The wines of Chablis vary subtly from vineyard to vineyard. They share a high acidity, a reserved saline character, and a purity of fruit, but location changes the quality and intensity of a wine. The tricky cool climate makes aspect all-important, the best vineyards raised towards the sun for the grapes to attain full ripeness. Such a situation can transform a simple wine from the flat vineyards of Chablis into a wine much more powerful, complex, and expressive.
|evocative photo of Chablis's soils|
climats and lieux-ditsIn Chablis, a climat is a vineyard that has been classified as a Premier or Grand Cru, while a lieu-dit is a site within a climat with its own name. The name of a climat is most often used as they are more recognisable, but the name of a specific lieu-dit may be used instead. For example the Premier Cru Fourchaume is a climat which has three lieux-dits within it - L'homme mort, Vaupulent, and Côte de Fontenay. In the rest of Burgundy, a climat is simply a designated vineyard, a lieu-dit a vineyard good enough to have a name but not elevated into a Premier or Grand Cru.
premier cru and grand cruThere are forty-seven climats in Chablis, forty of which are Premiers Crus (in total, 800ha) and seven Grands Crus (100ha). There is some controversy about the number of Premier Cru vineyards, as it was felt that the 1943 classification awarded vineyards which did not have a historical reputation of producing distinct wine. The Premier Cru climats lie halfway up slopes of varying aspects and where there is more marl and fossilised oyster shells. The seven Grand Cru climats are all on one slope on the right bank overlooking the town of Chablis. Hopefully, the differences between the seven will be the subject of another blog post, but there's another small and confusing controversy: there is a lieu-dit called La Moutonne straddling two of the climats which does not have Grand Cru status.
left and right banksChablis is a small town through which runs the river Serein. From this valley rise hills on which are found the best Chablis vineyards. Some divide these vineyards into "left bank" - described as tighter and leaner - and "right bank." However, the vineyards face in so many directions on each bank that it's difficult to generalise about a distinct left and right bank style. Instead, it's the character and aspect of each vineyard that's more important, as well as the winemaker's production methods.
oak and MLFAt the tasting, I asked Jean-Pierre Renard of the Ecole des Vins de Bourgogne if the use of oak were controversial. I received a very French response - "No, of course not," before he described in some detail why it is controversial. Most people, he continued, agree that oak is not necessary because it smothers the purity and stony, steely nature of the wines, implying that anyone using oak is doing something very non-Chablis. He also made the good point that not ageing the wine in oak allows producers to release wines when they are younger, fruitier, and more approachable. If a winemaker does wish to age a wine in oak, it needs to be full-bodied and complex enough to absorb the oak, which is why only Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines see oak and then only in small amounts.
I also asked how common malolactic fermentation is in Chablis. I received the answer that 99.9% of wines go through MLF, except in the warmest of years. As the climate is so cool and the acidity so naturally high, it does not surprise me that MLF is used to soften the acidity but I still find it hard to detect any MLF aromas in the wines of Chablis. If the best Chablis wines can go through malolactic fermentation without disturbing their pure, lean expression, it indicates how high the acidity must be in the first place.
winesI tasted six Premier Cru wines, all from the 2013 vintage, three from the right bank and three from the left. 2013 was a vintage which had a cold, wet spring, followed by a warm ripening season. In general, the wines are round, soft, with a fresh but not aggressive acidity. Tasting Chablis can be difficult - rather than looking for and describing the fruit aromas of a wine, it's much more about its structure. The name of each Premier Cru in the wines below is underlined.
|Chablis tasting at Torc, Napa|