|Type||Appellation d'origine contrôlée|
|Total area||6834 hectares|
|Size of planted vineyards||4820 hectares|
|Varietals produced||Chardonnay (Beaunois)|
The Chablis (pronounced: [ʃa.bli]) region is the northernmost wine district of the Burgundy region in France. The grapevines around the town of Chablis are almost all Chardonnay, making a dry white wine renowned for the purity of its aroma and taste. The cool climate of this region produces wines with more acidity and flavors less fruity than Chardonnay wines grown in warmer climates, The wines often have a "flinty" note, sometimes described as "goût de pierre à fusil" ("tasting of gunflint"), and sometimes as "steely". In comparison with the white wines from the rest of Burgundy, Chablis has on average much less influence of oak. Most basic Chablis is completely unoaked, and vinified in stainless steel tanks. The amount of barrel maturation, if any, is a stylistic choice which varies widely among Chablis producers. Many Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines receive some maturation in oak barrels, but typically the time in barrel and the proportion of new barrels is much smaller than for white wines of Côte de Beaune.
Chablis lies about 10 miles (16 km) east of Auxerre in the Yonne department, situated in Burgundy's heartland roughly halfway between Côte d'Or and Paris. It is closer to the southern Aube district of Champagne than the rest of Burgundy. Of France's wine-growing areas, only Champagne and Alsace have a more northerly location. The region covers 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) x 20 kilometres (12 mi) across 27 communes located along the Serein river. The soil is Kimmeridge clay with outcrops of the same chalk layer that extends from Sancerre up to the White Cliffs of Dover, giving a name to the paleontologists' Cretaceous period. The Grand Crus, the best vineyards in the area, all lie in one small southwest facing slope located just north of the town of Chablis.
It is likely that vines came to the region with the Romans, if not before. As elsewhere, the Dark Ages saw monasteries putting great effort into viticulture for communion wine, and the proximity of Auxerre meant that the market in Paris was readily accessible. There are records in the mid-15th century of Chablis wine being shipped to England, Flanders and Picardy. But in February 1568 the town was razed by the Huguenots, and the region did not really recover until the 18th century. Then came the ravages of the French Revolution, the Little Ice Age and Prussian invasions. Just as the vineyards were being built back up, they were hit first by oidium in the 1880s, and then by the phylloxera epidemic. Following two World Wars, the Chablis wine industry wouldn't recover till the second half of the 20th century.
As was the case with many of France's oldest wine regions, the Romans were likely the first to introduce viticulture to the Chablis region. These early plantings were used to sustain the Roman garrisons but they soon became a holding of the local peasantry who made wine for daily and family use. During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church, particularly the Cistercian monks, became a major influence in establishing the economic and commercial interest of viticulture for the region. Chardonnay was believed to be first planted in Chablis by the Cistercians at Pontigny Abbey in the 12th century and from there spread south to the rest of the Burgundy region. The region became part of Burgundy in the 15th century when it was annexed by the Dukes of Burgundy. The easily accessible Seine river, via the nearby Yonne river, gave the Chablis wine producers a near monopoly on the lucrative Parisian market. In the 17th century, the English discovered the wine and began importing large volumes. By the 19th century there were nearly 98,840 acres (40,000 ha) of vines planted in Chablis with vineyards stretching from the town of Chablis to Joigny and Sens along the Yonne. Chablis wines were seen across northern France with even some Champagne producers using Chablis as part of a base wine for their sparkling cuvee.
The end of the 19th century saw of a period of calamity for the region beginning first with the opening of the development of railway systems that linked all parts of the country with Paris in the 1850s. This brought an influx of available inexpensive wine from regions in the Midi (such as the Languedoc) that undercut Chablis' presence in the Parisian market. The 1880s saw the dual devastation of powdery mildew and phylloxera which ravaged vineyards. Many Chablis producers gave up winemaking, the acreage in the region steadily declining throughout much of the early 20th century. By the 1950s there were only 1,235 acres (500 ha) of vines planted in Chablis.
The 20th century did bring about a renewed commitment to quality production and ushered in technological advances that would allow viticulture to be more profitable and reliable in this cool northern climate. In 1938, the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine created the Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) region for Chablis that mandated the grape variety (Chardonnay) and acceptable winemaking and viticultural practices within delineated boundaries. One of the objectives of the AOC establishment was to protect the name "Chablis", which by this time was already being inappropriately used to refer to just about any white wine made from any number of white grape varieties all across the world. In the early 1960s, technological advances in vineyard frost protection minimized some of the risk and financial cost associated with variable vintages and climate of Chablis. The worldwide "Chardonnay-boom" of the mid-late 20th century, opened up prosperous worldwide markets to Chablis and vineyard plantings saw a period of steady increase. By 2004, vineyard plantings in Chablis reached a little over 10,000 acres (4,000 ha).
Climate and geography
Located in northeast France, the Chablis region is considered the northernmost extension of the Burgundy wine region but it is separated from the Côte d'Or by the Morvan hills, with the main Burgundian winemaking town of Beaune located more than 62 miles (100 km) away. This makes the region of Chablis relatively isolated from other winemaking regions with the southern vineyards of the Champagne in the Aube department being the closest winemaking neighbor. Historically Chablis was once considered part of the Champagne province, and the two region share many climatic similarities. Chablis' far northern location puts it at the extreme edge of sustainable viticulture. The region has a semi-continental climate with no maritime influence that far inland. Summertime temperature during the peak growing season can get very hot and wintertime can be long, cold and harsh, with frost condition lasting well into Spring-from March to early May. The area can experience dramatic vintage variation in both quality and quantity due to climatic conditions, particularly the threat of spring frost. Years that experience too much rain and low temperature tend to produce wines excessively high in acidity and fruit that is too lean to support it. Vintages that are exceedingly warm tend to produce fat, flabby wines that are too low in acidity.
The region of Chablis lies on the eastern edge of the Paris Basin. The region's oldest soil dates back to the Upper Jurassic age, over 180 million years ago and includes a particular vineyard soil type known as argilo-calcaire. This same Kimmeridge clay is found across the English Channel in Dorset and is a composition of limestone, clay and tiny fossilized oyster shells. All of Chablis' Grand Cru vineyards and Premier Cru vineyards are planted on primarily Kimmeridgean soil which imparts a distinctively mineral, flinty note to the wines. Other areas, particularly the vast majority of Petit Chablis vineyards, are planted on slightly younger Portlandian soil-a limestone based soil of similar structure. The crusty limestone-based soil of the region give the landscape a chalky white appearance similar to some areas of Champagne and Sancerre.
The main viticultural concern for Chablis vineyard owners is frost protection. During the crucial bud break period of a grapevine's annual cycle, the Chablis region is prone to experience springtime frost, from March to early May, which can decimate that year's crop. Prior to the mid 20th century, Chablis producers were at the mercy of the vintage as to whether the temperature would stay warm enough during this period to maintain viable yields. The financial risk involve with losing half to an entire year's crop encouraged many producers to practice polyculture agriculture by pulling up vineyard space to plant alternative crops. The 1957 vintage was hit particularly hard by frost damage: the regional authorities reported that only 11 cases (132 bottles) of wine were produced. In the 1960s, technological advances in frost protection introduced preventive measures, such as smudge pots and aspersion irrigation to the region. Smudge pots worked by providing direct heat to the vines while aspersion involved spraying the vines with water as soon as temperatures hit 32 °F (0 °C) and maintaining persistent coverage. The water freezes on the vine, shielding it with a protective layer of ice that functions similar to an igloo in retaining heat within the vine. While cost is a factor in using smudge pots, there is a risk to the aspersion method if the constant sprinkling of water is interrupted which can end up causing even more damage to the vine.
At harvest time, AOC regulations stipulate grapes for Grand Cru vineyard must be picked with a potential alcohol level of at least 11 percent, at least 10.5 percent for Premiers Crus and 9.5 percent for AOC Chablis vineyards. Yields in Grands Crus must be limited to 3.3 tons per acre (45 hectoliters per hectare) with a 20% allowance for increased yields. There is no official regulation on the use of mechanical harvesting, but most Grand Cru producers prefer hand picking because human pickers tend to be more delicate with the grapes and can distinguish better between ripe and unripe bunches. While its use is gradually declining, for the rest of Chablis region mechanical harvesting was used by around 80% of the vineyards at the turn of the 21st century. The traditional style of vine training in Chablis is to have the vine trained low to the ground for warmth with four cordons stretching out sideways from the trunk.
The 20th century saw many advances in winemaking technology and practices—particularly the introduction of temperature-controlled fermentation and controlled inducing of malolactic fermentation. One winemaking issue that has seen some controversy in the region is the use of oak. Historically Chablis was aged in old wooden feuillette barrels that were essentially neutral-meaning that they did not impart the characteristic oak flavors (vanilla, cinnamon, toast, coconut, etc.) that are today associated with ageing a wine in barrels. Hygiene was difficult to control with these older barrels, and they were prone to developing faults in the wine, including discoloration. Gradually the use of these old neutral barrels fell out of favor in lieu of stainless steel fermentation tanks which also added the benefit of controlling temperatures. The use of oak became controversial in the Chablis when some winemakers in the late 20th century "rediscovered" the use of wood barrels in winemaking and began using newer oak barrels that did impart oak flavoring the wine. So-called "tradionalist" winemakers dismissed the usage of oak as counter to the "Chablis style" or terroir while other so-called "modernist" winemakers embrace its use though not to the length that would characterize a "New World" Chardonnay.
The amount of "char" in oak barrels used in Chablis is often very light, which limits the amount of "toastiness" that is perceived in the wine. The advocates of oak in Chablis point to the positive benefits of allowing limited oxygenation with the wine through the permeable oak barrels. This can have the effect of softening the wine and make the generally austere and acidic Chablis more approachable at a younger age. The winemakers who prefer not to use oak, ferment and mature their wines in stainless steel or concrete tanks. The winemakers who do use oak tend to favor more neutral oak that doesn't impart the vanilla characteristic associated with American oak. These producers may only ferment the wine in oak and then mature in steel or concrete, or do the reverse and mature in oak. Rarely will a producer use oak for both fermentation and maturation. Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines are the candidates most likely to see oak due to the belief that they have necessary structure and enough extract to keep from being overwhelmed by oak influence. While there are style differences among producers, rarely is basic AOC Chablis or Petit Chablis oaked.
While chaptalization was widely practiced for most of the 20th century, there has been a trend of riper vintages in recent years, producing grapes with higher sugar levels that have diminished the need to chaptalize.
Appellation and classification
The main Chablis Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée was designated on January 13, 1938, but the junior appellation of Petit Chablis was not designated until January 5, 1944. All the vineyards in Chablis are covered by four appellations with different levels of classification, reflecting all-important differences in soil and slope in this northerly region. At the top of the classification are the 7 Grand Cru vineyards, which are all located on a single hillside near the town of Chablis. Second in quality are the Premier Cru vineyards, which numbered 40 at the turn of the 21st century, covering an area of 1,853 acres (750 ha). Next is the generic AOC Chablis which, at 7,067 acres (2,860 ha), is the largest appellation by far in the region and the one exhibits the most variability between producers and vintages. At the lowest end of the classification is "Petit Chablis" which includes the outlying land. As of 2004, 1,380 acres (560 ha) of a permitted 4,448 acres (1,800 ha) in the Petit Chablis appellation was planted.
Soil and slope plays a major role in delineating the quality differences. Many of the Premier Crus, and all the Grand Crus vineyards, are planted along valley of the Serein river as it flows into the Yonne. The Grand crus and two of the most highly rated Premier Crus (Montée de Tonnerre and Fourchaume) are located on southwest facing slopes that receives the maximum amount of sun exposure while the rest of the Premier crus are on southeast facing slopes. All of Chablis' Grand Cru vineyards and many of their better Premier Cru vineyards are planted on primarily Kimmeridgean soil which is believed to impart more finesse and structure to the wines. Other areas, particularly the vast majority of Petit Chablis vineyards, are planted on slightly younger Portlandian soil.
Chablis Grand Crus
There are seven officially delineated Grand Cru climates, covering an area of 247 acres (100 ha), all located on one southwest facing hill overlooking the town of Chablis at elevations between 490–660 feet (150–200 metres). There is one vineyard, La Moutonne, located on this hill between the Grand Cru vineyards of Les Preuses and Vaudésir that is considered an "unofficial" Grand Cru and it will appear on wine labels. The Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne (BIVB) does recognize La Moutonne, but the seven Grand Cru vineyards officially recognized by the INAO are (from northwest to southeast): Bougros, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos and Blanchot. Together, the Grand Cru vineyards account for around 3% of Chablis annual yearly production.
While producer styles can have a marked influence, each of the Grand Cru vineyards are noted for the particular terroir characteristic that they impart in wine produced there. Wine expert Tom Stevenson notes that Blanchot produces the most delicate wine with floral aromas; Bougros is the least expressive but still has vibrant fruit flavors; Les Clos tends to produce the most complex, rich and luscious wines with pronounced minerality; Grenouilles produces very aromatic wines with racy, elegance; the Les Preuses vineyard receives the most sun among the Grand crus and tends to produce the most full bodied wines; Valmur is noted for it smooth texture and aromatic bouquet; Vaudésir tends to produce wines with intense flavors and spicy notes. Of all the Grand Cru vineyards Les Clos is the largest in size at 61 acres (25 ha). Hugh Johnson describes the wines from this Grand Cru as having the best ageing potential among Chablis and developing Sauternes-like aromas after some bottle age.
The most significant recent event to have occurred in Chablis is the formation of L'Union des Grand Crus de Chablis (UGCC). Launched in March 2000, this syndicate is restricted to Grand Cru proprietors and was formed with a single purpose: "To defend and promote the quality of Chablis Grand Cru wines". All members (currently 18) are bound to abide by a charter which covers all aspects of wine making and sales (e.g. density of new plantings, limiting yields and selling dates). Grand Cru makers must submit their wines to a tasting committee of other Union members to ensure they meet the required quality. These tastings are conducted blind.
At the turn of the 21st century, there were 40 Premier cru vineyards. The names of many of these vineyards do not appear on wine labels because of an INAO allowance that permits the use of "umbrella names"-where smaller, lesser known vineyards are allowed to use the name of a nearby more famous Premier cru vineyard. Seventeen of the best known "umbrella" vineyards are Mont de Milieu, Montée de Tonnerre, Fourchaume, Vaillons, Montmains, Côte de Léchet, Beauroy, Vauligneau, Vaudevey, Vaucoupin, Vosgros, Les Fourneaux, Côte de Vaubarousse, Berdiot, Chaume de Talvat, Côte de Jouan and Les Beauregards. In general Premier Cru wines have at least half a degree less alcohol by volume and tend to have less aromatics and intensity in flavors.
Grapes and wine
All Chablis is made 100% from the Chardonnay grape. Some wine experts, such as Jancis Robinson, believe that the wine from Chablis is one of the "purest" expression of the varietal character of Chardonnay due to the simple style of winemaking favored in this region. Chablis winemakers want to emphasize the terroir of the calcareous soil and cooler climate that help maintain high acidity. Chablis wines are characterized by their greenish-yellow color and star bright clarity. The racy, green apple-like acidity is a trademark of the wines and can be noticeable in the bouquet. The acidity can mellow with age and Chablis are some of the longest living examples of Chardonnay. The wines often have a "flinty" note, sometimes described as "goût de pierre à fusil" (gunflint) and sometimes as "steely". Some examples of Chablis can have an earthy "wet stone" flavor that can get mustier as it ages before mellowing into delicate honeyed notes. Like most white Burgundies, Chablis can benefit from some bottle age. While producers' styles and vintage can play an influential role, Grand Cru Chablis can generally age for well over 15 years while many Premier Crus will age well for at least 10 years.
Secondary grape varieties grown in the Chablis region are permitted to use the generic Bourgogne AOC. These include Aligote, Cesar, Gamay, Melon de Bourgogne, Pinot noir, Pinot blanc, Pinot gris (known locally as Pinot Beurot), Sauvignon blanc, Sacy, and Tressot.
Modern wine industry
Despite its long history and association with Chardonnay, the wines of Chablis are often overshadowed by the New World expression of the varietal and even by other Burgundian Chardonnays such as Montrachet, Corton-Charlemagne and Meursault. Still, the legacy of its history has left its mark through the wide semi-generic use of the word "Chablis" to describe almost any white wine, regardless of where it was made and from what grapes. In recent years, Chablis producers have fought hard to protect the Chablis designation, using legal pressure to get foreign countries to recognize their trademark on the term. For most of the 20th century, Chablis was more widely consumed on the export market rather than the domestic French market which tend to favor the Côte d'Or Chardonnays. Unlike other areas of Burgundy, négociants are not as influential in the Chablis wine industry. While they were more prominent early in the last century, the trend towards estate bottling and co-operatives have shifted the dynamic of economy more in favor of the individual growers and producer. The La Chablisienne co-operative makes nearly a third of all wine produced in Chablis today.
In popular culture
- J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 148–149 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0-19-860990-6
- A. Domine (ed) Wine pg 186–187 Ullmann Publishing 2008 ISBN 978-3-8331-4611-4
- "Chablis, terroir of exception". Domaine Louis Moreau. Retrieved 2007-04-29.
- H. Johnson Vintage: The Story of Wine pg 130 Simon and Schuster 1989 ISBN 0-671-68702-6
- E. McCarthy & M. Ewing-Mulligan "French Wine for Dummies" pg 90–93 Wiley Publishing 2001 ISBN 0-7645-5354-2
- T. Stevenson "The Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia" pg 140–144 Dorling Kindersley 2005 ISBN 0-7566-1324-8
- K. MacNeil The Wine Bible pg 201–202 Workman Publishing 2001 ISBN 1-56305-434-5
- M. Frank "The Quiet Men of Chablis" Wine Spectator, September 20th 2008
- P. Mansson, "In Chablis, Shared Ends and Contested Means" Wine Spectator, June 06, 2000
- P. Mansson "Working for Change in Chablis" Wine Spectator December 18, 2001
- Hanson, Anthony (2003). Burgundy. London: Mitchell Beazley. p. 199.
- H. Johnson & J. Robinson The World Atlas of Wine pg 76 Mitchell Beazley Publishing 2005 ISBN 1-84000-332-4
- Austen Biss, A Guide to the Wines of Chablis, Global Markets Media 2009, ISBN 978-0-9564003-0-7
- J. Robinson Vines, Grapes & Wines pg 106–113 Mitchell Beazley 1986 ISBN 1-85732-999-6
- J. Robinson Jancis Robinson's Wine Course Third Edition pg 101–106 Abbeville Press 2003 ISBN 0-7892-0883-0
- Wines of Chablis official site
- Chablis Office of Tourism
- Map of Chablis showing the Grand Crus in red, Premier Crus in orange, standard Chablis in yellow and Petit Chablis in pale ochre.