Chablis is the name of a town and an appellation that lies in the valley of the river Serein in the northern part of Burgundy. It has a slightly cooler climate than Côte d’Or. It is well known for wines made of Chardonnay. All wines are dry, medium body, medium alcohol and high acidity. Known for its flavors of green apple and lemon fruit flavours, lemon zest, flint, crisp acidity. General no or minimal oak is used, though for premier crus or grands crus fermentation and ageing on aok is used. In general prices do not reach the heights of the Côte d’Or wines. Overall Chablis covers 5100-5500ha and produces around 40 million bottles a year. 65% is for export. UK being the largest byer.
History of Chablis
It has had swings in popularity. In the early 19thcentury it was popular because it was relatively close to Paris. But plantings shrank after Phylloxera and powdery mildew. After the coming of the railway Chablis could not compete anymore with the cheaper wines from the south. Depopulation after WWI and severe frost of 1945 reduced Chablis to only 500ha (coming from 40.000ha). Now it has grown back to 5500ha (23% of all burgundy vineyards). There are seven grand crus, but they all sell under the name Grand Cru Chablis. This is different from the Côte d’Or where the grand Crus put the name of the village on the label. Although the different climat names are on the label, since they are sold as one grand Crus, people think they are all the same. So, they do not see the different styles of the different climate and probably underestimate the level of Chablis Grand Cru. Reasons for lower prices for Chablis are: first of all, Chablis area is large and most of its production is meant to be for export. They have become an inexpensive thing on many wine lists in restaurants and in the supermarket. And producers are happy with it. Second is that the different grand cru houses sell under the same title. (Above). Third of all there is no unity of the grand crus. Although the UGCC does not allow machine harvesting not every grand cru is a member and machine harvesting is used. Something which would never be happening in other grand cru vineyards. At least this will give the idea of lower quality wine.
Climate in Chablis
It is a cool continental climate with cold winters and warm summers. There is no maritime influence, so winters are long and harsh and summers often warm. Because of the cool northern location there is uncertainty about ripening causing vintage variation. Early ripening character of Chardonnay is an advantage. The average rainfall is 670mm, but is spread throughout the year, making the area at risk for fungal disease due to this moist climate and difficult in period for harvest (threat or rot). The area is susceptible to spring frost and hail. The cool, northern location is the cause of spring frost. Ways to protect are smudge pots (smokey, air pollution, requires staff), sprinklers (this is most popular method, though installation and maintenance is expensive, but good option for premier cru and grand cru vineyards). There are pruning choices (later pruning promotes later bud-burst, reducing the change of damage to new buds in early spring). The south and southeast facing vineyards and the proximity to the Serein river add some degrees of temperature and better grow of fruits.
Soil in Chablis
Chablis is truly a terroir driven wine. Unique soil kimmeridgian soil from the Jurassic era (150 million years ago) rich in calcerous clay and limestone, responsible for depth of minerality to the wine and creating a linear focused acidity. Portlandian is younger (2 million years old) and it lacks maritime fossils so fresher and fruitier wines are produced. Kimmeridgian soil is named after the English village, where it was discovered.
41B rootstock (vinifera x berlandieri) is widely used in Chablis because it is highly tolerant of limestone soil with a high pH. 420A (riparia x berlandieri) is popular for its low vigour and tolerance to high pH soil. Double Guyot replacement cane training is typical. Of one cane fails, the other might survive frost. Funny enough the Chablis pruning method is more typical for Champagne. Yields are higher than in Côte d’Or. Though recent years have reduced yield due to hail and frost. Unlike côte d’Or, much of Chablis is machine picked, although the grand cru vineyards are mostly too steep for mechanization and are handpicked.
Most important is the protection from hail by nets, which is only since recently allowed and protection from frost by Candles (gasoline filled heaters) or spray the vines with water so the buds will be protected by a layer of ice around it.
Organisation of Chablis
There are 4 levels in the Chablis hierarchy:
Petit Chablis AOC: these are typically higher, cooler vineyards. Predominantly with Portlandian soils (hard limestone with less clay). It covers 917 ha. The soil here is different from the Kimmeridgian soil. The Portlandian soil is less rich in fossils.
Chablis AOC: This is the large area of Kimmeridgian soil and mixed aspects. Vineyards of Chablis and petit Chablis are mainly on flat land or on gentle slopes. The aspects vary with many northern facing sites. This leads to light bodied, with high acidity, with light (Petit Chablis) or medium (Chablis) intensity. Green apple and lemon fruit.
Chablis premier Cru AOC: these are 40 named vineyards and are predominantly on the south and southeast facing slopes of Kimmeridgian soil. Some large premier cru vineyards have specified name plots (lieux-dits) within them. Wines from these can be labelled under their specific site (like Chablis 1er cru Troêsmes) or under the larger climat they fall within (Chablis 1er cru Beauroy). A climat is a named vineyard in AOC legislation. A lieu-dit is a named piece of land in the centralized land register. The two best premier crus are Montée de Tonnerre and Vaulorent. But many of their names rarely are seen on the labels.
Chablis grand cru AOC: There is a single grand cru with seven named vineyards (known as climats). Size is 104 ha. They are Les Clos and Vaudésir, Bougros, Les Preuses, Grenouilles, Valmur, Blanchot. It is immediately next to the village itself, faces southwest on the right bank of the river Serein and is on Kimmeridgian soil. The southfacing slopes promote ripening and the wines have a higher weight and concentration than either premier cru or village level Chablis. The mixture of crumbly marl with good drainage and high clay content for water retention contributes to higher quality. Chablis grand cru represents only 1-2% of total regional production. In theory all seven have their own style. Grand Cru Chablis may age for 10 years even up to 40 years. Les Clos is the biggest and best known(26ha).
Vineyards of premier and grand cru are mainly on south-facing slopes. A slope means that vineyards are better drained and better protected from frost. The southern aspect means better light interception and therefore riper fruit. The grand cru vineyards also benefit from shelter from winds coming from the north due to a belt of trees between adjacent Petit Chablis vineyards. As a results wines have a better concentration, body and capacity to age.
Les Clos and Preuses are the most expensive grand cru wines. Bougros is the cheapest and by some also considered as less quality than the two best premier crus. Grenouilles is owned by a local co-operative, so they can decide their own price. Vaudésir, Blanchot and Valmur are all sold by the same price. There are 45 growers of grand cru vineyards, but they are not organized as one. In 2000 the Union des Grands Crus de Chablis has been created, but only 14 members joined. Dauvissat and Raveneu did not join.
Chaptalisation is allowed, up to a legal limit. It is regularly used except in the warmest years. Fermentation is mostly on stainless steel vessels with storage in stainless steel or concrete for months. MLF is common to soften the acidity and the wines might spend some months on the lees to enhance texture. Chablis is celebrated for its crisp, bright citrus and green apple fruit flavours and high acidity. Oak aroma is most often no benefit. However, some grand crus and more often premier crus may be fermented and aged in barrels.
Only chardonnay is allowed within the appelation. So Chablis is 100% Chardonnay. Max yield is 60 hl/ha for petit Chablis and Chablis AOC; 58hl/ha for Chablis premier cru AOC and 54 hl/ha for Chablis Grand Cru AOC. The Union des Grand Crus Chablis (UGCC) does not allow machine harvesting. But others do use machines for picking.
How can Chablis succeed if it both produces wines for supermarkets and wines at grand cru level and most of their wine are shipped abroad. Some say Chablis is even to cheap. A bottle of a grand cru Chablis can be the same price of a village Meursault.
The traditional distinction between négocians and domaines (estates) is breaking down as négocians have bought their own land and some domained supplement their own production. Thirty percent is vinified by the Cooperative La Chablisienne. But more growers are making and marketing their own wines. Besides Cooperatiev Le Chablisienne there are several other associations like Le Syndicat de Defense de L’Appelations de Chablis founded in 1993 and L’Union des Grand Crus de Chablis.
Winehouses and winemakers to know
Dauvistat and Raveneau and Thomas Pico and Oliver de Moor as organic and biodynamic winemakers
In 2016 frost and two severe hailstorms in April-May. Also a lot of rain, which made it difficult to find a dry window and spray for mildew protection. About 40% less sunlight hours than normal. But in September it tunred around. More sunallowing the bunches to ripen fully. More village cru were hit.
In 2017 severe frost in April and Chablis lost 1/3th of production. But quality of 2017 still good. Due to cold summer fresh and taut wines. Grand cru and the rest of Chablis were equally hit.
sources: WSET D3 Reading: Wines of the world, The Oxford Companion to wine, the world atlas of wine by Johnson and Robinson, Wine Folly and the internet