Stepping out of the car, I find it hard to stand too close to the edge, even though I don’t have a problem with heights.
From 597 feet above sea level, Szablowski and I peer almost straight down 100 feet or so at a sea of Chardonnay vines springing into action for the 2015 vintage. It’s one of those vineyards where you need one leg longer than the other to comfortably work it.
Making wine here is a tight balancing act—and not only when viewed from a ragtop Deux Chevaux. Chablis joins cool climate, unique location and Kimmeridgian soil to make possibly the purest Chardonnay on the planet.
It’s a golden age for Burgundy’s northernmost wine region. Great vintage follows great vintage, and compared to the grand crus of the Côte d’Or, the grand crus of Chablis are bargains.
But it’s not easy.
“Chablis is at the northern limit of the possibility of making still wines from Chardonnay,” says Lucie Depuydt, winemaker at J. Moreau & Fils. “Further north, and the wines have to be sparkling.”
Chardonnay may be the grape. But for the folks of Chablis, it’s only the tool.
“We are not producing Chardonnay, we are using Chardonnay to express the Chablis terroir,” says Xavier Ritton, the export manager for the La Chablisienne cooperative, one of the best co-ops in France.
“Chardonnay is a neutral grape—it’s the best tool for expressing Chablis terroir,” says Benoît Droin, of Domaine Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin, speaking in his cellar under the family house near the city hall of Chablis. His family has been producing wine in Chablis since the 17th century.
“In hot years, we have to be careful not to lose the character of Chablis,” says Droin. “If you don’t pay attention, then you just make Chardonnay.”
Stylistically, Chablis is different from other Chardonnays from Burgundy. It has a texture, a tension and an apple crispness that sets it apart from what the people of Chablis call “South Burgundy,” a k a the Côte de Beaune’s whites from Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet, and certainly from the ripe Chardonnays of the Mâconnais.
The Chablis vineyards are planted on the slopes of the Serein Valley and in the side valleys that form a star centered on the small riverside village of Chablis.
Here, you can take the Kimmeridgian chalk into your hand and pick out oyster fossils from what was once a seabed. This soil gives enough warmth for the grapes to ripen in short, hot summers, and it imparts intense minerality to the wines.
Yes, Chablis has minerality. It’s a concept pooh-poohed by some tasters because, they say, how can you taste it?
In Chablis, they believe you can. For a Chablis producer like Damien Leclerc, managing director of La Chablisienne, minerality is that sense of “purity, a crystalline expression of the wine.”
It’s about saltiness, sea spray and a mouthwatering aftertaste that’s unique to this cool-climate Chardonnay and which brings the wines close to the soil, to the terroir.
Minerals like potassium, calcium and magnesium are present in the grapes, absorbed from the soil via the vine’s roots. It gives the wines what Julien Brocard, of Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard, calls “energy.”
He offers his Les Clos as the epitome of this energy: structured, textured and possessing intense, almost chewy, acidity.
“They should be pure, with nothing between the wine and the soil,” he says.
What almost all Chablis doesn’t have are oaky flavors. Producers mature a proportion of their wines in wood, but in barrels up to eight years old. The oak is there for its oxidative character, not to impart any toasty notes.
Just a few exceptional producers—the most famous being François Raveneau and Vincent Dauvissat—ferment and age their wines in oak to produce offerings that are closer to southern Burgundy in style and richness.
The Quality Pyramid
At the top of the Chablis hierarchy, the steep southwestern exposures of the region’s grand cru vineyards yield complex, ripe wines. Even in warm vintages like 2009 and 2013, these wines possess ample structure and restrained power.
The seven grand crus are Bougros, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos and Blanchot. La Moutonne, shared between Les Preuses and Vaudésir and used on labels by Château Long-Depaquit, is not an official grand cru (the owners forgot to register it) but is of similar quality.
These wines can age well for many years. If looking at a restaurant list, start with wines that go back five or 10 years. These are great main-course companions, especially the old vintages.
Premier crus reflect their more varied terroirs—Szablowski says each one is a different universe.
He has the same three-dimensional map that every Chablis vigneron uses to explain the layout of the vineyards. The earth-bound premier crus of the Serein’s left bank are the southeast-facing slopes of Montmains, Vaillons, Côte de Léchet and Beauroy. The premier crus of the right bank’s southwest-facing slopes look to the air and the sun: Fourchaume, Montée de Tonnerre, Mont-de-Milieu and Vaucoupin.
The premier crus may be served as apéritifs or paired with food. Try them with seafood or lightly sauced chicken, veal or pork.
Blending at the Base
The next level of the quality pyramid is simply called Chablis. These wines are generally blends from different vineyards on slopes not quite at the premier cru level. Chablis represents a producer’s style, while reflecting the weather variability that can give searing, shocking acidity one year and an almost honeyed character the next.
These wines aren’t for long aging, so make your choice based on recent vintages. Use this category to bring friends from the taste of California to Chablis.
At the base of the pyramid, Petit Chablis is Chardonnay planted on the plateau above the slopes in younger Jurassic soils known as Portlandian. These are fruity, gentle wines that are great as apéritifs. Light and bright, they’re to be enjoyed in the year after harvest. Not much is imported, so when you find one, try it.
Most Chablis producers make wine in every category, and none of them are terribly expensive. Even great grand crus are usually under $100 at retail. Compare that to the several hundred dollars being asked for grand crus from the Côte de Beaune or to the prices of top Sonoma, Napa and Central Coast Chardonnays.
Premier cru Chablis retails for less than $50, while most Chablis and Petit Chablis are between $18 and $30. For a fine Chardonnay, these are bargains.
La Colline des Grands Crus includes the seven grand crus detailed here.
Bougros (37 acres): Aroma is key to robust and rounded wines here at the northern end of the grand crus. Structure enters with a steep parcel called Les Bouguerots. Look for: Domaine William Fèvre Côte Bouguerots.
Les Preuses (26 acres): Stony, steep vineyards, the highest of the crus, produce structured, mineral wines. Look for: Domaine Vincent Dauvissat.
Vaudésir (38 acres): Two extraordinarily steep slopes face each other across a narrow track. Crisp wines face southeast; elegant and richer wines face southwest. Look for: Pascal Bouchard (a blend of both slopes).
Grenouilles (23 acres): At the base of the slope, the most full-bodied, generous and open wines come from the richest soil of the grand crus. Look for: La Chablisienne Château Grenouilles.
Valmur (26 acres): This vertical cru is wedged between Vaudésir and Les Clos. Elegant wines with a mineral backdrop have a great ability to age. Look for: Domaine Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin.
Les Clos (64 acres): Less steep, on one long slope, it’s the most homogenous and finest grand cru. The result: long-lived and structured wines. Look for: Domaine Christian Moreau Père et Fils Clos des Hospices.
Blanchot (31 acres): This southernmost cru turns southeast to catch the morning sun. Chalky white with blue lime soils, it produces wines that are very mineral and crisply elegant. Look for: Domaine Laroche La Réserve de l’Obédience.
French Chablis’s Best Recent Vintages to Buy, Drink and Age
2014 | Very crisp, this vintage combines great fruit with ample acidity. Drink the best from 2020. 94 points.
2013 | A hot vintage after weather disasters en route to harvest. Wines can be honeyed and are almost drinkable now. 90 points.
2012 | Intense, structured wines, classic for their minerality and tight texture. Age the best examples for 10 years. 95 points.
2011 | A vintage that brought out the fruitiness in Chablis. Delicious wines that may not last long, so drink now. 94 points.
2010 | The summit of Chablis, ripe wines that never lose touch with their terroir. Age the best; drink from 2017 and later. 96 points.
2009 | Immediately appealing, these are now developing complexity, so don’t worry about further aging. 95 points.
2008 | The first in a trio of fine vintages, the wines are ready to drink, even the grand crus. 91 points.
2007 | Chablis now mature; premier and grand crus are ready to drink. 90 points.
2006 | A difficult vintage that showed the mineral side of Chablis. Drink now. 91 points.
2005 | Rich wines with tropical fruit flavors. Considering this ripeness, the top wines have surprising longevity. 95 points.
Food Pairing Tips
Light in alcohol, refreshingly crisp, fruity but textured, Chablis appeals to Chardonnay lovers who want energy and poise in their wines.
Michel Vignaud, chef and owner of Chablis’s leading hotel, Hostellerie des Clos, has been cooking in Chablis for 35 years. As we sat in the bar of his restaurant, Vignaud told me to pair Chablis with anything from cold cuts to lobster, and especially with grilled or fried fish. He’s even created a veal kidney dish that shows how grand cru Chablis can pair with meat.
“My best Chablis memory,” he says, “is of a premier cru with fish that was simply grilled in butter with a touch of fennel. There was nothing between the fish and the wine. They were in harmony.”
Chardonnay drinkers who taste Chablis for the first time are sometimes shocked. The pure fruit and intense, youthful acidity, the crispness and nervy texture without heavy oak, are like nothing else in the Chardonnay world.