Introduction to Chablis
If there’s one region we can’t get enough of, it’s Chablis. Not only does it make some of the world’s most classic white wines, it may just be the purest expression of Chardonnay. To cap it off, it delivers incredible value at prices ranging from the everyday right up to the rare and collectible.
Though Chablis is among the greats, and is actually the largest white wine producing region in Burgundy, it’s actually fairly rural. Centered around the town of the same name, Chablis is in the very northern reaches of Bourgogne. Together with some of its neighboring appellations, it constitutes Bourgogne’s most northerly region, Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois.
How far north is it? Well, the vineyards are located closer to Champagne’s Aube and the Loire Valley’s Sancerre regions than they are to the Côte d’Or.
Ready to dive into what makes Chablis unique in the first installment of our in-depth guide to this Burgundian region? We hope so, because once you go Chablis, your wine drinking will never quite be the same again.
What Makes Chablis Special?
You could argue that at its core, Chablis is simple. After all, it’s always a still white wine made from the world’s most popular white grape, Chardonnay.
But the region’s location, climate, and soils separate it from other Chardonnay wines. Located in the valley of the Serein River, Chablis is close to the northernmost limit for ripening grapes.
While this is tricky for grape-growing (frost is often an issue), the cool climate boosts the bright acidity and lean fruit flavors that make Chablis wines so uniquely pure and focused.
Here’s the Dirt
Ever listen with a dose of skepticism as some wine snob (ahem!) prattles on about the importance of terroir? While we’re not mandating that you run out and lick a bunch of rocks (just yet) soil has a huge effect on Chablis wines. Chardonnay is very terroir-sensitive – it makes markedly different wines in different soils and microclimates.
This matters in Chablis! The entire region was once entirely under the ocean – millions of years ago, that is – which is why these wines have a distinctly marine influence despite coming from central French vineyards.
There are two major types of soil in Chablis: Kimmeridgian marl and Portlandian limestone.
- Kimmeridgian soil is more important and more prevalent in Chablis; it practically defines the appellations’ limits. It is a mix of clay, limestone, and ancient marine fossils like oyster shells, forming a crumbly mix that drains well while retaining just enough water.
- Portlandian soil is similar, but it has more limestone and less clay. It is younger, harder, and has fewer character-boosting marine fossils, generally making lighter wines with a little less minerality and a little more emphasis on fruit and pretty floral aromas.
Is Kimmeridgian better…?
Some winelovers like to debate whether Kimmeridgian and Portlandian soils produce wines of equal caliber. It’s clear that both soils make some great wines, and while we don’t have a dog in the fight, and although the burgundian powers-that-be decided not to classify vineyards based solely on soil, the best Chablis vineyards typically have a foundation of Kimmeridgian marl. Take that as you will.
We’ll say it – Chardonnay is a misunderstood grape, especially in America. Most think of Chardonnay as rich, opulent, and oaky. But Chablis is typically just the opposite: bright, minerally, pure and subtle.
Chablis is all about the minerality and acidity, whether it’s a $15 bottle or a $100 bottle. The wines can taste of tart citrus and apple, but that’s not what they are really about. Chablis is one of the freshest white wines in the world and famous for its mineral aromas (“struck gunflint” is one of the classic descriptions). With time it can show floral and even umami notes of underbrush and mushroom.
On the palate it is piercingly bright, with pure flavors and textbook, textured minerality. Many Chablis wines will also have salty, oyster shell-like aromas and flavors, which some attribute to the marine fossils found in the region’s soils. Our mouths are already watering!
Winemakers typically allow wines to complete malolactic fermentation to soften the sharp acidity. But even so, that linear quality persists. Most bottles are satisfying, easy drinking, and fit for food, but the best examples can age for several decades, over time gaining toasty, mushroom-like notes and beguiling hints of dry honey or marzipan.
A Word on Oak
Classically, Chablis does not see any new oak. (See, we told you this wasn’t your typical Chardonnay!) Winemakers traditionally used large, old oak barrels, which allowed the wine to breathe during the fermentation and aging process without imparting toasty new oak flavors. Many adopted stainless steel vinification techniques once the technology emerged. Some “modernists” began using new barriques in the latter part of the 20th century, but that approach was controversial. Many vintners still feel that classic Chablis should be pure, without new oak flavors like vanilla and cinnamon.
Today, many winemakers will age some small part of their top Chablis wines in new oak, particularly their grand cru bottlings, taking care not to be too heavy-handed. Overtly “oaky” wines remain rare in Chablis and almost unheard of for basic Chablis and Petit Chablis wines.
Serving and Pairing Chablis With Food
Chablis absolutely begs for food. It’s one of the most versatile white wines around, boosted by fresh acidity and tart, savory flavors. While more direct and less complex Petit Chablis and Chablis wines could certainly be sipped solo, they complement oysters and other seafood dishes wonderfully.
Sharp cheeses, even goat cheese, pair well, as do fresh vegetables: farmer’s market swiss chard braised cooked simply with butter and a little creme, for instance, is beautifully enlivened by a Chablis village wine on a warm summer evening.
More complex Chablis wines, like Chablis Premier Cru AOC or Chablis Grand Cru AOC bottles, can stand up to richer dishes, like roasted chicken with mushrooms, scallops poached in garlic butter, creamy sauces, and even foie gras. Honestly, there are few bad food pairings for Chablis.
When it comes to serving temperature, entry-level Chablis could certainly be served fully chilled, but a slightly warmer temperature allows the wines’ layers of flavor to really shine through, especially if you’re opening a Chablis Premier Cru AOC or Chablis Grand Cru AOC. Take the bottle out of the fridge five to 10 minutes before serving it, and don’t feel the need to keep it on ice during the entire meal
What’s Up Next?
We’re not done with Chablis quite yet. There’s so much more to explore within this iconic region. So, what’s coming up?
Within Chablis, vineyards are split into four different levels: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru, and Chablis Grand Cru. In our next Chablis installment, we’ll get into these four appellations.
Until then, you can find our favorite Chablis wines on both coasts.
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