A closer look at Chablis
Author: Adam Bruntlett
Chablis is a wonderful mix of simplicity and complexity, says Adam Bruntlett. Our Burgundy Buyer explains what’s happening in the region today, and which bottles he’s recommending right now.
As anyone who has visited can attest, the town of Chablis is a quiet and rather sleepy place. It’s closer geographically to the Champagne region than the rest of Burgundy. The place is perhaps best summed up by the river Serein (meaning “serene”), which runs through the town. Barely moving, it lives up to its name, reflecting the gentle pace of life here. The tranquillity is only broken by the regular passing of tractors on their way to the vineyards which blanket the hills of the surrounding valleys.
The fame of Chablis
Chablis is known almost exclusively for its wines. So famous are the wines of Chablis that they are effectively a brand in their own right. By way of demonstration, in a Google search for “Chablis”, the first result is for the wine, the second for the town itself. Chablis is a fixture on every supermarket shelf and on every restaurant wine list. In the past, many New World producers even “borrowed” the Chablis name to give extra cachet to their own Chardonnay bottlings.
You might therefore expect that with decades of tradition, and in possession of a hugely successful product, things would stand still here. That growers would resist the urge to innovate, to improve or to progress. Fortunately, this is not the case: see the wave of producers moving towards more sustainable viticulture, the new generation of winemakers producing brilliant, terroir-driven wines.
Recent years have seen a significant move towards more sustainable vineyard practices. While all of our suppliers take great care to work sustainably, several have decided to undergo the process of organic certification in recent years – including the largest landowner in the region, Domaine William Fèvre. Some have been certified for several years, including Alice and Olivier De Moor and Domaine Duplessis.
They will soon be joined by Le Domaine d’Henri and Jean-Claude Bessin. The climate is becoming more and more unpredictable. For these growers to take such risks in the vineyard speaks highly of their commitment to reducing the use of chemicals.
Simplicity and complexity
It is a wonderful mix of simplicity and complexity that defines Chablis. These wines are from a single grape variety. They are made with no (or very little) oak. Vines are planted on 40 different Premier Cru and seven Grand Cru climats; with village Chablis vineyards scattered across 20 different communes.
Unlike the Côte de Beaune, where the vineyards are neatly arranged over a gentle slope on a north-south axis, the vineyards of Chablis are much more diverse, scattered across the slopes and valleys of the local villages. They face in different directions, with a range of different soil types and compositions. This presents the perfect opportunity to look in detail at the individual character of specific vineyard sites through to the single, crystal-clear lens of the Chardonnay grape.
A sense of place
For many years, individual Chablis Premier and Grand Cru vineyards have been bottled separately. A clear distinction is often drawn between the Premiers Crus on the right and left banks of the river. But village parcels – making up two-thirds of the region’s production, and therefore varying wildly in character – were and still are often blended to produce one large cuvée.
In recent years, some growers have started to identify their most interesting village parcels and bottle them as standalone wines, highlighting the quality and character of each site. These include Didier and Pascal Picq, along with Eleni and Edouard Vocoret; both are “specialists” in these lieu-dit Chablis bottlings.
Chablis is a region often overlooked, dismissed as a sleepy town producing refreshing, thirst-quenching white wines. But scratch the surface, and there is an army of dynamic, enthusiastic vignerons. They are proud and respectful, of the past and of their region. They are also continually developing and pushing themselves to express their heritage and this special terroir. It is hugely reassuring that the future of such a venerable wine region is in such capable hands.
Petit Chablis can be an exciting category, particularly when sourced from a top grower like Droin. Typically, the distinction between Chablis and Petit Chablis is that the former is largely planted on Kimmeridgian limestone, the latter on Portlandian limestone. This tends to make Petit Chablis fruitier, with a more friendly appeal. The best examples, such as this one, come from vines planted on the plateau above the Grands Crus.
Somewhat unusually for a village wine, this is aged in oak barrels – although there is no new oak at all. This is a single-site wine, coming from a great spot just at the foot of the Montée de Tonnerre. Made by dynamic young couple Eleni and Edouard, this is a serious wine which outperforms its village status.
Having split from his family domaine and set up on his own with some inherited vineyards and careful grape purchases, Samuel has rapidly developed a reputation for wines with tension and minerality. He picks quite early and works diligently in the winery, aiming to produce wines which are tense, concentrated and long-lived. Montée de Tonnerre is considered by many to be the best Premier Cru in Chablis, sharing many characteristics with the Grand Cru hill. This example is a benchmark.
At just under 100 hectares, the Chablis Grand Cru appellation represents only one percent of the region’s production. You could argue that this is the closest Chablis comes stylistically to the wines of the Côte de Beaune. The Grands Crus are situated on the south-facing slope of a single hill, which sits imposingly overlooking the village. Les Clos is the most famous and largest, totalling almost 28 hectares. As is usually the case with Grand Cru, this wine undergoes fermentation and ageing in oak, giving support to the powerful and rich fruit.
At a glance: Chablis vintages drinking well now
- 2018, ’16, ’15, ’13: these are all good to approach now. But the ’18s will gain in precision and freshness with age
- 2019, ’17, ’14: these are probably a little young. You should leave them for a while, except for the entry-level wines
Browse our range of Chablis wines.