When is a chablis really a chablis?

By Celia Strong

Only sometimes. Well, maybe always. But maybe not. It just depends on what you mean by the name “Chablis” when it comes out. Same problem and confusion with the name “Burgundy.”  These two names have been so common in the American wine world, they just have several different types of wines that they refer to, so, every time they come up in a conversation, it has to be determined how they are being used. It’s all complicated, but we can fix that!

Burgundy is the name of a region in eastern France where they make red wines from Pinot Noir and white wines from Chardonnay. Multiple years (decades) ago, when the United States started making and selling more wines, the name “burgundy” was borrowed to refer to red wines in general. Since many of these reds were not from any one particular grape variety, “burgundy” was any red — a generic, generalization.

The name “chablis” was borrowed in the same way for white wines.  It’s interesting that this borrowing happened so long ago that the French government agencies who regulate their wines, including their wines’ names, never sued over the borrowing and what they see as a mis-use of these names. (There have been lawsuits over the American use of the name Beaujolais and other wines. And lawsuits not from just France.) There are still American wines made that are labelled Burgundy and Chablis, but these are fewer and fewer. (Partly because we, as consumers, are learning more about different grape varieties and want to know what we’re getting in our bottles.)

In the world of French wines, those from the region of Burgundy, red and white, are made from their specific grape varieties and reflect the soil and climate (“terroir”) where they are grown. Our wine this week is a white Burgundy from the town of Chablis and the area around it. Chablis is the most northern part of the Burgundy region. It is about halfway between the Cote d’Or (another part of the region) and Paris. Only the regions of Champagne and Alsace have vineyards at more northern latitudes. The soil in Chablis is Kimmeridge clay with some chalk layers. The cool climate and this particular soil are responsible for the flavors and textures of Chardonnay wines made here.

The Romans are probably responsible for the first vineyards in Chablis. These early plantings were used to sustain the Roman soldiers, but the local peasantry took over most of the vineyards to make wine for their own daily use. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church took over most vineyards and made wine a part of the economic and commercial life of Burgundy. Cistercian monks were the first to plant Chardonnay, at the Pontigny Abbey, in the 12th century. The area of Chablis became part of Burgundy in the 15th century when the Dukes of Burgundy annexed it.

The popularity of Chablis wines spread across northern France, thanks to the rivers crossing the country and the city’s closeness to Paris.  But, toward the end of the 19th century, when railroads made the rest of France more accessible to merchants and consumers, less costly wines from southern France flooded the north. In the 1880’s, vineyards diseases (powdery mildew and phylloxera) devastated the vineyards of Chablis and many growers and winemakers left the business. The total of vineyard acres continued to decrease and, by the 1950’s, there were only 1,235 acres of vines left in Chablis. The establishment of the French AC laws, 1938 for Chablis, and the advancement of new techniques to protect the vines from not only diseases but frosts as well all worked to renew the commitment in the area to make good wines. By then, it was too late to protect the name “Chablis,” but the Chardonnay-boom in the mid-20th century brought back many Chablis drinkers and opened new markets around the world for these wines as well.

Within Chablis, the vineyards are rated at four different levels — legally.  The very best pieces of land are rated as Grands Crus. There are seven only of these, all on southwest-facing slopes. Not too far up the slopes, because too high is cooler and more difficult for the grapes as they ripen. And southwest-facing because this too keeps the grapes a bit warmer. These Grands Crus vineyards cover about 247 acres. Each one of the Grand Cru vineyards is known for a particular Chardonnay style, the result of its particular soil content.

A step below the Grands Crus are the Premier Crus. There are 40 of these, many of which use “umbrella” names of other Premiers Crus on their labels. This saves us from learning all 40, and lets them, especially the really tiny ones, blend some other Chablis Premier Cru grapes with theirs. The Premier Cru Chablis wines are still very good, but not as heavy in their flavors and textures as a Grand Cru, nor as expensive.

The third tier of Chablis wines is “Chablis.” These are wines that are far more affordable, still good, and still reflect the soil and climate where they grow. And, the last tier is “Petit Chablis,” still from this appellation, but cooler climate plots, higher up the slopes or on the valley floor where drainage is more of an issue. We have to remember that all these wines are 100 percent Chardonnay, some aged in oak barrels, some not at all. Because of the high levels of acidity in these wines, the result of cool climate growing, Chablis wines probably have the longest aging potential of any Chardonnays.

The 2010 William Fevre Chablis Champs Royaux, our wine for this week, comes from a family that has been in Chablis for 250 years.  William’s father was already a great winemaker after World War II, and William declared his first vintage in 1959. Since then, William has earned and maintained a reputation as a keen defender of different, and historically noted, “terroirs.”  He works each plot and vineyard separately in order to reflect each personality. “Champs Royaux” is not a rated cru, but it is a wine sourced from specific plots that Fevre feels are typical enough for the flavors in their grapes to make a special Chablis.

This wine has citrus notes (lemon zest, lime), white fruit flavors (white peaches), apple and pear flavors and a minerality that is typical of Chablis. It is aged in neutral oak for a short time, allowing the Chardonnay flavors to show through. So, no, this is not a typical Chardonnay. Especially if you’re really used to California wines. But, if you’re ready to have a real French Chablis, really fairly priced at $20.99, this is a great place to start. Problem is, though, you may be hooked. Once you try a good Chablis, it’s like it has nothing to do with other Chardonnay wines. Oh, no! Another new favorite?  Yes, please.  Enjoy.

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