Some weeks ago I visited Chablis. In the upcoming blog entries you can therefore expect some tasting notes from the five producers I visited:
- J-M Brocard
- Denis Race
- William Fèvre
I start with this introduction to Chablis in general, so I don’t have to repeat basic facts on the region when I write about the respective producer and their wines.
Many readers are probably well acquainted with Chablis, but let us still start from the beginning. Chablis is a part of the Burgundy wine region Burgundy (so we are in La France), and it is located in the northwestern part of Burgundy, approximately mid-way between the rest of Burgundy – where Beaune is something of a central location and Dijon is the largest nearby city – and Paris. Chablis itself is a large village, or small town, and the closest somewhat larger city is Auxerre. Chablis is located 47.5° N, approximately on the same latitude as Alsace and the northernmost outposts of the Loire Valley. Of the major French wine regions, only Champagne (stretching until about 49.2° N) is located further north. Chablis is therefore very much a cool climate wine region.
Under the designation Chablis, only white wine from Chardonnay grapes are produced. The grape variety is the same as in most white Burgundies. What characterises Chablis compared to the rest is higher acidity and slightly more smoky aromas. In most cases, Chablis is produced completely without the use of oak barrels (i.e., it is vinified only in steel tanks or possibly concrete tanks) or with only a limited use of oak. More on the issue of oak in Chablis later on. Taken together, this means that Chablis tends to be a more slender and firmer wine than other white Burgundies. The notes of apples, citrus and mineral are shared with other Burgundies, but often the green apples dominate over the yellow ones, and it is less common to find notes of butter (at least in young wines), plums or tropical fruit, and the palate is less “oily”. In a way, Chablis has quite a lot in common with blanc de blancs Champagne, which is produced from white Chardonnay grapes only. However, then we have to imagine away the bubbles and the effect of extended storage on the yeast from the Champagne…
Although Chablis typically is a more slender than other white Burgundies, the better and more expensive wines – Chablis Grand Cru och Chablis Premier Cru – are more concentrated than the basic wines, and in particular the grand crus can show a great intensity of aromas. They also have a tendency to “fill out” when they age. In recent decades, some Chablis producers have also tried to make their wines a little more “Côte d’Or-like”, so don’t be too surprised if a Chablis from time to time is taken for a wine from another part of Burgundy in blind tastings.
Those who appreciate Chablis do so primarily for the purity and elegance of the wines, and in some cases perhaps for their ability to mature and develop, to some extent the same things Champagne is appreciated for. The most common uses for Chablis, in particular young wines, is as aperitif and with seafood. High-end Chablis, in particular if they have been cellared for some years and perhaps have developed some buttery and nutty aromas, could also be used much in the way of other white Burgundies, i.e., also with fish, white meat, various things swimming in creamy sauces, and with cheese. It will then be a matter of taste which expression of Chardonnay that is preferred, that from central Burgundy or that from Chablis.
Vineyards and appellations
Chablis is classified into four levels, in ascending order: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru. The top three levels fit the five levels used for Burgundy in general: regional appellations – subregional appellations – village appellations – premier crus – grand crus.
Chablis consists of 5 139 ha of vineyards, or 18% of Burgundy’s 28 320 ha (numbers from 2011, Beaujolais not included). Of these, 106 ha is Chablis Grand Cru, 4 150 ha is Chablis and Chablis Premier Cru (a slightly older number splits this into 776 ha Chablis Premier Cru and 3 257 ha Chablis, which makes a total of 4 033 ha), and 884 ha Petis Chablis.
But let us start at the top of the hierarchy, since I expect many of my readers are picky connoisseurs with a highly refined taste.
All grand cru vineyards are located on the same hill in an approximately southwest-facing slope, directly north of the village Chablis, on the other side of the small stream Serein, and consist of 2% of the total Chablis vineyard. This hill is also the most famous view from Chablis. The grand cru vineyards are seven, and from northwest to southeast (left to right as seen from the village, and up to down) they are Bougros, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos and Blanchot. It is mandatory to use the vineyard name for a Chablis Grand Cru, which also means that it is not allowed to blend them and produce a “generic” grand cru. (Well, the blend is probably allowed, but would then have to be sold as a premier cru, the way I understand the regulations.) There is also an eighth name that is used, La Moutonne, which consists of a vineyard parcel in the eastern part of Preuses and the western part of Vaudésir, that wasn’t included under its own name in the appellation rules. This part is wholly owned by Domaine Long-Depaquit, which have insisted in using the name La Moutonne on their labels, and have received some sort of permit for this, instead of having to divide the wine into one part Preuses and one part Vaudésir.
Most agree that the best grand cru wines are those from Les Clos. They are both more powerful, well balanced and long-lived, and are therefore often slightly more expensive than the other grand crus. As to the other six, there seems to be some differences of opinion regarding the pecking order. Most seem to agree that the two Vs, Valmur and Vaudésir, also are quite good. However, I’ve seen different opinions about which one of these that is the more elegant and “feminine”, so there seems to be less agreement about style than about quality. For the other four, opinions tend to vary from second best or third best, i.e., better than one or two of the Vs, to not truly of grand cru quality. From this, we could perhaps form a guess that any intrinsic quality difference between most of these vineyards are overshadowed by other factors such as the vine age and the competence of the producer.
The grand cru vineyards of Chablis total 106 ha/265 acres and produce 5 166 hl, or some 690 000 bottles. Is this much or little? As s comparison, the white wine grand cru vineyards of Côte d’Or total a measly 90 ha, of which 32 ha Montrachet and neighbours and 57 ha Corton-Charlemagne and white Corton. So don’t be surprised that Chablis Grad Cru, and also Les Clos, can be found at a significantly lower price than the Montrachet neighbours.
The premier cru vineyards are spread over the area surrounding the Chablis village, also around some smaller neighbouring villages, and mainly consist of southwest- to southeast-facing vineyards. They make up 15% of the vineyards of Chablis. They are usually divided into those on the right bank of Serein, and those on the left bank. Those on the right bank are located on the same side as the grand cru vineyards, and some of them are flanking the grand cru hill. Many of the more well-known vineyards are on the right bank, while the premier crus on the left bank generally are slightly lighter in style and “shorter” wines. The explanation is that left bank vineyards often are located in narrower side valleys and are slightly cooler and less sun-exposed. From my own experience, I don’t really consider the quality difference between the two groups of premier cru vineyards are that clear, and the producer plays a much greater role than the division into right and left bank premier crus.
On the premier cru level, the naming works differently in two respects than the naming on the grand cru level. First, it is not mandatory to specify a vineyard, so it is possible to produce a “generic” Chablis Premier Cru, although this is not too common. Such wines would tend to represent a second class selection, so there’s little reason to rush to seek them out. Second, there are usually two different names to choose from for each premier cru vineyard. On the “basic level” there are 40 vineyards each with its vineyard name (lieu-dit – they don’t seem to use the term climat as in the rest of Burgundy). A few lieux-dits usually share an umbrella name or a principal premier cru name, covering a larger vineyard surface. These number 17. On the left bank we find Vaillons, Montmains, Côte de Léchet, Beauroy, Vau Ligneau, Vau de Vey, Vosgros, Chaume de Talvat, Côte de Jouan, and Les Beauregards. On the right bank we find Mont de Milieu, Montée de Tonnerre, Fourchaume, Vaucoupin, Les Fourneaux, Côte de Vaubarousse, and Berdiot.
When this system was introduced in 1967 there were 26 lieux-dits and 11 principal premier crus, so some promotion of vineyards to premier cru status has taken place since then.
An example of how it works: the premier cru Fourchaume, one of the best known, is located northnorthwest of the grand cru hillside, on the eastern side of the D 91 road to Maligny, and consists of five lieux-dits. From north to south they are L’Homme Mort, Fourchaume, Vaupulent, Côte de Fontenay (pictured above) and Vaulorent. Most of those who own vineyards in several of these lieux-dits blend their grapes to a single wine and sell it as Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume. If the producer considers one lieu-dit to give a better wine, it may happen that they lift this out of the blend and sell it under a separate name. This may for example be the case for Vaulorent, which borders the grand cru vineyard Les Preuses. The top producer William Fèvre consider this to be the very best of all premier crus, and therefore sells it under its own name and prices it higher than any other premier cru in their range. If I owned some vines in L’Homme Mort (“the dead man”) I would definitely sell it under its own name, rather than as Fourchaume, simply because the name is so odd for a vineyard. The label would of course be black.
The “regular” Chablis appellation, or village Chablis, consists of most of the vineyards around the surrounding smaller villages (Béru, Fleys, Courgis, Préhy, Beine, Villy, Maligny…) in all directions from the Chablis village itself, but with a bit more vineyards to the east and south. These vineyards can face in any direction: east, west, south, or north, although purely south-facing vineyards are the least common at this level. The vineyards at this level have not qualified for premier cru status due to their facing or aspect, their local climate or their soils. In total they make up about 65% of the vineyards of Chablis, and it is this level that have seen the most expansion over the last couple of decades.
Most probably, these vineyards are very heterogenous in style and quality, but most producers blend all their grapes at this level to a single wine. In difference from the rest of Burgundy, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a proper vineyard name (as opposed to fanciful cuvée names) used at the village level. When two village level Chablis wines are found in the range of a producer, one of the is usually a “Vieilles Vignes” (sourced from older vines) or a batch selection sold under a cuvée name. There is little reason to be surprised that village-level Chablis can vary a lot in quality from producer to producer, given the differences in the vineyards at this level.
Petit Chablis comes from vineyards in the outskirts of the region, much of it from the western parts (on the left bank), and much of it from north-facing vineyards or from flatter locations on the tops of hills. This category of vineyards, 17% of the total vineyard surface, is probably more homogenous than village-level Chablis.
In the Yonne departement, there are also other vineyards spread about, although they are much smaller than the Chablis appellations, with a total of 843 ha (2011). They are referred to collectively as Vignoble de l’Auxerrois or sometimes Grand Auxerrois. Irancy is a red wine appellation with primarily Pinot Noir, and Saint-Bris is an appellation for Sauvignon Blanc, that tends to come across as a slightly lighter and even cooler version of Sancerre. Many Chablis producers also produce wines from these slightly less well known appellatons. There are also surrounding areas that produce Bourgogne Blanc. When they are produced in a Chablis-like style they can be thought of as “Très Petit Chablis”. Brocard produces three wines under soil type names, Kimmeridgien, Jurassique and Portlandien, from the areas surrounding Chablis, and the Kimmeridgien should be the “most genuine fake Chablis” of these three. I suspect that most of these wines, since they originate from the northernmost and coldest parts of Burgundy, and therefore should be the highest in acidity, will end up in Crémant de Bourgogne since extra acidity is sought after in sparkling wines. They could also become a blending component in regular Bourgogne Blanc from large negociants that wish to balance slightly fatter raw material from more southern vineyards with some extra acidity and freshness.
The importance of the soil
The soil of Chablis is rich in limestone and consists of Kimmeridgian clays, which is marine in origin and rich in fossil. This is the classical Chablis soil. In the northern and eastern outskirts, the soil consists of Portlandian soils, that are more sandy. When Chablis has expanded outwards, also areas with Portlandian soils have been included, but as far as I have understood, only at the Petit Chablis and Chablis level, which in its day was controversial.
To oak or not to oak
One of the greatest stylistic differences in Chablis has been whether to use oak or no. I have a feeling that the differences in opinion used to be larger, in particular during the 1990s, when William Fèvre (the still run by monsieur William Fèvre himself) was the foremost protagonist of the use of oak, supported by e.g. Joseph Drouhin, and also used some new oak. A long list of producers were against the use of oak, including J-M Brocard, Domaine des Malandes, Louis Michel, and J. Moreau.
Today, very few seem to use any new oak, but most seem to use used oak, at least in part, for their their grand cru wines, for the simple reason that they are concentrated enough to “take” some oak. The oak will then contribute some extra weight and complexity. The top producers Raveneau and Dauvissat have done so for a long time. Domaine William Fèvre reduced the use of oak after Henriot bought the company from monsieur Fèvre, and former anti-oak producers such as J-M Brocard nowadays use oak at the grand cru level and even in some premier crus, which is a sign that the two former factions have come closer in their views. The largest difference in the use of oak is probably seen on the premier cru level, and it is on the village Chablis level where even a small amount of oak can become too much if the grapes are not of sufficiently high class.
It is quite common, also on the grand cru level, that only a proportion of each wine is exposed to oak, while the rest is vinified in steel tanks. The idea is that the oak shouldn’t really be obvious, i.e., the wine shouldn’t have aromas of newly cut oak boards or vanilla.
Just as everywhere else, some producers in the Chablis region are better and some are less good. For those that have strong views on the oak polic, this is something to be observant about when choosing a producer to buy from. Clive Coates, whose The Wines of Burgundy (2008) is the reference work on the region as a whole, devotes a chapter to Chablis. Among other writers, Rosemary George and Austen Philip Biss have written books exclusively on Chablis. Coates rates producers in general on a scale up to three stars, but most of the Burgundy producers covered by him don’t get any stars. In Chablis, he doesn’t rate any producer ***, despite rating 17 Côte d’Or producers at this level. In Chablis, 11 producers get ** and 20 get *. Those rated ** are – in alphabetical order after the main name – Billaud Simon, Vincent Dauvissat, Benoît Droin, Joseph Drouhin, William Fèvre, Maison Jadot, Domaine des Malandes, Louis Michel, Christian Moreu et Fils, Raveneau, and Gérard Tremblay/Domaine des Iles. Two large “generalist” Burgundy négociants – Drouhin och Jadot – therefore make it to Clive Coates’ top list. Two large and well-known Chablis companies – Brocard and Laroche – are left without any stars by him, and the same is true for the La Chablisienne cooperative, often mentioned as one of the very best wine cooperatives in France, although Coates writes appreciative about their best wines.
Eleven at the top can perhaps be seen as a bit unspecific for those who wish to see the world in sports terms with clear medalists. If we were to take the view that the market always is right, prices and in particular prices in auctions and at rare wine dealers speak a very clear language: the most sought-after and prestigious Chablis producer is Raveneau. The prices of the Raveneau wines have increased quite a bit in recent years, and it seems to depend more on demand in the secondary market than on increased prices from the domain, so a small volume meeting a high demand seems to be an issue. Number two using these measures is Vincent Dauvissat. Please note that there also is another Dauvissat, Jean & Sebastien Dauvissat, which is less known. Who is then number three? Well, among those of the list that I have tasted several wines from, I would consider William Fèvre to be a strong candidate. By the way, the wines of Fèvre are much easier to find than those of Raveneau and Dauvissat.
A pleasant aspect of a Chablis visit is that almost all producers are located in the Chablis village itself, either with all of its activities or with a shop, and most of them (but not the top two, Raveneau och V. Dauvissat) are open most of the days of the week for drop-in visits for tasting and purchase. It is therefore not necessary to plan much other than travel and accomodation to have generous opportunities of tasting. But those who have strong opinions regarding which producers they wish to visit, should of course book their visits beforehand.
The Swedish version of this post can be found here.