The Soul of Chard

Winemakers everywhere pay lip service these days to the idea of capturing the essence of a given grape variety as it grows in a particular climate, on a particular soil. In practice, what is politely called "intervention" is a lot more common than restraint. And no grape suffers so much from intervention as chardonnay. The three big ways for doing that are: so-called malolactic fermentation, which soften the wine's natural acids; aging the wine on its lees—mostly dead yeast cells—to add complexity of flavor; and aging in new oak barrels, which impart flavors of butter and toast and burnt sugar. Modestly applied, all three can enrich the final product; vigorously applied, as they were during much of the '80s and '90s in California, they can result in a beverage more like banana oil than anything suggesting it derived from grapes. High-intervention chard styles have waned in fashion, but chardonnay is still more manipulated on its way to the table than most fine grape varieties. Indeed, it can be a shock to taste a chardonnay that has been nursed by its maker to taste of nothing but chardonnay pure and simple. And to taste such a wine, you pretty much have to turn to Chablis. Chablis is a tiny region south of Paris, less than 25 square miles in all, and its fine vineyards occupy only a tenth of that. Like those of the southern Champagne area to the northeast and the fine white-wine areas of the Loire to the southwest, they occupy gentle slopes of poor-quality, crumbly chalk soil that stresses the vines, while the cool climate promotes slow ripening and high acidity. More than any other wine, Chablis is what chardonnay tastes like au naturel. Because of its limited production, Chablis has never been cheap, but during the craze for big butterscotch chardonnays, you could get awfully good Chablis for as little as $15 or $20 a bottle. You still can find such bargains at wine merchants who know where to find them, but now that tastes are swinging back toward more austere, less accommodating chardonnays, prices are sure to skyrocket, and the continuing fall of the dollar with respect to the euro is just going to push prices higher. If you're at all inclined to find out what the chardonnay grape can do on its most favored ground—and not spend a fortune—you have about six months left to do it. The glorious 2000s are just about a memory; the 2002s are going fast. It's possible you won't like Chablis when you taste it—it doesn't try to be liked. It's on the sour side, and its fruit and aroma remind one more of cold granite and glacier water that the usual greengrocery comparisons. But once you've experienced it, you're unlikely to forget the taste; and if it's a Les Clos or Vaudésir, or any of the five other Chablis grands crus, you may soon find yourself with a very expensive habit to feed. Great Chablis is addictive. Proceed at your own risk.

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