Burgundy Expert Guide Excerpt


Chablis, a sleepy village on the banks of the tranquil Serein River, lies almost halfway between Paris and Beaune. It is the northernmost major region in Burgundy, and—with the exception of Alsace—the northernmost world-class still wine-producing region in all of France. Three controlled appellations—Petit Chablis AOP, Chablis AOP, and Chablis Grand Cru AOP—govern the region’s white wines, produced solely from the Chardonnay grape. The 17 communes entitled to the Chablis AOP (including Chablis itself) craft one of the world’s most austere, mineral, and recognizable styles of Chardonnay, often without the veneer of new oak. Its viticultural origins lie in the monastic era, but only in recent decades has the region truly earned its unofficial designation as Burgundy’s porte d’or, or “golden gate.” As elsewhere in Burgundy, the late 1800s and early 1900s were fraught with difficulty.  

In the distant past, Chablis wines were of high repute, eclipsing those of the village’s larger neighbor Auxerre, but the year 1855 marked the beginning of a dark century for the region. In that year a Marseille-Paris railway opened, providing a quick and efficient means of transporting cheap Midi wines to the French capital and beyond, while diminishing Chablis’ ability to compete. The future looked grim: the 1880s brought the twofold devastation of powdery mildew (1886) and phylloxera (1887), and World War I summoned every available vigneron—and their horses—to the front. The high-yielding Sacy unseated Chardonnay in the region’s diminishing vineyards. Chablis suffered heavy German bombardment during World War II, and despite battlefield victory the 1945 vintage fell victim to frost. In that year, only 481 total hectoliters of wine were produced. The post-war Chablis vineyard, reduced to 1-2% of its pre-phylloxera acreage, closed out 100 years of decline with a fitting image: in the frigid winter of 1956, the denizens of Chablis skied down the grand cru hillside, and the following vintage was completely wiped out by cold and frost. 

In the second half of the 20th century, Chablis’ fortunes and cultivated areas slowly recovered. New techniques of frost prevention (detailed in The Vigneron’s Struggle, above) arrived to shield vigilant growers’ vines, and the first tractors appeared in Chablis by the early 1950s. Mechanization made vineyard work and vineyard expansion easier; mechanical harvesters appeared in the early 1980s to further lighten the load. (Today nearly 95% of Chablis’ vineyards are harvested by machine!) Premiers crus were added to the basic Chablis AOP regulations in 1967, and the AOP boundaries were controversially enlarged to include another 1000 hectares in 1978 (including several new premiers crus). In 1970, Chablis produced less than 20,000 hectoliters of wine; by 1982 the annual production reached 118,000 hl. In 2012, a modestly sized vintage, the three AOPs of Chablis recorded over 300,000 hl of wine from more than 5,000 ha of vines. As the appellation continued to reclaim lost acreage and production, the question arose: where should the boundaries of Chablis lie?

When Chablis AOC laws were established in 1938, the INAO restricted the viticultural zone to areas wherein soils overlay Kimmeridgian marl. “Kimmeridgian” refers to an age in the Upper Jurassic Epoch, occurring roughly 150-157 million years ago. Named for the village of Kimmeridge in Dorset, UK, the Kimmeridgian rock stratum consists of crumbly, chalky marl (clay and limestone) and contains abundant Exogyra virgula fossils—the imprints of tiny oyster shells. Outcrops are visible on the hillsides of the Serein River Valley. These hillsides, like those in Kimmeridge, Sancerre, and the Aube, ring the Paris Basin, which sagged under a shallow sea in the Jurassic Period. However, on the ridges and plateaus surrounding the Serein River Valley the Kimmeridgian marl is buried beneath Portlandian limestone, a harder cap rock with less clay content. Portlandian limestone in Chablis lacks the multitudes of fossilized seashells that characterize Kimmeridgian marl, and it is younger, formed 130 million years ago. Portlandian soils—those that overlay Portlandian limestone—are sandier and thinner than Kimmeridgian soils. Conventional wisdom has long held that the best examples of Chablis—including all grands and premiers crus—are grown on the more porous, mineral-rich Kimmeridgian soils. But despite best-laid plans and seemingly clear-cut divisions, it proved impossible to map out exactly where Kimmeridgian ended and Portlandian began. Geologists, vignerons, and government bureaucrats alike were unable to conclusively delimit the Kimmeridgian boundaries in the 1930s, and infighting persisted through decades of appellation expansion. The Petit Chablis AOP, established in 1944, found a home for Chardonnay wines produced on the plateaus of Portlandian limestone-derived soils—often higher, colder, and wind-exposed areas. A 1956 extension of the Chablis appellation primarily encompassed areas of Kimmeridgian soils; a 1978 expansion, which upgraded many Petit Chablis vineyards, did not.  

Chablis’ best vineyards—the grands crus, numbering around 100 total hectares—are located on a two-kilometer stretch of hillsides just north of town, facing south and southwest in an arc alongside the Serein. A product of coincident Kimmeridgian soil and privileged aspect, the grand cru slopes are the region’s warmest, bathed in afternoon light and protected from cold north winds. Unlike the grands crus of the Côte d’Or, Chablis Grand Cru AOP is a single appellation, with seven official geographic designations: Blanchot, Les Clos, Valmur, Les Grenouilles, Vaudésir, Preuses, and Bougros. (An eighth climat, La Moutonne—a monopole of Domaine Long-Depaquit overlapping Vaudésir and Preuses—is permitted by the INAO for usage on labels but not listed as an official geographic designation.) The entire grand cru vineyard is subject to more restrictive viticultural requirements than the basic appellation. Minimum potential alcohol levels rise from 10% for Chablis AOP to 11% for Chablis Grand Cru AOP, and maximum base yields fall from 60 to 54 hl/ha. The grand cru climats are also the only vineyards routinely harvested by hand in the entire region—prices are commensurate with the added expense of labor, and much of the hillside is too steep for machines anyway. While not mandated by law, manual harvesting and other vineyard directives—lutte raisonnée practices, even lower maximum yields, and high-density plantings of at least 8,000 vines per hectare—represent a core element of the charter of the Union des Grands Crus de Chablis, a private organization whose membership controls roughly half of the Chablis Grand Cru AOP acreage. Chablis Grand Cru AOP wines bearing the seal of the organization have been subjected to a blind tasting to authenticate quality, and are not released to the public until January 1 of the second year after the harvest. Of course, like any great Burgundy the grands crus of Chablis should spend years—sometimes even a decade—in the cellar prior to consumption.            
Chablis: The “Major”
Premiers Crus

Right Bank: Berdiot, Côte de Vaubarousse, Fourchaume, Les Fourneaux, Mont de Milieu, Montée de Tonnerre, Vaucoupin

Left Bank: Beauroy, Chaume de Talvat, Côte de Léchet, Côte de Jouan, Les Beauregards, Montmains, Vau de Vey, Vaillons, Vosgros, Vau Ligneau

The 785 ha of premier cru Chablis are a more complicated matter. After two sets of additions in 1978 and 1986, there are 40 named climats overall, grouped into 17 “major” premiers crus. Producers in obscure climats often have the option to label wines under the name of a more recognizable, neighboring “major” premier cru. A dozen or so of Chablis’ premiers crus are thus never seen on labels—why label your wine as Côte de Bréchain when Montée de Tonnerre has traction in the marketplace? The 40 premiers crus range in size from under a half-hectare (Côte de Cuisy) to over 100 (Vaillons and Fourchaume), and can be broadly placed into two unofficial geographical categories: the right and left banks of the Serein River. On the right bank, alongside the grands crus, are three large climats: Montée de Tonnerre, Mont de Milieu, and Fourchaume. The southwest-facing Montée de Tonnerre, a stone’s throw across the narrow Vallée de Bréchain from Blanchot, is widely considered the top premier cru in Chablis, and in the right hands (Raveneau, Patrick Piuze, Billaud-Simon) it surpasses many less ambitious estates’ grand cru output. On the left bank, the premier cru slopes usually face southeast, cradled in the hillsides of finger-like side valleys rather than alongside the Serein River itself. Vaillons and Montmains are the most important sites on the left bank. In very general terms, the left bank wines might appear a bit more restrained; the right bank wines show more opulent and exotic ripe fruit notes. The quintessential Chablis style is that espoused in the premier cru range: these are steely wines, with elevated acidity, leesy character, austere lemon and orchard fruit aromas, subtle oxidation, and medium weight. Frequently—and traditionally—vigneronsallow full malolactic fermentation to soften Chablis’ acidic edges, but it occurs in tank or used barrels rather than new oak.

Looking southward from Valmur.

Visually, tasters should find a glint of green in the lemon-to-golden hues of classic Chablis (although one sometimes has to imagine it’s there in the first place). From the perspective of the sommelier, Chablis Grand Cru AOP is, well, “un-Chablisienne.” It is typically quite rich and broad for the region, often resembling a fine white wine of the Côte d’Or rather than classic Chablis. Most producers, even those who eschew new oak for the village or premier cru bottlings, will employ a small to significant percentage of new wood for aging grand cru wines.

Here and throughout Burgundy, one cannot rely on the classification hierarchy as a promise of quality—the reputation and style of an individual producer is far more important. In years past the domaines of François Raveneau and Vincent Dauvissat were unrivaled; today they are no longer unquestionably without peer in the top echelon of Chablis. Any list of noteworthy producers in the region should also include—but is not limited to—Christian Moreau, William Fèvre, Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin, Louis Michel, Jean Collet, Faiveley’s Billaud-Simon, Laurent Tribut, Gilbert Picq, and ascendant newcomer Patrick Piuze. When shopping, thoroughly research a producer’s oak preferences. Some, like Louis Michel, refuse to use barrels at all; others prefer to ferment in tank and age wines in used oak. A few still incorporate noticeable new wood into village and premier cru wines, but even once-staunch defenders of oak, like Fèvre and Droin, have moderated their approach.