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What's in Chablis?

Paolo tullio

 I remember the first time I went there, about twenty years ago; my wife and I were driving back from Italy and as evening fell we were passing Auxerre. I had a brainwave; 'let's spend the night in Chablis,' I said. Flushed with the brilliance of this idea I continued, 'and whatever we have to eat tonight, we'll have either a Premier Cru or a Grand Cru to accompany it.' Never did words land anyone in such trouble.

There aren't many good comedy lines that you can use about wine, but I've always liked 'I drink as I dress, Chablis.' I remember the first time I went there, about twenty years ago; my wife and I were driving back from Italy and as evening fell we were passing Auxerre. I had a brainwave; 'let's spend the night in Chablis,' I said. Flushed with the brilliance of this idea I continued, 'and whatever we have to eat tonight, we'll have either a Premier Cru or a Grand Cru to accompany it.' Never did words land anyone in such trouble.

Let me explain; I reasoned to myself thus. How much could a Premier Cru cost in Chablis itself, when at the time I could sell one in my restaurant in Ireland, high taxes and all, for under £20? Surely half that, or even less. Pulling up in the tiny town square a simple, but pleasing-looking hotel stood at one corner. The rooms were cheap, the set dinner was cheap, and looking down the enormously long section of Chablis in the wine list, I couldn't find a Premier Cru for under £30, more than the cost of the meal and room combined. Still, I suppose they had to make a few francs somewhere along the line.

The wines of Chablis are divided into three; the simple AC Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru, and Chablis Grand Cru. There are only seven vineyards that have the right to Grand Cru appellation, and they are all on the slopes to the north of the town itself. As their name suggests, they are higher in alcoholic content and have a greater intensity of flavour. Twenty-two vineyards, mostly within the townland of Chablis, but some from nearby villages, have the right to the 'Premier Cru' appellation. Some of these, especially those from vineyards adjoining the Grand Crus to the north of the town, can be virtually indistinguishable from them, both in elegance and depth of flavour.

For much of the twentieth century Chablis was almost synonymous with white wine; its name and its style were copied all around the world. Almost as much wine with this generic name was consumed globally in a day as the town made in a year. Its star has waned a little since then, problems with frost causing the growers some very uneven vintages. These have been overcome in recent years by the use of oil burners and sprays, and generally the wines are more consistent in character. Today the wines of Chablis are almost underrated, and their price in real terms has dropped considerably from its peak.

Suggested wine

Chablis Premier Cru 'Cotes de Lechet', Pierre Ponnelle, 2000

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