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BERGER: Chablis may be at its best

A friend and winemaker once convinced me that certain kinds of wines taste better with certain kinds of music, and that the wrong pairing makes for discord.

That thought crossed my mind last week when I attended a small dinner for lovers of Chablis. I refer to that utterly sublime white wine from the French district called Chablis, and thus the word should be capitalized.

Yet I saw a California chardonnay last week with that term on its front label, a sort of slap in the face to real Chablis, which is one of the world's least understood fine wines, an all-chardonnay wine that's most unlike the California-ized version.

It is a wine that deserves a lot better fate than it has gotten, being used on cheap, tawdry wines, not where it rightfully belongs, with haute couture.

Chablis, in its finest incarnation, is a wine for introspection, for large glasses and dim lights, to elevate delicate foods to heights they would never reach on their own, for quiet voices and subtle flavors.

To use a musical analogy, most California chardonnays have the vigor of a John Philip Sousa march; Chablis calls for Debussy and Satie. During dinner the other night, I thought of another way to look at it: most California chardonnay is Jackson Pollock; Chablis is Monet.

During the meal with winemaker Jean-Francois Bordet, the current president of the Chablis Wine Board, we tasted six Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines that were variations on the same theme -- almost no oak aging.

To sum up my impressions, Chablis may never have been better across the board than it is now. It may have been more exciting in decades past when the Grand Cru vineyards would deliver some phenomenal wines in the great vintages.

But as for consistency, Bordet said it best: "Just 30 years ago it was very difficult to control the temperature (of the fermentation) so the wines were different from year to year."

More modern equipment now populates the wine-making areas of many high-caliber Chablis wineries, so even in poor years, good wines can be made. Also, said Bordet, the better vineyards now have better plants, better growing systems and winemaking that exceeds even the best of those back in the 1970s and 1980s.


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