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March 31, 2013

GRAPE SENSE: Embracing an old-world wine region: Chablis

While the effects of that California jug ‘Chablis’ had its negative impact, Chablis winemakers believe those days are largely behind them now.

The last Grape Sense column focused on the differences between Chablis and all other Chardonnay. Recently Chablis winemakers Jean-François  Bordet and Christian Moreau visited New York and took the time for a brief phone chat.

“I don’t think that’s still a problem,” Moreau said. “There used to be some confusion, of course, 15, 20 or 30 years ago. But in last six, seven or 10 years, people in the U.S. are more educated. They are more educated about wine because the journalists are talking about Chablis and they are talking about Chablis being made in France.

“Also when the younger generation sees a price of $18-$20 for Chablis, or higher for Grand Cru, they know it doesn’t come from California. Winemakers have come to the U.S. and not just the importers. We’ve had quite a few French delegations coming and doing tastings. People are really starting to know what Chablis is and where it comes from.”

But the effort to promote Chablis isn’t necessarily a new one. Moreau said his father visited the U.S. in 1937 and 1939 to talk about Chablis. But he admitted the really effective Chablis marketing and education effort started 10 to 15 years ago. “Before that the knowledge of Chablis came from people who were wine lovers or who traveled to Europe.”

Bordet said the message never changes through generations. “Chablis is made in France and is in Burgundy,” he said. “There is no oak and we have special soil that gives the wine a freshness.”

Wine tourism remains relatively new in France and has been very slow developing in the premier region of Bordeaux. Chablis winemakers are a different breed who may not have fancy tasting rooms but they’re ready to welcome any visitor.

“Chablis is not far from Paris, two hours by car and less by train,” Bordet said. “You have more and more bed and breakfasts; you can have tours of the vineyard and tasting in cellar. Tourism has grown in Chablis and the winemakers will welcome you. We want to receive more tourists.”

Most people are surprised to learn that Chablis is a village of just 2,500 people. It’s very old world and welcoming. The valley around it is covered in vineyard for an idyllic setting. For tourism, the small city of Auxerre, about 40,000 inhabitants, offers a wide range of hotels and transportation companies and is less than 30 minutes away.

Moreau has an old family domaine in Chablis. He turned winemaking duties over to his son Fabien, who is also a chef, in 2001. The family name has been a part of Chablis since 1814. “We do a tour of the winery and free tasting,” he said. “We are not really organized like some wineries but if somebody wants to visit and taste we are very open to everyone.”

The more you learn about wine, and the great family stories behind wineries, the more enjoyable wine becomes. A pretty label often sells a bottle but a great story — especially when you meet the people — keeps you coming back for more.

Moreau wines and Bordet’s Domaine Sequinot-Bordet wines are available in the Midwest at better wine shops.

Howard W. Hewitt, of Crawfordsville, Ind., writes about wine every other week for 22 Midwestern newspapers. Follow is frequently updated wine blog at: www.howardhewitt.net

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