CHARDONNAY – Chablis vs Chardonnay
Is Chablis better than New World Chardonnay?
It’s an age worthy question that required time, tasting and interest to answer.
Really if we are straight up about it, naturally, it is a question of taste. What does your palate prefer and what suits your context.
Chablis – an area of Burgundy in France’s Yonne district that makes benchmark dry and mineral expressions of the Chardonnay grape – and has done for most of the last century. Often, the wines do not see much, if any, oak and are fresh, linear, energetic and have a unique ability to deliver stoney flavours to the palate. The area has two defining soil types. A base of Portlandien soil which is rich in clay and marly . The more exclusive area where the best vineyards sit is a Kimmeridgean soil which has a high proportion of limestone as well as fossilised tiny oyster shells. These zones provide great mineral background to the wines and a cool to moderate growing season. Chablis in its essence is classic Chardonnay and something which cannot easily be replicated.
When the wines do see oak, it usually gives them a more rounded and generous feel and some producers like Raveneau and Dauvissat make the best and age worthy examples of these. They are wines that will age gracefully and often take time in the bottle to show their best. The Chablis Appellation offers Petit Chablis, Chablis Village and Premier Cru as well as a bunch of vineyards that are bottled under a Grand Cru AC. There are many idiosyncrasies to these wines, and they are usually defined by where they sit in regard to being the North or South of the river in Chablis.
Given the high proportion of ancient fossils in the soil the archetypal Chablis offers Oyster Shell minerality with soft stone fruit, citrus, and a wet stone complexity. This seems to be the only grape growing area with these traits making it unique. All in all, these are traditional wines to drink on many occasions, especially with seafood.
Crossing over to the New World Wines we find much more of a myriad of styles. In Australia at least gone are the days of big, buttery, and malolactic bottlings as producers freshen up their styles with more verve. Pairing back the use of oak and winemaking to produce styles that are, at least generally, more akin to the style of Chablis wine than they have been for a long time. The one discerning difference is the common use of oak barrels to age and store the wines. In part a great deal of Aussie Chardonnay sees maturation in wood giving it much more of a generous mouthfeel than its French counterparts. This is both a stylistic and historical technique and the general fruit quality here at least will always be phenolically riper than fruit picked and grown in the Northern Hemisphere.
In the United States the style in the past, at least with reference to the wines that reach us here, is one of lavish wood maturation and richness – generalising this toward the West Coast and the bottlings from California. A reference area for US Chardonnay. Hare also the styles are becoming a little more vibrant and fresher as they are in our neck of the woods.
New Zealand certainly produces some magic wines form this grape and we also see some traditional vineyards such as Kumeu In Auckland and Neudorf in Nelson reverting to winemaking with more of deft touch and pairing back on the wood treatment.
In closing Chardonnay is a fine medium for winemakers to do their thing and no matter whether or not you prefer your wines rounded or more elegant there is certainly plenty of room in the world of wine for both.