Chablis is a French wine sub-region that is located in the northeast of France and crossed by the river Yonne. Technically belonging to the wider wine region of Burgundy, Chablis instead shares several climate features with the geographically closer Champagne.
Wines from Chablis are considered “quintessential” when it comes to Chardonnay, in fact, it is the only grape variety allowed and has been mastered by growers in the area since its very early days.
The name Chablis means “house near the wood” in Celtic, probably after a Neolithic village in the Serein Valley and was eventually a fortified farm from the time of the Gauls. Official signs of viticulture date back to the Roman invasion, and despite the fact that the vines were pulled up under Emperor Domitian in the 1st century AD, they were replanted two hundred years later.
In the 9th century, Cistercian monks began inhabiting Chablis after fleeing from the Vikings, with their choice of village due to the dangers of living alongside the River Yonne. Planting vines served the purposes of producing wines for religious ceremonies and as a decorative feature for monasteries.
In the 12th century, these vineyards extended over 40,000 hectares around Chablis, ten times today’s extension. The main centre of this flourishing industry was the Abbey of Pontigny.
In the 15th century, France’s fifth printing press was established in Chablis and the village grew to 4,000 inhabitants, almost double today’s population. However, in 1568 the Huguenots ravaged the area, burning down vast parts of Chablis in what was called “Black February”.
The following two hundred years saw a steady increase in the popularity of Chablis. Proximity with the Yonne river and the Seine ensured a comfortable gateway to the lucrative Parisian market and it became quickly monopolised. Soon after, Chablis’ fame reached England.
From the end of 19th century there were very challenging years for the wine industry. The development of railways encouraged the trade of cheaper grapes from outside the region, then oidium and, even more devastatingly, phylloxera destroyed the vineyards. With the decimation of two World Wars the work force was also significantly reduced, leading at the capacity of just 550 hectares of vines.
Between the two World Wars, however, Chablis became an AOC, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Since 1938, the name “Chablis” can only be used by producers within certain boundaries, according to specific winemaking processes and using only one grape variety, Chardonnay.
The introduction of mechanisation and heating, which became essential after the total loss of the 1957 vintage due to frost, pushed wine production to once again grow significantly and the glorious 1970 harvest marked the return of wealth to Chablis.
Today, winemakers in Chablis appear to be more skilled than their forebears, with many of them having experience of making wine abroad and a knowledge of the blending tradition and modern methods of wider viticulture.
The climate of Chablis is continental, generally cool with some similarities to the nearby region of Champagne. The weather has a strong effect on the wines due to frost hazard and inconstant temperatures, which influences acidity either way.
To minimise the risk of losing vintages, it’s not uncommon to see the usage of heaters during long and cold winter time.
The peculiarity of the climate of Chablis is the proximity with the southern regions of Champagne, which is actually closer than the other sub-regions of Burgundy, to which Chablis technically belongs, sharing many of its unpredictable features.
Chablis comprises 5,400 hectares under vine. As per 2016, the annual production of Chablis reached over 260,000 hectolitres. The entire production is made up of white wines from the grape Chardonnay, accounting for over 35 million bottles for estimated revenues of about £250 million.
Chablis represents 20% of Burgundy’s wine region production and 0.3% of total French wine.
Export is a very high, with over 66% of wines sold outside of France. The biggest market is the UK (29%), followed by US and Japan (10%) and Sweden and Belgium (8%).
The only grape allowed in Chablis is the white skinned Chardonnay. For some critics, this simple style of winemaking gives Chablis wines the purest expression of Chardonnay.
Due to the cool climate, wines in Chablis are generally characterised by more acidity and less fruity flavours when compared to Chardonnay wines from warmer regions, yet they are still quite delicate and medium-bodied. They also tend to be dry, highlighting purity in both aromas and taste.
Chablis uncommonly carries flavours of butter, an indication of oak-ageing, as it is common practice for the wines to be fermented in stainless steel tanks. Pale yellow wines with hints of green are the most common expression of colour for Chablis wines, turning light gold when ageing.
William Fèvre is one of the most representative producers in Chablis. Despite the family being in Chablis for over 250 years, the domain itself was only established in 1959. William Fèvre owns several plots in the area, ensuring different styles, depending on the specific soil and terroir of the vineyards.