The most northerly outpost of Burgundy, the wine producing region of Chablis is located in the department of the Yonne, and is famous for the steely, bone dry and ageworthy white wines made from the Chardonnay variety. There is a heirarchy of four levels in the appellation – Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis 1er Cru (of which there are 40 vineyards) and finally the 7 Chablis Grands Crus. The vineyard area within the appellation covers some 4,200 hectares (10,000 acres), quite substantially increased since the early 1990s amidst considerable controversy.
Although vines were first introduced here by the Romans, as with the rest of Burgundy it was the monks of the Cistercian order, in this case from the Abbey of Pontigny, who established viticulture as a mainstay of the rural economy, and introduced the Chardonnay variety. By the mid-19th century there were 40,000 hectares of vines in the Yonne as a whole, though it was the wines of Chablis that carried the greatest reputation, with a ready and easily accessible market in Paris. However, the opening of the Paris-Lyon-Marseille railway in 1856 introduced the Paris market to the much cheaper and more plentiful wines of the Midi, and as that region expanded, so the Yonne declined. By the mid 1950s, prior to the gradual expansion to the current level, there were only about 500 hectares under vine.
The Chardonnay grape gives its finest and potentially most complex wines when it is grown on relatively infertile limestone or chalk based soils, and the geology here is the key to the distinctive minerality of the wines. The region lies on the southern edge of the Paris basin, and an outcrop of the same Kimmeridgian chalk-clay marl which takes its name from the village in Dorset, and which also brings its distinctive mineral signature to the Sauvignon based wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire. The vineyard was formerly limited to those areas that lay on Kimmeridgian marl, and much of the expansion has taken place on former arable land which lies on the similar though lesser Portlandian strata. Whilst the expansion has lead to a more regular supply of straight AC Chablis and Petit Chablis, the detractors would also claim, with good reason, that it has lead to a greater irregularity of quality in those appellations.
The best vineyards, including all of the 100 hectares of the Grands Crus, lie on the south-west facing slopes of the valley of the Serein river immediately to the east of the town of Chablis, whilst the best of the 740 odd hectares of 1ers Crus lie to their north and south or are concentrated around the village of Milly on the opposite side of the river. The northerly latitude brings with it the considerable risk of frost damage to the vines in the winter months, leading in the past to the disastrous loss of almost entire vintages, and much effort has been put into installing systems to combat this risk, most obviously in the use of smudge pots and sprinklers.
In recent years there has been some debate, at times fierce, regarding the use of new oak barrels in which to ferment and/or raise all or a proportion of the 1er and Grand Crus in the tradition of the Burgundy’s other great chardonnay-based whites Puligny and Chassagne Montrachet, for the flavours thus imparted can easily mask the signature linear minerality of Chablis. Proponents of fermenting in new oak included Jean-Paul Droin and Laroche, whilst those who use no oak at all may be epitomised by the classic wines of Louis Michel. Some, such as Raveneau, Dauvissat and Christian Moreau age (but do not ferment) a proportion of their wines in wood, some of which may be new. However, as with all polar debates of this kind in the wine world, there has been a marked tempering of the employment of new oak in the past few years and a return to the more classical styles.
A little Sauvignon Blanc is grown around the village of St.Bris to the west of Chablis, a curiosity that can provide pleasure without reaching the qualitative heights of its cousins only a few miles away on the Loire, and some red is also produced from the Pinot Noir in nearby Irancy. Usually quite pale, delicately aromatic, with notes of crushed cherries which gravitate to hints of forest-floor as it develops in bottle, in sufficiently warm years and from good producers it can be a delicious and affordable alternative to the increasingly expensive Burgundies of the Cote d’Or.