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The Charm of Chablis: The Region and its Wines

Barrels in the cellar at Domaine William Fèvre.

It’s sometimes hard to believe that Chablis and Californian Chardonnay, to name just one permutation, are made from the same grape variety!  Not that all of California’s Chardonnay is the same, it is certainly made in a range of styles there, just as it is in Burgundy.  But, there’s something about Chablis…something, or a combination of things, that make it perhaps the world’s most pure expression of the Chardonnay grape.

Always 100% Chardonnay, Chablis is crisp, dry, refreshing and age worthy with a signature steely quality, often referred to by the French as “gunflint” (goût de Pierre à fusil).  These attributes are derived from the combined affect of the cool northern climate and the ancient, fossil-rich Kimmeridgean soil in which these grapes are grown.  Oak, or the lack thereof, is another influence on the taste of Chablis.  Ageing in oak is not nearly as common in Chablis as it is in other parts of Burgundy or amongst the rest of the world’s Chardonnay producers.  Let’s take a jaunt to this intriguing region and get familiar with the unique set of factors that create this charming wine…

Location, Location, Location!

Located in northeastern France, near the city of Auxerre, the vineyards of Chablis surround the quaint town that gives the wine region its name.  The small Serein River flows through the little town and its southwest facing valley slopes provide the very best vineyard sites of the region.

Chablis is separated from the rest of Burgundy by quite a bit of distance, as well as the Moran hills.  Chablis is actually closer to Champagne than it is to its next closest neighbor in Burgundy, the Côte d’Or.  The sparkling wine capital of the world and this northern outpost of Burgundy share a similar semi-continental climate and are both positioned at the geographic extremity of viable wine producing regions.

Weather Permitting

The climate in northeastern France has a large sway on the quality of Chablis each year.  Without the balance of maritime influence, there is a great deal of ambiguity and variation from vintage to vintage.  Summers in Chablis are generally hot, winters are harsh and lengthy, and there is a constant threat of damaging spring frosts, which can strike as late as May.  Farmers have developed several techniques to protect their young vine shoots from these menacing frosts.  An expensive but highly effective method is the use of smudge pots, which, when lit throughout the vineyard, produce insulating smoke and act as heaters. Another approach is the use of sprinkler systems that spray the vines with water in order to create an insulating layer of ice.  These methods make it possible to successfully grow vines under these climatic circumstances.

It’s in the Soil

Soil has perhaps the most important affect on the flavor of Chablis wine.  The region is situated on the eastern edge of the Paris basin, the rocks of which date back 180 million years to the Upper Jurassic period.  The village of Kimmeridge lies on the western edge of the basin, in Dorset, England, and gives its name to the unique soil type found in Chablis.  Kimmeridgean soil, found in both Dorset and in Chablis, is composed of limestone, clay and miniature fossilized oyster shells – artifacts of the sea that once covered the area.  All of the Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards of Chablis are planted on this specific soil type, giving the wines their racy minerality and steely, gunflint character.  The Kimmeridgean soil reaches west and extends into the Loire Valley’s Sancerre region, which explains the similarity between Chablis and Sancerre wines, the distinctive, refreshing mineral flavor that they share.

The secondary soil type found in Chablis is Portlandian, which is also composed of limestone, but is not as rich as Kimmeridgean.  Most of the vineyards classified as Chablis AC and Petit Chablis AC are planted on the Portlandian soil type and produce wines that are considered by some as less refined.  There has been a great deal of debate surrounding the issue of soil-type and Chablis appellation status.  Initially, during the 1930s, the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) deemed that only wines from Kimmeridgean soils could be classified as Chablis, and everything else was ranked as Petit Chablis.  This legislation was disputed and finally overruled in the 1970s, and the INAO no longer includes soil-type in the requirements for Chablis status.  Of course, not everyone agrees and there are still those who believe that soil-type should determine appellation status.

Winemaker’s Choice: To Oak or Not to Oak?

Much of what we love about Chablis is the brisk, refreshing quality and pure fruit character that we get from this cool climate Chardonnay.  Oak is not as widely or liberally used by Chablis producers as it is by Chardonnay producers in other parts of the world.  Thoughts on oak use are divided, just as they are on the topic of soil-type, and there are two different philosophies concerning its use in winemaking.  On one side of the fence, there are those who prefer to ferment and age their wines in stainless steel in order to convey the pure flavor of the grape and its terroir.  On the other side, there’s the contingent that favors the use of oak barrels, either for fermentation or for ageing, and even for both processes, in some cases.  Those that continue to use oak barrels believe that it gives their wines added complexity and flavor.

Additionally, there’s the choice to use either old oak barrels or new oak barrels.  Some producers opt to use a proportion of new oak barrels in their cellars, which can give the wines a distinct vanilla flavor, while others choose the more subtle influence of older oak barrels.  Generally, oak use is limited to Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines, while Chablis AC and Petit Chablis AC are usually fermented and aged in stainless steel.  The thought is that Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines have a more sophisticated structure, allowing them to benefit from the influence of oak without having their flavors overpowered.  Interestingly, certain Chablis wines that were not given any contact with oak have been known to develop nutty flavors with age, a characteristic associated with oak ageing.

Grand Cru Vineyards

There are seven vineyard sites that are classified as Grand Cru and together, make up the single Chablis Grand Cru appellation.  It is important to note that the seven vineyards are not given individual appellation status, as is the case with the Grand Cru vineyards of the Côte d’Or.  All of these sites lie adjacent to one another along a single slope of the Serein River’s right bank.  Overlooking the town of Chablis, the vineyards are southwest facing, benefiting from maximum sun exposure and, as we learned before, all seven Grand Cru sites are planted on limestone-rich Kimmeridgean clay soils.  The Grand Cru vineyards are, from west to east, Bougros, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos and Les Blanchots.

The wines produced from each vineyard exhibit their own distinctive character and truly demonstrate the affect of subtle differences in terroir.  Take for example two vineyards that are right next to each other, Bougros and Les Preuses – Bougros tends toward more restrained wines, with slightly less pronounced fruit flavors, while the wines of Les Preuses are more full-bodied and fruit-forward.

Although there are only seven official Grand Cru vineyards, the small vineyard of La Moutonne, wedged between Les Preuses and Vaudésir, has “unofficial” Grand Cru status.  This vineyard, a monopole solely owned by Domaine Long-Depaquit, appears by itself on wine labels, without reference to Les Preuses or Vaudésir.

Premier Cru Vineyards

There are forty Premier Cru vineyards in Chablis, although many of them do not often appear on wine labels.  Instead, there are seventeen prominent vineyard names, under which the more obscure vineyards are grouped.  The INAO allows the wines of a smaller vineyard to use the name of a more renowned neighboring Premier Cru vineyard.  Some wines are still bottled under the smaller vineyard name, but more often than not, they will borrow the more famous name.  The most renowned Premier Cru vineyards are Fourchaume, Montée de Tonnerre and Vaillons.

Fourchaume may be the most prominent of all and is located adjacent to the Les Preuses Grand Cru vineyard.  Montée de Tonnerre lies near the Les Blanchot Grand Cru vineyard, on the eastern end of the Grand Cru slope, but is on the other side of the Vallée de Brechain.  Vaillons is located on the left bank of the Serein River and is the largest of the Premier Crus.

Shopping for Chablis

After reading all about Chablis, are you ready to drink a glass or what?  As we’ve learned, Chablis is made is various styles, depending on the producer, and has different characteristics, depending on the vineyard and soil that the grapes come from.  Grand Cru and Premier Cru Chablis wines are more likely to be aged in oak, which can impart nut, toast and vanilla notes, but these are usually subtle enough so as to not overwhelm the wine.  More importantly, the Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines get better with age, developing incredible complexity and smoky aromas along with their refreshing, racy acidity and signature minerality.

Domaine William Fèvre is a noteworthy producer of both Grands Crus and Premiers Crus Chablis.  If looking for an excellent Grand Cru Chablis that already has some age, one could try the 2002 Domaine William Fèvre Bougros Côte Bouguerots ($71).  The 2006 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis Vaillons ($36) is a delightful dry, minerally wine from the Premier Cru Vaillons vineyard and can either be enjoyed now or aged even longer.  Also from this noteworthy producer, the 2009 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis Les Clos ($89) – a young Grand Cru that will certainly need some time in the cellar to reach its full potential.

Domaine Daniel Dampt and Domaine Francois Raveneau are others among the renowned Chablisienne producers of Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines.  The 2004 Domaine Daniel Dampt Chablis Côte de Léchet ($41) and the 2005 Domaine Francois Raveneau Chablis Forêt ($89) are two prime samplings from Premier Cru vineyards, the latter from the smaller, by no means less superior, Forêt vineyard.  Wines from Forêt are often labeled as Montmains, since it is a better-known vineyard, but not in this case.

Wines from the basic Chablis appellation are bright, dry and can have delicate flinty-mineral notes and some of the nuanced flavors of the higher ranked Chablis wines.  Chablis AC is an excellent place to find great values from the region, such as the 2009 Domaine Gilbert Picq et Ses Fils Chablis Vieilles Vignes ($25).  It is also a wonderful place to start if you are just beginning your exploration of Chablis!