Unveiling the Premier Crus of Chablis

The soils and exposition of Chablis vineyards create distinct Premier Crus wines

Chablis, the white wine of Burgundy is highly appreciated, but what is not so well known is the great diversity present amongst the Premier Crus. The wines of 1er cru Chablis reveal not just the quality of the wines but also how the soils and exposition of each vineyard can create a range of wines from traditional linear and vibrantly mineral wines to round, rich Chardonnays with typical Chablis freshness.

Before climate change, the wines of Chablis were steely, acidic and austere in cool years, and powerfully acidic with charming fruit in riper years. Their clean fresh taste made them a popular accompaniment to seafood. Malolactic fermentation was mastered, contributing creamier richness. Their clear marketing image of a single variety from one region — the increasingly fashionable Chardonnay — made them competitive in the 1980s market, where Australia, New Zealand and California had introduced consumers to the idea of varietal wine.

It was around this time that Chablis hit a crossroads. Historically, like all wine, the wines had been fermented and aged in large, old barrels. The modern style was in tank, giving them their characteristic freshness. But yet again, the influence from the New World was felt. Big oaked Chardonnays from the New World were all the rage. Some producers started to use new oak. This led to ‘war’ amongst producers with fierce debates over what was traditional for Chablis. Peace was eventually made, and today oak is usually only seen in some Grand or 1er cru wines.

For the next 30 years, the region prospered and grew, growing from 500 ha in the 1950s to 4000 ha in the early 2000s. From the 1990s and into the 21st century, increasingly warmer summers giving more consistent good quality vintages — and a range of styles, oaked and un-oaked — supplied a market looking for high quality white wine.

Understanding 1er Cru Chablis
The Chablis appellation was created in 1938 with a junior appellation, Petit Chablis, created in 1944. The appellation has a pyramid structure of quality based on the terroir. At the top are seven Grand Cru sites which are clustered around Chablis town on the best sites, on the warmest south-facing slopes, producing the most intense and rich Chablis.

Second in quality are the Premier Cru vineyards covering some 750 ha. In 1986, 79 lieux dits (named places) were listed. These have since been re-organised to create 17 1er cru sites, stretching along both sides of the river Serein. Many of the crus have subsidiary climats which can use their name or the name of the main cru, but the label will always indicate if they are 1er cru. Next is the generic AOC Chablis which, at 2860 ha makes up the largest part of the appellation. Petit Chablis covers around 600 ha in the surrounding area.

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Scattered on the slopes of the hills radiating around the town of Chablis itself, the 1er Cru Chablis offer both high quality and enormous diversity, focusing on expressing the terroir with minimal winemaking influence. Chablis is dominated by Kimmeridgian marl-limestone with a high percentage of fossilised oyster shells. Wine geeks can focus on the minute differences between each site while keen drinkers may focus on the more famous crus Fourchaume, Montée de Tonnerre, Montmains and Vaillons.

The focus is all on the terroir, with Chardonnay being the neutral vehicle to carry the taste of Chablis. The appellation has successfully avoided going down the big oaked Chardonnay path and have, instead, incorporated small percentages of old barrels and long ageing.

The Serein river runs through the appellation travelling from the southeast to northwest. On the Right (eastern) Bank, close to the village, the different 1er crus share a similar terroir. On the Left Bank many steep-sided vineyards oriented southwest-northeast with east-facing slopes have varying ratios of limestone and clay. The sun arrives in the morning, the soil is cool and stony, and the wines are more floral and less powerful showing a limestone-driven character with finesse, excellent ageability and briny/salty notes. Vaugros is the only left bank cru which looks west.

The Right Bank vineyards are steeper with south and southeast orientation. The wines have a peachy, crunchy green apple character, more powerful with extra minerality and acidity.

The future holds different problems as producers will need to reconsider whether the previously colder sites will bring greater acidic balance and whether they will have to stop malolactic fermentation and thus reduce the creamier character found in some of the wines. Recent vintages have also suffered from severe frost and hail, reducing volume, but for now, there are some delicious 1er cru wines coming out of Chablis.

What better way to illustrate the variety of 1er cru Chablis than with a few of my favourites from different crus?