Recently, as I was about to pour a glass of Scarborough Yellow Label Chardonnay, a friend gripped my hand and said “I don’t like Chardonnay”. No problem, I’ve got some Chablis in the fridge. Do you like Chablis? “I love Chablis”. Great. So do I. The Scarborough went back in the fridge and the 2018 Moreau-Naudet came out instead.
Chablis is of course a type of Chardonnay, but I know what she meant. I have often mistaken Chablis in blind tastings for a Muscadet and even Hunter Valley Semillon, so different does it appear to other Chardonnays. Chablis’ richness, texture and flavour profile are unique, demonstrating the influence of climate, aspect and soils on the way a wine tastes and feels.
My first tentative encounters with Chablis were during my time at Oddbins in the UK in the early 2000’s. I can honestly say that I didn’t taste a single wine that brought a smile to my face. Truly. Hard, green, cheesy and lacking in fruit, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Mind you, I was tasting wines that cost no more than 20 GBP, and this was still a lot of money, particularly since I earned about 5 GBP an hour! I’m not doubting that at this time there must have been great Chablis, but I wasn’t lucky enough to try them.
Where is Chablis?
Roughly 150km from Paris and 150km from Beaune, Chablis is at the climatic extremity for ripening Chardonnay. True, there are Chardonnay vines in Champagne, further to the north, but they are unable to produce a dry, still and balanced wine due to the weather. Indeed, the finest vineyards in Chablis, Grand Cru’s, are warmer sites, facing south towards the benevolent sun.
The climate and soils of Chablis have more in common with Champagne than they do with Burgundy, and this most certainly plays out in the flavour of the wine. Kimmeridgian soils are made up of limestone, clay and oyster shells, and have a remarkable ability to hold water and be free draining. They also retain heat, essential in such a cool climate with cold nights. Warmer soils also act as a defence against frost.
I have already noted that the better vineyards are also the warmer sites, but they are also the most able to adapt to the vagaries of weather, better than less renowned sites. The better sites tend to have lower crop losses due to frosts because of their warmer nocturnal temperatures. The wines of Chablis perform well in hotter years, the vines able to access precious water, due to the water retention qualities of their soils and the heat adding that extra degree of plump fleshy fruit.
No wonder my friend, and no doubt many others, have said that they dislike Chardonnay, but like Chablis. From time to time, I have written a tasting note of Blanc de Blancs Champagne (a wine made from white grapes only, almost always Chardonnay), with the descriptor, “tastes like Chablis with bubbles”. Rarely have I been able to say that a Champagne reminded me of white Burgundy, except where there was the wine-making artifice of oak maturation and long ageing on lees.
The Chablis Hierarchy
Chablis is broken up into 4 levels of quality; Petit Chablis at the bottom of the pyramid, Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru at the apex. The designations of Chablis, and the small number of them compared to Burgundy for instance, make selecting wine easy. The Premier Crus may carry a further, more geographically specific designation. A wine from the Premier Cru Fourchaume, for example, can be labelled just that – Fourchaume, but a producer may also affix a more localised ‘climat’, such as Fourchaume Vaupulent. Grand Cru’s suffer no such administrative complexity.
Petit Chablis vineyards are less advantageously positioned than the more esteemed vineyards in Chablis. They are usually situated on higher, cooler sites and their exposure is not always southerly. There are Petit vineyards within the town of Chablis itself, but they are also to be found throughout the entire region. The other key difference with the Petit Chablis sites is their soil profile tends to be rockier, made up of a smaller proportion of Kimmeridgian marl and a higher proportion of Portlandian limestone. Curiously, many Petit Chablis’ now carry more plump fruit and tend to be made in a more generous style. Evidence of the role of winemaker, no matter how sensitive their wine-making approach.
Chablis vineyards are to be found in and around the town of Chablis and are on both sides of the river Serein. Soils, elevation and exposure are not uniform, and some Chablis vineyards abut more famous Premier Cru sites. Chablis is certainly the emblematic wine of any producer, as the quality of Chablis vineyards vary greatly and the drinker cannot be sure of the exact location of the vineyard or vineyards that make up the wine. Most producer’s Chablis is a blend of different sites, but there has been a growing trend to regional or single vineyard expressions.
Chablis can be very fine indeed, but I reiterate the point that the quality of the producer is paramount. Price varies greatly too and it is often, though not always, an indication of the quality of the raw materials and the efforts taken by the producer. The best producers take their straight Chablis as seriously as their Premier or Grand Cru.
Premier Cru Chablis
Premier Cru Chablis is, alas, not as consistent as one would hope. The Premier Cru sites sit on both sides of the river Serein. The soils are predominately Kimmeridgian, but many sites have a higher proportion of the lesser regarded Portlandian limestone. Exposure is not always southerly, unlike the Grand Cru’s, but most of the vineyards have a southerly aspect.
Style and quality is not homogeneous, due mainly to their fragmented location on both sides of the river. However, the iron rules of slope, aspect and warmth play the crucial role in determining quality. Indeed the best Premier Cru vineyards are on the north side of the river and either straddle the Grand Cru’s (in the case of La Moutonne and Vaulorent) or are slightly further to the south east – Montee de Tonnerre, Mont de Milieu and Vaucoupin. Directly opposite the slope of Grand Cru’s are the Premier Cru’s of Montmains, Vaillons and Cote de Lechet and the wines from these vineyards can be very grand.
Grand Cru Chablis
The Grand Cru’s form a continuous, sloped, south facing block of land and, despite their differences, are very consistent in flavour, feel and style. The vineyards lie in the village of Chablis, the qualitative heart of the region. It can be very difficult to differentiate between them, except for the most experienced taster. Even then, the best way to note the unique differences of the Grand Cru vineyards is to focus on the wines from one producer. The producer will always have a signature style, and the individual vineyard characteristics are best brought to light in a line up of wines from a single producer. Then, and only then, will the differences become apparent.
There are seven Grand Crus in all, with essentially the same soil and southerly aspect. Perhaps the key differences are down to slight shifts in aspect and elevation. One grower’s parcel of Bourgros may not be as fortuitous as another’s. And further on this point, the higher the aspect, the more exposed the vine, producing wines of greater mineral depth, floral notes and citric intensity.
The warmer sites, Les Clos for instance, are more likely to be oaked, richer in flavour and body, with a greater textural presence and a peaches and cream Macaroon like luxury that is subtly coating. But does such ‘luxury’ imply that the wine is better? I don’t think so, but it must be said that the warmer sites produce more consistent quantities of fine wine due to the marginal nature of the growing conditions.
The warmest sites are Les Clos and Vaudesir, and they are very difficult to tell apart. Valmur is often bigger and more hedonistic than Les Clos and if there’s exotic fruit to be found in Chablis, it’s probably Valmur. Les Clos’ fruit profile is broader and more complex and it has greater textural depth. There is a completeness to the wines of Les Clos, a holistic grandeur that is almost impossible to describe when they are at their best. Who would have thought that a power that is so obvious could be so delicately expressed and the sheer intensity and presence in the mouth could be so gently pleasing?
Grenouilles is perhaps the least interesting site, not often plumbing the depths of your vinous soul, while Bourgros, considered the least fine of the Grand Crus, is for me, one of the best. Perhaps it’s the changing climate, I don’t know, but Bourgros at its best can possess a mineral intensity coupled to a driving locomotive of citrus fruit that is nothing short of thrilling. Valmur is the most intense and mineral, the fruit in the background, the foreground filled with a textured oyster shell classicism. Les Preuses can be very fine, aloof and airy in its youth, but with time – lavender, honey, white flowers and white peach emerge on tippy toes. Beautiful. Blanchots is classic Chablis and the one Grand Cru that seems to have elements of them all.
Left and Right Bank Difference
The left and the right banks of the river Serein offer great stylistic differences. The left bank has some Premier Cru vineyards, such as Beauroy and the Cote de Lechet, but they are not held in the same reverence as the right bank Premier Cru’s. Left bank wines are lighter in body, floral, have more pronounced acidity, lighter colour fruit profiles (such as lemon and granny smith apple) and are more likely to have nuances of spice. The vineyards are more likely to be steeper and their exposure is less uniform too, with aspects ranging from south-east to north-west facing.
The vineyards on the right bank are undoubtedly greater, containing all the Grand Cru sites and the most revered Premier Cru sites. The Grand Cru’s we know, form a single, south facing block, and all the Premier Cru’s happily face the southern sun also. The wines are fuller bodied, fleshier, with darker fruits (such as lime, peach and apricot) and nuances of cream and nuts. They have more structure too, the acidity folded into the plump, fleshy fruit. For all the grandness of the right bank, one should not overlook the real charms to be found on the left bank. I find the bracing freshness of the left bank wines easier to match with food. They are also less expensive, and with a warming climate, they have become far more consistent.
Winemaking in Chablis
The Chablis that I found dispiriting in the early 2000’s were almost certainly made in the following way. Vineyards grown using pesticides and synthetics, maximum permitted high yields, machine harvested (hand if the slope demanded) unripe grapes, stainless steel fermentation tanks, cultured yeasts, sugar additions, high sulphur additions, fined and filtered. It’s obvious why the wines were so unflattering. For those wine lovers who obsess over the qualitative nuances of vineyards, Chablis is evidence of the collaborative importance of winemaking and viticulture practices.
Nowadays, the competition fierce, the best producers are doing whatever it takes to grow and craft the best possible wine. Vineyards are nurtured along organic or bio-dynamic principles and old vines are treasured and not replaced at 30 years of age, when their potential yield begins to decline. Hand picking of only the ripest fruit, low yields, hand sorting of grapes, gentle pressing and natural yeasts start the wine off, and usually fermentation is in steel. The longer, slower and cooler the fermentation, the better. Most Chablis and Petit Chablis from even the best producers is fermented and matured in stainless steel, to capture the fruit, natural freshness and soft textures. Many fine Premier Cru wines are fermented and matured in this fashion too.
The decision around maturing in oak or steel is a stylistic one, but there is also the quality of the vineyard and the richness and structural nature of the fruit to consider. If, for example, the fruit is from a right bank Premier Cru or Grand Cru vineyard, the higher the likelihood of the use of oak. Most producers will use larger format oak, almost entirely used barrels as opposed to new oak. New oak is a rarity in Chablis and when it is used, the percentage is small.
Ageing the wine on lees (dead yeast) is becoming a more accepted practice, from Petit Chablis all the way through to Grand Cru. It is interesting to note that Riesling vinified traditionally in cooler climates such as the Mosel has utilised extended ageing on lees, in some cases, years. Not only does the flavour and textural profile build in complexity and weight, the wine’s capacity to age is greater. The better Chablis are indeed spending greater time on lees, and it has greatly increased the quality of the wine, particularly at the lower levels of Chablis and Petit Chablis.
What does Chablis taste like?
I noted earlier that my first forays into Chablis were not propitious. This was partly due to the almost total lack of fruit flavour, save for unripe lemons, and their hard mean texture. Steel was another, indeed prized quality of Chablis. This writer for one, is thankful that contemporary Chablis is far less likely to taste like a steel girder. Your choice of producer is more important than if the wine is a Petit or Grand Cru. Chablis makers are like anyone else, as in the wines they make are dictated by their own personal tastes and stylistic preferences. The only way to truly taste, enjoy and grasp the profound delights of Chablis is to taste the wines of as many quality producers as possible.
Wine, any wine, needs to be about the fruit, first and foremost, and yet with Chablis the fruit is always subtle, never explosive. Even the most powerful wines display a brooding depth, rather than the explosive luxury of the finest Burgundies. Fruits such as apples, peaches, apricot, nectarine, lemon, lime, grapefruit, blood orange and cherry are typical. Other flavours include jasmine, tea, honey, hay, minerals, cream, citrus zest, smoke, earth, mushrooms, herbs, spice and white flowers.
Texturally, Chablis has the remarkable ability to combine gentleness with power. The finest Chablis should have the softest of texture, akin to pure fresh water, satin or silk, and yet be flavoursome all the same. Luxurious, but subtle, obtaining a textural elegance and grace impossible in any other Chardonnay and matched only by the finest of Rieslings.
Chablis is without doubt one of the world’s best value fine wines. Putting aside the wines of Vincent Dauvissat and Domaine Raveneau, even the region’s finest wines, relative to other comparable wine regions, are cheap. Even these most revered of producer’s prices are far less than their Burgundian counterparts. The quality and consistency of Chablis has never been higher and there has been an explosion in quality producers. A region, once totally dominated by a few large and small high quality producers, is now filled with confident and wondrous upstarts. And there are many of them; challenging the hierarchy and putting to the sword my own youthful prejudices.