The Chablis vineyards surround the quiet stone walled town of Chablis in central France and are part of Burgundy, even though they’re over an hour’s drive north of Beaune, the region’s spiritual capital. But, in true Burgundian style, the vineyards are the key to Chablis quality. The French have a name for all the stuff that makes a vineyard good, bad or amazing be it soil, aspect, drainage, climate, microclimate, protection, slope etc, etc. That word’s ‘terroir’. It’s a strange ‘mot’ but it comes in handy sometimes.
Nonetheless, Petit Chablis is the entry category of the four Chablis appellations, the others being Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru. Because of their superior ‘terroir’, Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards produce better grapes which in turn, produce better wines, “you get a bit more of everything with a Grand Cru”, smiles Elaine Defaix of Domaine Bernard Defaix. There is a downside of course. Petit Chablis and Chablis rock in at about $15 (£12) and $20 (£16) respectively, Premier Cru will set you back about $30 (£25) and, deep breaths, Grand Cru can carry a $60 (£50) tag. The upside is that there’s a Chablis for all pockets.
Mother Nature has a lot to say in this mean northerly climate. Many producers’ harvests were 50-70% down in 2016 because of frost, hail and mildew and that was on top of a low yielding 2015 vintage which was for some 50% down due to hail just 2 days before picking … ouch! So, expect higher price tags coming to a wine shop near you.
The Chablis vineyards cover about 5500 hectares (ha.) in total, made up of a 100 ha. of Grand Cru, 800 ha. of Premier Cru, 3600 ha. of Chablis and 1000 ha. of Petit Chablis. Organic and biodynamic viticulture is popular across the Chablis vineyards although even the most dedicated devotees were sorely tested during the 2016 vintage. One organically certified winemaker told me that the vintage was so damaging they decided to spray, a decision not taken lightly as it cost them their organic certification, a status that will take three years to recover. That had me thinking, was that why some domaines are totally organic but did not want to be officially certified?
Talking of vintages, the 2014 vintage with its pure line of acidity balancing crisp, arrowed citrus fruit was my star. The fruiter 2015 has less ‘tension’ (good Chablis tasting note!) but, looking on the cellar-side, the vintage does give us all something to enjoy whilst we wait for the 2014’s to hit their peak.
Seeing ‘vielles vignes’ (old vines) on several Chablis labels reminded me to ignore this impressive announcement. The expression has no legal description and so can be used by any winemaker to denote their oldest vines… even though they may only be say 15 years old …. that’s hardly old vines folks! Annoyingly, this use of ‘vielles vignes’ detracts from domaines that take real pride in making complex wines from their old knurled vines; Seguinot- Bordet’s Chablis ‘Vielles Vignes’ is made from 78 year old vines whilst Bernard Defaix’s Cote de Lechet 2014 Reserve is produced from 60 year old vines. The importance of knowing if the wine really is ‘Veilles Vignes’ is highlighted by Julien Brocard, “our vielles vignes wines age as well, if not better than our Grand Crus over a 30 year period”.
Being Burgundy, the Chardonnay grape is king and the very best vineyard plots, the seven Grand Cru’s of Blanchots, Bougros, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Preuses, Valmur and Vaudesir, lie on the steep, protected, south-west facing Kimmeridgian slopes that overlook the River Serein and the town. There are 40 Premier Cru vineyard plots and two, Montee de Tonnerre and Fourchaume, flank the Grand Crus on these treasured ‘Right Bank’ slopes.
More Premier Cru vineyards, including Cote de Lechet, Vaillons and Montmains, lie behind the town on south-east facing ‘Left Bank’ slopes but that said, it’s difficult to define exact slope directions within Chablis’ complex contours, as the ever rolling indulations create critical protection and sun exposure in ever changing measure.
The A.C. (Appellation Controllee) Chablis vineyards lie on the respected Kimmeridgian soils but their sites are less beneficial than the Premier and Grand Cru sites, again showing the vital importance of ‘terroir’, especially aspect, slope and microclimate elements, in a chilly northerly region where praying for sunshine and fighting for ripeness is an annual event. “The location of the slope is more important than the angle of the slope” explains Chablis expert Eric Szablowski.
As a general rule, Petit Chablis and A.C. Chablis are fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel vats with little use of oak ageing whilst Premier and Grand Cru wines are often part fermented in old French oak barrels, “we barrel ferment 50% of our Premier and Grand Cru’s in old oak barrels; we only use 2% new oak”, confirms Christian Moreau. Francois Raveneau on the other hand ferment their wines in stainless steel before ageing in old French oak barriques, “we age for about 10 months depending on the vintage; because of its fruitiness our 2015 had less barrel ageing”, explained Isabelle Raveneau.
I was in a restaurant recently when the next table ordered a 2014 Grand Cru Chablis. I checked the wine list. £120! ($150!) Ouch!! My tastings in Chablis brought back memories of that candle-lit night. IMHO., Grand Cru’s needs 5–10 years to reach their full potential so they’d have been better off ordering a bottle of Premier Cru. And, it would have saved them a fortune t’boot!
The best producers from my recent trip? Jean-Marc Brocard, Christian Moreau, Samuel Billaud, Seguinot- Bordet, William Fevre, Bernard Defaix, Philippe Charlopin and Francois Raveneau. Pull the cork on any of their wines, be it Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier or Grand Cru … you’ll taste the dedication.
John Downes, one of only 350 Masters of Wine in the world, is a speaker, television and radio broadcaster, and writer on wine. Check out his new website at www.johndownes.com.