Summer is over, and it is time to uncork a bottle of wine and celebrate autumn with something exclusively delicious that you might never have tried in your life.
Something you taste for the first time and think: “Wow, what’s that? It’s the best white wine I’ve ever had!”.
Yes, I am talking about Chablis. Versatile, thrilling, unique, and — as it is also possible to say — “just divine”.
Where does its exquisiteness come from? What makes this wine so fascinating? So magically transcendent?
Learning about the wine you love is an endless and exciting process. Assuming that you are on the same journey and just getting into Chablis, I am happy to share with you the most interesting facts about this wine so you could better understand it.
And if you are still not sure how to pronounce this word, saying "shah-blee" will work fine.
What Is Chablis?
The Chablis region that gave its name to the wine is angled away from Dijon and is the northernmost wine district of Burgundy. Located near Auxerre in the department of Yonne, the Chablis vineyards are rising up in the valleys on both sides of a little river named the Serein that is flowing north to the Seine.
Wine connoisseurs consider Chablis to be among the world’s most distinctive Chardonnay wines.
Fame did a disservice to Chablis — American wine producers borrowed the name for their white wines after Prohibition and some people still associate the name “Chablis” with those whooping jugs of low-priced plonk made in California.
The fact that the Chablis region in France suffered badly from phylloxera at the end of the 19th century, two world wars, and then devastating frosts in 1945 and 1957, only encouraged California winegrowers to seize the name since genuine Chablis wines were incredibly rare in the United States at that time. It was a marketing trick that resulted in explainable confusion.
In case you are curious about the grapes behind California Chablis — it is often based on Chenin Blanc and Semillon, and this blend should not fool you into the idea of how real Chablis tastes like. The only grape permitted is Chardonnay.
Now you may ask another question: "If true Chablis is made from Chardonnay, might it taste similar to other Chardonnay wines?".
Well, you can find consistently good and acclaimed Chardonnays in any country involved in wine production. But Chablis does have distinct characteristics that make it special. And I think it is time to reveal what makes Chablis entirely unique within the world of great Chardonnay wines.
Why Is Chablis So Special?
The aromas in Chablis are extremely fresh, vibrant, and mineral with flint, seashell, green apple, lemon, springwood, and field mushroom elements.
These wonderfully distinct aromas are rich and change smoothly by small gradual steps over the course of the bottle, exposing at times beautiful notes of freshly-cut hay, thyme, mint, and lime blossom as well as indulgent notes of honeycomb, liquorice root, and acacia.
Rounded, elegant, almost creamy, long on the finish, very dry and faultlessly delicate, Chablis may be a total gem for the wine-lovers. The best Chardonnays give prominence to tensity, texture, and minerality, yet Chablis offers an eccentric, unrepeatable sort of mineral quality, and having Chardonnay grapes in your vineyard is way not enough for achieving a wine of this style.
Chablis grapevines grow on one hundred fifty million years old prehistoric seabed, which gives its grapes a platform to shine as brightly and purely as no other white wine does. If you run a hand through the limestone and clay soils of Chablis vineyards, you are likely to find fossilised shells and tiny marine skeletons — the clearest explanation for prominent chalk and seashell aromas in the wine and its briny oceanic flavors.
There are two kinds of soil in the Chablis region: Kimmeridgian and Portlandien. Portlandien soil is a very compact limestone formation that is a bit younger than Kimmeridgian soil. It is less rich in fossils, which is why it is used for Petit Chablis that is fresher, lighter, and less complex than wine from three other appellations.
Because the Chablis region is much further north than Côte d’Or — the far-famed department in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region of Northeastern France, the grapes tend to ripen more moderately what affects sugar and acidity levels and expresses itself in the lithe body of the wine. The northerly climatic conditions allow to maintain the freshness in wine grapes and prevent over-ripe.
Therefore, Chablis’ significance comes from a vivid mosaic of constituents:
- A very distinctive soil.
- The specific cool microclimate.
- The altitude.
- The inclination of the land.
- Indirect sunlight thanks to northerly latitude.
- And of course — a deep-rooted intergenerational winemaking culture.
The Chablis Climats & Terroirs
When we talk about the Burgundy wine-growing region and use the term “Climats”, we are making reference to something very unrelated to the common meaning of the word. Climats have nothing to do with meteorology.
In a winemaking context, the Climats are the precisely demarcated plots of land, which have been recognized by their names for hundreds of years. There are more than a thousand of them in Burgundy and some took the beginning in the 7th century. The grapes that grow on these individual plots are vinified separately and the wine takes the name of the Climat, which allows linking wine production to its place of origin.
Another word related to viniculture is “terroir” — a term derived from the French word for earth, “terre.” It is based on the idea that wine’s properties are determined by various factors including soil type, climate, topography, and even microorganisms growing in, on, and around the vine plots.
Chablis has been just as terroir-driven as the rest of Burgundy and France, dividing parcels of land within the region into four appellations, and then subdividing separate vineyards within the top two appellations as distinctive Climats.
Therefore, there are forty-seven Climats in total: forty designated as Premiers Crus, and seven as Grands Crus.
There aren’t many regions better than Chablis for manifesting vineyard hierarchy in the most pristine way:
- At the bottom or in the other words — at the lowest end of the quality spectrum — is Petit Chablis, which accounts for 18% of the entire production.
- The next level on the spectrum belongs to the largest appellation, Chablis. This appellation represents 66% of the vineyard territory in the region.
- Then comes Premier Cru — less than 15% of production.
- And the final appellation is the most prestigious, the crème de la crème, Grand Cru that comprises 1.8% of the total vineyard acreage in Chablis.
Grand Cru vines grow on one southwest-facing slope above the right side of the Serein river. Such hillside location enables perfect ripeness, more body, and more concentrated fruit (citrus rather than green apple), due to the maximum sunlight exposure and closeness to the water. But ripeness and concentration is not the only reason why the Grand Cru vineyards are called “Grand”. The most perceivable difference here is the striking touch of identity.
Each Grand Cru wine demonstrates the most desirable balance between liveliness, body, dryness, and acidity. But these are vineyards’ microclimate, soil composition, and microscopic living organisms that create this transcendental magic of the wine’s uniqueness.
Since almost all of the Grand Cru wines come with fine keeping properties, bottle aging of 10-15 years will only enhance the intensity of its aromas and flavors, so pay attention to the year of production when you decide that you are ready for this thrilling and exceptional experience.
The various Climats of Chablis Premier Cru also bring their own distinctiveness to the wine, depending on the density of the Kimmeridgian chalk, vineyard location, sun exposure, and other important aspects. Premier Cru vineyards imbibe sunshine on either side of the same slope I mentioned above, and across the Serein river, along southeast-facing side valleys. They also have greater consentration and get quite ripe, but not as ripe as the Grand Crus.
Most of the Chablis appellation vineyards grow on the Kimmeridgian soil that gives the wine its extraordinary character, but they grow higher up the slopes or further away from the valley of the Serein river, which affects ripening conditions. Even so, Chablis wines can be exceptionally good and always stand out with their freshness, complexity, and sophistication.
Petit Chablis grapes grow on the plateau at the higher portions of slopes and these portions are mostly comprised of Portlandien soil. As mentioned before, it’s less rich in fossils and that results in the light and fruity wine that is best served young and in summer.
Most Chablis and Petit Chablis wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks, while many of the very best Premier Crus and the Grand Crus get some oak touch through fermentation in aged oak barrels.
This little oak adds subtle coconut-like and vanilla notes and creates the luscious mouthfeel. Winemakers are very vigilant about the barrels they use since oaks from different forests have different qualities and affect the fermentation differently.
Chablis Grand Cru
The Chablis Grand Cru appellation was created in 1938 — in order to protect the Chablis name (which was being used around the world to describe cheap white wines).
The Chablis Grand Cru includes seven Climats:
- Blanchot: 12.39 ha.
- Bougros: 15.79 ha.
- Les Clos: 28.39 ha.
- Grouilles: 9.38 ha.
- Preuses: 11.43 ha.
- Valmur: 11.04 ha.
- Vaudésir: 14.49 ha.
But if you think that there are only seven growers I can surprise you with quite an extensive list. Every producer among seventy-two of them owns an acre or two here or there out of 249.576 acres (101 hectares) of the entire production area.
Blanchot wines are quite different from the other Grand Cru wines: noticeably lighter in style, with no oak, they offer lovely flavors of grapefruit and lime, terrific finishing acidity with a lick of salt, and some flinty reduction. Due to their supple and refined character, Blanchot Grand Cru wines do not possess profound character for aging, but their wonderful freshness will over-deliver all your expectations. If you want to give them a try, I would suggest Chablis Grand Cru Les Blanchots, Jean-Marc Brocard (Domaine Sainte-Claire), 2014.
Bougros wines are rounder than the wines from Blanchot vineyard, with strong mineral character and salts running through it and a delightful touch of green. Juicy and lemony, lots of apple crispness, but ripe with so much breezy acid exuberance, they also show the herbal quality and a long and clear finish. Bougros wines the best when are relatively young, so I am happy to recommend the wine from the 2015 vintage: Servin Bougros Grand Cru, Chablis, Burgundy, France.
Les Preuses wines are just superb — rich and elegant, they have a delightful sense of purity to them, a tiny note of smoke, and a touch of pale lemon, peach, mango, and honey. With a delicious hint of seashell and salty minerality, excellent bitterness, and wonderful clear length with the perfect level of acidity, these wines are second to none. Domaine William Fevre 2004 Chablis Grand cru Les Preuses is a nice option to consider since William Fevre is one of the most prestigious of all Chablis houses that produce the finest expressions of Chardonnay.
Vaudésir wines are full of exciting exotic notes of tropical fruits, menthol, and spices, including cinnamon and pepper. Super fresh acidity, honeyed buttery aromas, outstanding ripeness, and strong oyster shell-like tang on the finish allow you to taste the terroir with a strong desire to want more and investigate further. Domaine des Malandes Chablis, Vaudesir — get yours and enjoy the outstanding beauty and power of Grand Cru Chablis.
Grenouilles wines are very aromatic, with strikingly perfect acidity, and full of delightful mineral notes on the finish. Chalk, green and yellow fruits, beautiful aromas of noble mushrooms, and gentle hints of butter and vanilla — every sip asks for more. Jean-Paul Droin, Chablis, Grand Cru, Grenouilles — an exquisite example of how Chablis can push the limits on Chardonnay.
Valmur wines have a clay-derived richness of texture and vibrant flint and seashell minerality. But there are also captivating nutty and smoke tints, a hint of coffee aroma, and sweet, charming notes of citrus fruits and peaches. On the palate, tight acidity makes it almost salty. So juicy on the palate, with beautifully clear acid length, with so much tang, these wines are simply excellent. I would recommend trying Domaine Jean-Claude Courtault Chablis Grand Cru Valmur produced in 2011.
Les Clos wines are the most powerful and intense among all Grand Crus. Elegant and complex, with fascinating notes of crushed seashells, chalk, white peach, melon, pineapple, kiwi, and green apple, herbal on the palate with great length of acidity, outspending depth and finish these impressive wines allow to see what a great terroir of Chablis can deliver. Indulge yourself with Domaine William Fevre Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos 2010 and make sure that you open the wine an hour or so before you plan to drink it.
Chablis Premier Cru
There are 40 named Chablis Premier Cru Сlimats, but many have a number of sub-vineyards within them, bringing the total number of named Chablis Premier Cru vineyards to around 80.
Winemakers who produce this wine do not always place the name of vineyards on labels. Some do that because they have such an option, the others just follow the regulation instructing to label wine without the name of a vineyard if this wine is made from the grapes of more than one Climate.
Some Chablis aficionados can tell you that certain Premier Cru vineyards are capable of yielding wines with characteristics that are pretty close to Grand Crus. You cannot say enough about the outstanding complexity of Grand Cru wines but luckily for us, some Premier Crus are also impeccable, especially those with five years of aging or more.
I am happy to recommend a few vineyards that produce wines you can put on your list.
Fourchaume — the best known and largest Premier Cru vineyard in Chablis and their Premier Crus are famous for rounded lemony notes, excellent acidity, distinctive minerality, and elegant finish with a honey aftertaste. You may consider this eight years old William Fevre Chablis Fourchaume Premier Cru 2012 and enjoy a little vanilla and mint with the creamy orchard fruit and citrus beneath and tight, precise character on the palate.
Côte de Léchet — another well-known vineyard you can fall in love with after tasting its lean, sharp, flinty, and mineral wine with a wonderfully complex nose. If you like to experiment, I would suggest ordering a few bottles of Bernard Defaix Chablis 1er Cru Cote de Lechet 2018 — a young wine from 55 years old vines. It is a real mineral-marked masterpiece with great aging potential you should get and taste today and store for a few years since it promises a divine future if patience prevails.
Wines from Les Fourneaux Premier Cru vineyard site tend to have ripe, tropical aromas and distinguished intense minerality. Like with the previous wine, you can try Domaine Paul Nicolle Chablis 1er Cru Les Fourneaux 2017, and age it for the future. It is already full and superb, with lemon zest and green apple aromas, sweet notes of nectarine, cream, butter, and very subtle vanilla. Dry, with balanced minerality and acidity, and wonderful texture this wine will be priceless in a few years from now.
Mont de Millieu is a remarkable vineyard that gives life to wines almost equal to Grand Crus. Chablis 1er Cru Mont de Milieu, Domaine Droin produced in 2018 offers a very fresh nose with charming peach and apricot notes, hints of wood smoke and herbs, decent salinity and minerality, and an impressively long finish. A great find for any cellar. Not rare yet, but might become very soon.
Vaillons is one of Chablis' most famous Premier Cru vineyards. Becoming precise and seamless with time, each wine from Villions — exciting composition of cool and tropical fruits, flinty tones, and mouthwatering acidity within its rich and complex texture. For the best experience, you may consider the 2005 vintage — Chablis 1er cru, Raveneau, Raveneau Chablis 1er cru Vaillons or give a try to 2015 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons — a ravishing example of a relatively young Premier Cru wine.
This appellation is the most productive and — as you could see on the map — geographically widespread of the four categorizations.
If you are looking for the best experience with Chablis, you should try those wines with the “Vieilles Vignes” description on the label, which indicates that the wine is a product of notably old vines. Also, the vintage is important as well. Historically, all Chablis wines were meant to be drunk after at least six years of aging and you often get a greenish tinge to the wine if you consume it upon release.
Some basic village Chablis that are grown on noth-facing slopes and flatter land could show green fruit and high acidity, though typical Chablis offers more richness than a Petit Chablis and has a beautiful minerality that comes from Kimmeridgian soil. But complexity, concentration, richness, and elegance might be a bit less profound compared to Premier Crus.
Nevertheless, the best Chablis wines may have very intense notes of white flowers, citrus, mint, gunflint, licorice, lemongrass, and fresh-cut hay, and riper fruit. Exciting on the palate, with a super chalky minerality and sparkling crunchy acidity, these wines are considered by many as good as the good wines from the upper appellations.
The secret is that the producer can often be more important than the appellation. Look for those who produce the best quality grapes. For example, 2016 Raveneau Chablis 750mL - Domaine Francois Raveneau, or William Fevre: Chablis Village Domaine 2015 - Domaine William Fevre.
Far apart from the rest of Burgundy, Chablis, as we already know, has four appellations and not three.
It was different until 1944, but then the newer vines were planted on top of the hills on Portlandian limestone soil marking the beginning of the Petit Chablis appellation.
Contrary to existing beliefs, Petit Chablis is not ‘lesser Chablis’ or second rate Chablis. It can be austere. with green fruit and high acidity — but again — if you acquire it from top producers, you will be delightfully surprised how fresh, precise, and light it can be, with its amazing linear acidity, luscious citrus flavors or riper fruit, and a mouthwatering touch of salinity in the background.
If your voyage on discovering Chablis has just started on this page, 2018 Petit Chablis, Domaine Samuel Billaud could become an excellent choice for the first memorable encounter. You will love its powerful lemon zest attenuated by delicate aromas of green apples and wildflowers and emphasised by striking mineral notes of wet stone, flint, and sea salt. Refreshing, with a long and dry finish, this wine needs some air, so open it in an hour or two before the first sip.
Chablis Winemaking Techniques
Now, after we have talked about the winemaking techniques in general, let’s take a look at the winemaking process in the Chablis region.
The harvest time for Chardonnay in Chablis comes between September and October.
Every year, passionate Chablis ambassadors not only from France but from different parts of the world come to join in the jollity of grape picking by hand. Machine use is also applied at the wineries because modern technology allows picking the grapes in the safest possible way with the help of advanced machines, though this method is not that fun from the perspective of the wine’s fans.
At the wineries, grapes are taken to the press and after the must is obtained, the juice is transferred either to stainless-steel vats (some winemakers prefer to remain pure fruit flavours by fermenting and storing the wines in stainless steel or concrete) or oak barrels for the fermentation to begin. The process continues for about three weeks at a temperature between 15-18°C (59.0 - 64.4°F.). This is the stage when the yeasts transform sugars in the juice into alcohol.
Now it is time for the second fermentation called "malolactic". Lactic bacteria transform the malic acid — an organic compound that exists naturally in fruits and contributes to the sour taste — into lactic acid. This process lessens the acidity of the wine and stabilises it. A wine with high acidic content will usually taste crisper and more tart on the palate than a low-acid wine therefore, it is extremely important to perform this process carefully and create the wine with the best possible features.
As we already know, the next step is aging, which is done either in vats or barrels. This period varies depending on the type of wine and its future profile. For the Chablis Grand Cru appellation, aging must continue until the middle of the March of the year following the harvest.
Aging in the oak barrels happens only with Grand Crus and Premier Crus within four appellations, but only with certain wines, and with the use of the old barrels in the interest of preserving the expression of the terroir. Fermenting and ageing a portion of Grand Crus or Premier Crus in old oak sometimes give a rounder texture and subtle oak flavours. After aging, some winemakers blend their wines for better balance, and then the bottling process is carried out and the wine is ready to be shipped.
Chablis Recipes & Food Pairing
Before I tell you about Chablis’s relationship with food, it makes sense to say a few words about how it should be stored and at what temperature it should be served.
The most recommended temperature for a cellar is 10-12°C (50-53°F.). The period of time you should keep Chablis in a cellar or a wine refrigerator differs from appellation to appellation.
Petit Chablis can be enjoyed after two years from the harvest. Chablis can also be enjoyed when it is young, but keeping it for six years or more will help the wine to become softer and more refined. The best time for opening Chablis Premier Cru is between six to ten years. And Chablis Grand Cru requires ten to twelve years of aging if you want to enjoy it at the height of its perfection (but it is the classic ager, so it can be stored for a longer period of time).
The best recommendations regarding the ideal serving temperature for Petit Chablis is 8°C (46°F.) when it is served as an aperitif (an alcoholic drink that you drink before a meal to stimulate the appetite) and 9-10°C (48-50 F.) when it is served with food.
According to Chablis experts, Chablis and Chablis Premier Cru should be served at 10-11°C (50-51°F.), and Chablis Grand Cru at 12-14°C (53-57 F).
Decanting Chablis before drinking is a good approach when there is a young wine in the bottle, but it is not a requirement. Just make sure you use the right glasses. They must have a long stem and a tulip-shaped upper part.
Chablis is impeccable wine that can be consumed without any accompaniment, but its deep minerality, fresh and balanced acidity, and appetizing citrus notes work pretty well with any cuisine.
In my personal experience, I paired it with camembert, cheddar, and chèvre; parsleyed ham, and black cod baked in banana leaves; braised duck with shallots, ratatouille and sushi; omelet and watermelon… Chablis will always bring a splash of "oyster shell" to any seafood, but its wide palette of aromatic expression allows not to limit it to shore dinner.
Therefore, you can experiment on your own or follow this simple guide:
- Petit Chablis — perfect as an early evening drink, while you are waiting for your dinner to be prepared. Can be combined with light snacks, like almonds or grapes.
- Chablis — this beautiful wine is a winning combination with seafood, especially with grilled or smoked fish and shrimps, oysters, and different kinds of cheeses including those from sheep and goat milk.
- Chablis Premier Cru — the deepness and richness of this wine makes it the perfect companion for poultry, escargots (snails), raw and cooked oysters, and, most traditionally, Burgundy Chablis ham. Or if you are not that hungry, delight yourself with a glass of Chablis Premier Cru and any strong, astringent cheese. It is hard to find something more delicious than the result of such a pairing approach.
- Chablis Grand Cru — the extreme sophistication of this wine calls for lobster, foie gras (a delicacy of French cuisine), and white meats with buttery mushroom sauce but it will go very well with any other “buttery” white protein dish.
There are lots of questions asked about Chablis out there but I am going to cover the four most common of them.
Chablis vs Chardonnay: Are They The Same?
Chablis is made with one of the world’s most popular grapes: Chardonnay. But none of the Chardonnays tastes like Chablis. Its distinctiveness is a result of the unique Chablis’s terroir — Chablis grapevines grow on one hundred fifty million years old prehistoric seabed which gives the wine an extraordinary, unrepeatable sort of mineral quality.
A very distinctive soil, indirect sunlight thanks to northerly latitude, the specific cool microclimate, the inclination of the land, and deep-rooted intergenerational winemaking culture make Chablis the only one of its kind.
What Is Chablis Similar To?
The influence of geology and microclimate in the case of Chablis is so strong that it overcomes the characteristics of the Chardonnay grape and makes it unique and incomparable with any other wines. Chablis wines are more mineral, acidic, and less fruity than Chardonnay wines made in warmer climates.
Is Chablis Wine Sweet Or Dry?
Chablis is the world’s most distinctive Chardonnay and it is very dry, not sweet.
Is Chablis Like Sauvignon Blanc?
Chablis is 100% Chardonnay grapes and with its extremely fresh, vibrant, and very distinct aromas and flavors; it's very different from the Sauvignon Blanc wines.
- Do you love Chablis wines?
- What's your favorite Chablis wine producer?
- Have you ever visited Chablis region?
- What's your favorite food pairing with Chablis?