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Chablis


Wine By Region Right Europe Right France Right Burgundy Right Chablis


Outside the Côte d'Or, the main outpost for white Burgundy is in the very north of the Burgundian geographical designation, so far north that the vineyards border Champagne and hail and frost are among producers' worries. This region is called Chablis, and the white wine it produces from the Chardonnay grape is known all over the world. With a distinctive taste of powerfully saline, minerally fruit, which is sometimes called a steely or metallic flavor, these wines are mass-produced and often inexpensive.

Chablis wine is produced solely in the town of Chablis, which at about 15 square miles is not much larger than a Côte d'Or village such as Gevrey-Chambertin. And yet vineyard plantings in the region have gone over 6,300 acres! Most of this wine is used to produce the basic Chablis, while close to 2,000 acres make up Premier Cru plantings. Grand Cru wines, which are much more expensive than regular Chablis, come from the 250 acres with the most exclusive soils.

While the typical Chablis is noted for its distinctively steely, almost intentionally lean taste, from Premiers Crus the Chablis style is often entirely different. Rich, round and nutty, the wine almost completely loses its mineral component, and is stuffed with light fruit and spice instead. Grands Crus are even richer and offer great aging potential, and can rival the best whites of the Côte de Beaune.

While Montrachet might be thought of as a more pure and finessed example of the Chardonnay grape, Chablis is the region most commonly associated with Chardonnay growth for most people. Wines with much less of a cost can be found, especially at the village level, but at the top level the wine is just as good as any boutique Côte d'Or specialty.

History

The history of Chablis began when Romans introduced viticulture to the region. Religious bodies soon took interest in grape-growing in Chablis, as with many other parts of Burgundy, and churches bought out many of the vineyards. Religious figures also introduced Chardonnay to Chablis, before it ever existed in the Côte d'Or.

Originally not officially part of the Burgundy region, Chablis was included in the 1400s, and by this time winemaking had grown to become a large part of the village's economy. Most wines were shipped to Paris to be sold, since Chablis bordered on a river that connected directly with Paris, and at that point the capital city of France had access to few other domestic wines. But Chablis's reputation caused it to spread all over the world, and at this point the region was bursting with vineyards.

And yet the introduction of the railway system, such a boon to regions such as Bordeaux that now could access the whole market of France, destroyed Chablis's hold on the Paris region and sent the village into a tailspin, for the simple reason that they introduced a massive amount of competition which overwhelmed Chablis in both quality and quantity. As the 20th century began Chablis winemaking had reached new lows, and it continued to sink as the Côte de Beaune emerged as a clearly better place for Chardonnay growth.

Quality was improved in 1938 when AOC introduced regulations for the Chablis region, limiting yields and thus the amount of wine produced, and disallowing the blending of any supplementary grapes into the Chablis blend. They also trademarked the Chablis name and attempted to enforce it across the world, with Chablis from America and even remote places such as Australia cited for stealing the village name. And since Chablis's basic wines are often lower-cost than Côte de Beaune grandeur, a Chablis resurgence has been taking place in recent years as the market shifts toward better-valued wines.

Climate and Viticulture

The scenic town of Chablis lies so far north that frost, hail, and snow are all serious threats. In the past, in Chablis's early days, crops would often be lost to particularly cold winters, and winemakers would be able to do nothing about it. This destroyed several Chablis vintages almost entirely, and ruined the quality of others.

Only recently have solutions been found to this problem, particularly smudge pots that burn all day long in order to keep the temperature in the area at least above freezing. The same thing is done in Champagne, and it works well, although even this time-consuming method was unable to save the horribly cold 2001 vintage.

The soil in Chablis is much different from in the Côte de Beaune. Rather than pure like the Côte de Beaune's iron-rich limestone, the calcareous soil in the region is more chalky and soft, but in Premier Cru vineyards has much more density and concentration. In the best vineyards the wine is improved by a strange viticultural phenomenon: fossilized oyster shells! Allegedly, the shells help the wines attain greater richness and character, although exactly how has not yet been proven.

Grape Varieties

Major Producers

Since Chablis is closer to Champagne than Burgundy, most of the producer names here will not be familiar from Burgundy. Drouhin has some property, as does Faiveley, but many of the négociant wines are only bottled by the négociants, and they do not even own the land. The lettering on the bottles will often be similar to that of the Côte d'Or, as well as the basic design of the bottles and labels, but other than that few similarities exist.

It's often useful to make two lists, of both the best wines and the best values, but in Chablis almost all of the 20 producers on our main list have holdings at both village level, for under $40, and top $200+ cuvées. This versatility is part of what makes Chablis great, and in fact was a prerequisite in our search for the region's top winemakers.

Here our list of the top 20 Chablis producers. All these producers are reliable for inexpensive village Chablis with good flavors, and better Premier Cru wine. Many of them make top-notch Grand Cru cuvées as well. The Cru wines are discussed under subregions.

Subregions

From the outlying vineyards of Chablis, in land not even suitable for regular basic Chablis production, some Chardonnays can label themselves Petit Chablis. Simply styled, usually in an austere, minerally way, these basic wines are good entry-level offerings and are even less expensive than basic Chablis wines. Good producers include Domaine Billaud Simon, Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard, Domaine Caves Jean et Sebastien Dauvissat, Domaine Jean-Paul et Benoit Droin, Domaine William Fèvre, Domaine Louis Michel, Domaine Laroche, and Domaine Servin. But hands-down the best here comes from Vincent Dauvissat. All should be under $20, and these wines are generally drunk within the first year or two.

Then there is the basic Chablis. These wines can be made in different styles, ranging all the way from outstandingly harsh and austere to rich and exotic, but the wines are rarely complex and often vary significantly in quality and flavor from vintage to vintage. Still, they can age a little more than the Petit Chablis and often cost more like $30-$40. Almost all the producers on our list produce a good basic Chablis, but Vincent Dauvissat's rich, honeyed example shows the best complexity from that appellation. Look for any of the above 20 producers, or any wine that is rated, and it should be satisfactory for its level.

Since lieux-dits aren't really of much importance in Chablis, the 40 Premiers Crus make up the majority of quality wine here. It's important to understand that unlike in the strict Côte d'Or, many vineyards are allowed to use each other's names. Quality, of course, is not kept as high that way, and the wines are more heterogeneous. But the number of quality Premiers Crus to remember is also fewer!

Located on a hill above the town, the Grand Cru vineyards make nearly all of Chablis' most top-quality wine. La Moutonne is considered a Grand Cru by many, but not officially recognized as either Grand Cru or Premier Cru by AOC, so cannot be counted as another one of the 7 Chablis Grands Crus. Long-Depaquit's cuvée here, though, is really of Grand Cru quality. The other Grands Crus are described here; although terroir is far less pronounced than in the Côte d'Or, many of the Grands Crus share a general style among their wines. Of course, all the cuvées come from our list of Major Producers, since no great Grand Cru producers are not included in our Major Producers list. The wines are listed in alphabetical order, not qualitative order.