Chablis is more or less equal distance between Champagne, Sancerre, and the Beaune. Making it well and truly cool climate country — a significant factor influencing the style of wine made here. Pronounced acidity typically being a signature of this style.
Soil and aspect are two other key ingredients. The Kimmeridgian soils are the most prized. Many claiming they give Chablis its distinct mineral aroma and flavour and produce wines with more finesse compared to those coming from the regions other dominant soil type, Portlandian.
Kimmeridgian soil is a soft, gray coloured, limestone mixture of clay, silt, and chalk made from countless fossilised shell fish (mainly tiny oysters). This soil is very porous and drains well. These characteristics generally have a strong positive impact on wine quality. Portlandian soil, however, is harder, brown coloured, with less chalk and clay, and a lower percentage of various minerals. It’s generally noted for giving wines lower in quality and with less minerality.
The best Chablis have a distinct and unique thread of flinty minerality with a saline quality combined with focused, laser-like acidity. Other typical descriptors for the minerality of Chablis include gun flint, oyster shell, shell fish, tidal pool, seaweed, iodine, pebbles and wet stone. Current scientific understanding indicate these characteristics don’t come directly from the soil. However, it’s highly likely the unique combination of soil and other inputs of terroir create the distinctive flavour of Chabllis.
Thanks to the cool climate most fruit characters are along the lines of green apple, lemon peel, and green hay and the wines typically have a vibrant, refreshing, precision to them. The combination of cool climate and calcareous soil help create the pronounced acidity often described as crisp, bracing, austere, steely, and racy. Sometimes, lees stirring is used to create a creaminess to balance this high acid. And, typically the wines have a bone dry finish.
Although part of Burgundy, Chablis wines are typically quite different to Chardonnays of the Cote d’Or, or elsewhere for that matter, generally being crisper and more mineral and having less flesh. Saying that, many Premier and Grand Cru are moving toward a richer, denser style — thanks to a combination of global warming and better viticulture practices. But many Cote d’Or wines are also moving in the same, riper, direction so there remains a distinction.
There are four general quality levels in Chablis: Petite Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru. More details on each are given below. As wines move up the quality ladder they tend to become more concentrated, complex, and lingering. The Chablis character — distinctive saline minerality and precise racy acidity — is present, to varying degrees, in all levels but it becomes much more intense and defined as you progress up the ladder. I think comparing something like Dauvissat Chablis to the Dauvissat Chablis 1er Cur La Forest can illustrate this particularly well.
Hallmarks: light, lean and crisp but not intensely flavoured. The best show hints of minerality but much less complex and refined than standard Chablis
Why it tastes like it does: flatter grounds (less sun exposure) and more exposed to cooler winds. This means the grapes are less ripe and less concentrated than higher levels of Chablis. Lower minimum potential alcohol requirements (just 9.5%) means generous chaptilization much more likely (up to 3% increase possible), which can have a diluting effect. Higher permitted yields (60 hl/ha) also conducive to less expressive grapes. Lower price point and high risk of frost encourages a focus on volume. Portlandian soils are not as rich in clay and fossils and are said to give less interesting and less mineral wines.
What else: there’s a lot of debate around the quality impact of Kimmerigian soils versus Portlandian soils. Kimmerigian soils tend to have better aspects, older vines, and cropped to lower yields. One thought is, it’s these factors more so than the soil itself that give quality.
Hallmarks: expressive aromatics, distinct minerality, green apples, green hay, lemon peel, white blossom mineral, austere, bone dry
Why it tastes like it does: cool climate, grapes at lower end of ripeness spectrum (flatter sites). Higher maximum yields (60 hl/ha) and fairly low minimum potential alcohol ( 10.0%). Typically free from oak influence (if oak used larger neutral old barrels)
What else: the quality level of generic Chablis is highly variable.
Premier Cru Chablis
Hallmarks: expressive complex aromatics, a combination of steeliness and richness, intense minerality, and pronounced but integrated acid.
Why it tastes like it does: typically south facing slopes giving more sun exposure and allowing greater flavour development. This is further supported by slightly lower yields than standard Chablis (58 hl/ha) and slightly higher minimum potential alcohol requirements (10.5%). Some can have a touch of new oak, adding to complexity.
What else: the style of 1er Cru Chablis can vary quite a lot depending on the particular 1er Cru site. For example, Fourchaume tends to be richer and rounder whereas La Forest which tend to be more elegant and leaner. Fourchaume is on the right bank adjacent to the Grand Cru vineyards. It has a range of aspects from southwest to southeast so overall gets a longer and more intense level of sun exposure. This combined with the poor dry soils with a higher clay content (think lower yields with just the right amount of vine stress) help produce this richer, rounder, more concentrated style. La Forest is on the left bank with a southeast exposure to the less intense morning sun. This combined with shallower stonier soils help create a more elegant leaner style.
Grand Cru Chablis
Hallmarks: deeper colour, full bodied, high level of extract, highly complex, long mouthwatering finish. Can have some new oak. Ripe peach, baked-lemon, honeyed notes. Intense, highly charged flavour combined with a nervy minerality.
Why it tastes like it does: comes from fairly steep south-west facing slope, so typically much riper. Poor, dry soils help keep yields low and induce sufficient stress for the vine to focus on ripening fruit. The high diurnal temperature variation combined with high limestone content of the soil helps preserve crisp acidity and retains freshness.The minimum potential alcohol requirement of 11% is higher than elsewhere in Chablis. Lower yields (54 hl/ha) and older vines adds to this ripeness and concentration. Less need for chaptilization, if at all. Oak influence more common as wines have density and complexity to support.