How Chablis went from generic marketing term to captivating varietal

Chablis continues to be one of the most popular white wines on the market, even as its prices have increased.SimplyCreativePhotography/iStockPhoto/Getty Images

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When I first heard of Chablis, I was confused. As a newly recruited guide at Hillebrand Estate Winery in 1988, I received a burgundy-coloured, three-ring binder containing detailed information about grape growing, winemaking and how to taste and evaluate wine that was the basis of the Niagara-on-the- Lake winery’s tours.

At the time, Hillebrand made two different Chablis: Cuvée 1812 Chablis, which came in a cork-sealed 750 ml bottle, and Canadian Chablis, available as a one-liter screw cap. Both were dry, white wines produced primarily from seyval blanc, a French hybrid grape, a point of differentiation from the sweeter (and more popular) whites made by the winery at the time.

Being dry, white wines were the only resemblances these Niagara wines had to true Chablis, to which my binder made passing reference as also being a medium-bodied white wine made in Burgundy.

Wine marketing in North America in the 1980s often played fast and loose with the time-honored reputation of European wine. Instead of a meaningful term to distinguish wines made from chardonnay grapes grown in the northernmost part of Burgundy, Chablis was used as a generic term for white wine. Gallo and other California winemakers saw Chablis (for whites), Champagne (for sparkling wines) and Burgundy (for reds) as useful marketing codes to signal a style and quality to a burgeoning new consumer market. These terms were evocative but still easy to pronounce. (Part of Chablis’ charm is that it’s fun to say.)

Canadian vintners followed similar marketing paths, but usage largely ceased as the local industry developed the regulations outlined in the Vintners’ Quality Alliance Act. Why would other winemaking countries respect the wines being made in Canada if our winemakers didn’t regard the appellations and unique marketing terms used across Europe?

Nevertheless, I still encounter wine lovers of a certain age whose reference points to Chablis (or Burgundy, for that matter) are exclusively bottles made in Canada or California.

Meanwhile, Chablis continues to be one of the most popular white wines on the market, even as its prices have increased due to increasing incidents of spring frost that reduce the size of the annual grape harvest. This is a cooler area than the rest of Burgundy, with marked contrasts between warm summers and cold winters, and soils comprised of clay-limestone or containing tiny oyster fossils, which are said to contribute to the captivating and fresh character of the region’s wines.

There’s something to be said for the area’s hyper-focus on one grape variety, chardonnay. As a result, the overall quality typically ranges from quite good to exceptional and, to my taste, these wines offer good value even at the $30 to $100 per bottle prices commonly displayed on wines made in the separate appellations: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru, and Chablis Grand Cru. (When dining out, well-priced Chablis by the glass is always a safe bet.)

Often made in an unaked style, Chablis offers a vibrant and pure expression of the chardonnay grape, which is enjoyable all year round, but especially in the summer. Producers to watch for are Domaine Laroche, Jean-Marc Brocard, Louis Morneau, Grossot, and William Fevre. In addition to the bottles that appear on store shelves, limited release selections, notably the LCBO’s monthly Classics Collections, often feature noteworthy selections.

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