This was Chablis: Pale blond with an enticing aroma of citrus, limestone and fresh peaches — not the jug variety from the old days in California, but Premier Cru from some of the best vineyards in the French town of Chablis.
Distinctive wine will have a sense of the place it’s from and the person who made it. This is particularly true in Chablis, where wine has been made for centuries, developing its unique character from the influence of soil and climate which is called terroir.
One of the great white wines, Chablis is always 100 percent chardonnay, lean and racy, with citrus and floral aromas and sharp, bracing acidity. The opposite of rich, heavily-oaked California chardonnay, it’s a wine meant to be enjoyed at the table, not as a cocktail sipper.
I’ve always been curious about terroir, so when an opportunity arose to get four Premier Cru Chablis from the wine merchant Kermit Lynch, I grabbed it. The wines were way above my usual price range, but I indulged, hoping for an exceptional wine experience.
The four Premier Cru vineyards were Fourchaume, Vaillons, Beauroy, and Vau de Vey.
We took our first bottle, Fourchaume (Savary $40) to Rive Bistro in Westport. Where else to savor a fine French wine than at a French restaurant?
Manager Danny Campoverde guided us through the menu and chef specials for the best choices to pair with a Premier Cru Chablis. He tasted along with us, picking up right away on the lemon aroma, citrus flavor, and distinctive limestone minerality that are the hallmarks of Chablis.
Bright, complex, with a touch of barrel age, our second bottle, Vaillions (Henri Costal $48) was unmistakably Chablis but with more colorful citrus and green apple flavors than the Fourchaume. A vivid contrast, it had the juicy, mouthwatering character of a wine with perfectly balanced acidity.
We tasted the Vaillons with our son and daughter-in-law in California via Zoom. They were tasting through the same quartet, hoping to replicate a memorable wine from a dinner we shared years before at the Bouchon Restaurant in Beverly Hills. There was universal consensus that this wine was excellent — everything we had hoped for.
Chablis vineyards are rigidly classified into quality levels. Grand Cru wines come from a tight cluster of south-facing vineyards overlooking the town. Premier Crus are scattered around the town on vineyard sites known to produce excellent wines. They are the aristocracy of the region, just a notch below the royalty of the Grand Cru vineyards.
Beyond these are simple Chablis, non-vineyard-designated wines from within the Chablis boundaries and Petit Chablis from an even wider area surrounding the town.
With today’s emphasis on small producers who can wring remarkable wines from ordinary sites, there are some real finds in the less glamorous classifications.
At Fountainhead Wines in Norwalk, Mike Pelletier recommends the Petit Chablis from Christophe Patrice. Opening with typical Chablis minerality and lively citrus, the pale, almost colorless wine blossoms with citrus fruit and finishes long, with a juicy acidity and a limestone tang. A delightful wine for $19, half the price of our lowest Premier Cru samples, it was a competitive example in our tasting group.
The first impression of the Beauroy (Domaine Lavantureux $58), was of rich wood notes and tropical fruits from oak-barrel aging. It seemed like a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, a good one, but still not what I expected in Chablis.
As the aroma developed in the glass, its Chablis pedigree became more evident with the expected citrusy snap and fresh clean minarlity. An excellent wine, its character seemed to lie somewhere between Burgundy and California, but far afield from Chablis.
The bouquet of the Vau de Vey (Domaine Lavantureux $58) surrounded us as we poured our final Chablis, inviting us to take a taste. Delicate citrus, overlaid Burgundian chardonnay and a classic Chablis limestone. The pale, almost clear, color confirmed that there wasn’t going to be much oak-barrel influence with this wine. I thought this was the one — the wine most like the well-remembered Chablis from our dinner at Bouchon all those years ago.
The Premier Cru quartet were highly-regarded, highly-classified, highly-priced wines, all imported by the legendary Kermit Lynch. Each sang its own song, and we all had our favorites.
A comparative tasting like this is a valuable lesson in the nuanced world of fine wine. Any one of these would be worthy of a special occasion. With Valentine’s Day coming up and many of us celebrating at home, this is a good time to reach beyond the everyday for an exceptional wine experience.
Frank Whitman can be reached at