How Chablis transformed from a generic marketing term to an attractive variety

Chablis remains one of the most popular white wines on the market, even with its high prices.SimplyCreativePhotography / iStockPhoto / Getty Images

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When I first heard about Chapley, I was baffled. As a newly enlisted guide at Hillebrand Estate Winery in 1988, I received a burgundy 3-ring dossier with detailed information about grape-growing, winemaking, and how to taste and evaluate the wines that were the basis of Niagara-on-the-Lake winery tours.

At the time, Hillebrand made two variants of Chablis: the Cuvée 1812 Chablis, which came in a cork-sealed 750ml bottle, and the Canadian Chablis, available as a one-liter screw-on cap. Both were dry white wines produced primarily from seyval blanc, a hybrid French grape, a point of differentiation from the sweeter (and more popular) white wines made by the winery at the time.

Being dry, the white wine was the only similarity to Niagara wine it had with the real Chapley, which the documenter noted was also a medium-bodied white wine made in Burgundy.

The marketing of North American wines in the 1980s was often fast and broke with the long-standing reputation of European wines. Instead of a meaningful term to distinguish wine made from Chardonnay grapes grown in the northern part of Burgundy, Chablis has been used as a generic term for white wine. Gallo and other California winemakers saw Chablis (for whites), champagne (for sparkling wines), and Burgundy (for red wines) as useful marketing symbols to indicate style and quality for a burgeoning new consumer market. These terms were evocative but still easy to pronounce. (Part of Shapley’s charm is that it’s fun to say.)

Canadian liquor makers followed similar marketing paths, but use largely ceased as the local industry developed regulations set forth in the Mine Quality Association Act. Why do other winemaking countries respect wines made in Canada if our winemakers do not take into account the unique labels and marketing terms used throughout Europe?

However, I still run into wine lovers of a certain age whose reference points to Chablis (or Burgundy, for that matter) are bottles made exclusively in Canada or California.

Meanwhile, Chapley remains one of the most popular white wines on the market, even as its prices are rising due to increased incidences of spring frosts reducing the size of the annual grape crop. This is a cooler region than the rest of Burgundy, with marked contrasts between warm summers and cool winters, and soils composed of clayey limestone or containing tiny oyster fossils, which are said to contribute to the captivating and fresh character of the region’s wines.

There is something to be said about the region’s excessive focus on one grape variety, Chardonnay. As a result, the overall quality usually ranges from very good to exceptional, and to my taste these wines offer good value even at $30 to $100 per bottle that are commonly offered on wines made on separate labels: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru, Chablis Grand Cru. (When dining out, the well-priced Chablis is always a safe bet.)

Often made in a patchwork style, Chablis makes a lively and pure expression of the Chardonnay grape, which is fun all year round, but especially so in the summer. The must-watch producers are Domaine Laroche, Jean-Marc Brocard, Louis Morneau, Grossot, and William Fevre. In addition to the bottles appearing on store shelves, the limited edition selections, particularly the monthly classic LCBO collections, often feature noteworthy selections.

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