Chablis is the northern most wine growing region in the appellation of Burgundy. The name has become synonymous with great white wine. Our recent visit to the region taught us a great deal more about the area, reaffirmed our love for its wines, and showed us what a truly beautiful place it is to visit.
Chablis is 158 kms southeast of Paris, about halfway to the village of Beaune, which is arguably the heart of Burgundy. In fact, Chablis is closer to the Champagne region than it is to the remainder of Burgundy.
The name Chablis comes from two Celtic words: “cab” which means house and “leya” which means near the woods. Inhabited by people since the before Christ, it received its first vine plants transported to the region by visiting Romans in the first centuries AD. In the 12th century Cistercian monks undertook additional planting and established the beginning of winegrowing as an integral part of life in the region.
Up until the 19th century Chablis was a major wine growing region in France. It was the closest to the major population located in Paris and had direct access to that city via travel on the rivers Serein and Yonne. This was critically important during the time before railroads.
But as the industrial revolution took hold and rail tracks were laid throughout the country, other wine regions developed similar access to Paris providing competition for Chablis. In the late 19th century, the vine destroying phylloxera louse devastated the vineyards of Chablis, as it did most of Europe. Prior to these events Chablis peaked with some 40,000 hectares under vine. By the time of World War II, this acreage declined to a mere 500 hectares! Since then, it has steadily grown and now has over 5,000 hectares planted to vineyard.
Chablis is a unique region in that it only permits one grape to be grown within its boundaries: Chardonnay.
Terroir is the term the French use to describe the sum of the various features of the place where a wine is grown that ultimately affect the style and quality of the resulting wine. Those features are: latitude, altitude, soil types, climate and vineyard orientation.
Chablis is situated in the north of France and has a cool, continental climate. Grapes struggle to fully ripen in its climate that features harsh, cold winters with sunny but brief summers. The two primary features that have the greatest influence on the Chablis terroir are soil type and vineyard orientation.
The soils of Chablis are primarily limestone based, mostly from the Kimmeridgian and Portlandian eras.
The best soils are the Kimmeridgian, which preceded the Portlandian era and were created when all of France was covered by a huge seabed. As the seas retreated, they left behind numerous oysters and other shellfish which then fossilized and became a part of this crumbly soil. The Portlandian soils are younger, harder and have less fossilized shellfish within them.
Due to its northerly location, Chablis is a marginal grape-growing climate that struggles to fully ripen its fruit. This places great importance on the orientation of its vineyards. The most sought-after locations are those with a southern or southwestern aspect, that receive the afternoon sun and produce riper grapes of greater concentration.
CLASSIFICATIONS & APPELLATIONS
The Chablis region has 4 classifications within it, that can be organized into a quality pyramid.
At the base of the pyramid is the Petit Chablis classification. Petit Chablis can be found scattered about the region and are typically found on plateaus and north or east facing sites where there is little to no Kimmeridgian soils.
Petit Chablis is generally found nearer the perimeters of the region, furthest from the river Serein and the town of Chablis. These sites produce leaner wines with high acidity and lower alcohol levels. They possess classic cool climate Chardonnay characteristics of citrus fruit flavours, some green apple, grapefruit, great freshness but little body or concentration. They are very affordable, early drinking wines (up to 2 years from release) that offer little in the way of complexity but are quite quaffable making better aperitifs than wines to accompany dinner.
Next up the hierarchy are wines that are labeled simply Chablis. These vineyards are located closer to the village and the river but generally will lack the south and southwest aspect and generally sit on more Portlandian soils. Compared to Petit Chablis, you will notice a greater concentration of fruit with Chablis wines which will give the impression of less noticeable acidity. For most wineries, their Chablis will be their largest volume wines and, in many ways, will be the reference point by which the winery is judged.
More serious than Petit Chablis, these wines make for great partners to food. Expect a similar flavour profile to Petit Chablis but with a bit more heft and an attractive streak of minerality. Some of the better producers really focus on their Chablis level wines and the result is great value for money; J.M. Brocard, Domaine LaRoche, and Domaine Servin are 3 to look out for.
Premier Cru is the classification that takes things up a significant amount. There are 40 designated Premier Cru climats (or named plots) and they can be found close to the Serein and the village of Chablis. Only 15% of the total area in Chablis is classified as Premier Cru. These vineyards will have a high portion of Kimmeridgian soils, but they generally will not have the south and southwest facing aspects but slight offshoots from that. They will usually have some degree of slope to their geography. The power and concentration in Premier Crus take things a step up from the Chablis classification in terms of body while retaining the region’s signature acidity.
The Premier Crus will often be referred to as “Right Bank” or “Left Bank”.
These designations refer to which side of the river Serein they sit on. The Left Bank sits on the southern side of the river, facing primarily north. This aspect creates a leaner more elegant profile than typically found on the Right Bank or northern side that faces south. The Right Bank gets the longer afternoon sun creating riper and more concentrated grapes of greater power.
The better-known Right Bank climats include Monte de Tonnerre, Mont de Milieu, Vaulorent and Fourchaume. On the Left Bank, notable climats include Cote de Leches, Vaillons, Montmains and Vau de Vey.
Finally, the top classification is Grand Cru.
This accounts for just 3% of the total vineyard area of Chablis. There are 7 Grand Cru vineyards, and they all are placed in a contiguous hillside on the Right Bank that looks down to the village and has a south to southwest aspect. The soil found at the grand cru vineyards is entirely Kimmeridgian. The Grand Cru Hill is very important to the Chablisiennes. It is a beautiful looking hill and dominates the vista from the city when looking across the Serein to the north. The Grand Cru wines are highly sought after and have a reputation for being as good as any in Burgundy. They contribute greatly to the reputation of the region and the people are justifiably proud of these vineyards. The seven Grand Crus are: Les Blanchots, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Valmur, Vaudesir, Les Preuses and Bugro.
The southern exposure on the Kimmeridgian soils combines intense fruit with a strong mineral presence. Many of the Grand Cru Chablis will go through some oak ageing as the fruit has enough concentration to handle time in barrel without becoming “oaky”. New barrels are not nearly as prevalent in the region as old ones and large barrels and foudres are generally preferred over the standard sized barrique. The goal with using oak is to add texture but not flavour. As several winemakers in Chablis said to us “We are Chablis, not Meursault”.
CHABLIS WITHIN THE WORLD OF WINE
The style of Chablis is to express its true identity. Its cooler climate naturally produces elegant and high acid wines, a style the locals are quite proud of. Expect to encounter flavours of citrus, apple, grapefruit and white flowers on medium or less body with medium plus acid. These are fine wines but relative to other fine wines (especially throughout the rest of Burgundy) the wines of Chablis remain a genuine bargain. The Premier Crus and the Grand Crus are quite age worthy and will gain complexity over time. However, we find them to be very charming in their youth where the emphasis on freshness takes centre stage.
One last thought about climate change. Warming temperatures across the globe have impacted all wine regions, including Chablis. Until now, this has largely been beneficial as it has helped with the struggle to get the grapes fully ripe. While we were there, several winemakers pondered the question of how this will impact the region’s style in decades to come. There was definitely a strong sentiment expressed towards wanting to maintain their existing freshness and linearity as they hand over the reins to the next generations.