Focus on Chablis | World-Class Chardonnay from the Golden Gate of Burgundy
Browse through the “White” portion of the wine list at almost any decent seafood restaurant and you are likely to find a bottle or two, at least, of Chablis. The lean, dry and flinty-mineral style of these mono-varietal Chardonnay wines allow for the ideal pairing with fresh shellfish, oysters and almost any fish dish. But just what is it about this region, tucked up in the northwest corner of Burgundy, that lends such a distinct personality to its wines? Let's take a closer look at the four appellations of Chablis and the distinctive geographical features that so strictly define them.
A History of Challenges
While winemaking in Chablis, like in most other regions in France, dates back to the ancient Roman Empire, it was in the 12th and 13th century that the vineyards here were really developed, by the Cistercian monks of the Abbey of Pontigny. The churches of Saint Martin and Saint Pierre (patron saint of Chablis) were also built during this time, along with the priory of Saint Cosme, Hotel Dieu, Petit Pontigny, and the fortifications around the town of Bourg, which was partially financed by the 10% grape tax levies on vintners of the area. In the 15th century, the region joined the Dutchy of Burgundy. In the century that followed, Chablis enjoyed a very lucrative trade relation with Paris, easily accessible by sailing down the Yonne River, which feeds into the Seine. From Paris, these wines eventually travelled to international markets, becoming quite popular in the UK by the 17th century.
But the glory days of Chablis would eventually come to an end in 1568, when the Huguenots attacked the region, burning down part of the town and ransacking Bourg. This devastating event took close to two centuries to recover from. Meanwhile, the new railway system, which was constructed towards the end of the 19th century, linked Paris to the previously less accessible regions of France, bringing new competition to Chablis from less expensive wines. To make matters worse, the region was hit by phylloxera in 1887, a vine disease which rapidly laid waste to many of the vineyards. A biological war claiming the lives of most of France’s vines was shortly followed by two World Wars, representing a great toll on human life. With so many young men fighting far from home, some never to return again, the vineyards were completely neglected. By 1955, Chablis had been reduced to only 550 hectares planted with vine, many of those in terrible condition.
Replanting the vineyards was made even more challenging by the fact that Chablis is, by nature, quite a difficult region in which to prosper. The climate is characterized by deep freezes in the winter and spring frosts that radically reduce yields in some vintages. The summers tend to be short, often too short for the grapes to ripen fully. Nevertheless, the technological advances of modern day, including a system of heating the vines and counter loss from frost, along with the booming international demand for mono-varietal Chardonnay wines, has helped Chablis enter the new golden era it enjoys today. Chablis, along with the other regions of Burgundy, are often classified into climats, which refer to specific geographical areas with their own unique micro-terroirs.
The Four Chablis Appellations, Their Geography and Wines
In the year 1938, the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine classified the Chablis wine region under its own "Appellation d'origine contrôlée" (AOC) and established a strict set of rules for wine production within the boundaries of the appellation. Part of the reason for creating the appellation was to protect the name "Chablis," which was being used at the time to market wines from many other regions, which were not even remotely similar to the Chardonnay wines of northwestern Burgundy. In that same year, the Chablis Grand Cru appellation was also created in order to distinguish a specific south-facing slope, where grapes have always more easily reached optimal ripeness. Here, the distinctive Kimmeridgian soils, formed from fossilized oyster shells, lend a beautiful flinty minerality to the wines. The Chablis Grand Cru appellation currently comprises seven named climats (Preuses, Grenouilles, Bougros, Les Clos, Vaudesir, Valmur, and Blanchot), which produce the most prized wines of the region. The wines of Chablis Grand Cru tend to age superbly. Maturing them in oak give the wines a fantastically unctuous, slightly smoky quality. The AOC Chablis remains a village-level classification and is the most widespread appellation, accounting for around 66% of the region’s total production. These wines are truly emblematic of Chablis, simpler in style than those of the Grand Cru, easily recognizable by their classic aromas of white flowers, gunflint, citrus, and the tell-tale notes of hay. Unlike Chablis Grand Cru, these wines seldom see oak and are instead aged in stainless steel vats.
Chablis Premier Cru, considered a qualitative subdivision of AOC Chablis rather than a distinct appellation, extends over 40 climats, subdivided into ~80 specific vineyards. The vines of this classification grow mainly on southeast-facing slopes with a greater exposure to the sun. They also enjoy a greater presence of limestone marl in the soil. The regulations of Chablis Premier Cru are between those of the AOC Chablis and Chablis Grand Cru, with the winemaking often including partial barrel fermentation or maturation. Several Chablis Premier Cru wines - most notably Montee de Tonnerre and Vaulorent - are considered almost equal to the more prestigious Grand Crus in richness, maturity and complexity.
The least prestigious appellation of Chablis is Petit Chablis, created in 1944. Petit Chablis covers sites planted in the more recent Portlandian limestone soils on plateaus that tower over Grand Cru and Premier Cru vines. These vineyards are exposed to stronger winds, and they are not angled to maximize their exposure to the sun. This results in less ripe grapes, which make for less complex wines. These straightforward, easy-drinking Petit Chablis wines should be consumed young to fully enjoy their refreshing green fruit flavors, along with their lower alcohol content.
While the difference between Chablis and Petit Chablis has to mostly to do with the quality of the soil and the vines’ exposure to the sun, the differences between Grand Cru and Premier Cru depend on the location and facing of the vineyard slopes. As is true in the rest of Burgundy, the flavors of a given Chablis wine will depend strictly on the parcel in which the grapes were grown and the very specific climat of that parcel. This means that tasting a variety of Chablis Chardonnay offers the unique opportunity to taste a mosaic of terroirs, whose distinctive geographical features are overtly expressed in the glass.