Chablis is one of the world’s greatest white wines. Achieving such greatness cannot be taken for granted in Chablis, whose cool, northerly French location places untold demands on grape-growers. Yet greatness is achievable in the right hands and if nature is kind, Chablis can produce wines of staggering beauty and poise. But what makes Chablis Chablis? Styles vary according to quality level, site, and winemaking, however all Chablis wines share a sole grape variety – Chardonnay – and a common aromatic and textural palette. May-blossom, greengage, apples/pears, gunflint – all are typical Chablis notes, as are creamy, tangy textures, developing depth with age. Yet possibly the single most defining factor of Chablisis the steely minerality at its core, an almost intangible quality said to result from Chablis’ fossilized Kimmeridgian limestone soils.
Vines were apparently brought to Chablis in Roman times, however serious viticulture was first established in the 12th century by Cistercian monks. From then on, Chablis’ proximity to the river Seine provided an easy route to the significant Parisian market and beyond, in fact the region’s wines had become an English favourite by the 17th century. Chablis’ vineyards flourished and by the mid-1800s spanned 120,000 acres. However the development of railways in the late 1900s brought competition from cheap Languedoc wines, compromising Chablis’ monopoly in the Parisian market. This, then the double whammy of mildew and phylloxera, decimated Chablis vineyards. Two world wars later, Chablis’ vineyard area had plummeted to just 400 hectares. Vineyards were expanded again from the 1970s as worldwide consumption increased, with now almost 5,000 hectares producing Chablis of four different quality levels.
Chablis’ wines – geography, styles and wines
Located in the rolling landscape of the Yonne department 60 miles south-east of Paris, Chablis’ marginal grape-growing climate sees producers battle with frequent cold, frost, rains and harsh winds to achieve ripeness. The key to Chablis’ unique quality and style is held to be its geology. Chablis falls on an outcrop of fossilized limestone soils, part of the Paris basin whose far western rim emerges in Dorset, England. These Kimmeridgian soils are believed to impart the particular minerally characters common to all Chablis. While the Chablis classification hierarchy should mirror quality, producer name is crucial, and a top producer’s premier cru Chablis might easily outperform that of a lesser grand cru Chablis. Wine styles vary due to different winemaking practices, for example Chablis can be made in stainless steel tanks (said to favour purity and typicity), or fermented and matured in oak barrels (potentially conferring additional complexity). A far greater quality issue in Chablis is that of inferior winemaking – negligent vineyard husbandry and poor winemaking techniques will result in dilute, characterless wines at best. This huge quality differential makes choosing Chablis less than straightforward for wine consumers, however generally speaking wine quality should follow the established hierarchy, from the top down Chablis Grand Cru, Chablis Premier Cru, Chablis and Petit Chablis.
Chablis Grand Cru – vineyards and wines
There are seven Chablis grand cru vineyards covering 100 hectares, and tended by many different growers, who may individually own just a few rows. Chablis grand cru vineyards are planted on the fossil-rich kimmeridgian limestone soils said to give Chablis its minerally character. Located on a single south-west facing slope across the river Serein and looking over Chablis village, these grand cru vineyards – Blanchots, Bougros, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Preuses, Valmur and Vaudésir – are typically the richest wines of the appellation , with intense flavours, depth and persistence that mark them out from premier cru or’generic’ Chablis. Better Chablis grands crus are akin to good white Burgundies from the Côte d’Or, yet much cheaper. Approachable at between seven and ten years, the very best Chablis grand cru wines can mature for up to thirty years, developing mellow, mushroomy or honeyed notes with age.
Chablis Premier Cru – vineyards and wines
There are approximately 750 hectares of Chablis premier cru vineyards. Slightly lighter than Chablis grand cru, a good Chablis premier cru is nevertheless a stylish, intense wine with the same distinctive, lingering Chablis scent. Chablis’ best premiers crus are arguably Mont de Milieu, Fourchaume and Montée de Tonnerre, located on the same side of the river as Chablis’ grand cru vineyards. On the left bank of the river, Vau de Vey, Côte de Léchet, Vaillons and Montmains also make impressive wines, perhaps more restrained than the former, but nonetheless classic Chablis premier cru wines. Drinking well two to six years after vintage, finer Chablis premiers crus will mature for up to ten years and beyond.
Chablis and Petit Chablis – vineyards and wines
There are now over 3,000 hectares of’generic’ Chablis and 600 of Petit Chablis. Better AOC Chablis, often those produced by smaller, quality-minded growers, can be lovely wines, expressive of their origin. In some cases’generic’ Chablis can outshine lesser premier cru Chablis, particularly from older vines which give more concentration, so it pays to know the grower. Chablis are best enjoyed in the first two or three years after vintage but wines from better vintages and growers may continue to drink for four to five years. Petit Chablis is often made in outlying vineyards on high plateaux, where cooler temperatures make grape-ripening more difficult. Soils are typically Portlandian limestone (related to the’top’ kimmeridgian soils, but younger and less highly-rated by Chablis purists). Petit Chablis may have some of the character and flavour of Chablis, but is rarely a great wine.
Chablis and its wines – in a nutshell
Chablis is a white wine made from a single grape variety, Chardonnay . Chablis’ top seven grand cru vineyards represent just 2% of Chablis’ vineyards.
The Chablis appellation contrôlée comprises a four 4-tiered quality hierarchy, from the finest to the most generic: Chablis Grand Cru, Chablis Premier Cru, Chablis and Petit Chablis.
Little known fact... Chablis’ calcium-rich’kimmeridgian’ clay soils are named after the Dorset village Kimmeridge, which lies on the same geological foundation as Chablis, the chalky’Paris basin’.