Factors that have lead to top quality wines being produced in Chablis: Chablis characterized by a relatively cool climate and a high proportion of limestone in the soils. These environmental factors are responsible for the particular Chablis style, and the effect of terroir is seen more clearly in its wines than almost anywhere else in the world.
A key division within Chablis lies between terroirs with Kimmeridgian soils and those with Portlandian soils. Kimmeridgian soil is more highly regarded; it contains greater levels of mineral-rich clay, as well as the essential marine fossils which are responsible for its significant lime content. Kimmeridgian soils are the source of the trademark minerality in Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines from Chablis. Portlandian soils, meanwhile, are high in calcium but do not have a high presence of clay and fossils – leading to slightly fruitier, less-mineralic wines. Petit Chablis wines are most often grown in Portlandian soils.
The terroir around Chablis is more similar to Sancerre in the Loire Valley, and to Les Riceys – the southernmost outpost of Champagne than the Cote D'Or.
What are the challenges of producing wine there? The main challenge here is the extreme climatic conditions of this northerly area. There is all the climatic uncertainty, and therefore vintage variation, both in quality and quantity, of a vineyard far from the equator.
One of the key factors in determining how much wine will be produced is the possibility of spring frosts, which can cause enormous damage to the young vine shoots. Depending on how advanced the vegetation is, the vineyards are vulnerable from the end of March until well into May.
Chablis has always been affected by significant variations in the size of the vintage, with times of scarcity and opulence, with prices fluctuating accordingly. However, some of the commercial instability has disappeared with the growth in the vineyard area, so that there is more Chablis available to satisfy world demand. Generally Chablis is a more prosperous appellation than it was in the 1970s, for with the possibility of frost protection the growers are much more certain of making a viable living from their vines than ever before.
What does the region offer the consumer in terms of wine style and quality level? Chablis wines are made in a style rather different from those produced elsewhere in Burgundy. They are drier and fresher, rather than more weighty and richly flavored. They have a unique steely, fresh character and marked minerality, that is becoming very popular, particularly for its gastronomic abilities.
Unlike typical Burgundian white wines, which are barrel fermented, Chablis is usually entirely free of any oak influence. Very few Chablis producers use oak barrels in their winemaking and the exceptions are restricted to the higher-quality wines, whose extra complexity and depth mean that the wines are not overpowered by oak flavors. The vineyards of Chablis are classified into four tiers of quality. Starting from the top, they are: Chablis Grand Cru, Chablis Premier Cru, Chablis and Petit Chablis. Wines which conform to the general Chablis appellation laws may claim the classification held by the vineyard where they were grown.
The appellation AOC Chablis is the most prolific and geographically widespread of the four classifications. It was created in 1938 – at the same time as the Chablis Grand Cru appellation – to protect the Chablis name, which was being used around the world to describe wines bearing little resemblance to the real Chablis. Today, all wines carrying the Chablis title are dry whites made exclusively from Chardonnay. They must be produced from vineyards in a specifically designated area surrounding Chablis town and its nearby villages.
Chablis Premier Cru is not a distinct appellation like the other three classifications, but rather a quality sub-division of the standard AOC Chablis title. It is significantly larger than Chablis Grand Cru. There are 40 vineyard sites (also referred to as climats) deemed worthy of the Premier Cru title, which are further subdivided into around 80 specific vineyards. The wines produced under this title are made according to quality controls that are halfway between those of the Chablis and Grand Cru Chablis appellations. Premier Cru Chablis ages well for between five and ten years.
Chablis Grand Cru is produced from just 250 acres (100ha) of vines planted on gentle south-west-facing slopes at the eastern edge of the town. There are seven named Grand Cru vineyards (climats). Running from north to south along the Serein river they are: Preuses, Bougros, Vaudesir, Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos and Blanchot. Wines claiming the Grand Cru title are made under stringent regulations. The maximum permitted yield is lower – and the minimum potential alcohol one degree higher – than for standard Chablis. Chablis Grand Cru wines respond well to bottle ageing for between 10 and 15 years.
Petit Chablis is the second largest of the Chablis appellations. It was created in 1944 to cover the less highly rated vineyard sites in the area, generally located on plateaux above slopes rated as Premier Cru or Grand Cru. Because they are more exposed to wind and not angled towards the afternoon sun, the sites do not benefit from the same climatic and geological advantages as the better vineyards, and produce less-complex, less-refined wines.