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Although part of Burgundy, Chablis is almost halfway to Paris from the Côte d'Or and is a cooler, more northerly appellation. Chablis produces Chardonnay based wines that have the reputation of being steely, concentrated and rich, with an ability to age. This character is best seen in the wines from the seven impressive southerly exposed Grand Cru vineyards. There are forty individual Premier Cru vineyards, though only 17 of these vineyard names are generally used on labels. Large quantities of generic Chablis Village wine is produced, much of it from different soils than those which made Chablis famous and such wines may be innocuous but are not always classic.

Chardonnay grown here, in this marginal climate, is not going to taste as ripe and fruity as one from sunny California or Australia. The fruit is much more restrained and in the background. What does show through, however, is a good deal of a minerally, earthy character some attribute to the limestone, clay, and seashell-rich soil. This soil type is known as “Kimmeridgean,” and is found only here in Chablis, and on the other side of the Paris Basin in the village of Kimmeridge in southern England. It is possible that the millions of fossilized oyster shells in the soil impart a flinty flavor component to Chablis.

Chablis is produced in two major styles–oaked and unoaked, and is available in four quality levels. The AOC regulations allow for the production of Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru, and Chablis Grand Cru, in ascending order of quality. The higher the quality, the better the vineyard site. Chablis Grand Cru from a good vintage needs many years to mature in bottle before all of the components meld together. This is the type to choose for the cellar, and most selections will be very pricey. For a special occasion, look for a Chablis Premier Cru, often a comparative bargain at around $30. For every day, Chablis or Petit Chablis can be one of the best deals in white Burgundy.

If you are a fan of toasty, creamy, oaky styles, go with producers such as Raveneau, Dauvissat, or Fevre. For traditional, steely Chablis, which behaves very well at the table, go with Long-Depaquit, Louis Michel, or Brocard. If you want to play it safe, go with Domaine Laroche, who in a compromise of styles just ferments certain lots in oak, then ages the wine in stainless steel tanks. (Wine/Appellations)