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In last month’s Decanter, I was quoted as being ‘very happy’. The reason? A panel tasting of premier cru Chablis, which included many stunning wines that I urged readers to ‘rush out and grab’.

If, however, you baulk at paying £20 for premier cru Chablis, I should add that I’ve been surprised, especially in recent vintages, by how good humble generic Chablis can be. I haven’t put it to the test, but I suspect that in a blind tasting alongside premiers crus, many village Chablis would score as highly. This has much to do with the high quality of recent vintages. Ripe years such as 2007 and 2008 allowed all but the chilliest and worst-exposed sites to ripen fully, so nuances of soil and slope counted for less than in a regular or poor vintage, when the vines must compete for every scrap of sunshine.

As in the Côte d’Or, the Chablis vineyards are divided into a hierarchy of grand cru, premier cru and village wines (see map p54), but the politics is impenetrable to all except insiders. Just why certain parcels rather than others have been promoted over the years from village to premier cru status is unclear. The new premiers crus may yield very good wines, but so may other sectors that remain classified as village. South of the town, along the road to Préhy, all the vineyards are mere village. Yet some time ago the best of them were premiers crus, only to be demoted to ‘make room’, as it were, for more recent promotions.

Slope stars

In Chablis, exposure seems to count for more than soil. Kimmeridgian limestone is certainly greatly valued and gives wines with the most finesse, more than Portlandian limestone. But inspect certain areas and you’ll find that the only big difference between a premier cru site and a village site is exposition. Driving south, with premier cru Vaillons on the right, the slopes on the left are all village. There are some variations in soil structure, but the main difference is that Vaillons faces south and southeast, while the slopes over the road don’t, and are thus less well exposed.

In the grands crus and the very best premiers crus, such as Fourchaume and Montée de Tonnerre, their superiority to village sectors is plain to see. Elsewhere the distinction is less clear cut, and this is one of the reasons why regular Chablis can be of exceptional quality.

The other crucial factor is vine age. Certain estates own parcels planted with old vines that, though classified as village, give concentrated wines with a strong personality.

This explains why some (though by no means all) cuvée vieilles vignes that certain estates release alongside their regular Chablis are wines of real character. The major expansion and planting of Chablis vineyards took place in the mid-1980s, so even those vines are now well over 20 years old. They have lost the vigour of young vines and their yields tend to be more self-regulating.

Global warming has also played its part. Areas such as those around Fontenay, just north of the town of Chablis, were long considered too marginal for grapes. But today, fields of wheat and corn have been replaced by good-quality vineyards.

Nor are generic and premier cru wines vinified differently. While in the Côte d’Or, the best white wines are fermented and aged in oak, with a certain proportion of new barrels, in Chablis, most premier cru and village wines are aged in tank. Where oak is used, it tends to be in the form of older barrels introduced more to give gentle oxygenation to the wine than to impart oaky flavours. Thus Chablis at all levels retains its transparency, and the purity of fruit is rarely obscured by the aromas or flavours of wood.

Room for improvement

And yet, touring the vineyards, you feel the wines could be even better. Many growers still use herbicides rather than plough their vineyards, and most sites are machine-harvested. While a small number of influential producers, such as Brocard and Pascal Bouchard, are converting some vineyards to organic farming, they are very much in the minority. Although most grands crus are picked by hand, and a few quality-conscious properties pick everything manually, many of the wines I’ve recommended (see right) will be from high-yielding, mechanically harvested vineyards.

Machine-harvesting can be defended, but one can’t help but think that if the same care and attention routinely devoted to the white wines of the Côte d’Or were applied to those of Chablis, quality could be sensational. After all, it’s possible to replicate, in other parts of the world, most styles of white Burgundy. In a blind tasting many years ago I mistook a Chardonnay from Giaconda in Victoria, Australia for grand cru Burgundy.

Cool sites, suitable clones, low yields, and subtle use of lees-ageing and of new barrels can, in skilled hands, give a persuasive copy of white Burgundy. Chablis is harder to impersonate, precisely because it’s a more ‘naked’ Chardonnay. Unoaked Chardonnays are increasingly fashionable in California and Australia, but they rarely, if ever, taste like Chablis, as these warmer areas can’t match Chablis for minerality and raciness.

Despite the overall quality of its wines, Chablis is suffering from an economic downturn even greater than other French wine regions. It has always been heavily reliant on exports – French wine drinkers don’t know what they’re missing – and close to half of those exports are destined for the UK. The weakness of sterling has reduced British purchasing power of European products, and the US market is also in the doldrums.

As a consequence, Chablis is hurting – ironic given that generic Chablis still offers terrific value. One could certainly argue that the prices of premiers and grands crus have risen too high and too fast, but that is not the case with generic Chablis. Not all the wines are good, but most, including those I’ve recommended, offer value and personality.

Written by Stephen Brook

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