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The Grand Crus of Chablis
By Ed McCarthy
Jan 24, 2017
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My wine-loving friends all seem to agree on one topic:  We didn’t buy enough white Burgundy when it was relatively affordable--two or three decades ago. But we still have Chablis, which remains reasonably priced, and is a great wine, especially in the better vintages.

A journey to the quiet town of Chablis, population about 3,000, is a trip into the past.  It’s about a two-hour drive southeast of Paris, but another world.  In the center of Chablis, you will find La Chablisienne, one of the wine world’s best cooperatives, and you can taste a sampling of Chablis wines from all over the region.  Also, many of Chablis’ best producers have their wineries in Chablis, or just outside of town.

Chablis wines are part of Burgundy, even though the Chablis district is over 60 miles northwest of the main Burgundy region, the Côte d’Or.  Chablis became part of Burgundy back in the 15th century, when the Duke of Burgundy decided to annex this already well-established wine district.

Just as in the Côte d’Or, Chablis wines are made from 100 percent Chardonnay, and are arguably among the best Chardonnay wines in the world.
 
Because it’s the most northerly district of Burgundy, Chablis invariably experiences the coolest climate in the Burgundy region.  The vintage date is especially important in Chablis, particularly now with global warming.  Relatively cool vintages are becoming the stars.  The cool 2014 vintage, now available, is amazingly good!   I was fortunate enough to attend a 2014 Vintage Grands Crus tasting recently in New York, presented by the Union des Grands Crus de Chablis, and I was stunned by the excellence of the wines.  The last vintage in Chablis that compared in quality to 2014 occurred 18 years ago, with the superb 1996 vintage.

The story of Chablis began in the 9th century, when monks planted Chardonnay in the vineyards with the best exposure around the town of Chablis.  To this day, these original vineyards, now numbering seven, are growing the best Chardonnay grapes in the Chablis district, and their wines are known (in French language plural) as Grands Crus Chablis.  As the Chablis region expanded over the years, about 40 Premier Cru Vineyard sites, adjacent to the Grand Cru vineyards, were established.  Premier Cru Chablis wines are great buys today because they cost about half the price of Grand Cru Chablis, and yet can be excellent examples of Chablis.

What is the secret of the greatness of the Grand Cru vineyard sites?  The vineyard area, located on one slope north of the town of Chablis, has the largest amount of Kimmeridgian soil, a mineral-rich clay and lime mixture.  About 180 million years ago, the Chablis area was covered by the sea.  When the water receded, it left behind billions of now fossilized shells, primarily oysters.  These marine fossils are essentially responsible for the soil’s significant lime content. The Kimmeridgian soils are the source of the trademark minerality in Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis wines, especially in the Grand Cru vineyard sites.

The bulk of Chablis wines are simply called Chablis (also known as Chablis AOC); they can be excellent buys in good vintages.  Their vineyards are located further   from the town of Chablis and the Grand Cru/Premier Cru vineyards.  The least expensive ($15 to $20) Chablis wines carry the Petit Chablis appellation; these vineyards are furthest away from the town of Chablis.

In general, you can find many fine Chablis AOC wines retailing in the $20 to $25 price range.  Premier Cru Chablis start at about $28 and go up to $39 for most wines, with some a bit higher.  My focus here is on the best Chablis, the Grands Crus, which sell mainly in the $55 to $85 price range, a reasonable price for wines of this quality.

Today, seven Grand Cru Vineyards exist.  The first five, designated as Grands Crus in 1919, are Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos, and Blanchots.  In 1938, Les Preuses and Bougros were also named as Grand Cru Vineyards, bringing the total to seven.  To complicate matters a bit, two small “Monopole” Vineyards (owned exclusively by a single producer) are located within the seven, with their own Grand Cru designation:  “La Moutonne,” owned by Long-Depaquit, is located partly in Vaudésir and partly in Bougros; “Clos des Hospices dans Les Clos,” owned by Moreau, is located within the Les Clos Vineyard. 

Les Clos is the largest vineyard, about twice the size of the other six vineyards, and the most widely known of the seven.  Over the years, the two Grand Cru vineyards with the greatest reputation for quality have been Les Clos and Vaudésir, followed by Valmur and Grenouilles.  But all seven Grand Cru vineyards can produce outstanding wine--depending on the producer and the vintage.  Another factor is the age of the vineyard sites:  Those Chablis wines designated as “Vieilles Vignes,” made from vines often 70 to 80 years old, can produce the most concentrated, intense Chablis wines.

All Chablis wines are lighter-bodied than their cousins in the Côte d’Or, but I would still characterize them as medium-bodied.  Chablis wines are also livelier and more minerally, with greater acidity than Côte d’Or Burgundies.  Grand Cru Chablis ages extremely well, usually needing about ten to fifteen years to fully mature.  But the 2014 Grands Crus are so delicious and exciting now, it will be difficult to wait so long to enjoy them.  I would avoid Grand Cru Chablis in the warmer vintages, however; they tend to be fuller-bodied, rich, and too ripe in warm vintages, with lower acidity.  In short, not Chablis at its characteristic best.

Grand Cru Chablis makes up a mere three percent of all Chablis wines produced, but the good news for the U.S. is that it receives a large portion of the exported Grands Crus.

Many Chablis wines are fermented and aged only in stainless steel, and receive no oak aging.  But some of the fuller-bodied Premier Cru and especially the Grand Cru Chablis receive some oak aging for brief periods, always in old oak barrels that impart no oaky aromas in the wines.  Two of the best Chablis producers, Fransçois Raveneau and René Dauvissat, age their wines longer in oak than other producers, and tend to produce more full-bodied, longer-lasting wines (they are also the two most expensive Chablis wines).

Other Chablis producers that are among the best include the following:

Louis Michel & Fils               
Jean-Marc Brocard
Jean Collet                   
Long-Depaquit
Jean-Paul Droin               
Billaud-Simon
Christian Moreau               
Jean/Daniel Defaix
William Fevre                   
Jean-Claude Bessin
Domaine Laroche               
Domaine Pinson
Jean Dauvissat               
Robert Vocoret et Fils
Gérard Duplessis               
Simonnet-Febvre
Domaine Drouhin Vaudon

Not all of my favorite Chablis producers were represented at the Union des Grands Crus de Chablis 2014 tasting.  Grands Crus that stood out for me at the tasting included the wines of the following producers (in alphabetical order):

Domaine Collet Valmur
Vignoble Dampt Les Preuses
Domaine Drouhin Vaudon Vaudésir and Les Clos
Domaine Nathalie/Gilles Fevre Les Preuses
Domaine William Fevre Bougros; Vaudésir; Les Preuses; Les Clos
Domaine Laroche Les Blanchots; Les Clos
Domaine Long-Depaquit Les Blanchots; Les Clos; Moutonne; Bougros
Domaine Louis Moreau Vaudésir; Valmur; Les Clos; Clos des Hospices
Domaine Gerard Tremblay Vaudésir

The Grand Crus of Domaine William Fevre and Domaine Laroche really showed well.

The Union des Grands Crus 2014 tasting was clearly the best Chablis event that I have ever attended.  My advice:  Buy 2014 Chablis wines--especially the Grands Crus, while they are still available.  You will not regret it.