Following an excellent couple of days in Champagne last week, I drove on to Chablis, for an AWE (Association of Wine Educators) tour of the region. It was the perfect follow-on from Champagne; they have many soil similarities (the classic Kimmeridgian soil of Chablis is also in Champagne), similar climates and both areas make crisp, elegant white wines (OK, one’s fizzy and one isn’t). In many ways Chablis has more in common with Champagne than the rest of Burgundy, which is much further south.
The region has four tiers of appellations; Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru , all made from 100% Chardonnay. Petit Chablis is grown on the surrounding Portlandian soil, rather than the Kimmeridgian soil of Chablis itself. It’s a lesser appellation but it still makes some decent, crisp, lemon-scented fruity wines. However, it’s the Kimmeridgian soil that is the defining terroir characteristic of Chablis (see image below), giving the wines that ever-quoted minerality. Of course many technical wine commentators, particular from Australia, will very quickly point out that there is no scientific way that minerals can get transported from the soil, through the vine and into the grapes. For me, this misses the point. Yes, there might not be the minerals from the Kimmeridgian soil actually in the grapes, but that doesn’t mean the wine doesn’t smell and taste mineral in some kind of way. As Andrew Jefford recently pointed out in his Monday Decanter column, it’s simply a descriptor of a sensory association, it’s not a claim of actual mineral content in the wine.
This hard to define contentious point of minerality is key to understanding Chablis. The best Grand or Premier Cru wines are full, structured and complex, but they always have a taught crisp, mineral line running right through their core.
This clean, mineral style that the market expects from Chablis is why the producers rarely smother the wines in piles of oak. However, contrary to what is often written, there is plenty of oak used in Chablis, just in a relatively minimal way. Not all, but most of the best producers typically use, say, 20% of old oak (barrels that have been previously used) in the making of their premium wines. This gives the wines a bit more body, roundness and structure without letting them becoming discernibly oaky in the kind of way wines from further south in Burgundy are.
Whilst on the trip we had a trip to the annual Chablis St Vincent festival and we visited a good balance of producers, including; J. Moreau (a large merchant), Domaine Damien & Romain Bouchard and Domaine Pinson (two independent producers), and La Chablisienne (the cooperative of Chablis). On top of all that we also attended a tasting of the medal winners from the recent Concours de Vins des Chablis (the annual Chablis wine awards). Posts on all these visits will follow.
It was a first class trip, which gave us access to some of the luminaries of the region and was effectively a three day masterclass in Chablis. I thought I already knew a great deal about Chablis, but I don’t know if I’ve ever learned so much about a specific wine region in such a short space of time. Many thanks to the AWE for arranging the trip.