The Chablis region of France produces the world’s purest expression of chardonnay. This statement reflects at least two concepts. First, the practice of judicious use, or even the absence, of oak leaving the grapes to sing their own song.
Second, it reflects the unique soil properties of this most northerly region of Burgundy, which is a mixture of clay and limestone containing a myriad of tiny fossilised oyster shells. This is known as the Kimmeridgean ridge and produces wines of a typically dry, steely and mineral nature.
The Chablis appellation, created in 1938, comprises four levels of wine starting with Petit Chablis (grown at the top of the hill), Chablis, and Premier Crus. The top ranking is reserved for the Grand Crus. These occupy a single, south-west facing slope above the Serein River.
Sebastien Gay from the family-owned producer Jean-Marc Brocard explains that the Serein “splits Chablis in two – it is the backbone”. To the left, he says, the climate is cool and the wines show a pronounced minerality, while to the right we find more sunshine so the wines tend towards a more rich style: “Sensual wine,” says Gay. It is here that the Grand Cru vineyards are located, covering 103 hectares – just two per cent of the appellation. At their best they can match the quality of a fine Mersault or Corton-Charlemagne, with similar ageability, but they are about half the price. They can benefit from 15 years of maturation.
Chablis has seven Grand Crus (and an unofficial eighth, La Moutonne, which is a 1.35 hectare monopole). Each Grand Cru has its own specific character. Les Clos, the largest, is often considered the best, rich and fine, together with the intense and spicy Vaudesir. The racy Grenouilles and the rather delicate Blanchots are probably the most aromatic, though Valmur is rich and fragrant, while the elegant La Moutonne is very expressive of its terroir. Les Preuses is complex but the least mineral. Bougros with its light, more sandy soils, is probably the junior member of the group – though in the right hands (William Fevre 2012, for example) it can show power and expression.
Do these broad classifications still work, in these days when viticultural and winemaking practices have been going through significant change? Gregory Viennois, chief winemaker at Domaine Laroche, thinks so. “The hill of Grand Cru has different soil types, structures of limestone, types of clay and exposures …. It’s why each of them produces wines with specific characteristics and a lot of singularities,” he says. This is in the same way that “we can find the same difference between le Batard Montrachet and Chevalier Montrachet [top white Burgundies] or between St Julien and Margaux [in Bordeaux]”.
Yet clear differences in style exist from one producer to another. Style can vary according to the date of harvest and when the grapes are pressed, for example. But, says Viennois, of great importance is “the situation on the slope (at the top, middle or at the bottom)” and also viticultural practices. He uses the word “sauvage” to describe the Laroche Les Clos 2012 because flowers are allowed to grow wild (these are the kinds of flowers eaten by goats).
Many Chablis producers, if not certified organic, are deploying organic practices such as encouraging the presence of flora (which attract fauna) and allowing land to regenerate. Others, such as Julien Brocard, are biodynamic. He believes these practices bring “harmony” to the wine. He seeks to restore the equilibrium of the system, likening the process to acupuncture with the human body.
Vintage variation affects all producers – and vintage variation can be quite extreme. As a guide 2005, 2008 and 2010 were “very good, classic” as Sebastien Gay puts it, but 2012 was “not easy” and 2013 was “the hardest year ever”. Gregory Viennois says 2014 is so far looking promising. “This vintage is quite similar to 1996 in the remarkable acid structure. It shows some characteristics of 2010 and 2008, with a still more beautiful balance.”
Beyond vintage variation, the other significant variable in wine style concerns the use of oak. “A Grand Cru needs oak,” Gregory Viennois says. “The question is how much; the choice of cooper, the oak provenance, toasting and time allowed for ageing.”
Domaine Laroche is also notable for its use of screwcaps, but Viennois says that because the quality of cork has “significantly improved” in the past 10 years the debate needs to be considered in a different light. “Screwcap is relevant for Petit Chablis and Chablis to keep the lively characters. Premier and Grand Crus need more time to develop and, in this case, natural cork is more appropriate – provided it is of the best quality.”
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