Chardonnay is with no doubt one of the best known and most planted grape varieties in the world. If Burgundy remains for the great majority of Chardonnay lovers THE reference, Chablis holds a place of choice with its unique wines characterized by a purity, a freshness and a minerality out of the common. The specificity and the reputation of Chablis wines come from a secular tradition and a magnificent terroir sublimating Chardonnay like nowhere else.
A bit of History
Although vines were probably already present during the time of the Gauls, it was the Romans who planted them in the region. Taken out under the reign of Emperor Domitian, the vines were replanted by Emperor Probus 18 centuries ago! Nevertheless, it is the monastic orders and more particularly the Cistercian monks who were the real leaders in the development of viticulture in Chablis in the 12th and 13th centuries. At that time, Chablis wines were already served at the table of the Kings of France.
At the end of the 19th century, the Chablis vineyard was hit hard by the phylloxera crisis, then the two world wars also struck a blow to the local viticulture. At the end of the Second World War, there were only 550 hectares of vines in Chablis. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that the vineyard once again developed and prospered.
Geographical location and some figures
The Chablis vineyard is located in the Yonne department in northern Burgundy, 186 kilometers from Paris, a little over two hours drive from the capital. The nearest city, Auxerre, is about 20 kilometers away.
The surface area of the Chablis vineyard now covers 5,771 ha and the wine produced represents 18% of the volume of wine produced in Burgundy. Almost one bottle of Burgundy out of five is a Chablis wine! In Chablis, there are 379 wineries, one cooperative (which represents a quarter of the production) and 37 trading houses.
A unique grape variety: Chardonnay
The wines of Chablis are all the expression of a single grape variety: Chardonnay. Formerly called Beaunois in Chablis, this grape variety of Burgundian origin is nowadays cultivated everywhere on the planet. Nevertheless, it expresses in Chablis a unique character resulting from a secular tradition and an exceptional terroir.
Compared to the rest of Burgundy, Chablis also has a particularity in the use of barrels in the winemaking process. In Chablis, the wine is aged in barrels with caution, and when it is the case, it is often aged in used barrels. The explanation is historical. A long time ago, the wines were delivered by boat in barrels to Paris. The barrels were then sent back to Chablis to be refilled, which explains why there is no tradition of new wood in Chablis, as can be found in other Burgundy appellations such as Meursault.
The terroir of Chablis
Chablis is a sedimentary basin vineyard with poorly fertile limestone soils on which Chardonnay has found a predilection terroir. This subsoil in Chablis called Kimmeridgian is 150 million years old. There are grey marls and limestone banks rich in Exogyra virgula fossils, from which the wines of Chablis get their purity and their minerality.
Located in the north of Burgundy, close to the Champagne region, the Chablis vineyard benefits from a semi-continental climate, with a long and cold winter and a hot summer. Spring frost is also a characteristic of the Chablis vineyard which can have a dramatic impact on the vines, as we have seen in the last three years. The Chablis winegrowers had to learn to live with these climatic hazards and to fight them (spraying, heaters, candles, anti-freeze sheets, etc.).
Chablis wines are found under four appellations which are distinguished by geographically delimited production areas and specific production conditions: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru.
Petit Chablis is an appellation that can be produced in all the communes of the Chablis area. It represents 19% of the Chablis wine production. It is also the only one of the four appellations whose vines are not planted in Kimmeridgian soil, but rather in a Portlandian (younger) soil of marl and limestone with sometimes loamy and sandy soils, but not containing the famous fossilized oysters called Exogyra virgula. The wines have therefore a less saline character and are generally intended to be drunk young (two-three years of ageing).
The Chablis appellation, with its famous Kimmeridgian soils, is the largest of the Chablis vineyard with 66% of the total production.
The Chablis Premier Cru appellation represents 14% of the Chablis production. There are 40 Climats spread out between the right and left banks of the Serein River. Climat in Burgundy represents a parcel of vineyard carefully delimited and recognized for centuries for its unique geological and climatic conditions. The Climats of the Burgundy vineyard have been listed as a UNESCO heritage site since 2015. The oldest mention of the term Climat in the Chablis vineyard dates back to 1537. The Chablis Premier Cru have an aging potential of 5 to 10 years, sometimes more.
Finally, the Chablis Grand Cru appellation constitutes the elite of the Chablis vineyard with only 101 hectares of vines, representing just 1% of the total production. There are 7 Climats, all located on the right bank of the Serein River: Blanchot, Bougros, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Preuses, Valmur and Vaudésir. The Chablis Grands Crus are wines for laying down (10 to 15 years, or even more) which need a little time to express their full potential.
To Learn More About Chablis Wines
If you wish to learn more about the wines of Chablis, click here. And why not plan your next vacation in Chablis, a first-class wine tourism destination?
There is one aspect that I did not address in this article, it is the service and food pairing of Chablis, but this will be the subject of a second article very soon!
This article is a collaboration with Les Vins de Chablis.