Driving into Chablis, the town at the center of Burgundy’s northernmost region, the road descends into what feels like another world. It may be just 10 miles off the A6 highway that runs from Paris to the South of France, but quiet, wine-dominated Chablis is a step back in time.
Gabled houses with slate roofs surround a massive church. Narrow streets are full of the essentials of French country life. Bakers, butchers and cafés flourish despite modern supermarkets. And then there are the wineries. You find them down every street, where they sit behind discreet doors that lead to interior courtyards and underground cellars.
You can’t escape vines. They are what Chablis (pronounced cha-BLEE) lives and breathes. The vineyards dominate the surrounding area, rising up on both sides of the Serein (ser’-EN) River. The river is the reason for Chablis’ namesake wine. Without its steep-sided valley and temperature moderation, the vines would not be able to flourish.
What makes Chablis special?
Chablis, the wine, is 100% Chardonnay. No other grape is allowed in the four Chablis Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), and no one has seen the need to change that. The two meld together so well. The grapes prosper in the cool climate and clay-limestone soil, which results in possibly the purest Chardonnay on the planet.
The full expression of terroir is present in the taste of Chablis in a way that’s impossible to find in warmer regions, even Chardonnay grown in the great vineyards of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Tropical, rounded or oaky are never used as descriptors.
Wood is sometimes used for aging at the higher-end, but most Chablis producers encourage the purity of their fruit with steel-tank fermentation. This allows the wines to be deliciously fruity, crisp and textured.
The Chablis hierarchy
Like all the regions of Burgundy, Chablis has a legally enshrined hierarchy based on the quality of the land and soil. The cool-climate region is actually closer to Champagne vineyards than more southerly, and slightly warmer, regions of Burgundy, which makes orientation critical. Vineyards that face south, southeast or southwest, where they can experience more sun exposure, grow better fruit and, therefore, make better wines. Proximity to the Serein adds a few extra degrees of warmth, which also results in richer wines.
There are four levels in the Chablis hierarchy of appellations: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru. Most growers make wines in two of these categories, and many do in three. Only a few make wines in all four.
When to drink?
Premier Cru: 2–3 years from release
Grand Cru: 5 years from release
The three most lauded appellations are Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru, which are vineyards planted on Kimmeridgian chalk, named after the English village of Kimmeridge, where it was discovered. This chalk soil dates to the Jurassic, and it stretches to Chablis, and Champagne, from the south of England. Made up of a slew of fossilized sea creatures, it gives Chablis its backbone and steely or flint character.
With 8,880 acres of vineyards, the classification most widely available is called simply “Chablis” on the label. The wines should be fruity yet balanced by a steely, mineral character that’s the epitome of Chardonnay this far north. The vineyards tend to be higher up the slopes or further away from the main valley of the Serein. These wines are not well-equipped for aging and can be enjoyed young.
The difference between Premier Cru and Grand Cru
Higher in quality, but still in wide availability is Chablis Premier Cru. Almost 2,000 acres of Premier Cru vineyards are spread on the slopes above both banks of the Serein, as well as in some side valleys, but all face either southeast or southwest.
There are 40 vineyards designated as Premier Cru, based on their exposition, the slope and the density of the Kimmeridgian chalk. However, many of their names rarely appear on wine labels.
Some of the smaller Premier Crus banded together with neighboring plots and are produced under brands with greater recognition. In effect, those 40 vineyards have been reduced to 17, and it’s those names you’ll see on the labels. Producers have the choice of using the name of the smaller Premier Cru or the larger, depending on their commercial preferences.
The Premier Cru vineyards on the right bank produce wines that are warm, rich and powerful. Some of the most well-known vineyards on this bank are Mont de Milieu, Montée de Tonnerre, Fourchaume and Vaucoupin. On the left bank of the Serein, Premier Crus tend to produce more austere wines that bring out a flinty character. Vineyards to look for are Côté de Léchet, Vaillons, Montmains, Vosgros and Vau de Vey. Enjoy most Premier Cru wines after two to three years from release.
The Premier Cru vineyards on the right bank produce wines that are warm, rich and powerful. On the left bank of the Serein, Premier Crus tend to produce more austere wines that bring out a flinty character.
Top of the heap in taste and price are the Grand Crus. The seven south-facing vineyards cover 247 acres on one steep slope that looms over the town of Chablis, on the right bank of the Serein.
It may be one slope, but each Grand Cru has its own character, which depends on the steepness and exposure. No single producer owns an entire Grand Cru vineyard, just an acre or two here or there. It’s fascinating to taste the differences, particularly if a producer has vines in different plots.
Here are the seven Grand Cru, going from northwest to southeast:
• Bougros (boo-GROW) is lively, crisp and mineral.
• Les Preuses (pruhz) is elegant with a long, taut aftertaste.
• Vaudésir (voh-DEH-zer) is powerful, generous and can be opulent.
• Grenouilles (gren-OU-eeye) exudes great fruitiness as well as structure.
• Valmur (vahl-MUR) is intensely fruity, yet balanced by minerality.
• Les Clos (cloh), perhaps the greatest as well as the largest in size, is dry, mineral with a great aging ability.
• Blanchot (blong-CHOT) is supple and perfumed.
Grand Cru wines can age, and should rarely be enjoyed before five years from release and they’ll start to hit their stride after a decade. Keep an eye out for older Grand Cru in a bin sale or at a bargain price on a poorly managed wine list.
What is Petit Chablis?
There’s one other category in the Chablis hierarchy: Petit Chablis, or “little Chablis.” An unfortunate name if ever there was one, these Chardonnay vines are planted on a different type of chalk soil that also originates in southern England, called Portlandian. It’s less rich in fossils and is found as a more recent layer, by a few hundred million years, on top of Kimmeridgian.
These vines grow on the plateau at the top of slopes. Petit Chablis is an attractive, light and fruity style of wine, crisp and ready to drink within a few months of harvest. The local cooperative, La Chablisienne, produces a wine it calls Pas Si Petit, or “not so little,” which sums up these inexpensive wines very well.
For Chardonnay lovers, Chablis is pure heaven. For those wine lovers who’ve tired of Chardonnay, give your taste buds a happy shock. This is Chardonnay as you have never had it before.