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  ABC Wine Issue 44, September 2006   
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Issue 43, Summer 2006 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 45, October 2006

Chablis

Usually defined as the Chardonnay coming from the cold, Chablis wine has been for years the reference model for the production of wines with this famous white grape

 The enological events in Chablis have been pretty singular. Being for many years the undisputed model for wines produced with Chardonnay, its name has been in the world the synonym of white wine and, in particular, of Chardonnay. Its notoriety and its influence have been such that some producers outside France have used the name Chablis for their wines, wines that with the famous French area had nothing in common, not even the Chardonnay grape. Bulwark of the production of white wines fermented and aged in steel tanks, in recent years Chablis had to face the strong attacks done by the wines produced with the barrique, in particular, the ones coming from the so called “New World”. Despite producers in Chablis had to adapt their wineries to the new trends - many of them have completely or partially abandoned steel tanks by replacing them with barriques - the wine production of this famous French area is still a reference point, thanks both to the particular environmental and climate conditions as well as to the techniques used for the production of wines.

 Despite it is very near to Champagne and the capital Paris, Chablis belongs to the Burgundy wine region. By considering climate, soil and environmental conditions, Chablis is in fact more similar to Champagne than to Burgundy, even though here - as it is commonly known - in wines there are no bubbles. Even without bubbles, Chablis wines do not pass unnoticed in the glasses of connoisseurs. Generally defined as the Chardonnay coming from the cold, Chablis wines are appreciated for their high acidity - sometimes even excessive - a quality which is hard to find in wines produced elsewhere with the smooth and round Chardonnay. Moreover, the choice of using inert containers - typically steel tanks - contributes to the keeping of Chardonnay's “fresh” qualities, as opposed to what usually happens in wines fermented and aged in cask, in which wood contributes to make Chardonnay round and velvety.


The Chablis wine areas
The Chablis wine areas

 The wine history of Chablis begins with the arrival of ancient Romans during the colonization of the ancient territories of France in order to broaden the borders of their empire. As it is commonly known, ancient Romans were used to introduce the cultivation of vine - and therefore the production of wine - in every place they were successful in conquering: not only the introduction of a tradition of them, but also a necessity in order to always have wine to quench the thirst of their legionaries. Which grapes and which methods were used for the production of wine in Chablis at those times is one of the many mysteries lost in the past and which did not reach our times. According to the climate and environmental conditions of the area, it is very likely it was a wine produced with white berried grapes, however it is impossible to say it was Chardonnay. Moreover, there are no historical evidences about the grapes cultivated at those times in the Chablis area as well as no evidences about the grape varieties introduced by ancient Romans.

 The first written mention of Chablis is dated back to 510 AD. The cultivation of vine, and therefore the production of wine, had a strong development - here as elsewhere in Europe - thanks to the activity of monks belonging to different religious orders, in particular Cistercians who, it is very likely, introduced Chardonnay in Chablis. Many monasteries and churches were in fact built in this area, including a monastery built by Sigismund, the first Christian king of Burgundy, as well as the church of Saint Mary built by Charlemagne. After the invasion of Vikings, monks of Tours were forced to move to Auxerre, contributing to the development of Chablis wines. The choice of moving to Auxerre was not casual. The area offered good climate and environmental conditions for the cultivation of vine - and wine is an essential element for the celebration of liturgy - as well as the presence of a fluvial port which ensured an easy connection to Paris. It will in fact be thanks to the fluvial connection that Chablis wines will be transported in quantities to Paris and became one of the wines which were more easy to find in the capital.


 

 Some centuries later, Chablis wines passed the borders of France and reached England. In some registers dated back to the half of the fifteenth century, are in fact found mentions about Chablis wines transported in barrique to the region of Picardy, Flanders and England. This flourishing period for Chablis and its wines, was suddenly stopped in the first years of the 1600s, when the area was devastated by Huguenots who set the city on fire. Most of vineyards were therefore destroyed, whose reconstruction, not only of vineyards but also of the fame of Chablis, took almost two centuries. The reconquered prestige for Chablis wines did not last long: soon after other fearful enemies will come to devastate vineyards. The decline began in 1886, when in vineyards of Chablis appeared powdery mildew and just one year later arrived phylloxera as well. Two events which discouraged many viticulturists who for many years avoided planting vines in their lands, with negative consequences for wine production in Chablis.

 The arrive of railroad represented another factor which contributed to the loss of interest of viticulturists to the production of wine. Thanks to the railroad connection, wines from other French areas could reach the capital Paris in shorter times, therefore diminishing the presence of Chablis wine in the market. Wine production was also severely reduced because of the two world wars. In 1945, after the end of World War Two, production in Chablis lowered to a mere 481 hectoliters as opposed to the 15,000 of 1938. The decline of viticulture and wine making in Chablis continued until the half of the 1950s, when in the renowned land of white wines there were a little more than 200 hectares of vineyards. This was the darkest period of Chablis in the last decades, it however marked the beginning of its reprise and prestige. Today Chablis represents a worldwide reference point for Chardonnay wines, a model widely copied also outside the borders of France and which also originated, thanks to the fame of its name, wines produced in the countries of the “New World” commercialized with the Chablis name. A deplorable plagiarism, not only for the improper use of the name, but also for the many grapes used - most of the times unknown - for the production of wines of pretty ordinary quality.

 

Classification of Chablis

 Chablis wine area is recognized by the French quality system as AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, Appellation of Controlled Origin) and belongs to the Burgundy wine region. Chablis wines are produced with Chardonnay grape, therefore white, and the most common technique makes use of steel tanks, whereas barrique is not very common. Chablis wines are classified, from the lowest level to the highest, as: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru. As for production, the highest percentage - more than 80% - is destined to wines belonging to the categories Petit Chablis and Chablis. Despite there are 40 vineyards belonging to the Chablis Premier Cru appellation, only 12 of them are considered of major prestige: Beauroy, Côte de Léchet, Fourchaume, Les Fourneaux, Mélinots, Montée de Tonnerre, Montmains, Monts de Milieu, Vaillons, Vaucoupin, Vaudevay and Vosgros. The Chablis Grand Cru category is even smaller than that, counting seven vineyards (climat) only: Blanchot, Bougros, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Preuses, Valmur and Vaudésirs.

 

The Chardonnay Coming From the Cold

 Chablis is the most northern wine area of Burgundy and it is located about 200 kilometers north-west (about 125 miles) from Côte d'Or. Paradoxically, Chablis is closer to Champagne than to the main area of burgundy: few tens of kilometers separate Chablis from the vineyards of Aube. Being close to Champagne has also represented, at the beginning of 1900s, when the AOC French quality system was not introduced yet, a connection between the two wine areas. It in fact happened the crisp Chardonnay wines from Chablis were transported to Reims and Epernay and transformed in noble champenois bubbles. If we consider the geographic position, the composition of soil and environmental conditions, Chablis is more similar to Champagne than to Burgundy. The soil of Chablis area is in fact rich in chalk - just like the one of Champagne - a quality which gives its wines their characteristic mineral and flint aromas and taste.

 With its ups and downs, moments of more or less noble prestigious times, Chablis wines have always been capable of catching the attention of the world. After having been for centuries the absolute protagonist of wine sold in Paris - Chablis has been for years the area from which the capital got the wine to be poured in carafes - and after having created a wine making model renowned worldwide in which the name of this area has been associated to Chardonnay, today Chablis wines suffer of the fact they did not obey to that wine making model, typical in the “New World”, where the barrique is the king of the cellar. Today Chablis whites probably are the less understood wines by most of consumers, because they are outside of the homologation of taste which invaded the world of Chardonnay, and its typical mineral organoleptic qualities of flint perhaps require too much attention if compared to the immediate approach of oak wood aromas and taste.

 Despite in past times Chablis was produced by using the traditional feuillette - a small wood barrel having the capacity of 132 liters - in the last decades it was the steel tank to be mainly used in the cellar. Moreover, the introduction of new important technologies, such as the fermentation at a controlled temperature, have contributed to relaunch Chablis wine worldwide, by creating a wine making model which is now one of the most imitated in the world. A model which is however facing the strong attacks of the new Chardonnays coming from the “New World”, that with their immediate and direct wood aromas have easily conquered the palates of many wine lovers. The new trend has also been cause of new debates among Chablis producers who were already involved in debating about the commercial and enological utility of their traditions and the new techniques. Many of them have however been tempted by this new fashion and adopted in their cellar the use of barrique both for the fermentation and the aging of Chardonnay.

 Chablis viticulture and enology have walked a triumphant way beginning from the half of the 1950s, when the acreage destined to vineyards was a mere 500 hectares (1,235 acres). In the first years of the 1970s the acreage reached 750 hectares (1,853 acres), while today the covered land by vineyards is 4,300 hectares (10,625 acres). The environmental condition of the area frequently makes viticulture a difficult enterprise. One of the main problems viticulturists have to face is in fact frosts, an event which can also happen in May. There are two methods used in Chablis against frosts. The first one consists in placing stoves in vineyards in order to heat the air, the second one consists in sprinkling water on the vine's sprouts which will be then frozen by cold, therefore creating a layer of ice which will protect buds. The severe meteorological conditions and the particular composition of the soil give Chablis wines that absolutely mineral and personal character, a crispness hardly found elsewhere, qualities which made famous the wine of this area as the Chardonnay coming from the cold.

 The production is mainly about wines destined to the Chablis AOC and Petit Chablis AOC appellations, usually produced from vineyards cultivated in the plains. Soils mainly made of chalk and fossil deposits are destined to the production of Chablis Premier Cru AOC and Chablis Grand Cru AOC wines, that is the two categories which made famous worldwide the enological production of this area with the typical mineral and flint organoleptic qualities. The seven climat Grand Cru are located near the north side of the city of Chablis, vineyards from which are being produced the most famous and looked for Chardonnays. Also Premier Crus are to be considered excellent wines, in which it is always possible to find the mineral qualities and the style of Chablis. Also in wines belonging to the Chablis AOC and Petit Chablis AOC categories it is not rare to find good surprises. In particular Petit Chablis, a wine to be consumed young - usually considered a wine to be consumed daily with meals - that in its simplicity can be a good starting point to understand the style of this famous French wine area.

 




 Editorial  Share this article   Share on Google+   Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 44, September 2006   
ChablisChablis  Contents 
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