful beauty.

But if an 8-year-old Chablis was impressive, consider the next bottle: a 1996 Domaine Moreau & Fils Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos des Hospices produced from a “monopole” vineyard entirely owned by the Moreau family. The gunpowder and flint that are hallmarks of fine Chablis emerged here — along with marzipan and stewed quince. (That same gunpowder was expressed much more blatantly as smokiness in the Moreau Chablis we scored.) “It’s extraordinarily vibrant,” enthused one taster (by this point we don’t remember which); “It dances on the palate” said another. (We still don’t remember.) But McKee did sum it up: “The stars have to align, but when you have great Chablis, there’s nothing else like it.” •

2007 Domaine Pinson Freres Chablis, $26

“It starts with green apple and starfruit and quickly turns to jasmine,” offered Michaud. “Orange, almond oil, Cognac spice … it’s really nice,” added McKee. “Great intensity, smells like it’s been aged,” thought Toupal. “White flowers and peach pit,” claimed Omniboire.

2007 Vincent Dauvissat Chablis Premier Cru “Sechet,” $NA

The number-two wine, a treat from Dr. Toupal’s cellar, may be hard to find locally, though online there are bottles of the 2007 Vincent Dauvissat Chablis Premier Cru “Sechet” available in the $45-$55 range. Tasted blind along with the others, this, the only Premier Cru in the competition, showed slightly less well than the more modest Pinson, perhaps because it has yet to reach its peak. McKee detected orange oil and sweet lemon curd and called it “big but delicate and pure.” Omniboire found the wine taut and chalky with a detectable barrel component (it’s briefly aged in old barrels, but with none of the lees-stirring that’s common in the region). A long, harmonious finish was the final payoff.

2007 Roland Lavantureux Chablis, $26

The 2007 Chablis from Roland Lavantureux struck more than one taster as “steely” and inspired comments such as “I enjoyed it,” and “I liked it a lot.” Where Omniboire was content to call the wine “austere” with some green apple and citrus, more developed palates such as McKee’s refined the citrus component to “bright mandarin and lemon.”

2008 Jean Marc Brocard Bourgogne A.C., $13

The label proclaims “Chardonnay en sol Kimmeridgian, and this generic white Burgundy does make the most of its terroir, causing McKee to comment that “it’s a little ‘nervy’ yet nice — and all about the soil. It’s freakily like a Chablis.” Michaud found it “soft on the palate,” and Toupal thought the finish light, but at around $13, there was a lot of bang-for-the-buck action going on.

2008 Louis Jadot Chablis, $24

This respected house’s 2008 Chablis struck Michaud as “out of balance `too acidic`, though of good quality.” “It has a very pleasant nose but lacks on the finish,” noted Toupal. Yet McKee called it “textbook … it has some flavors `tangerine and ginger` the others lack.” Omniboire found a touch of honey and agreed that acid trumped fruit.

2008 Christian Moreau Père & Fils Chablis, $25-$30

“This is the most balanced wine,” said Toupal. “It’s a modern style,” suggested McKee, “with a nectarine juiciness and a little chive.” Michaud seconded both the nectarine and the balance, while Omniboire detected smoke and minerality.

2008 William Fevre Champs Royaux, $20

“Not ready to drink, way out of balance,” claimed Toupal. “It’s got Skittles on the palate and spiky acid,” noted McKee. “Yet it goes great with the cucumber-wrapped shrimp,” said Michaud.

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