Chablis – the Original Cool Climate Chardonnay

Treve’s TravelsJuly 14, 2015

by Treve Ring

Treve Ring

Treve Ring

In light of this week’s i4c in Niagara and the 5th anniversary of the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Association, it seemed fitting to take a closer look at the original cool climate chardonnay, Chablis.

Back in 2011, thirty Ontario wineries came together to form the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Association as a not-for-profit group dedicated to reinstating Chardonnay’s dignity. According to organizers at inception, “It’s time for Chardonnay to return to centre stage. It’s time for the re-birth of Cool.”

All ‘Bout Chardonnay

Chardonnay is proof positive that everything old becomes cool again. After attaining a pinnacle of popularity in the late 1980s, the inevitable backlash spurned the ubiquitous ABC movement – Anything But Chardonnay. Naysayers flogged the overoaked, flabby, mass-produced wines that had been pumped out to meet consumer demand worldwide. The adaptable and hearty grape flourishes easily in most climates and conditions, making it one of the most widely-planted grape varieties on the globe, planted in more wine regions than any other. The final results are a spectrum of flavours and styles – from pristine Blanc de Blancs Champagne to flinty and precise Chablis and from noble Burgundian heavyweights to creamy Californian ripeness and yes, even to lusciously sweet icewine.

The Chardonnay grape itself is fairly neutral, owing a great deal of its flavour to vineyard and winemaking decisions. It’s a blank canvas for winemakers to colour and control – too oft, in the past, with overuse of wood. When oak isn’t allowed to overpower, the clean, crisp nature of the grape emerges. Cooler climates preserve this freshness and help balance the alcohol, which is naturally on the higher side. Higher altitude and latitude helps, as does aggressive pruning and canopy management. Clonal selection is key too, as there are dozens of clones, each with pros and cons to be matched to site. When yields are kept low and hands are kept at bay, chardonnay is a terroir transmitter. Chardonnay especially loves limestone and chalky soils – found in abundance in the grape’s traditional and glorious homeland of Chablis and Burgundy.

Chablis Terroir & The Idea of Climats

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The name Chablis originates from two Celtic words: “cab” (house) and “leya” (near to the woods). Remnants from a Neolithic village, and later structures dating back to the Gauls show that humans lived in the area for centuries. Romans brought vines to Chablis between the 1st – 3rd Century, establishing vine growing and wine production before Cistercian Monks arrived in the 12th Century.

The northernmost wine district of Burgundy, Chablis is on the fringe of where chardonnay can ripen and thrive naturally. The continental climate contributes to wines with distinct acidity and purity of flavours and aromas, with warm summers and cold, often snowy winters. Sudden freezes in April or May pose a huge threat to budding or flowering vines; major efforts are made to mitigate frost damage and to heat the vineyards as soon as the threat of frost arises. Gas burning and oil vine heaters, chaufferettes, were first used in Chablis the 1950’s and are still in use in some low lying areas today, where fog threatens to pool. These heaters can help limit frost damage by maintaining temperatures above freezing even at -5°C. Spraying vines with water when temperatures drop is another method, creating a wee igloo around the vine bud. Naturally, both heating and spraying are costly measures, though not as pricey as hiring helicopters to hover over the vineyards to break up and warm frost-risk air – a practice among some producers.

Rolling hills and valleys extend out like a star from the town of Chablis, halved by the serenity of the River Serein. The river divides the region into two distinct parts: The Left Bank and the Right Bank. There are approximately 5400ha under vine divided amongst 350 growers and spread over approximately 20km from north to south and 15km from east to west. The Premier Cru and Grand Cru sites are clustered in the nexus of the star, with the seven contiguous Grand Cru climats hugging the right bank slope above Chablis.

Walking map showing the proximity of the Grand Crus to town of Chablis

Walking map showing the proximity of the Grand Crus to town of Chablis

Soils are key here, with the precisely delimited climats mapped along the range of soil types and altitude. The notion of climats, the first written trace of which was scripted in Chablis (1540), is a shared ethos across Bourgogne and illustrate the inherent importance of the terroir. These named plots of vines have unique and subtle combinations of aspect, slope, elevation and soil geology, each transmitting a unique identity and character. In Chablis, 47 climat names can appear on wine labels; 40 for Premier Cru and seven for Grand Cru.

Chablis’ soils are located in a sedimentary basin. The main substrate is Jurassic limestone, specifically Kimmeridgian, dating back 150 million years and composed of tiny, comma-shaped fossilized oyster shells that once laid on the ocean floor. The premier and grand cru climats are located on these soft, chalky fossil-bearing Kimmerdidgian slopes, alternating with bands of gray marl. Hard calcareous limestone called Portlandian tops the plateaus, and are home to the Petit Chablis vineyards.

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The Appellations & Their Wines

There are four appellations in Chablis: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru.

Domaine Laroche Petit Chablis 2014 Domaine Louis Moreau Petit Chablis 2014 Jean Paul & Benoît Droin Petit Chablis 2013Petit Chablis is planted almost exclusively on the hillside plateaus and on Portlandian soils. Fresh, crisp and with subtle white florals and salty minerality, these refreshing wines are meant to be enjoyed in their youth.

Jean Paul & Benoît Droin 2013 Petit Chablis

Domaine Louis Moreau 2014 Petit Chablis

Domaine Laroche 2014 Petit Chablis

Chablis is the largest of the four appellations in terms of surface area and production, and thus has a wide range of styles based on age of vine and winemaker. They typically have greater structure than Petit Chablis, but still inherent drinkability in youth. The appellation village of Chablis is produced in the communes of Beines, Béru, Chablis, Fyé, Milly, Poinchy, La Chapelle-Vaupelteigne, Chemilly-sur-Serein, Chichée, Collan, Courgis, Fleys, Fontenay-Près-Chablis, Lignorelles, Ligny-le-Châtel, Maligny, Poilly-sur-Serein, Préhy, Villy and Viviers. In the Chablis appellation there are no named climats, though many lieu-dits (named sites).

Domaine Gautheron 2013 Chablis

La Chablisienne 2012 La Pierrelée

William Fevre 2012 Chablis Champs Royaux

Garnier & Fils 2013 Chablis

Jean Marc Brocard 2013 Chablis Vieilles Vignes

Isabelle et Denis Pommier 2014 Chablis

Domaine Gautheron Chablis 2013 La Chablisienne La Pierrelee Chablis 2012 William Fèvre Champs Royaux Chablis 2012 Garnier & Fils Chablis 2013 Jean Marc Brocard Sainte Claire Vieilles Vignes Chablis 2013 Isabelle et Denis Pommier Chablis 2014

Chablis Premier Cru is comprised of 40 climats, 17 of which are more commonly used as main climats. Each has its own style traversing from vibrant and mineral to delicate and fruity. They lie on sloping Kimmeridgian soils either side of the River Serein, with the most sought after climates resting on the right bank, encircling the Grand Crus. In youth, these wines are not as aromatic as Petit Chablis and Chablis, through with a few years age their well-built structure impresses. The main climats include Mont de Milieu, Montée de Tonerre, Fourchaume, Vaillons, Montmains, Côte de Léchet, Beauroy, Vaucoupin, Vosgros, Vau de Vey, Vau Ligneau, Beauregard and Fourneaux.

Domaine Hamelin 2013 Chablis Premier Cru Beauroy

Jean-Paul & Benoit Droin 2013 Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons

Domaine Hamelin Chablis Beauroy Premier Cru 2013 Domaine Jean Paul et Benoit Droin Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons 2013 La Chablisienne Montée de Tonnerre Chablis 1er Cru 2012 Corinne et Jean Pierre Grossot Chablis Premier Cru Vaucoupin 2013

 

La Chablisienne 2012 Chablis Premier Cru Montée de Tonnerre

Corinne et Jean Pierre Grossot 2013 Chablis Premier Cru Vaucoupin

Domaine Laroche 2012 Chablis Premier Cru Les Montmains

Domaine Laroche Chablis Premier Cru Les Montmains 2012 Domaine Pattes Loup Chablis Premier Cru Beauregard 2013 Domaine Christian Moreau Chablis Vaillon Premier Cru 2011

Domaine Pattes Loup 2013 Chablis Premier Cru Beauregard

Domaine Christian Moreau 2011 Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons

Chablis Grand Cru comprises the top sites of the region, and the heights of the quality pyramid. Seven contiguous climats arc along the right bank of the River Serein, directly north east of the town of Chablis. Vineyards face the sun at altitudes of 100-250 metres and exclusively on Kimmeridgian limestone and marls. The wines are very long-lived, with most starting to reach potential after 10-15 years of age. Intense minerality, flint, dried fruits, citrus and honey are hallmarks, as well as a striking balance between vibrant acidity and concentrated richness.

Each Grand Cru is defined by its own unique characteristics. From left to right:

Bougros – full bodied, robust, mineral and supple. Watch for the special ridge, Côte Bouguerots

Domaine William Fèvre 2011 Chablis Grand Cru Bougros Côte Bouguerots

Preuses – Very stony soils. long and noble, finessed, with exceptional aging capacity

La Chablisienne 2012 Chablis Grand Cru Les Preuses

Domaine William Fèvre Chablis Bougros Côte Bouguerots Grand Cru 2011 La Chablisienne Chablis Grand Cru Les Preuses 2012 Joseph Drouhin Chablis Grand Cru Vaudésir 2009 La Chablisienne Château Grenouilles Chablis Grand Cru 2012

Vaudésir – lively, floral, rounded and ripe, voluptuous

Joseph Drouhin Vaudon 2009 Chablis Grand Cru Vaudésir

Grenouilles – floral, fruity, softer and richer in body. Grenouilles means frogs in French, referring to the closeness of this Grand Cru to the River Serein.

La Chablisienne 2012 Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles

Valmur – mineral, nervy, though fruity and very well balanced

Jean Paul & Benoit Droin 2013 Chablis Valmur Grand Cru

Domaine Jean Paul et Benoit Droin Chablis Valmur Grand Cru 2013 Jean Marc Brocard Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos 2010 Domaine Laroche Chablis Les Blanchots Grand Cru 2012

Les Clos – mineral and powerful, big and chewy, with great aging potential

Jean Marc Brocard 2012 Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos

Blanchot – floral, supple and finessed, often subtle and easily appealing

Domaine Laroche 2012 Chablis Grand Cru Les Blanchots

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