The Sip: At the heart of Chablis

A trip to the region unearths the complexities of Chardonnay production.

Sam Decker and Athénaïs de Béru, winemaker at Château de Béru, discuss her vine-training system. — Photo by Katy Decker

Sam Decker is the general manager and wine director at Atria in Edgartown, where he teaches weekly wine courses. Register at He will be sharing his knowledge of wines regularly with The Times.

Despite its authoritative London accent (think young Judi Dench), my wife and I were beginning to distrust our GPS, which consistently confused gas stations and grocery stores, and hadn’t been programmed to fully grasp the concept of rotaries. This was proving problematic in France, whose great love of rotaries cannot be overstated. To enter or exit a highway is to master the art of split-second decision making, while enduring a degree of centrifugal force that makes the navigational sectors of the brain go haywire. Imagine a roller coaster in which you are also responsible for steering.

An effervescent fog blanketed the hillsides. We rounded a corner and a sea of vines came into view — a welcome sight, as we were already an hour late for our appointment at Château de Béru in Chablis.

While technically part of Burgundy, Chablis is closer to Champagne, both geographically and spiritually, than to the Côte d’Or, Burgundy’s heart. With blanched, chalky slopes and gray skies, Chablis has a skeletal beauty, home to a population of serious winemakers whose efforts are focused solely on a single grape: Chardonnay.

At least for me, no other white wine comes close.

Chardonnay is perhaps the world’s most boring grape, which is exactly why it’s also the most exciting. Similar to how a great actor can seem eerily vacant when not in character, Chardonnay is a blank canvas, allowing what matters most — the origin of the grapes and the winemaker’s style — to shine through. Unfortunately, what can be found in most of today’s Chardonnays is mediocre at best. The grape’s sustained popularity over the past 30 years has lead to sprees of careless planting. Much of California, for example, is too hot and dry to yield interesting Chardonnay; even relatively temperate regions like Sonoma County are furnaces when compared to cool, damp Burgundy, Chardonnay’s ancestral home. But this hasn’t deterred continued growth: At 100,000 acres, the Golden State has more Chardonnay than any other grape.

But ardent discussion on climate and viticulture misses the point: Weather isn’t all that important when compared to soil. Just as the Gamay Noir grape requires granite beneath its feet to achieve complexity and finesse, limestone is magic for Chardonnay. While very good examples can be made without it, limestone is what the world’s best Chardonnays — Chablis, Blanc de Blancs Champagne, and white Burgundy — have in common.

Upon arriving at Château de Béru, we were greeted by Athénaïs de Béru, the young winemaker who runs the family domaine, and immediately whisked off to lunch.

We found a table at the bustling Au Fil du Zinc, an ancient mill turned bistro, whose tasting menu was a modern Japanese rendition of country French. We ordered a bottle of 2011 Clos de Béru, my favorite of the domaine’s wines, which danced in our light-flecked glasses as we discussed Château de Béru.

Ms. Béru left Paris and a career in finance to take over the family-run domaine after the death of her father in 2004. Now, a decade later, she has become one of the region’s rising stars, part of a younger generation that sees biodynamic practices as a road to a more sustainable future. While the Côte d’Or is starting to see the benefits of biodynamics, not the least of which is its marketability, Chablis remains a stronghold for quantity-over-quality viticulture, and many still rely on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to achieve consistent yields in a challenging region. Ms. Béru sees another way. Taking the lead from local heroes like Vincent Dauvissat and François Raveneau, Ms. Béru recognizes biodynamics as the way to put life back into the soil.

“I didn’t want to wake up every morning and put on a plastic suit,” Ms. Béru said over a course of diced scallops, explaining the common sense at the root of her decision to work with biodynamics — an ultra-organic system of agriculture that includes a touch of the mystical. She was officially certified in 2011.

After lunch we hiked through a nearby forest that overlooked Chablis’ seven Grand Cru climats. The vineyards share a broad south-facing slope, but differ from one another due to subtle shifts in soil composition and exposure. It was breathtaking to see a place I’d read about a hundred times laid out before me. Its simplicity was astounding.

Having grown up on an Island, I felt oddly at home in a region that spent millions of years at the bottom of the sea. Its chalky soils are beds of ancient shellfish, crushed, fossilized and scattered over eons — it’s the same phenomenon that made the White Cliffs of Dover. The prehistoric ocean theory is at the poetic heart of many arguments that Chablis and oysters make one of the world’s finest pairings. With the wine’s bracing acidity and mineral purity, I’d have to agree, though I’m also a fan of Manzanilla sherry, which matches the oyster’s brininess. My favorite Chablis producers are Dauvissat and Raveneau, though I now count Château de Béru among them. Christian Moreau is also excellent, and much easier to find.

In a world awash in lackluster Chardonnay, Chablis offers the antithesis: precision and energy that ignite the imagination.