An Introduction to the Wines and History of France’s Chablis
The village of Chablis is said to have been named from two Celtic words — cab meaning “house” and leya for “near the wood” — and it has given its name in turn to the surrounding wine region of Chablis, situated near Champagne, in Bourgogne's northern extremity between Paris and Beaune. More than 13,300 acres are packed with vineyards comprising four appellations, and the vines there flourish in gray marl and bands of limestone rich in fossils of Exogyra virgula (a small, comma-shaped oyster) dating back 150 million years. The semi-continental climate, far from maritime influences, challenges vines with harsh winters, unpredictable springs, and hot summers, yielding highly complementary balances of sugar and acidity in the grapes.
It's easy to keep the Chablis varietal straight since all the wines are made from the chardonnay grape. The common adage that “Chablis is chardonnay, but not every chardonnay is Chablis” springs from the purity and wide range of distinct aromatic variations in Chablis that can't be derived from chardonnay grapes grown anywhere else.
The village of Chablis dates back to the Roman era, but began to take its current form in medieval times. During the ninth Century, Charles the Bald commissioned a small church to be built at the mouth of Vaucharmes Valley and dedicated it to Saint Marie in commemoration of his victory in the battle of Fontenoy. Charles later provided refuge to Benedictine monks fleeing Vikings advancing up the Loire in A.C. 867. The monks soon established vineyards supporting their mission, but it was the Cistercian monks who built Chablis into the winemaking region you see today.
By the 1500s, royal tables in Paris regularly showcased Chablis wines, thanks to the River Yonne trade route. Over the ensuing centuries, setbacks like the phylloxera infestation and the decimation of the vineyard workforce during World War I challenged Chablis' longstanding winemaking heritage. But vineyards rose to the occasion, reinvigorating blighted vines by grafting phylloxera-resistant rootstock while the loss of workers was addressed with mechanization. Winemakers also learned to mitigate the hazard of spring frosts killing newly formed buds with chaufferettes (heaters) and aspersion, a technique of spraying vines with water, which freezes and creates a protective ice shell.
Many families running the Chablis vineyards today keep traditional winemaking approaches alive while adapting the knowledge and technological advancements acquired by formal training and exposure abroad. Here are a couple of the outstanding vineyards to look out for.
Situated in a historic eighteenth-century watermill straddling the Serein River, Drouhin Domaine headquarters overlooks its 95-acre estate where chardonnay vines have been planted for centuries. Current owner Joseph Drouhin’s father, Robert, was considered a pioneer in the 1960s for revitalizing Chablis vineyards when they neared complete abandonment. He implemented Double Guyot "Vallée de la Marne" pruning to resist frost and decrease yield. Grapes are pressed slowly to capture the widest range of fruit characteristics while aging takes place in vats for seven to eight months, resulting in a nuanced, easy-to-drink dry wine.
Fresh aromas reminiscent of lemon and grapefruit buttressed by dry, fruity, mineral notes give it a long and pleasant finish. A sparkling chalkiness successfully cuts through grilled meats, while a biting, thirst-quenching kick to the back of the throat is made possible by an astringency that reveals juxtaposing characteristics like tart citrus and hints of candied fruit.
This fourth-generation estate nestled in the heart of Chablis comprises 44 acres of vineyard parcels ranging in age from two to 65 years. After formal training in 2005, the owners' second daughter, Claire, has been working here and plans to take over the estate when the time is right. Pneumatically pressed grapes exhibit a well-structured honeyed citrus on the nose with astringent lemon drop limestone on the palate. A slight effervescence pervades the mouthfeel with a lively heightened minerality strong enough to pair elegantly with sharp cheeses — it even holds its own after coffee and chocolate.
On one of the largest domaines in Chablis with more 100 acres of vines, the Vocorets have made wines for three generations, and they still mature their wines in large oak foudres. Michel is now responsible for managing the vineyards while brother Claude is in charge of the winemaking.
Controlled alcoholic and malolactic fermentation in stainless steel yields well-balanced structure and clean filtered chalkiness stabilizing on the palate with sharp lemon zest and stone fruit notes. Piercing, thirst-quenching attributes of tart green apple and fresh greens reluctantly yield to fruitier complexities with hints of ripe peach, cherry, and pear along with a crisp mélange of spices defined by whatever dish it's paired with.
Vignoble Dampt Freres represents a collaborative approach to winemaking — the domaine encompasses 150 parcels in the three valleys of Yonne, Serein, and Armancon.
Vintners here have a long heritage of taking a holistic approach to grape growing, embracing environmentally-friendly viticulture in a big way. Cultivating a healthy relationship between vine, soil, climate, and environment means plants become naturally resistant to pests and diseases while grapes ripen at a more even pace. Instead of weed killers, pesticides, or chemical treatments against botrytis, natural treatments like nettle and valerian root are used as natural pest deterrents.
This genuine approach in the vineyards sets the stage for an exceptional tasting experience. You get a crystalline hue in the glass with a hefty mouthfeel uncharacteristic for a white. Yeast pokes through solid lemon with hints of pear and floral notes. Clean and crisp high minerality is tempered with luscious fruit sugars providing a yin and yang duality of sharp freshness with rich fruit nectars enriched by aging. Cuts through and complements fatty grilled lamb and other meats with aplomb.