When Victoria James first started studying the wines of Chablis, it seemed to her that they were often presented in a neat and narrow box: old school, fresh, mineral, meant to be paired with oysters. But when she had the opportunity to visit the Burgundian stronghold, she found an entire world beyond the canon she’d committed to memory—a countryside full of hardworking farmers stewarding the land and celebrating the wines with much more beyond oysters.
“At the end of the day, the people making Chablis are farmers,” says the sommelier, who heads up the wine program at Cote, a Korean steakhouse in New York City. “And the wines they make aren’t necessarily just for oysters, which the books I read [had] said.” In Chablis, James discovered a landscape more pastoral and a tradition more democratic than she had ever imagined, with a diversity of winemakers that ranged from Isabelle Raveneau, a second-generation winemaker at one of Bourgogne’s best known domaines, to Clotilde Davenne, a grower hand-harvesting and producing without the use of chemicals whose wines run the gamut from Petit Chablis and aligoté to old-vine Grand Cru and Premier Cru Chablis, to Picq, second-generation growers, hand-tending the land, using indigenous yeasts and aging entirely in stainless steel.
“For me, Chablis is one of the great white wines of the world,” says James. “It’s an essential part of any wine list.” At Cote, she balances her list among each of Chablis’ expressions—from those aged in stainless steel to those with a bit more flesh matured in oak—to show that chardonnay from Chablis isn’t just one thing; it can pair as well with fresh seafood as it does with wagyu steak. In fact, while visiting Chablis on the feast of St. Vincent, she discovered a parallel between the region and her establishment’s cuisine.
“It’s hearty food, farmer food. Meats, legumes and snails, of course,” she says. Inevitably, each charcuterie board was accompanied by cornichons and pickles, which mirrored Cote’s Korean-inflected menu of aged meats and fermented vegetables. “It does so well with these flavors. Aged Chablis has got that oily, waxy creaminess, phenolic bitterness and acid that goes with these hearty dishes.”
Chablis’ versatility is in part due to a decade of evolution in which not only stylistic license has expanded and new producers have joined the scene, but also Petit Chablis, once overlooked as the “less serious” Chablis, has begun making a more serious play. “It used to be that 10 years ago it was only a bistro sort of thing,” says James. Now growers are taking Petit Chablis very seriously and, as a result, sommeliers are also.”
Part of what keeps wine professionals coming back to Chablis as a foundational part of any list is not only its timelessness, but also its ability to evolve within the framework of its tradition. James notes producers like Isabelle and Denis Pommier, who hand-harvest their entire crop and make “plump, juicy wines—not your typical zippy, oyster sort of Chablis,” as well as Roland Lavantureux and his sons Arnaud and David, who she calls the next Raveneau. “Chablis is one of the world’s few wines that has stood the test of time,” says James. “Our grandmothers drank it, our mothers drank it and every sommelier worth their salt today drinks it as well.”