Salty, crystalline, floral, citrus and limestone-mineral ... undoubtedly it's Chablis. But having Chardonnay is way not enough for achieving a wine of this style. It's all about the terroir, or more specifically, about the Kimmeridgian soils of Chablis. Poor soil - the neutral, ready to sing about terroir Chardonnay loves it! As a part of my wine study trip to Burgundy I visited Chablis - wandered around its' vineyards, its' town and paid a visit to a beautiful organic certified Chablis winery.
Kimmeridgian and Portlandien Soils of Chablis
Serein - a tiny river that flows through the valley where both right and left bank are planted with Chardonnay. These gentle slopes were carved out by geological erosion of Kimmeridgian and Portlandien origins.
The valley is a sedimentary basin that had this specific relief formed due to the weight of sediments that collapsed and formed the hills. Basically, Chablis was under the ocean... The sediments that were deposited on the seabed for millions of years became today's soil (precious!), the water retreated and uncovered it. This specific soil belongs to the Kimmeridgian period and is 155 000 000 years old. When walking the Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards you'll find many marl stones on the surface - pay attention, you'll see thousands of tiny comma-shaped shells turned to stone in these marl. So as soon as you see fossils, be sure it's Kimmeridgian soil.
A completely different formation on top of the plateau, above the slopes. Very compact limestone that is a bit younger - 145 000 000 years. Here you'll find Petit Chablis and some of the Chablis village appellation, known for the Portlandien soil.
History of Chablis wine region
Chablis is a Celtic word, that means 'near the wood'. Today, we'd call it 'near the vines' :) There were some fateful moments in the history of Chablis wine region. Luckily, it all turned out the best way, as today we have a thriving wine region, worldwide known for its' complex whites.
Vines were planted here already by Gauls, and then by Romans, but it wasn't until the monks came that Chablis earned its' fame. First the Benedictine monks that were seeking for a refuge fleeing the Vikings in 867. They first settled in Auxerre (20 km away from Chablis) in the impressive Saint-Germain abbey. But Yonne river that passes through Auxerre was still large enough for the Vikings to be a threat. Thanks to Charles the Bald, the Benedictine monks were given the village of Chablis. Monks started to receive donations, including vineyards.
Then, in the 12th century a Cistercian monk founded an abbey nearby. The Pontigny abbey became soon renown and received many vineyards as donations. In 1455 the first purchase of Chablis wine outside of the region was recorded. At that time the population of the village was larger than today - 4000 people against today's 2500. Obviously, with this tiny population the region was weakened by the two World Wars. But before that by Phylloxera and mildew - in the end of 19th century. Spring frosts are sometimes even more devastating than pests - in 1957 all the grapes were lost to frost. Soon after that mechanization and installation of heaters started and that helped to secure the vines.
Making Chablis Wine
To make a Chablis-styled wine one must be in Chablis together with his Chardonnay vines planted in the local rocky soil. Once step 1 is completed, we can talk about winemaking techniques used in Chablis :) Right after harvesting Chardonnay grapes of perfect quality (we'll talk about autumn rot later), you press directly and wait for the must to settle. Afterwards, depending on the producer and desired style, the must might be fermented either in oak barrels or in stainless steel tanks. Alcoholic fermentation begins and lasts for around 3 weeks under maximum 18°C. Actually, the duration is never known in wineries where the aim is to showcase terroir goes as far as using indigenous yeast that are found on the grapes. I'm being a bit sarcastic, but unfortunately outside of Burgundy and similar 'traditional' wine regions, using native yeasts becomes less and less common.
The second fermentation (malolactic) is optional, but it's difficult to find a producer that skips malolactic fermentation. In this process the unpleasantly astringent malic acid transforms to smooth lactic acid. It's also known as "malo" or "MLF".
Chablis wines are matured either in stainless steel or in oak. Sometimes if the producer prefers fermenting in barrels, ageing might be in tank and vice-versa. For Chablis Grand Cru ageing is mandatory until 15th of March of the year following the harvest. Then blending or single vineyard bottling follows and, preferably, ageing in bottles at the cellar. You'll find most of the producers giving preference to used oak. The reason is not only in style of wine they want to achieve. Actually it's quite the opposite - history influenced this specific style. Way before railways existed, Chablis wine was sent to Paris by Yonne river in barrels. These barrels were always returned empty and the producers were refilling them. Meanwhile in other regions, for example, Meursault, barrels weren't returned, so producers had to use new oak every year.
Curious to find out about the organic Chablis producer I've visited on my trip? Continue to the next article where I tell the story of Domaine des Malandes and share my tasting notes from our superb Chablis wine tasting!
Join me on my upcoming winery tours with a focus on organic and biodynamic producers, family-run wineries and off-the-radar wine regions in Europe!