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Your Chablis explainer: tasting notes, varieties and producers

Chablis offers a schooling in taste and terroir and, better still, it's just downright fun. Drink up.
Chablis from some of France's top producers

From left: Eleni et Edouard Vocoret Chablis; Bernard Defaix Petit Chablis; Daniel Dampt et Fils Chablis Premier Cru; Louis Michel et Fils Chablis Grand Cru.

Scott Hawkins

I love Chablis. I love it because it’s one of the most downright delicious white wines you can drink: thirst-quenching, brilliant with seafood, brilliant on its own.

I love it because it’s a fun, accessible wine education in a glass: the differences between Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru – all made from the same grape, chardonnay – are easy to taste, easy to understand, endlessly fascinating.

And I love it because it can be great value (relatively speaking): if you feel like splashing out on a bottle of fancy French white Burgundy, most good Chablis costs substantially less than an equivalent quality chardonnay from posh Burgundian appellations such as Puligny-Montrachet further south.

These three factors explain why Chablis is enjoying a surge in popularity in our wine shops and restaurants: people love drinking it, they love geeking out on the terroir-related differences; and they don’t have to take out a second mortgage to indulge their obsession.

The secret to Chablis lies in the soil. The vineyards surrounding the village of Chablis itself are planted mostly in soil derived from 150-million-year-old Kimmeridgian bedrock which, once upon a time, was deep under the sea. The ground is full of limestone and marl embedded with the fossilised remains of tiny sea creatures. This mineral-rich terroir produces chardonnay that often has a chalky, almost saline, savoury quality in the mouth – that quenching taste that makes Chablis such a superb match with seafood.

Some bits of the rolling countryside here produce better wine – more characterful, more complex – than others, and over the centuries the winegrowers have identified four distinct terroirs in an ascending hierarchy of quality.

Petit Chablis refers to vineyards that tend to be found on the younger soils on the higher slopes; wines carrying this name on the label tend to be lighter, fresher and the most straightforward in style – best suited to early drinking.

The Chablis name on a label covers the majority of the region’s vineyards, planted in the Kimmeridgian soil slopes closer to the river that runs through the region. The best straight Chablis wines express all the classic characters: floral, honeyed aromas, that lip-smacking mineral refreshment on the tongue.

Vineyards designated Premier Cru and Grand Cru are those deemed the best in the region. There are 40 Premier Cru sites and only seven Grand Cru sites, the latter all located on a perfect south-westfacing slope looking across the Serein to the village of Chablis itself.

The Premier Cru wines have all the characters described above but a little more concentration and intensity in the mouth, with each of the vineyard sites – named on the label – contributing its own unique terroir characters: some a little more floral, some a little more mineral, and so on. Each Premier Cru (and Grand Cru) site is owned by a number of vignerons, and it makes for a wonderful grown-up drinking game to try wines from, say, the Côte de Léchet vineyard made by two or three different producers.

Grand Crus, as the name suggests, are considered the pinnacle of wines in the region: more weight and complexity, more character. Unlike the majority of Chablis wines, which are fermented and aged in stainless steel or big old barrels (and therefore taste of pure fruit and terroir, with no oak influence), Grand Crus are often matured in new oak. Indeed, they can need a few years in the bottle for the oak influence to wane and the vineyard character to shine.

Another phrase to look out for on wine labels from this region is “vieilles vignes”, or old vines: a straight Chablis from a lower-yielding older vineyard can often have a depth of flavour approaching a Premier or Grand Cru, without the loftier price tag.

Because of the popularity of Chablis, a large number of the region’s best producers are currently shipped to Australia. At a recent Chablis tasting, a dozen importers showed wines from 30 domaines: standout vignerons for me included Bernard Defaix, Eleni et Edouard Vocoret, Louis Michel, Sébastien Dampt, Daniel Dampt, Étienne Boileau, Louis Moreau, L&C Poitout, Roland Lavantureux and Moreau-Naudet.

If you haven’t yet jumped on the Chablis bandwagon, now’s a good time: most of the wines available in Australia at the moment from these top producers and others are from 2015, a vintage of unusually generous and seductive fruit flavours, and 2016, a more classic vintage, with the Petit Chablis and Chablis wines showing lovely freshness and vitality.

Go on, try some Chablis today. You’ll love it. I know you will.

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