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THE TASTERS' CHOICE : Chablis, Beaujolais and Their California Counterparts--Along With French ZIP-Code Wines--Test 16 Professional Palates at The Times' 12th Annual Judging


All the world loves Beaujolais. The only red wine to be served cool, its countless variations of mellow, fruity flavor are welcome at any time of day, whatever the occasion, from the romantically intimate to the merriest of feasts.

On the other side of the spectrum stands Chablis, the most famous white wine in the world, with the most imitated, faked and misunderstood title in the lexicon of wine. Properly speaking, Chablis is the wine of Chardonnay grapes grown on the chalky hills in and around the French village of Chablis, a separate area of Burgundy, 110 miles southeast of Paris. Yet the name has been appropriated by wine makers in every one of the world's wine-producing lands to describe any dry (or even sweet-edged) white (or pink) wine.

Sipped and savored from simple French bistros to elegant California restaurants, Chablis and Beaujolais are wines of greater complexity than many people realize. Their selection is not--or should not be--merely a choice of "red" or "white," as was proven at the 12th Annual Los Angeles Times Wine Tasting. In two days of silent tasting, a panel of 16 experts examined the properties of 92 wines--broken down into five categories--that included, for a change of pace, some vin ordinaires from both France and California. Forming the bulk, and properly so, were the best of the French wines and their California counterparts.

The Whites

For all its fame, Chablis is a sleepy little village on the banks of the Serein, a river so small that it is sometimes barely a trickle. It flows into the Yonne, which flows into the Seine, a route that allowed the golden, often green-hued wine to reach the French court in centuries past. Today's vines were brought to the region in the 12th Century by Cistercian monks from abbeys near Beaune, thus the moniker Beaunois, which is used by natives instead of today's more broadly known title, Chardonnay. By law, it is the only grape permitted under French appellation controlee regulations. In short, all French Chablis is pure Chardonnay wine.

In the whole region of the vine--a mere 3,750 acres--there is a fairly broad spectrum of quality production. At the top are the seven Grand Crus: Blanchots, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Vaudesir, Les Preuses, Bourgros and Valmur. All come from a total of 247 acres, far less than the individual acreage of many boutique wineries in California. Next come those Chablis designated as Premier Cru, about 30 in all from a total of 1,750 acres, generally marketed with the word Chablis followed by the vineyard name--such as Chablis-Monte de Tonnerre. Wines merely designated Chablis come from anywhere in the appellation and usually are the wines of growers who own small vine plots.

In the 13th Century, a Cistercian monk described the wine of Chablis as being "the color of spring water in sunlight . . . sometimes golden, which has aroma and body, an exquisite savor and fills the heart with joyous assurance." Despite such praise and centuries of international fame, Chablis faces a difficult terrain and inclement weather (the freeze of last February killed hundreds of acres of vines, reducing the potential harvest of this year by 85%). Each decade, this makes fewer growers willing to continue production. Almost every year, thin layers of topsoil clay, above the famed Kimeridgean chalky foundation, must be lugged back up the hills in baskets.

The taste of true French Chablis is most often described by words of peculiar application: steely, "gun-flinty." Translate it more simply as hard, clean, totally dry, without a trace of sweetness, crisp with fruit acidity, perhaps suggesting green hay in aroma or bouquet.

For our tasting exercise on Chablis, we deemed it proper to establish the true taste of the original by scheduling a selection of Grand Cru, Premier Cru and regional French Chablis with a selection of crisply styled California white wines, which, like French Chablis, are made of 100% Chardonnay grapes. That does not "compare apples with oranges" but only contrasts the difference in earthly origins and vineyard terrain. California does not have soil comparable to the Kimeridgean clay of Chablis, which--dating to the geological endowments of the Mesozoic era--abounds in the minute remains of marine organisms of that calcareous substance we know as chalk.

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