Chablis steels itself

Last year, Chablis was hit by hail, frost and mildew. This will probably push up prices, but, reports Adam Lechmere, it’s about time.

Export market shares
Export market shares

As spring 2016 moved into summer, Michel Laroche took a map of Chablis and drew circles around the areas that had been affected by frost or hail. He made three huge blobs and half a dozen smaller ones, colour coded to represent three events – the severe frost of 27 April and the two bouts of devastating hail on 13 and 27 May. He might as well have circled the entire appellation. Scarcely a vine – apart from the 100 ha of Grand Cru vineyard to the north of the town of Chablis – escaped. Then, after the frost and hail, came widespread mildew. Vignerons joke that the only thing they didn’t get in 2016 was a plague of locusts. The little commune of Béru in the east of the appellation lost 100% of its crop. The premier cru Fourchaume in the north escaped the hail and frost, but lost 50% to rot. Elsewhere, yields were down by 50% to 60%. “I’ve seen hail before and I’ve seen frost, but I’ve seen nothing like that in 50 years of winemaking,” Laroche told Meininger’s..

Poor soils, fine wines

Of course, Chablis is used to extreme weather. The northernmost appellation of Burgundy – along with Champagne and Alsace it’s one of the three most-northerly wine regions of France – is geographically in the middle of the country, several hundred kilometres from the coast in any direction. It’s Burgundy, but it is 130 km from Beaune, with the Morvan massif between. The climate is semi-continental, and with no maritime influence, winters can be brutal and spring frosts hugely damaging.

The pretty town of Chablis, which bestrides the Serein river, is the hub of 5,300 ha of vineyard which carpets the rolling hills to the north-east and the south-west. The finest – the seven ‘climats’ that make up the Grand Cru appellation – look south-east over the river and the town. These Grand Crus – Les Preuses, Bougros, Vaudésir, Valmur, Grenouilles, Les Clos and Blanchot – benefit from two important topographical features. They are close to the river and so take reflected heat from the sun, and they are protected from cool northern winds by the cap of forest, the Bois du Taillis, on top of the hills behind. The Grand Cru vineyard is exclusively on the right bank of the Serein, while the 770 ha of Premier Cru, including renowned names like Vaillons, Montmains, Vosgros and Les Beauregards, surround the town on both sides of the river. In the best years, Premier Cru Chablis can be as rich and age-worthy as Grand Cru.

The next level down is the 3,500 ha of basic Chablis, and finally, 950 ha of Petit Chablis, whose vineyards are in the northern part of the appellation, mainly on the tops of slopes. The latter is often described as ‘the lowliest’ of the four quality levels, and while it can be insipid, there are some very fine examples on the market. “People make the mistake of thinking Petit Chablis means low quality, but that’s not the case,” educator and former winemaker Eric Szablowski says.

The quintessential Chablis style is a steely minerality, a flinty edge that is both refreshing and ageworthy. Crucially, this is both classic and utterly modern. Everyone wants acidity, freshness and minerality now. “There’s something fine and pure about Chablis. It’s the style of the moment. It’s a very exciting time to be working here,” says Olivier Bailly, régisseur at Domaine Billaud-Simon, which was bought by Beaune’s Domaine Faiveley in 2014.

The racy profile of Chablis is due to the coolness of the northern climate, and the Kimmeridgian clay soil, composed of 180-million-year-old marine fossils, on which the majority of the vineyard sits. This poor, stony soil on well-drained, south-facing slopes imparts a profile to Chablis which is utterly unlike the powerful, oaked whites of the Côte d’Or to the south. There’s an important difference between the Kimmeridgian soils and the less-sought-after Portlandian soils of the plateaux, on which most of the Petit Chablis vineyard is planted. Portlandian soil has less clay and marine deposits, resulting in fruitier, shorter-lived wines.

Consumer love affair

Chablis is possibly the most-recognised white wine brand in the world. Of the 36m bottles sold, with an estimated value of €247m ($262m), 68% are exported. One-third of those go to the UK. The next most popular markets – Japan, Norway, the US and Germany – take about 8% each. Asia is increasingly important. China imported 1.2m bottles in 2015, an increase of 55% in volume and 24% in value on the previous year; while red wine makes up 70% of Burgundy exports to China, Chablis is the second-biggest exporter of white Burgundy, with more than a quarter of the market. The Chablis council has noted the new, emerging Chinese middle-class market is one more interested in value for money than perceived luxury. “This is an excellent opportunity for Chablis, which has a wide range of wines,” it says.

In the UK, sales are just as healthy, and America’s love affair with the seductive white shows no sign of abating. “It’s incredibly stable,” Charles Lea of the four-branch merchant Lea & Sandeman tells Meininger’s. “It goes on being in demand all the time.” During the slump of 2008 and 2009, when Mâcon and Saint-Véran sales dipped, “Chablis marched on as if nothing had happened. It’s a very strong brand.”

Over in Washington, DC, Michael Sands of the retailer Calvert Woodley says sales are up 25% over 2015. “I think the increasing price of Burgundy the last few years has made more people revisit Chablis. We've sold more Chablis this year than any other appellation in Burgundy, red or white.”

It’s an astonishingly successful story. The region retains its reputation for quality despite “being in every hotel and bar on the planet,” as Lea succinctly puts it (and despite, in much of America, “Chablis” having become a synonym for the most basic sugary whites). It has even transcended the iniquitous “Anything but Chardonnay” movement – any sommelier can quote the diner who asks for Chablis because they can’t drink Chardonnay. Hervé Tucki, the brand ambassador at La Chablisienne, the appellation’s single cooperative, puts it another way. “We don’t make Chardonnay, we make Chablis.”

What La Chablisienne does and says is important, because this enormous company accounts for one-quarter of the output of the entire appellation. Of the 5,296 ha in Chablis, La Chablisienne controls 1,280 ha. “We are like a republic,” Tucki says. He adds – and he’s only half joking – “We are a dictatorship. We have one team and one opinion.” The company’s 280 producers have holdings ranging from a fraction of a hectare to 40 ha. Everything is controlled, Tucki says, from vineyard to finished bottle. Chablisienne might be big, but its philosophy of winemaking is reassuringly artisan – “The more you do in the vineyard, the less you have to do in the winery. We practice slow winemaking here.”

Much of the appeal of Chablis is its simplicity. It’s a one-grape appellation, and it’s self-contained. While the land is recognisably Burgundy – vineyards are divided into a chessboard of climats – Chablis comes without the terrifying prices and mind-bending complexity of the Côtes to the south. There’s also a refreshing approach to the winemaking. “We’re simple here,” says Jean-Philippe Archambaud at Simonnet-Febvre, the renowned house which was taken over in 2003 by Maison Louis Latour. While he intervenes as little as possible and will never acidify or chaptalise, he is quite happy to use inoculated yeast. “I must be sure of my fermentation.”

Even those like Michel Laroche, whose vineyards are fully organic, are remarkably undogmatic in the winery. Laroche, who stepped out of the mainstream in 2009 when he merged the company which bore his name with Les Vignobles Jeanjean to form the huge AdVini, retained about 20 ha of vineyard which he now farms as Le Domaine d’Henri. His wines are the essence of purity and precision. “Fourchaume has a reputation for fatness. Not mine,” he says. But he doesn’t worry about acidifying if necessary, and in the lean 2016 he added “a little bit of sugar.”

As with so many ancient wine regions, Chablis is about evolution, not revolution – especially when it comes to oak. Traditionally, Premier Cru and Grand Cru are given a few months in used barrels, while Petit Chablis and basic Chablis are hardly ever oaked. Some winemakers eschew wood entirely. At Simonnet-Febvre – one of the few Grand Cru producers that uses no oak – Archambaud says classic Chablis “should have a green tinge. That is what Chardonnay on limestone gives you.” But there is a movement to produce wines in a more international, rounder style. “I have the feeling that the new Chablis generation tend to use more aged oak barrels than before,” says Thomas Pico at Domaine Pattes Loup, who epitomises that new generation. “A cellar without wood is not a proper cellar,” he says. His wines go into used barrels for up to 18 months, “to make the end palate rounder, and to give structure to the wine.” Pico rebels against the idea that “classic Chablis should taste of green apple – that is not Chablis for me.”

Price changes

While there will always be winemakers willing to experiment with style, the unique selling proposition of Chablis is its stability. At the time of writing, the 2015 vintage is about to come on the market, and there will be price rises, especially at the top level. This is inevitable, as producers hold back stock in anticipation of the tiny quantities of 2016 they will have to sell in a year’s time. But it won’t be anything too dramatic. “Grand Cru will look expensive, but then again it’s been cheap for a long time,” Charles Lea says. “I don’t think I’m going to be very shocked by the prices.”

As the great Burgundy crus get prohibitively expensive, Chablis – dependable, modern, affordable – is a very attractive proposition. Clever merchants are seizing the moment. “We’re doing a pre-en primeur Burgundy offer,” Tom Harrow of the wine club Honest Grapes said in mid-December. “We’re telling everyone, ‘Get your Chablis now’.”

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