As I work my way through the last two hundred wines I need to taste for my annual Pesach Wine Buying Guide (which I hope to release early next week), I finally got around to tasting three Chablis wines from Dampt Feres (samples provided by importer Bradley Alan) and decided the region and wine genre deserved some love of its own, leading to this week’s newsletter – covering one of the most plagiarized wine designations around – Chablis.
Like most Old-World wine producing countries, French wines are designated (and labeled) according to the region and appellation from where they are sourced with may sub regions utilized to indicate different qualitative levels. Generally speaking, the more focused the regional designation (appellation), the higher the quality (driven by purer expressions of terroir and more stringent winemaking requirements intended to protect the quality (and value) of the appellation (like the difference between Italy’s Chianti and Chianti Classico discussed a few weeks ago).
Location, Location, Location
Walking into the town of Chablis is like stepping back in time. Gabled houses with slate roofs surround a massive church. Narrow streets are full of flourishing bakers, butchers and cafés. Wineries are literally everywhere – on every street, where they sit behind discreet doors that lead to interior courtyards and underground cellars. With wineries dominating the town, vineyards dominant the surrounding areas, rising up on both sides of the Serein which gives life to the region’s namesake wine. Without its steep-sided valley and temperature moderation, the vines would not be able to flourish.
Chablis is the northernmost wine district of the Burgundy region in France. The region covers an area of just over 100 square miles spread across 27 communes located along the Serein river. The northern locations means that the vineyards are closer (and bear more similarity) to the Loire Valley’s Sancerre and southern Champagne than the Burgundy region is it affiliated (and more closely associated) with, resulting in a cooler climate than the rest of Burgundy (with similar macroclimates to Champagne.
The region’s oldest soil dates back over 180 million years and includes a vineyard soil type that is known as Kimmeridge Clay, upon which all Chablis Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards are planted, imparting the region’s well-known flinty mineral note to the wines. Other areas of Chablis, particularly those covering the majority of Petit Chablis vineyards, are planted on slightly younger Portlandian soil of similar structure, but with a chalky nature reminiscent of certain areas of Champagne and Sancerre.
Just the Facts
Covering approximately 15,000 acres, the only grape variety permitted is Chardonnay and the region is divided into the four following appellations: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier Cru Chablis and Grand Crus Chablis. A detailed description of each appellation and its defining characteristics is set forth below.
Chablis’ northern location is a primary factor is the region’s defining characteristics of dry white wines loaded with flinty minerals and backed by vibrant and crisp acidity, Chablis wines present a style utterly distinct form the majority of other Burgundian white wines. They are generally lighter-bodied and less richly flavored than other White burgundies, showcasing a dryer and more vibrantly fresh palate. Other than Grand Cru (and certain Premier Cru) wines, the majority of Chablis are unoaked helping drive these characteristics.
One of the most interesting things about Chablis is the dominant impact its terroir has on the Chardonnay grape. As we have previously discussed, chardonnay is one of the more flavor-neutral grapes, allowing outside factors to dictate much of its aroma and flavor profiles and nowhere is this more pronounced than in Chablis (true with respect to the impact of terroir impact globally, a fact not restricted to Chardonnay). While sub-regional appellation splits are usually driven by differences in terroir, Chablis’ delineation between its upper rankings grown in the more highly regarded Kimmeridgian soils and the lower ranked Portlandian soils is especially pronounced. The higher concentration of mineral-rich clay and ancient marine fossils are prime drivers of the high regard in which Kimmeridgian soil is held and the source of the region’s trademark saline and flinty minerality. The richer and more fruit-forward characteristics of Chablis and Petit Chablis wines stem from the lower levels of clay and fossils in Portlandian soils, allowing for fruitier and less mineral-driven wines.
Even today one can run a hand through the limestone soils and pick out fossilized shells and marine skeletons. While scientists have yet to agree on the precise effect of soils on the aromas and flavors of any wine, Chablis so clearly expresses these characteristics with little regard for skepticism or science, one simply chooses to enjoy what is poured.
Coming to Your Senses
Known for a greenish-yellow color and heightened clarity, Chablis wines present with racy acidity which can mellow with age into notes of roasted nuts and honey (Chablis are among the best-aging expressions of Chardonnay). The wines are typically light in body and defined by crisp acidity and subtle delicate fruit nuances. Typical notes will include flinty minerals, a steely and tension-filled body and hints of gun smoke. Depending on designation, certain wines will present heightened salinity and notes of wet river rock. Citrus notes abound as do white flowers and pear with the weight shifting from fruit to tertiary notes depending on the region, oak aging and designation.
Let’s Talk About the Weather
Unsurprisingly given the geographic proximity, Chablis’s climate shares much in common with neighboring Champagne. The summer growing season can be hot while winters can be long and harsh with dangerous frost possible through spring. Historically, the region’s susceptibility to frost drove many producers to cease wine production in the area (the frost in 1957 was so bad only 132 bottles of Chablis were produced); but over the last few decades, technological advances have provided a number of techniques with which producers can combat the frost (recent years have seen heightened temperatures future enable less stressful growing conditions as well). Starting in the 1960s, smudge pots and aspersion irrigation were introduced to the region, providing some level of protection against frost’s potentially devastating impact (hail remains a real issue).
The four appellations are differentiated by the soil types mentioned above as well as the terrain’s incline and proximity to the river. Many of the Premier Crus, and all the Grand Crus vineyards, are planted along the valley of the Serein river, with all Grand Crus and some of the most highly rated Premier Crus are located on southwest facing slopes (which receive maximum sun exposure, a crucial element given the region’s harsher conditions). The appellations are as follows:
Petit Chablis. Only recently designated as an independent AOC (1944), at the lowest end of the classification is “Petit Chablis” which includes the outlying land surrounding the village of Chablis and covers approximately 2,000 acres (out of the total designated 4,448 acres). The wines tend to have higher acidity and more citrus notes, -like flavors. The wines are best enjoyed cold and within a year or two of release to champion the refreshing dry taste.
Chablis. Next is the generic AOC Chablis which, at 7,067 acres is the largest appellation by far in the region and the one exhibits the most variability between producers and vintages. It covers the next “band” in from Petit Chablis as you move closer the village. Characteristic notes include pear, citrus and pronounced chalk minerals.
Premier (1er) Cru Chablis: Next up are the 40 Premier Cru vineyards (divided into approximately 70 named plots), which cover around 1,800 acres (representing about 15% of Chablis’ total planted areas). The Dampt Feres Premier Cru wines reviewed below are sourced from the Cote De Lechet vineyard. Better access to the sun and higher percentages of limestone are requisites for the Premier Cru vineyards. Premier Cru wines trend a half-percent lower in alcohol than Chablis with more elegant structure and subtle aromas with more distinct flint mineral notes. The wines must contain at least 10.5% AbV.
Grand Cru Chablis: Occupying the top of the Chablis food chain, the seven Grand Cru vineyards across the Serein River from the village of Chablis, encompassing a single slope of 257 acres. Benefitting from southern exposure, the vineyards are planted with Kimmeridgian soil. In addition to the seven recognized Grand Cru vineyards (Bougros, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos and Blanchot), one additional vineyard (La Moutonne) holds unofficial recognition as such (while also being recognized by BIVB. Together, the Grand Cru vineyards account for around 3% of Chablis annual yearly production.
Each of the Grand Cru vineyards is noted for its particular terroir characteristics, with widely varying styles among the seven vineyards. Dampt Feres produces wines in the Les Preuses vineyard which receives the most sun among the Grand Crus and tends to produce the most full-bodied wines. Some producers produce oak-aged wines, adding a non-traditional savory note to the wine that presents with smokiness. Fruit notes also range wildly, from intense citrus and tropical fruit to more aged notes of roasted nuts and Asian pear, all depending on the producer’s location and personal style. Regulations require a minimum of 11% AbV and limited yields of maximum 3.3 tons per acre.
Know Thy History
Chardonnay is believed to have first been planted in Chablis by the Cistercians of Pontigny Abbey in the 12th century, and from there spread south to the rest of the Burgundy region. The 17th century brought interest from the English (then among the largest importing markets) and by the 19th century there were nearly 98,840 acres planted. Trouble for the region started in the late 19th century when railway growth allowed for the importation of cheaper wines and then phylloxera hit, devastating the vineyards (along with much of Europe’s vaunted grape-growing regions). Many Chablis producers gave up winemaking, resulting in a steady decline of planted acreage; by the 1950s there were only 1,235 acres of vines planted in Chablis. Good times returned by the 20th century, with the introduction of important practices including temperature-controlled fermentation and induced malolactic fermentation.
Coupled with a renewed commitment to quality, the technical developments allowed for better wines to be produced in this difficult wine-growing region. Partially driven by the rampart global bastardizing of Chablis by using the label for global grape varieties and styles being produced, the official Chablis AOC was created in 1938 (in part to protect the name), mandating Chardonnay as the sole grape variety, creating appellation boundaries and instituting quality controls to defined the designated wines. The phenomenal growth in Chardonnay’s popularity during themed to-late 20th century significantly enhanced the economic viability of Chablis with plantings growing to over 13,000 acres.
Similar to the legal battles over Champagne, recent years have seen enhanced efforts by producers to protect the Chablis designation, as the wide, semi-generic, use of Chablis outside of France is still seen in describing almost any white wine, regardless of where it was made and from what grapes.
The Wooden Touch
One winemaking issue that is still contested in the region is the use of oak. Historically Chablis was aged in older neutral oak barrels. However, use of these barrels wasn’t backed by proper hygiene and often resulted in dramatically faulted wines, leading their usage to fall out of favor and replaced with stainless steel tanks for fermentation under controlled temperatures. At some point during the late 20th century, certain producers started using neutral oak again, enabled by enhanced technology and heightened awareness of the requisite hygienic protocols required. more traditional producers scorned the use of oak as counter to what Chablis stood for, while more modern winemakers embraced it as a way to enhance the grape’s true characteristics (even when used, it is in a distinctly different and more subtle manner than New-World countries including significantly lower toast levels than one traditionally finds in places like California or Israel).
The best food pairings take advantage of the wine’s naturally high acidity to act as a palate cleanser and work well with delicately creamy sauces. Due to the lighter, more delicate taste profile of Chardonnay, you’ll want to stick to lighter meats and fishes as your base ingredient, including chicken, bass, halibut or cod. The high acidity and salinity work well with raw fish and sushi. Poor spring and fall weather often wreak havoc on vintages, but the impact of recent climate changes has helped improve vintages.
There have been kosher Chablis wines from Dampt Feres previously available in the US, but they were from the producer’s lower designation, so I was excited to taste their Premier and Grand Cru wines which are, as would be expected on a different level. Other quality producers making kosher Chablis include Domaine Les Marronniers and Pascal Bouchard, with more hopefully on the way. Listed below are some lovely expressions of Chablis I have recently tasted which I am sure you will enjoy as well.
Dampt Freres, Chablis, Premier Cru, Côte de Lechet, 2017: 2017 was a really nice year for Chablis and it’s reflected in this delicious wine (the few lower-ranked Chablis I tasted last year from them were also nice). The elegant nose is aristocratic with flinty minerals, tart green apple, yellow pear and subtle notes of gun smoke. Give the wine some air and you’ll be rewarded with a whiff of peach and white flowers with more green apple and minerals, all on an elegant light to medium bodied palate backed by lovely acidity and slight salinity. Lip-smacking and vibrant citrus add enjoyment and the minerals and warm spices all combine to present an elegant and lovely wine. Fresh and vibrant with sophistication and layers of complexity, this is a really lovely treat. 13% AbV. Drink now through 2024, perhaps longer.
Dampt Freres, Chablis, Premier Cru, Côte de Lechet, 2018: The quality winemaking skill is evident in this wine, despite suffering through a pretty down vintage for the region (especially after a recent slate of above average years). Presenting overall less vibrant with fuller body and bolder fruit notes, the wine showcases the same elegant structure and balance evident in the 2017. Backed by good acidity and well balanced, the wine shows passion fruit, tropical notes and citrus with flinty minerals and notes of wet river rock and fresh-cut hay along with warm spices and a whiff of flowers that emerges more with time. Less layered and complex than the 2017, the wine is very nice and provides a lovely and enjoyable experience, especially when contrasted to some of the heavier expressions of Chardonnay (that also have their place).13. AbV. Drink now through 2023.
Dampt Freres, Chablis, Grand Cru, Les Preuses, 2018: Given how lovely this wine is, I would love to taste the 2017 Grand Cru (although I don’t believe it was made kosher). Rich, expressive and aromatic, the wine showcases aromas of tart apple, pear and a subtle expression of tropical fruit with the flinty minerals providing nice backdrop and floral notes adding complexity. The medium bodied palate is rich and elegant, backed with supremely well-balanced acidity that lifts the palate and keeps things fresh and vibrant. Lovely citrus, notes of smoke and herbacousness all provide solid supporting roles, adding nuanced complexity that tantalizes as the wine evolves in your glass. Really great experience. 13.5% AbV. Drink now through 2025, perhaps longer.
Domaine Les Marronniers, Chablis, 2018: A lovely and well-made Chablis, presenting well if slightly one-dimensional. Some rich minerals and tart green apple on the aromatic yet subtle nose with salinity and good acidity backing up the light to medium bodied palate. With some air the wine presents a whiff of orange blossom, iodine and flint along with slightly bitter smokiness that adds nuance. Sweet and somewhat tropical fruit on the mid palate along with good acidity yields a nice and refreshing wine with notes of toasted almonds and more citrus on the medium finish. Fermented with native yeasts, the wine clocks in at 13.5% AbV and is mevushal as well. Drink now and over the next 12 months.
Domaine Les Marronniers, Chablis, Premier Cru, Côte de Jouan, 2018: Elegant with a more vibrant and complex palate than the Chablis above. Sourced from 30-year-old vines and fermented with native yeasts, the wine showcases lovely green apple, yellow pear and white flows on a medium bodied palate with great acidity keeping this fresh. Flint minerals are evident as a backdrop to the rich and medium bodied supple palate, with more flint and orange notes added to the mix. 14.5% AbV is evident with the bigger body and heftier structure. Along with a more pronounced oak backbone. Well balanced, round and mouth-filling – this is an enjoyable wine. Drink now through 2022.