To Oak or Not to Oak; Exploring the Wonders of Chablis

I have a confession to make. I am not a huge fan of Chardonnay. That is not to say I don’t like it. I am just incredibly finicky about how I like it. I drink it and enjoy different expressions of it with different foods; however, rarely will I pour myself a glass to simply sip and enjoy. It doesn’t have so much to do with where it is made as how it is made. I like my white wines to be crisp, refreshing, linear, and steely. These are challenging qualities for the grape Chardonnay, much less the wine. However, there is one Chardonnay that hits the mark for me again and again; Chablis.

Chablis, often called the Golden Gate to Bourgogne, is at the northern tip of Burgundy. It shares a similar chalky soil to Champagne that contributes a steely minerality to the wines, which is one of the reasons I appreciate the wine so much. It is a region with many forests at the tops and base of the hills around the Serein River. This brings a freshness to the wines. Pre-phylloxera vine plantings in the region were over 40,000, today they are under 6,000.
A terroir driven wine

Chablis offers wine lovers one of the best examples of time and place. It is truly a terroir driven wine with the unique soil playing an important role. Kimmeridgian soil from the Jurassic era (150 million years ago) is rich in calcareous clay and limestone. This is what adds the depth of minerality to the wines, creating a linear focused acidity. Portlandian is the other predominant soil in Chablis. It is younger than Kimmeridgian (by 2 million years) and it lacks the marine fossils so fresher and fruitier Petit Chablis vines are grown in the area.

Another important component to Chablis is the climate. Being so far north, the climate can be brutal on the vines. The cold continental climate means limited sunshine and elevated danger of spring frost. Summers tend to be hot, giving the grapes their best chance at growth and ripening, but fall sometimes brings heavy rains, troubling for a quality harvest. This equals grapes with low sugar, high acidity, and light body.

To oak or not to oak

Chablis is known for its white flower, white orchard fruit, citrus zest, salinity, minerality, and even flinty notes. It can be quite austere with piercing acidity. Butter, a component of Chardonnays around the world, is not a characteristic of Chablis. As you can imagine, winemakers want to maintain the unique terrior of Chablis in each bottle; therefore, any use of oak in this region is minimal.

Chablis is typically fermented in stainless steel to retain freshness and minerality. Some may be fermented in large, old oak barrels that do not impart any oak notes into the wine. At the Premier Cru level the wine will typically spend some time in large oak barrels. This is done to add a bit of depth in texture, not to alter the aromas and flavors. Notes of butter, brioche, crème brûlée, vanilla, caramel, etc, are not welcome in Chablis. Similarly, Grand Cru Chablis come from the finest vineyards and typically oldest vines; therefore, oak is also used to add complexity, not manipulate the flavors or the body.

Chablis Classifications  

The Chablis hierarchy has four levels. These levels are based on the quality of the vineyard site and its terroir. Petit Chablis represents the lowest, or entry level of the hierarchy. These vines are planted in Portlandian soil around the outer limits of the appellation. As an entry level these wines can be quite good. There is a range in quality but at the top they offer lots of character. These wines are typically made for consumption within one year of release, a few of the tops have a 5-10 year ageing potential.

Chablis vineyards

Village level Chablis are labeled as AC. These wines are produced in the close to the villages of Chablis. Many of these wines are quite good and easily affordable. These vines grow in the Kimmeridgian soils. Some may see oak, many will not.

The Premier (1er) crus will grow in vineyards of higher elevation with a southern aspect to maximize sun exposure. Only 15% of Chablis vineyards have Premier cru status. The label will contain the name of one of the 40 premier cru village along with Premier cru.

Chablis Grand Cru vineyard

Only seven vineyards are awarded Grand Cru status in Chablis. These make up the most complex and expensive wines from the region. Although there are seven individual vineyards they are all in a row on the slopes off the Seine River across from the village of Chablis. These southern facing vineyards have maximum sun exposure from their aspect as well as the sun reflecting off the water. They are all planted in Kimmeridgian soil. These wines tend to have the ripest of the fruit notes in Chablis and some added complexity and texture from oak.

Disclosure: media samples; all thoughts & opinions my own
Chablis to try

2016 Vincent Dampt Petite Chablis ($18): Pale gold, light and fruity with notes of green apples and pears, lemon juice, white flowers, white peppercorn; light body, medium+ acidity, crisp with a pleasant minerality on the palate; lean and energetic.

2015 Domaine William Fevre Chablis ($25): Pale gold, linear focused orchard fruit, under-ripe stone fruit, lime zest, crushed stone, cheese rind; medium- body, dazzling minerality on the palate, crisp, refreshing, steely acidity, super delicious.

2014 Domaine Laroche Les Vaudevey Chablis Premier Cru ($47): pale gold, yellow fruit of apples, pears, and under- ripe peaches, acacia flowers, cheese rind, white pepper, crushed stone, flint; minerality wraps the palate, medium+ acidity, stern and focused yet highly approachable; medium- body; could drink this for days.

2012 La Chablisienne Vaulorent Chablis Premier Cru ($66): medium gold; yellow apple, ripe nectarine, lemon juice, acacia, beeswax, crushed stone; focused and elegant, a bit more round, medium+ acidity, depth of texture and complexity, dazzling minerality, with good length and vibrancy.

2011 Jean and Sebastien Dauvissat Les Preuses Grand Cru ($78): medium gold; ripe apples and pears, grapefruit, lime zest, lemon blossom, crushed oyster shells; focused, fierce, complex, elegant, medium body, pronounced acidity, with good length, this is not only a super age worthy wine, it is outstanding.

I hope you will embrace some delicious Chablis this winter. Please share your favorites with me by tagging me on social media. Cheers!

9 responses to “To Oak or Not to Oak; Exploring the Wonders of Chablis”

  1. Interesting article. I don’t mind the wooden laid Chards, but I prefer the cleaner flavor of Chablis. I think like everything else, there are fashions in wine.. and this one is fading.

    • Thanks Amber. I completely respect each individual’s right to like any wine they chose. Furthermore, there are food pairings where a heavily oaked, heavily Maloed Chard works. But for my enjoyment I prefer a leaner, steeler Chardonnay. Cheers!

  2. I am with you on this one-there is a minerality and bright acidity that comes with Chablis. As a California girl I appreciate there is a world of wine out there to taste and enjoy-and that little thing called terroir means each appellation brings something different to the glass. Great article!

    • Thanks Julie. I too appreciate the wide world of wine and respect we each have our own tastes. Every one should drink what they like. As a wine geek I love the experience of terroir and how no two wines ever taste the same. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with me. Happy New Year! Cheers.

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