Chablis wines — recognized for their purity, freshness, delicacy and mineral flavor, are produced in an area surrounding the small town of the same name in northern Burgundy. The Chablis region is renowned for its production of exceptional dry white wines.
These wines may only be produced under certain rules as they are protected under 3 different AOC designations: “Petit Chablis,” “Chablis” and “Chablis Grand Cru”. All using the Chardonnay grape variety, these designations differ in their designated areas as well as their production requirements, the latter increasing with the wines’ quality. Chablis makes up about 20% of the wine volume produced each year in Burgundy — about 40 million bottles, 65% of those being destined for export.
A vineyard crafted by history
The name Chablis is thought to come from the contraction of two Celtic words: CAB (house) and LEYA (close to the woods). There are traces of an ancient wine-producing Gallic farm in the region. Under Roman influence, the vines were replanted in the years 276-286, about 18 centuries ago!
During the 9th century, the village of Chablis was then given to Benedictine monks fleeing the Viking threat following the Loire River. Another monastery led by Cistercian monks was constructed near the village receiving vineyards as a means to provide for themselves: it is these monks who mostly developed the vineyard. Conveniently located next to the Yonne River, Chablis wines were rapidly served at the King’s table in Paris, long before the railway. After the invention of the railroad and its widespread use in France, other types of wines from different regions of France became more easily available in Paris, which lead to a decline in the popularity of Chablis there once it was faced with increased competition from other less expensive wines from across France.
Production of Chablis peaked in the early 19th century, with around 98,000 acres of vineyards. Greatly affected by diseases and the wars in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Chablis vineyards only counted 1,200 acres in 1955. Modernization with the introduction of the disease-resistant Chardonnay grape variety, mechanization and winemakers’ hard work helped boost the Chablis winemaking region back from the brink, with around 10,000 acres of vineyards today.
The Chablis terroir: a unique land
The soil in the area that Chablis is produced in Burgundy is Kimmeridge Clay, with the oldest parts of it dating back 180 million years ago to the Jurassic Age. It is composed of a combination of limestone, clay and fossilized oyster shells. All of Chablis Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines are planted on this type of soil, which gives the wines a distinctive taste often described as being mineral. Other types Chablis are grown on a different, somewhat younger type of soil, called Portlandian, which is a limestone mixture.
Far from the sea, the Chablis region has a semi-continental climate, with harsh winters and hot summers. Because of its position in the northern extreme of wine producing regions, frost often occurs in the springtime, damaging young shoots and affecting the wine harvest. The unpredictability of this climate can lead to big changes in production from season to season. Throughout the years, and after having lost great amounts to frost, winemakers have slowly learned to manage these incidents and have developed techniques to avoid these problems. Heaters that increase the temperature and limit radiations are placed in between the vines. Spraying water is also used in order to limit damage to the vines and grapes. The water freezes once it’s on the vines, creating a protective layer of ice.
The long history and high quality of Chablis wines have given them some of the strongest reputations in the world of white wine. The deep, strong connection of this wine to the specific location in Burgundy where it’s made in can be tasted in the distinct mineral flavor the wine is known for. This connection to place, the wine’s distinctive flavor and the history of Chablis make it well worth enjoying.