Chablis, north west of Burgundy near Auxerre, is the farthest point from the rest of the Burgundy region, producing wines that are inherently different to the rest of the world. Cote d’Or is atleast 85 km away and separated from Chablis by Morvan Hills. Proximity to the Champagne region, brings in commonality, in that Chablis shares similar semi-continental climatic pattern with hot and many a times, unpredictably rainy or drought stricken summers while winters are harsh and cold. This climate combined with a unique geology gives it the classic ‘Chablis’ characteristics. The legacy of ancient limestone soils of the Upper Jurassic age, some 200 million years ago, that formed the underlying bed rock of North Sea is the basis on which Chablis evolution of terroir has taken place – a special Kimmeridgean clay, a marine clay embedded with remains of sea fossils called exogyra virgula. Combining with the remnants of calcareous chalky soils of the coastal cliffs that it shares with Champagne geology, Chablis imbibes a distinct personality – high levels of mouth tingling acidity, marked precision and a distinguished minerality that it is worshipped for ; with all these unusual features, it’s not surprising that the Chardonnay grape from Chablis forms the core of the highly revered White Burgundy wines, possessing immense acidity and steely and more so, smoky flavours that layer around its soft lean fruit expression. The river Serein (pronounced as ‘Serene’, the waterway that flows through this district) is aptly named to describe these wines - ‘austere and serene’. The Chablis expression is identical to that of a mighty body of a sleeping giant, kind and gentle but with a power and potential that no being can live up to! About 60 years ago, the whole of Chablis occupied a mere 40-50 hectares but latest statistics demonstrate the growing vastness of the region as shown in the acreage breakdown:
Chablis AC - 3,400 ha
Petite Chablis - 800ha
Premier Cru - 800ha
Grand Cru - 100 ha
The production could be mistaken to be as precise and voluminous as the wine, however its quite the opposite. Fluctuations in yield are severe year on year, on account of the unpredictability of the Mother Nature that inflicts havoc on the vineyards. Being so far away from equator and farthest up on the Burgundy latitude, Chablis is highly susceptible to spring frost, hail, freak snow which can occur as late as May, making vintage volumes highly variable. Demand however remains immensely high on account of the established cult status that the district commands, which makes these wines a highly tradeable commodity in the speculative world.
Chablis comes in varied styles and the appellation laws clearly designate and classify these styles on the basis of quality of soils, slope and aspect, forming a pyramid where the top level wines clearly denote the highest quality and thereby, the steepest prices.
Petit Chablis Appellation is the most basic of Chablis suggestive of younger vines grown on the outskirts of the village in order to satisfy the burgeoning demand for Chablis in the last 20 years. Typically planted on Portlandian clay, Petit Chablis is good value for money but not intended for long ageing. The wines from here are light and less aromatic. Important to note that they are always unoaked, stainless steel fermented possessing marked racy levels of acidity. These wines approachable, easy wines are meant to be consumed within a year or two of production.
Chablis AC- Generic wines from grapes produced around the region. Again, simplistic and approachable wines with hints of minerality and precision, but the quality may vary so important to keep a look out for established producers. Some quality pursuers will have an element of old oak but mostly, these are unoaked.
Chablis Premier Cru- there are 40 premier crus in all and these are the more reliable sites with good exposure, south or south east aspect and slightly higher above the sea level or along the valleys of the river Serein. They have a longer ageing life from 4 years upto 10 years. Some Premier Crus such as Montée de Tonerre, Fourchaume are on the south west facing side and command higher prices. Premier Crus are on either side of the river- left and right Bank. The most famous climats are the ones that surround the Grand Cru on the right bank.
Chablis Grand Cru is the top end of the pyramid, the best exposure on the south west facing side of the hill, all clustered together as a single band on one side, about 150-200m above sea level along right bank of River Serein. These are broken into 7 Climats the names of which may appear as labels. Out of them, Les Clos is the first established Grand Cru Climat, also biggest in size that has truly helped spread the international fame of the Grand Crus with its long life and complexity, equally gleaming with refreshing acidity that makes it easy to drink even youthful. Other Grand Crus include Bougros, Blanchot, Preuses, Valmur, Vaudésir and Grenouilles. Wines here can be consumed anywhere from 10- 20 years. Grand Crus are aged about 25-40% in old oak for a few months but a growing trend is that of oak reduction in fermentation and to focus on more quality fruit and terroir driven flavours.
Modernising Chablis has been important for Burgundy to retain its brand power. The emphasis is now to produce more natural wines with hand picking and selective harvest mechanisms, using natural yeast and minimising old or neutral oak as much as possible. The approach of respecting terroir has been key to kick start the non-interventionist vinification methods that are being followed with passion. The old style of 132l Feuillete (neutral barrels) has been done away with by most of the producers as it has been tough to maintain them and create far too many faults in the wines.
A recent speed dating of 12 Burgundy Wines hosted by the Bourgogne Wine Club with Xavier Rousset MS to which I was invited to, was a great opportunity to assess Chablis styles at the ‘The Signs of the Three’ where we put all our heads (and palates) together with a magnifying glass to observe the varieties of Chablis. Details of wines we tasted are given below :
Petit Chablis Sycomore, 2014, L&C Poitout
Notes of lemon, green apple and raw pear, this wine lacked on aroma but the acidity and mineral undertones do make it an easy and pleasurable drink. Not hugely great on finish and lacks purity of fruit but the malolactic notes add to a wee bit of richness on the palate. (82/100)
Petit Chablis, 2014, William Fevre
This was close to the best and ripest Petite Chablis one can get. Pear, quince and apple notes dominate this wine and a wee bit racy acidity that is normal for a typical petit Chablis, there is good balance and the texture of the wine does take it a notch above the rest. The butter notes are distinct and the wine can be enjoyed for upto another year. (88/100)
Petit Chablis, 2015, Domaine Jean et Sébastien Dauvissat
Lemon sorbet is prominent here, the fruit is ripe with lip smacking acidity. Good lees stirring has given it a reasonably rich but youthful body. The flavours are long lasting and great as an aperitif (87/100)
Petit Chablis, 2015, Jean Durup Pére et Fils
One of the largest independent producers, Jean Durup uses old vines upto 30 years old for these wines that show a hint of minerality and lemon leaf characteristics. White pepper adds to the variety and the acidity is sharp although the finish may not be so precise (85/100)
Chablis, 2012, Sébastien Dampt
Broad and aromatic on the nose, there is soft pear and bruised apple notes in this. Fresh lime zest creating mouthwatering acidity along with some mature cabbage and mushroom notes. This wine is reaching its peak and should be consumed within the next year. (89/100)
Chablis, La Sereine, La Chablisienne
One of the most reputed cooperative producer producing atleast 25% of the Chablis production, the wines here are very reliable and reasonable in price with some degree of ageing that can be expected. Notes of lemon yogurt, pear showing richness in the palate and candied texture from the oak balances well with the ripe fruits and supreme levels of acidity. (91/100)
Chablis Sainte-Claire, 2014, Jean-Marc Brocard
Classy old world Chablis with notable levels of oak mingling into the fruit and alcohol but subtle hints of toast and vanilla creep out mildly making it ever so slightly out of balance. The white pepper and subtle smoky notes however create long flavours at the end. There is marked intensity and concentration of both primary and tertiary notes. Good for drinking now upto 2018. (87/100)
Chablis Vieilles Vignes, 2015, Domaine George
With upto 6 months maturation on lees post fermentation and another 10-12 months in old oak, the strong ripe fruit notes harmoniously integrate with the vanilla and oak notes. A more wider expression of Chablis, it does fall outside the usual classical notes of Chablis and may hence be undermined. Delicate notes of savoury and nuttiness give it complexity and an extra edge. (90/100)
Montmains is the largest Premier Cru and being on the left bank, has a more steely edge to it, gives less riper but leaner fruits with intense levels of chiselled precision and minerality. Premier Crus on the right bank give richer and riper fruit with more body. 2014 was the vintage that was picked for our Premier Cru tasting. A classic modern ripe vintage which was quite balanced overall in terms of consistent weather. The Montmains Premier Cru producers that we tasted included :
Chablis 1er Cru, Montmains, 2014, Domaine Jean-Paul et Benoit Droin
Produced by 14th Generation Droin family, this is a tropically induced decadent Chablis with marked levels of richness. Heaps of ripe lemons, butter, pear and red apples give it a memorable uplifting aroma and accompanying with it, is a hint of herbaceousnessfrom the stony terroir expression of this wine. Acidity is intensely mouthwatering and gives a flinty after flavour. Being 40% barrel fermented, the oak sizeably matches with the rounded creamy texture of the wine. (90/100)
Chablis 1er Montmains, 2014, Domaine des Malandes
Produced from 60 year old vines and vinified 20% in barrels that are 1-5 years old, there is lemon candy crush, hints of green melon, bread pudding and caramel honey notes in this elegant and harmonious wine. Acidity is linear and crisp but not overpowering and the finesse is impressive. Very charming expression of Chablis one that is mellow yet seductive. Needs to be aged for atleast another 3-4 years to realise its full potential. (95/100)
Chablis 1er Montmains, 2014, Domaine Long Depaquit
Owned by Pontigny Abbey who planted the first Chardonnay grapes in Chablis and who developed viticulture and forms of cultivation of the grape, the Domaine passed hands to owners from 12th century and now under the able hands of Albert Bichot. Vineyard is handpicked and wines are aged 35% in old barrels (1-5 years old) for 10 months then blended in a stainless steel tank for another 2 months to stablise. The result is a harmonious wine with notes of lemon sorbet, pear and hints of guava, vegetal cabbage notes and sweet spices of cinnamon and nutmeg. Acidity is high and stands out mildly disjointed at certain points when the ripe fruit element wears off in the palate but overall a good age worthy wine and can be cellared for upto 4 -5 years. (89/100)
Chablis 1er Cru, Montmains, 2014, Domaine Besson
Made out 30 year old vines with about 30-40% aged in old barrels, this is an opulent expression of Chablis demonstrating strong ripe lemon sherbet, lime curd, vanilla and aromatic perfume. Acidity is persistent and rounds up with the toasty notes and integrates well into the fruit flavours of the wine. A good ripe expression of a well maturing Premier Cru. (91/100)
Our tasting was followed by a blind tasting of 3 wines from the above and I can proudly say that, I was able to correctly identify the 3 wines, the appellation of Chablis and their vintage. Even narrow it down to one of the producers… so before you happen to buy any of these wines make sure you go through the above tasting notes(and may be send me a message too!) and I assure you that you will find the right wines to your taste!
Vintage Update for Chablis
A quick brief on the vintages for the last few years shows that 2012 and 2014 were very balanced and well weathered years. 2013 was a tougher vintage with hail and spring frost that brought volumes and sugars down. 2015 was the hottest in the last few years and as a result the grapes were much riper and fruitier but acidity levels were lower, however it leaves us with ‘wines’ for thought…. to ponder how the 2015s will perform once they start to age. The dynamics may change as they evolve so you never know!