That it is the best of all possible wines with oysters is perhaps doubtful (in any case, I do not think so), but to argue this point would be heresy to many a wine-lover. I could (and propose to do so shortly) quote poetry to prove I am wrong, and if I happen to like Chablis better with cold pheasant, chicken, turkey, or cold beef à la mode, and think it incomparable thus, and prefer Montilla or Manzanilla with my oysters, please consider it nothing more than a personal aberration.
If not, how and why could anyone have written
Avec les huitres
Que le Chablis est excellent!
Je donnerai fortune et titres
Pour m'enivrer de co vin blanc
Avec des buitres.
This I have rendered rather loosely into English as follows:
How truly delicious is this Chablis wine!
Such fortune and such titles as are mine
I’d gladly give if thus they’d let me dine
Daily forever … daily drink my fill
Of Chablis, pale and cool and still …
It was Swift, of course, who observed, “It was a bold man who first ate an oyster”; but perhaps Swift and his original oyster-eater were without benefit of Chablis. In the following verse it is hinted, at least, that oysters sans Chablis might not please everyone; our poet asks, somewhat rhetorically, to be sure:
Qui pourrait mettre en oubli
Le limpide et sec Chablis,
Qui joint à tant d'autres titres
L'art de faire aimer les buitres?
Anglicized under the influence of a good bottle, this comes out about as follows:
Who could conceivably deny
Honor to Chablis, limpid, dry?
Good by itself, it’s also able
To grace the oysters on our table.
All of which only proves that poets, like other people, have found Chablis good, and tried to praise it.
It is easy to praise when genuine and good: austere, gracious, as clean as the pebbles of a mountain brook, clear as water but pale green gold, low in alcohol, easy to drink, excellent with food but no less delicious by itself (well-chilled) on a warm, lazy afternoon in summer, tasting (some say) of hint but (for me) of the very essence of the incomparable Chardonnay grape of which it is made. At its best it is a wine like no other: not the greatest of wines, but unique and splendid.
And now what Chablis really is and how to find it.
All fine wines take their elements from three sources: soil, grape variety, and climate. Far from being an exception, Chablis is an obvious example of precisely this. Its zone of production and that of its better vineyards have been carefully delimited by law. Its soil contains an extremely high proportion of pure chalk, and is actually part of the same geological formation as the chalk cliffs of England (which might explain, but certainly does not, the popularity of Chablis in Great Britain). The better Chablis vineyards contain more chalk than the others, and this element, as in the Champagne country and invariably elsewhere, gives bouquet and a special lightness and fineness to the wines the soil yields.
The one grape of Chablis is the Chardonnay, also the grape of Montrachet, must Meursuuit, Corton-Charlermgne, Pouilly-Fuissé, but of course, on less good soil, of Mâcon Blanc as well. It is widely grown in the French Champagne country and the best Champagnes contain a high proportion of it. The Chardonnay produces what most of us consider the best white wine of California. Often called the Pinot Chardonnay, it is quite probably not a true nember of the Pinot family at all, although French law makes it legally so in France.
Finally, there is the question of climate. The grapes that produce wine seem to conform, even more closely than do human beings, to Mr. Toynbee's celebrated theory of Challenge and Response. Almost all the best wines of the world come from districts where the vine's very survival is almost a miracle, where its yield is irregular and its total production small. Chablis, like Germany's Moselle Valley, emphatically ranks as such a district: Its figure of gallons per acre, over a ten-year period, is, considering its fame, astonishingly low. Yet a man who has ten acres of vineyard is considered a large landowner in Chablis, and one who produces two thousand cases of wine a year is considered a rich man.