J’ai un faible pour le Chablis.
OK, let’s expand our French beyond “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” I stole my lead from some dinner-table dialogue in one of my college French books. It means, “I have a weakness for Chablis.”
When we students read those words, eons ago, we hooted — because Chablis was horrible. And the Chablis we meant definitely was: dirt cheap, sold in jugs, usually thin and sour. We drank it anyway, of course, because we were in college.
Later in life, thankfully, my friends and I discovered French Chablis — which is a different animal entirely and, again thankfully, is pretty easy to find in wine shops around Mobile.
What is French Chablis? Well, fundamentally, it’s Chardonnay — and I bet you’re sensing a pattern with French wines. France names its wines for the regions where they’re made, not the grapes from which they’re made.
So Bordeaux is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from the Bordeaux region, Champagne blends three grapes from the Champagne region and — yep — Chablis is Chardonnay from the Chablis region, centered conveniently on a town called Chablis.
It’s actually the northern-most part of Burgundy (where they make, umm, Burgundy) but, unlike Burgundy, which is famous for red wines, Chablis is famous for whites.
The other thing you need to know about Chablis is that there are three different types — because the types have a major impact on the wine’s taste, its ability to age and, listen up, its price.
Chablis is sold either as basic Chablis, as Chablis Premier Cru or as Chablis Grand Cru. The distinction is based on the vineyard conditions (or “climates”) where the grapes grow, not necessarily on the quality of the wine — although grapes grown on prime real estate tend to make better wine than grapes grown on the wrong side of the tracks (or the stone wall, in this case).
There are seven official “Grand Cru” climates, totaling roughly 250 acres on one hillside overlooking Chablis. Their names are worth knowing because, hey, if you happen to see one on a bottle you should seriously consider buying it (and if someone gives you a bottle, you’ll want to say “Thank you! Oh, thank you!! I will name my next child (dog, hamster) after you,” etc.). The Grand Cru climates are: Bougros, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos and Blanchot. All told, they account for roughly 3 percent of annual Chablis production, but a much larger chunk of revenue.
As of 2000, there were 40 Premier Cru vineyards, so I won’t list them all. Some of the best I’ve tried, though, include Fourchaume, Montmains, Vaillons, Vaucoupin, Les Fourneaux and Beauregards —so look for those names on labels. The main distinction between Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines is that Grand Crus have slightly bolder aromas and flavors. Also, Grand Crus can age longer than Premier Crus— with Grand Crus maturing in bottle for 15 years or more, while Premier Crus stop improving after about 10. But a Premier Cru will generally cost half as much as a Grand Cru.
Most of what you’ll find in Mobile-area shops will be basic Chablis, but it can still be outstanding. I recently tried and loved the William Fevre Champs Royaux Chablis, 2012. It was rich and mouth filling, lightened by a tart lemon-lime edge and fat-cutting acidity. Its predominant aromas were faint magnolia or acacia blossoms. Fresh and breezy, it had a hint of flintiness and a rumor of nuttiness, but no oak.
If you’re tired of oak-y, strong Chardonnays, this wine is for you. Champs Royaux definitely is not sweet; it’s zingy and dry — good with oysters (raw or baked), grilled shrimp and other seafood.
You should know, though, that Champs Royaux includes grapes grown elsewhere than the Fevre estate. Fevre’s back label and website highlight it being one of the biggest owners of vineyards in Chablis, with “the largest number of Premier Cru and Grand Cru” acres. They just doesn’t mention Fevre buying and using grapes grown by neighboring vineyards in some wines, and reserving exceptional grapes for Premier and Grand Cru Chablis. I’m telling you this for the sake of full disclosure, not because Champs Royaux is bad. It’s delish; you just shouldn’t think it’s something that it isn’t. (Fevre was bought in 1998 by the Henriot Family, which makes world-class Champagnes at vineyards a little farther north. Available at Red or White and at Domke Market; $22-25; 12.5 percent ABV.)
Now, I recently read about a wine collector who opened some bottles of 1996 Chablis Grand Cru and found they had spoiled, so I panicked and pretty much ran to open my only Grand Cru bottle before disaster occurred. (Have you ever held onto an expensive wine, waiting too long for a “special occasion” that never came? Maybe this guy did the same — dunno. He inspired me, though, to change my ways.)
The wine I opened was Domaine Pinson Chablis Grand Cru “Les Clos,” 1999. You probably won’t find the 1999 anymore, but if you see Domaine Pinson 2012 (or 2010) anywhere you should buy it, drink some now and put away a few bottles for a regular Tuesday in, say, 2024. (Domaine Pinson bottles four wines: basic Chablis, two Premier Crus (“La Foret” and “Montmains”) and their Grand Cru “Les Clos.” Chablis produced excellent vintages in 2012 and 2010.)
My Domaine Pinson 1999 had turned the color of 22-karat gold — deep, but clear and luminous — with soft aromas of honeysuckle, melon rind and fresh pineapple. It had the stony, mineral-y qualities associated with classic Chablis, accompanied by lemon, tart apple and kumquat flavors. Words like “luxurious” and “silky”— but also “steely” and “upright”— came to mind. Because the wine still had amazing acidity, it paired well with anything fatty — particularly soft cheeses. It fought and lost with anything sweet, though, even “stealth-sweet” foods like bread.
So the next time you see French Chablis, remember it’s Chardonnay by another name — a fresher, less oak-y, more flinty name. You, too, may develop “un faible” for it.