CHABLIS will always hold a special place in my heart. As a red drinker, it was the white that opened the door for me to a whole world of elegant and exciting wines, eventually leading to delights such as riesling and gruner veltliner.
That’s why last year’s news sent a shiver down my spine – severe frost in April, two hailstorms in May and then heavy rain in June all conspired to leave the harvest down 50% year-on-year, leading to predictions of higher prices.
Chablis’ northern position above Burgundy and below Champagne means it’s always susceptible to bad weather, but last year was one of the worst vintages in living memory.
Yet that same northerly position is what gives the wine its charm – the cooler climate means the chardonnay grapes develop flavours of green apples and pears – instead of the more tropical fruit characteristics it produces closer to the equator – while the Kimmeridge rocks composed of tiny fossilised oyster shells are often credited with giving the wine its “minerality”.
Now, minerality is one of the hardest descriptions to define in the world of wine; some tasters use it to describe a wine that’s “flinty”, while others will mention “wet stone” – although how many will have licked a piece of damp rock to test their theory remains questionable.
Minerals from rocks can make their way into wines, but they’re present in such small quantities that we can’t taste them, as Benjamin Lewin and Jancis Robinson (now behind a paywall) recently pointed out so eloquently.
Whether or not we can taste the minerals, the words “Chablis” and “minerality” still go together hand-in-hand, so it’s an important factor when it comes to finding alternatives if prices rise.
Most Chablis is unoaked – although some mid-tier and premium producers do create stunning wines that have spent time in wood – and so our tour of alternatives will focus on similar vanilla-less chardonnays.
Sticking with France
Surrounding the core Chablis region – which includes its top “grand cru” and “premier cru” vineyards – lies the wider Petit Chablis area. Most of the Petit Chablis vineyards sit on Portlandien rocks, rather than the Kimmeridge, with its wines often said to lack the same minerality.
The 2015 Alain Geoffroy Petite Chablis (£13.50, Oddbins) certainly shares the classic steely acidity of Chablis, along with deliciously ripe pear and green apple flavours.
Lidl’s 2015 Chevalier de Fauvert Chardonnay Pay d’Oc (£4.79, Lidl) shows that unoaked chardonnay can come from other parts of France too, with green apple flavours and plenty of acidity, but without the minerality of Chablis.
For a couple of pounds more, the 2015 Domaine Saint Germain Chardonnay (£6.99, Lidl) in the discount chain’s current “wine cellar” offer delivers similar fresh acidity to Chablis, but more restrained orchard fruit flavours.
Going further afield
Chardonnay grows well in other cool climates too, as ably demonstrated by the 2015 Weingut Wageck Chardonnay Pfaffman Bisserheim Kalmergel (£15.75 down from £17.50, Oddbins), which combines the refreshing acidity and minerality of Chablis with touches of apricots and lemons. Very tasty.
Swapping hemispheres, the 2014 Tabali Talinay Chardonnay (£15.99, Virgin Wines) from Chile’s cool Limari Valley gives little away on the nose but delivers fruiter green apple and pear flavours on the palate, wrapped in crisp acidity to balance the fruit.
Across in Australia, the 2016 Blind Spot King Valley Garganega (£8.95, Wine Society) is great value, offering ripe green apple aromas and really concentrated fruit flavours. Garanega is best known as the grape behind Soave, but it’s found a second-home in Victoria.
Never go out of style
Back in Garanega’s old stomping ground, the 2015 Ca Rugate Monte Fiorentine Soave Classico (£14.81, Find Me That Wine) provides plenty of orchard fruit flavours to match its refreshing acidity, while across on the other side of Italy I was impressed by the brand new 2016 Definition Gavi (£8.99, Majestic Wine), the latest addition to Majestic’s “Definition” range, which provided minerality and pear, with a twist of lemon too.
Also standing out for me was the 2015 Teruzzi & Puthod Rondolino Vernaccia di San Gimignano (£8.99, Waitrose), which offers just the right balance of green apple, steely acidity and minerality – all at a great price too.
Heading further along the Mediterranean, the 2015 Hatzidakis Santorini Assyrtiko (£12.99, Waitrose; £13.50 Wine Society) focused more on lemon and apricot flavours, but packed a firm acidic punch and had a savoury quality on the finish that will appeal to many Chablis fans.
While hunting for other cool climate chardonnays is a good way to find alternatives to Chablis, exploring similar dry white styles – especially those from Italy – can yield some satisfying substitutions too.