Chablis: The gold standard of chardonnay

By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 2:11 PM

Alain Gautheron was repairing the bottling line when we arrived, and he offered a sweaty wrist in greeting instead of his grease-stained hand. His son, Cyril, and daughter-in-law, Gladys, welcomed us in the small and spare tasting room, with a curved bar on one side and a table on the other displaying medals from the Concours des Grands Vins de France and other prestigious wine competitions. Stones from the family vineyards revealed the impressions of ancient shellfish and snails.

We were in Fleys, a don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it village near Chablis, in the northern part of Burgundy. The clean new winery and the tasting room revealed success and prosperity, as well as a belief that a modern winery should be a tourist attraction.

I was visiting along with Gautheron's U.S. importers, Ed Addiss and Barbara Selig, the husband-and-wife team behind Wine Traditions, a Falls Church-based boutique importer of French wines. They represent family estates that adhere to traditional winemaking practices, and as we visited, I sensed that the incipient modernity at Domaine Alain Gautheron did not sit comfortably with the importers.

Tradition vs. modernity here centers on the question of oak barrels for fermenting and aging the wine, which in Chablis is exclusively chardonnay. While many American wineries include a barrel room to resemble a Bacchanalian temple, the Gautherons had 10 barrels stacked in a bowling pin formation on an ornate iron rack that looked more ornamental than functional. Most of the wine was aged in large stainless-steel tanks: a mere 40-year-old tradition, to be sure, but one designed to preserve the flavors of the fruit without a mask of oak. As Alain Gautheron poured us 10 tank samples of his 2009 wines, not yet blended into cuvees, I learned that Cyril favored barrel fermentation and aging to appeal to new markets such as Japan, while his father preferred the unoaked tradition.

Addiss agreed with Alain, and he expressed concern about Cyril's desire to chase a modern fad. "Focusing on traditional winemaking can be difficult when the generations change, because the younger winemakers often want to follow new trends that don't live up to the traditional character of the wine," Addiss said.

For now at least, oak remains the exception at Domaine Gautheron, used sparingly in a few cuvees. And oak is also the exception rather than the rule in Chablis as a whole. The region continues to produce exceptional chardonnay with focus and verve that does not need the window dressing of barrel fermentation and aging. The vines benefit from ancient limestone soils that eons ago were a seabed. Gautheron is not the only winery that displays shellfish fossils dug up in the vineyards.

Chablis will reward intense study and exploration of its vineyards. To oversimplify, its styles tend toward either earthy or citrusy flavors, almost always with intense acidity and minerality, even in riper, fruitier vintages such as 2009. Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards give wines that can age for several years, while village Chablis and Petit-Chablis are meant to be consumed young.

Suffice to say that Chablis is not the stuff we used to pour out of jugs or that bartenders would squirt out of a soda hose when our parents ordered a glass of white wine. It is chardonnay at its purest, food-friendliest best.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company