High on the Vine: The Chardonnay you want now

Jordan Smelt, Cakes & Ale’s beverage director, says it’s time to embrace Chablis

Photograph by Jordan Smelt

“What wine do you like to drink?”

It’s a question people often ask and yet don’t realize that there’s no easy answer. They might have well have asked, “What food do you like?” or “Of your three kids, who is your favorite?”

Such questions beg for parameters, and in the case of wine, food pairings, weather, price range, and style are good starting points. As we move further into Spring, the answer, for me at least, becomes easier: acidic wines that are light on their feet and as crisp as an apple slice. Rosé comes to mind, but for Jordan Smelt, Cakes & Ale’s beverage director, Spring means one wine: Chablis.

Located south of Champagne at the northern-most reaches of Burgundy, Chablis grows Chardonnay, one of the most widely planted varieties in the world. But unlike its California or even Burgundy proper contemporaries from the Côte d’Or, Chardonnay from Chablis is its own style.

Below, Smelt crushes on the sunny wines of Chablis and why you should be drinking them as the weather warms.

Chablis. What’s the appeal?
We live in the South where it’s 1,000 degrees in the summertime. Chardonnay from the Cote d’Or isn’t what I want to drink in 100 percent humidity. I try to steer my guests towards lighter, fresher expressions of Chardonnay.

Chardonnay grows everywhere, but you can’t duplicate Chablis because of the climate and soil types. Chablis is located about as far north as you can cultivate the grape. It’s very cold. The soil is clay and limestone, as well as fossilized seashells and oyster shells, which add a distinctive minerality and freshness.

Chablis has been misrepresented in so many different ways. You and I could walk to a Kroger and buy a big jug of “Chablis,” which isn’t Chablis at all. [Editor’s Note: Wineries frequently used “Chablis” to refer to any white grape varietal grown anywhere in the world]. In the 1980s, a lot of white wine was packaged as dry and even pink Chablis. There is certainly a negative association. It’s funny when talking with guests, and I recommend Chablis wines, they tend say they don’t like them.

Typically, what type of variation in style do you see within the region?
Because of how cool it is in Chablis, the best vineyard sites (Grand and Premier Cru) face southeast. When it’s so cool, you need extra sun exposure to ripen the grapes. The vast majority of Chablis is fermented aged in stainless steel. With Premier Cru, some producers use oak or neutral oak. You see even more oak in Grand Cru.

Someone from Burgundy once joked that people from Chablis aren’t really from Burgundy. Is there that same association with the wine?
When people think of Burgundy, they think of the great Burgundy villages. They think of Gevrey-Chambertin, Puligny-Montrachet, Vosne-Romanee, Pommard, Volnay—you’ll have guests and staff members who don’t realize Chablis is part of Burgundy. Same for Beaujolais, which is at the southern tip of Burgundy but almost in northern Rhone.

Smelt’s Recommendations:

2012 Laurent Tribut Beauroy, Chablis Premier Cru
Growing up as a kid in Florida, you get those summer thunderstorms for about fifteen minutes. Chablis reminds me of the smell of rain in the air. Lemon and some citrus fruit. Other styles of Chardonnay have more tropical character like pineapple and guava. Available at Cakes & Ale, $78

2012 Jean-Paul & Benoit Droin, Vaudesir, Chablis Grand Cru
When you nose this, you get oak, but it’s not blowing you out of the glass. With Grand Cru Chablis, you get a softness and creaminess paired with a fantastic minerality. This is a glass of sunshine. Available at Tower Beer, Wine & Spirits, $53.99

Ideal food pairings: Since much of the soil is limestone and crushed fossilized shells, oysters, crab, and lobster are great pairings. Good white fish as well. If you get into the Grand Cru level, you can start with oysters and finish with chicken or pork.

Producers to look for: Francois Raveneau, Vincent Dauvissat, Marcel Servin, Laurent Tribut, Christian Moreau, Jean-Paul & Benoit Droin

Grand Cru vineyards: Les Clos, Grenouilles, Les Preuses, Bougros, Valmur, Vaudesir, Blanchot

Notable Premier Cru vineyards: Mont de Milieu, Montmains, Montee de Tonnerre, Fourchaume, Vaillons, Beauroy