Chablis is part of the Burgundy wine region. However, it is separated from Cote d’Or by the Morvan Hills and is 60km North of Beaune. As a wine region, Chablis has already earned its fame internationally in the mid 1960s. The size of vineyard has grown from a mere 500 hectares to more than 4,500 hectares nowadays. This is 10 times the size of Meursault or 20 times of Puligny-Montrachet!
The heart of Chablis and its absolute best vineyards are on the west-facing hill immediately above the village and classified as Grand Cru. Some particularly well-located vineyards (mostly adjacent to the grand crus) are designated Chablis Premier Cru and represent some of the most reliable buys from the district. The lowest ranked (and bulk of productions) are Chablis and Petit Chablis (including some outlying regions of Chablis).
When one looks carefully into Chablis, there are three other factors that influenced the quality of Chablis wine beyond the simple AOC system presently in place.
- Kimmeridgian vs. Portlandian soil
It has long been known that Chablis wine and Oyster form a heaven marriage due to the unique soil structure in Chablis. The region's oldest soil in the heart of Chablis dates back to 180 million years ago and includes a particular vineyard soil type known as Kimmeridgian clay composed of limestone, clay and tiny fossilized oyster shells. This explains the minerality of Chablis wine and its perfect complement to Oysters.
Outside the heartland of Chablis lies another soil type known as Portlandian limestone, which is more sandy in color and just marginally different from Kimmeridgian. There had been continuous arguments and lawsuits whether Chablis classification should include vineyards with Portlandian soil. In 1978, final decision was made to classify vineyards based on microclimate and not on soil type. The vineyard size of Chablis was tripled as a result.
Were there significant differences in the wines from the two soil types? Not apparent. Nonetheless, the quality and consistency of Chablis wine overall have improved over time given the increase in scale of production.
- Oak vs. Steel
Historically Chablis was aged in old wooden feuillette barrels, which do not impart any oak flavors such as vanilla, cinnamon, toast, coconut, etc. Overtime, these barrels were replaced by stainless steel fermentation tanks. In the 20th century, some winemakers began to use modern wood barrels, thus sparked the controversy. "Traditionalist" winemakers dismissed the usage of oak as this would be against the "Chablis style". "Modernist" winemakers embrace its use (and the oak flavors) but not to the extent that the wine would be perceived as "New World" Chardonnay.
In general, Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines are most likely to get oak treatment as they have the necessary structure and enough fruit so not to be overwhelmed by oak influence. While there are style differences among producers, village level Chablis or Petit Chablis are seldom oaked.
- Human vs. Machine
Machine harvesters began to appear in Chablis in 1980s. This technical advancement has reduced the costs significantly for many growers. One wouldn’t need to hire pickers and having them sit idle when the weather was bad for harvesting. For the large volume from generic Petit Chablis or Chablis vineyards, this in no doubt is highly welcome by most producers.
Although the quality of the machine has improved significantly over time, many refuse to use machine at all. Raveneau and Vincent Dauvissat, the absolute best two producers in Chablis, handpick even their generic Chablis vineyards. In addition to the benefit absolute quality control at picking by human, some believe that machine harvesting actually releases potassium which would lower the effective acidity in the wine.
Nowadays, some producers take the mid-road approach – machine harvest for generic Petit Chablis and Chablis (for economical reason), while hand-picking for premier and grand crus.
Our featured wine - Laurent Tribut Chablis Beauroy Premier Cru 2002
To demonstrate the hidden quality of a truly great Chablis wine, we are featuring Chablis Beauroy Premier Cru 2002 from Laurent Tribut. The soil in Beauroy is of the superb Kimmeridgian soil. All grapes are hand-picked and aged in oak barrels, but merely 10% new oak to limit the oak influence. As the son-in-law and having been trained by Vincent Dauvissat, Laurent followed the meticulous winemaking technique of the Dauvissat family.
photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/peter_curb/337561718/in/photostream/