By Gina Trippi
The Chablis situation is a little like Champagne. French controls say that only wine from the region of Champagne can be labeled as such. The same is true for Chablis. The varietal is Chardonnay and the region of origin is Chablis.
The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (French certification) for Chablis was created in 1938 to protect the name. America did not recognize or enforce the European designations and was labeling ordinary Chardonnay as Chablis. By the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, a full-fledged war was on over California Chablis.
Almaden Vineyards presented a commercial showing an attractive couple in a wine shop with San Francisco trolleys in the background. The narrator says wine country is not far from San Francisco so ”San Franciscans really know their wine.” And, Almaden says, San Franciscans buy more Almaden Chablis than Taylor and Inglenook together.
Taylor Cellars punched back with credentials featuring a “French chef and wine connoisseur” who said, speaking in French, that he preferred “the bouquet and flavor of Taylor.” Inglenook took another track selling romance with phrases like “for the moments in life that are just a little special” and “when the toast comes from the heart.”
Not to be outdone, Paul Masson featured Orson Welles saying Chablis was the most popular wine in America and giving birth to the phrase that took on its own life: “Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time.” Paul Masson upped their game by selling its wine in a glass decanter instead of the standard wine bottle.
Gallo also claimed international sophistication with an Italian restaurateur saying: “The more you know about wine, the more you appreciate Gallo.” Italian Swiss Colony went for fun with a bearded man in lederhosen backed up by yodeling. Carlo Rossi offered wine in a jug and claimed a “unique spin on Chablis, an Old World style from France.” And Franzia debuted the box with its Mountain Chablis.
My friend Jeanne Delbert was one of the early Chablis pioneers. “We used to buy Paul Masson to get the carafe,“ says Jeanne, “and then fill it with a box of Franzia.” As it turns out Franzia cost less and made for 32 glasses.
Jeanne tried all of the competitors, but the experiment came to a swift halt when she went to France and had the real thing. “It sure didn’t taste like Mountain Chablis,” she says.
So, while the wineries were selling enticing messages, none of them were really selling Chablis, and the name Chablis became associated with cheap white wine. True Chablis, produced with little or no oak, is frequently described as having citrus and white flower aromas with dry, lean, light-bodied flavors of citrus, pear, minerality and salinity.
In France, to be legally labeled Chablis, it must have been produced from Chardonnay grapes grown in the Chablis region. Meanwhile, back in America, you can still buy jugs of “Chablis” from Taylor Cellars, Inglenook and Carlo Rossi, and Almaden Chablis in a 5-liter box.
Gina Trippi is the co-owner of Metro Wines, 169 Charlotte Street in Asheville. Committed to the community, Metro Wines offers big shop selection with small shop service—and the real thing, Chablis from France. Gina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828.575.9525.