When the growers, winemakers, and merchants all declared that the vintage 2000 chablis (“sha-BLEE”) is very special, one was tempted to say, “Yes, I've heard that before.” This time, however, it's true, beyond all expectations. The other evening friends opened a bottle of Bougros - one of the seven villages where the top-shelf (“grand cru”) chablis are made - vintage '00, and it was indescribably good.
One can expect that even the lesser grades of chablis, then, will be proportionately good drinking. Besides the grand crus, as they are called, there are some 40 “premier crus,” some in many years as good as the grand crus. Then there are just plain chablis without further designation, the most easily affordable. At the bottom, without pretension, are “petit chablis,” little chablis. Prices range from $35 to $40 down to $15 to $20 for the plain. Petit chablis are rarely seen in the United States; most of it stays on the winemaker's dinner table.
Quality, too, varies somewhat, especially on the lesser level, and it's worth getting to recognize the reliable producers and shippers. At best, a fine chablis at any level is pale gold with hints of green, quite dry, “known even to monks and nuns in cloisters, the perfect wine to serve with oysters.”
Made of the Chardonnay grape, chablis is counted among the burgundies even though it is grown and vinified on the Yonne River, an hour's drive west by north from Dijon, Beaune, and the Cote d'Or, the heart of Burgundy.
A distributor surprised me the other day when he remarked that a bordeaux-style wine his firm had carried didn't sell well because it was labeled, accurately but a trifle pretentiously, “claret.” American wine customers, he said, are not familiar with the term, and I suppose he's right. Claret is an English invention, dating back, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to late in the reign of the earlier Queen Elizabeth.
Wines old or imported from afar, unfined and unfiltered, were often cloudy, and so if an import was clear, the wine merchants advertised it as a claret.
Over time the word came to be applied - as it is today - to red bordeaux, imported from just across the English Channel and produced in territory that has been English off and on.
“Hock” is another English invention, not much more than a century old. In general it means any white German wine, but specifically a Hochheimer, a white riesling from the village of Hochheim. It is classified with wines from the Rheingau, considered by many to be Germany's finest, even though Hochheim, on the Oder River, is not contiguous with the heart of the Rheingau, a few miles down-river on the Rhein. Hochheimers get special attention because, it is said, they were the favorite wines of Queen Victoria.
A few Californian wineries have tried to - what? maybe borrow - an association with a classic era by labeling one of their wines as claret, but apparently without notable success. Still others have tried, without much more success, to invent a distinctive French-looking term to suggest distinctive quality: “meritage,” (pronounced “merit-age”). But be it claret, hock, or meritage, it's what's in the bottle that counts, not what's on the label.