Guide to Chablis Premier Cru
Chablis Premier Cru is one of the most perfect white wines in the world. It offers a profound and fascinating personality for the wine geek.
For anyone looking to make a statement without breaking the bank it offers the ability to impress with elegance and sophistication at a reasonable price; after all, it says “Premier Cru” and tastes like! And of course, it offers tons of straight-up deliciousness for everyone just looking for something yummy to have with dinner.
What is Chablis Premier Cru?
Chablis Premier Cru is a designation that applies to wines made from some of Chablis’ top sites -- only the Grand Crus rank above these sites. The Chablis Premier Cru appellation was added to the region somewhat recently, in 1967, and today it accounts for only 16 percent of Chablis production.
Unlike Chablis’ other appellations, Chablis Premier Cru does not technically have its own appellation. Rather, these wines fall under the general Chablis AOC Appellation. But when a wine is labeled Chablis Premier Cru... it means something! Just as in the rest of Bourgogne, “Premier Cru” tells you that you are dealing with a wine of very high quality – almost as high as it gets. (Only Grand Crus are higher.)
Chablis Premier Cru wines can include the name of one of 40 different Premier Cru site-names (Climats, they call them) on wine labels. These Climats are spread throughout Chablis, most of them south facing to harness power and flavor-boosting sunlight – key in this cool climate. Of course, this being Bourgogne, there are exceptional vineyards facing south-east, south-west and even northerly
Although there are 40 Premier Cru names, you’re unlikely to see all 40 Premier Crus Climats on shelves. In fact, only about 20 of them regularly appear on wine labels. That’s because many of these Climats are very small and fall within one of 17 larger vineyard areas that are better known. Such lesser-known Climats have the option of using the larger, better-known climat’s name on the label -- and they often exercise the option, since it makes more commercial sense.
After all, why would a winemaker label a wine as the obscure “Vaupulent” when she could just as easily call it the much more famous “Fourchaume.” Those better-known Climats are called “Flag-Bearing Climats,” and you can see a complete list of the 40 climats and the relevant “flagship” cru name in our Guide to Chablis.
What does Chablis Premier Cru Taste like?
Overall, Chablis Premier Cru wines tend to have a bit more oomph on all cylinders than the straight Chablis AOC wines. They have solid weight and plentiful flavor, with intense mineral character and tons of complexity from yeasty leesy notes to that nearly mystical briny tone, supposedly from the ancient fossilized oysters in the soil.
While some Premier Cru wines may see some oak, they are less likely to have new oak flavors than Grand Cru wines. Many Premier Cru wines are delicious on release but with five to ten years in bottle they really show their unique terroirs and complexity. And some Premier Crus can age for much longer.
A Few Chablis Premier Crus to Know
But First, A Note on Left Bank vs. Right Bank
Since Chablis has a river running smack dab through it, it likes to go the way of Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley and distinguish between Left Bank and Right Bank vineyards.
To keep it simple, remember that the river runs south to north.
- The Left Bank vineyards:
- Lie on the river’s west (“left” if you’re looking at a map)
- Tend to face southeast and get morning sunlight, making lighter, more restrained wines with floral and green apple notes
- Right Bank vineyards
- Include the illustrious Grand Crus
- Usually face south or southwest, getting warmer afternoon sun, making more opulent, fruit-driven wines, that can be steely and powerful
Some Left Bank Premier Crus
Vaillons is one of the largest Premier Cru vineyards in Chablis, sitting southwest of the town. On the Left Bank, it gets lots of sunlight to make fresh, slightly floral wines with intense minerality. The Climats Séchet and Les Lys can use Vaillons on their labels but often opt for their own names.
Montmains is southeast of Vaillons, separated only by a small valley. It has particularly stony soils, making a lighter, leaner style of wine. Butteaux and Les Forêts lie within Montmains and are often seen on labels.
Some Right Bank Premier Crus
Montée de Tonnerre is generally considered to be the best Premier Cru vineyard of all, bordering on the Grand Crus in both location and quality. It’s just to the east of Blanchot, a Chablis Grand Cru Climat, on the Right Bank. Montée de Tonnerre wines are usually intense and powerful, with nutty, honeyed accents. In the best vintages and from the best growers it is every bit as good as many a Grand Cru wine.
Montée de Tonnerre contains some climats, including Chapelot and Pied d’Aloup – but almost no producers opt to use them. Why give up the illustrious Montée de Tonnerre name if you don’t have to?
Again there are exceptions, but mostly exceptions that prove the rule. Domaine Raveneau, the most famous producer in Chablis, bottles their Chapelot as Chapelot -- but the Raveneau name has enough star power that they don’t have to worry that it may be easier to sell a Montée de Tonnerre. It will be interesting to see if Raveneau’s use of the name eventually rubs off on other vignerons.
Mont de Milieu is east of Montée de Tonnerre, with a south-facing slope. Though these wines can be rich like Grand Cru wines, they tend to be more acid-driven, with elegance.
Fourchaume is another large Premier Cru vineyard. It’s north of the Chablis town, with a range of aspects that produce rounded fruit flavors in wines. Some climats names from within Fourchaume that you may see on labels include Vaulaurent and l’Homme Mort.
Chablis Premier Cru and Food
Chablis Premier Cru is one of the very best wines for showing food off to full advantage.
The acidity and minerality make the wines a classic with oysters and other shellfish. The wine can bring out the oysters’ mineral notes, while the oysters bring out the wine’s legendary, briny spirit.
But all that Premier Cru freshness and flavor works with a huge variety of cuisines. That’s one of the reasons they tend to be so prominent on top wine lists. Young Chablis Premier Cru will pair beautifully with fresh fish or with chicken dishes, if a somm wants something classic. But the bright tones will also cut through richer, cheese oriented dishes, making a chef look like a genius.
What’s good for the (restaurant) goose is good for the (home cooked) gander. Buy some shellfish at the market and prepare it as simply as you like. Serve it with a Chablis Premier Cru and you’ll feel like a cordon bleu chef.
Their flexibility has many other uses at home too. If you have an unoaked example and need something to drink with a pizza, go ahead! (And don’t get me started on Chablis with clam pies.)
As they age, Chablis Premier Crus take on more complexity and show flavors of almond or marzipan with the vibrant fruit, mineral and saline notes. These wines will show incredible depths in any composed dish you put together, short of heavy red meats. Duck Confit? Check!
Winter roasted vegetables with bottarga? Just wait for the mature Chablis to show umami that complements the earthy vegetable flavors.
Minds will be blown!
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