Chablis is unique. Or as one winegrower, Julien Brocard, put it: It is the only Chardonnay à l’état pure, that does not require the help of an oak barrel to express its true personality.
Chardonnay wine from just about anywhere else in the world with serious quality pretensions is fermented and aged in an oak barrel, but not Chablis, which is made only with Chardonnay grapes in the Chablis region of Burgundy, France. And furthermore, with bottle age, Chablis has the intriguing ability to make you think that it has been aged in oak, when in fact it has not been near a stave of wood.
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But what makes it so individual? Chablis’ Chardonnay vines grow in a mixture of limestone and clay, Kimmeridgian or Portlandian. There is clay that is badly drained, but there are also lime-rich muds, packed with fossil shells of a small oyster, exogyra virgula, so that the vineyards sit on what is virtually an oyster fossil bank. It is this combination that gives Chablis its benchmark minerality.
Climate also plays a part. Essentially, it is semi-continental, without any maritime influences. The winters can be long and hard; the summers are usually fairly hot.
With all the wine coming from just one grape variety, with a similarity of soil and climate in a relative compact area, you could be forgiven for thinking that there would not be much variation in the flavor, but you would be quite wrong. There are more than 300 wine estates in Chablis, as well as the highly competent cooperative la Chablisienne, which accounts for about one-quarter of the appellation. The human element plays a vital role, with each winegrower giving something of themselves to their wine that makes it different from their neighbor’s Chablis. Some do favor the use of oak for fermentation and élevage (ageing), while others are purists and use only stainless tanks, and between those two extremes there are umpteen nuances.
Tasting the latest in Chablis
The annual fête du vin, held on the last weekend of October, provides a great opportunity to taste the latest vintage and catch up with any new developments. And there may be new young growers showing their wines for the first time. One of the main streets of the town is closed to traffic and each wine grower has an upturned barrel from which to pour their bottles. It is a wonderfully animated occasion, except if it rains. This year the weather was bright, but cold, and I concentrated on tasting 2011s, a riper, slightly softer vintage than the very firm and mineral 2010. And everyone was enthusing about 2012 — a vintage saved at the last minute when warm weather finally arrived in August, after a poor spring and early summer.
It is the younger generation that is responsible for the continual rejuvenation of the vineyard. A change of generation can often make a difference to the fortunes of an estate. The younger generation has traveled further afield than their parents and will have probably studied, rather than simply following their father in the cellar. Pierrick Laroche at Domaine des Hâtes, after a sojourn in New Zealand, has taken his family’s vines out of the cooperative and made his first vintage in 2010. And very good it is, too, with some firm, fresh minerality. Olivier Alexandre’s family had concentrated more on agriculture, rearing cattle and growing wheat, but realized that wine would be more remunerative, as well as more personally rewarding to make. Charly Nicolle, after four years of oenology studies in Beaune, took the decision to develop the family vineyards beyond his parents’ more modest ambitions. Chablis may be a long-established appellation, but you sense an underlying dynamism fueled by the new generation who are either developing their own vineyards, or giving a new injection of energy to their parents’ work. And all are aiming for that essential minerality that is the hallmark of fine Chablis.