In sharp contrast to Campania, the wines of Chablis are are all northern edginess and elegance. The region is equidistant from Paris and Beaune (where most Burgundy comes from), and so are on the northern limits of viable viticulture. With a semi-continental climate and no moderating effect of the sea, the winters are cold and the relatively short summer is hot. But what really makes Chablis distinctive is the rich Kimmeridgian clay/limestone, which contains trillions of fossilised oysters, lain down in the upper Jurassic period. The boundary of Chablis proper follows the area where this type of soil is on or near the surface. Petit Chablis has to make do with Portlandian limestone, a mere youngster, some 20 million years younger. And English readers will note that both names are strongly reminiscent of Dorset, which has the same soil structure.
It’s the combination of the soil type and the weather that makes for the highly distinctive Chardonnay of Chablis – for that is what it is. Many people won’t know this and that itself is a marketing advantage for Chablis. It’s chardonnay, but not as we know it. The typical flavours are of sharp apples, a mineral edge, sometimes a sort of saltiness and, above all, racy acidity.
The wines themselves where being shown in London by the Burgundy wines trade association in the glittering surroundings of the Royal Opera House. Generally the wines were of a very high standard. Most of the them were either 2008 (Petit Chablis or Chablis) or 2007 (Premier Cru and Grand Cru) and, as such, very young.
With nearly 40 growers present, it was impossible to get around them all but some distinctions emerged. One marked difference was the assurance and quality of well known names, as opposed to the variability in smaller family firms. To establish a sort of bench mark I started with Domaine Christian Moreau, who showed a great range:
- Chablis 2008 – fruity, lively, good
- Premier Cru (PC) Vaillons 2008 – superb refreshing palate, potential, very young
- Grand Cru (GC) Vaudésir 2007 – the bouquet still rather dumb, but greater structure in the mouth, excellent acidity and length, will be excellent
- GC Valmur 2007 – bigger still, this firm have 80% on the better side of the valley and 20% with less sun
- GC Les Clos 2007 – floral and mineral notes, good concentration
- GC Clos de Clos 2007 bottom section of the vineyard, small production, but more open now and drinking better
Christian Moreau’s wines showed that the quality pyramid works pretty well here in the hands of good producers: simple, elegant Petit Chablis; more complex, mineral, Chablis proper; and then greater structure and power in the Premier Cru and Grand Cru in turn. Given the significant price differences, it’s reassuring that the quality pyramid has some reliability about it.
Equally, William Fèvre – the first quality Chablis I bought some years ago – had excellent Grand Crus: Les Preuses 2007 and Les Clos 2007, powerful wines of very young fruit, minerals and acidity. These will start to drink well in 3-5 years and last for a couple of decades. In the evening we enjoyed a fully mature PC Monteé de Tonneres 2002, sadly the last bottle of a half case. With seven years of ageing, the nose had mellowed with a combination of dried and fresh apples, the minerality now a sort of structure for the wine as a whole, the refreshing acidity remained but was now beautifully balanced. A sophisticated and delicious wine.
By contrast to the well-established, it is fun to discover new names. I particularly enjoyed Château de Béru, a smallish firm in organic conversion – it takes three years to get your certificate and rather longer for the vineyards to establish a new rhythm. The outstanding wine was the PC Vaucoupin 2007. From a cool East facing slope, it was elegant, strongly floral and mineral, quite linear but good. Despite the steep slope they are now working the vineyard with a horse!
Equally good was the Bouchard family who had two lines to try: the family’s Domaine Pascal Bouchard and then the son’s Romain Bouchard. By this stage I had got so used to all the Premier Crus being 2007 and very young the taste in the glass of a rounded, complex mature wine really stood out – because Pascal Bouchard had generously brought the 2005. The son’s own wine is PC Vau de Vey. This is his first offering and impressively had won a gold medal in one of the big UK competitions. When should you drink it? Not for another 3-5 years he said and then after that it’s your choice.
In the UK, Chablis has a marketing advantage – it’s a wine that those with a bit of knowledge will recognise on a restaurant wine list. Indeed the UK is the region’s biggest export market. What this tasting showed was the quality available in these wines – especially if you can give the top wines some bottle age. Let’s raise a glass to the trillions of tiny oysters whose shells give Chablis its unique profile.