PREMIUM

A Decanter guide to Chablis Premier Cru

The ethereal, nuanced intensity of its wines continues to bewitch many a wine professional and consumer alike. Andy Howard MW takes us on a tour of one of the world's benchmark white wine regions, revealing the character that lies behind some of its best vineyard sites

It came as no surprise to wine enthusiasts around the world when the climats of Burgundy were recognised by the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2015. The region has always been the epitome for exemplifying the importance of terroir, with a long historical tradition melding with grapes, soils, vineyard exposition and climate. I would argue that the premier cru climats of Chablis elevate terroir to its most precise expression. Here, with a laser-like focus on a single grape variety, minimal (or no) use of oak and a marginal, cool climate, the vignerons of Chablis craft the most scintillating and precise examples of vineyard expression.

Chablis has always been one of my main loves. The steely acidity, nervy, fresh, energetic style of Chardonnay has always appealed, leading me to write my Master of Wine dissertation on the premiers crus. In the overall context of Chablis with, according to BIVB, about 5,600ha under vine in 2017 (including Petit Chablis), the 779ha of premier cru may seem somewhat inconsequential, but these wines are considered by many as the truest expression of this famous wine region.

Vincent Dampt of Domaine Daniel Dampt says: ‘With the premiers crus, there are strong differences in taste, even if you vinify them in the same way. We always speak about terroir as the soil, exposition and the hand of the winemaker but, in fact, it is mostly a question of soil.’ Chablis is renowned for its unique soil (and underlying rock structure) dominated by marly limestone dating back to the Upper Jurassic period about 150 million years ago. Kimmeridgian soil is characterised by the presence of countless fossilised oyster shells (exogyra virgula) – a key driver of wine style.

When one looks into the detail of Chablis Premier Cru, the picture becomes even more complex. In his book Inside Burgundy, Jasper Morris MW observes that with Chablis Premier Cru things get complicated. One can talk about premier cru as an important quality designation in isolation, or focus on the subtleties between vineyards. Most wine lovers are aware of some key sites – Fourchaume, Montée de Tonnerre, Montmains, Vaillons – but how many have either tasted, or know the stylistic differences between Beauroy, Côte de Léchet, Les Fourneaux or Vau de Vey?

Chablis Premier Cru Fine detail

There are 17 designated main premier cru climats (a specific, defined parcel of vines), including all those mentioned above. Where things get more complex is the fact that in total there are 40 climats, comprising some sites that are reasonably well known (Fôrets, Les Lys), as well as others that are virtually unheard of (or never seen) such as Côte de Prés Girots or Vaux Ragons. To add to the confusion, a Chablis Premier Cru can be named as the ‘main’ climat, eg Fourchaume, or by using both the main and the extra climat designation. As a result, Fourchaume can be named just that, or more precisely identified by the addition of Côte de Fontenay, L’Homme Mort, Vaulorent or Vaupulent.

In order to appreciate the location and style of the different climats, it is important to understand the topography of the region. With Chablis village at the centre, the first key difference is the result of where a vineyard sits in relation to the Serein river. On the right (eastern) bank, close to the village, lies Chablis Grand Cru, with many of the well-known premiers crus sharing very similar geology, exposition and characteristics. To the left of the river, a different style emerges, with many steep-sided vineyards oriented southwest-northeast, east-facing slopes and varying ratios of limestone and clay.

Clive Coates MW notes that wines from the left bank are more floral and less powerful than those from the right bank, with a peachy, Granny Smith apple character, whereas the right bank wines are more powerful with nutty/steely notes. Marc-Emmanuel Cyrot, working with Domaine Millet, observes that: ‘The right bank provides complex, well-balanced wines, with a maximum of minerality and vivacity. Those on the left bank are very aromatic, with a less full-bodied character.’ However, these are generalisations – the only way to really understand is to get into the detail.

Right of the river

Imagine the Chablis wine area as a clock, with Chablis village at the centre. This tour around the vineyards commences with Fourchaume at an imaginary noon, before proceeding in a clockwise direction. One of the most famous right bank premiers crus, Fourchaume is a 34ha site, notable for power, concentration and orchard fruit flavours, combined with umami and flinty notes. Guillaume Vrignaud describes Domaine Vrignaud’s Fourchaume, two-thirds planted on stony Kimmeridgian marl, as ‘showing a saline/iodine character’. Sébastien Dampt of Domaine Sébastien Dampt adds: ‘Fourchaume, in terms of aromas, is opulent, rich and complex. Exposition is south and west, so always good for ripening. Acidity is never high, but characteristic of the climat. I like Fourchaume, it’s a very floral, fine wine.’

Also well-worth seeking out is the less well-known (but highly renowned) climat of Vaulorent, at the eastern edge of Fourchaume. Hervé Tucki, ambassador for cooperative La Chablisienne, confided this is the premier cru which he always orders in a restaurant, given its prime location right next to grand cru Preuses.

Tucki, like many other locals, is an advocate of premier cru Montée de Tonnerre. Many would agree that this climat would be the first to be elevated to grand cru status (in the unlikely event of that happening). Although Chapelot, Côte de Bréchain and Pied d’Aloup are all recognised climats within Montée de Tonnerre, in most cases wine labels state just the latter – for good reason. This is a properly regal premier cru, the wines of great longevity, layered and complex, with tightly wound citrus and stone fruit notes when young. With ageing, quality can be directly compared to grand cru – perhaps not surprising given its situation adjacent to grand cru Blanchot (on the right bank) and similar exposition.

Mont de Milieu is located at around 3pm on our Chablis clock, and this large (34ha) site shares many of the best characteristics of Montée de Tonnerre. Well-known, it is undoubtedly high-quality, although none of the Chablis producers interviewed identified it as one of the most distinctive.

Vaucoupin, at 4pm, is a different story. Here, stony soils impart a much more chiselled, pithy, grapefruit style. Eve Grossot of Domaine Corinne Perchaud notes: ‘One finds the same balance in the wine year after year – light and floral on the nose with exceptional poise and precision on the palate, and typical flavours of wet stone, flint and a saline finish.’

By the left

Moving across the river, Vosgros is the first left-bank climat, herbal and floral, sinewy yet balanced and precise, followed in the southwest of the region, at 7pm, by a number of climats rarely encountered – Les Beauregards, Côte de Jouan, Chaume de Talvat. Much more significant is Montmains, a warm, generous and open premier cru where individual producer style is influenced by the presence of clay. Many Montmains have apple and stone-fruit notes, with crisp citric acidity and a nutty finish. Fôrets is a climat within Montmains which is often labelled separately – Domaine Raveneau makes a wonderfully distinctive bottling (labelled as ‘Fôret’) with great focus and savoury, steely, herbal characters to the fore.

Lying at 8pm, Vaillons is an important premier cru which can be further sub-divided: Beugnons, Chatains, Les Epinottes, Les Lys, Mélinots, Roncières, Sécher. Most producers use the Vaillons name to facilitate blending a recognisable, easy-drinking, fresh style which is usually generous and attractive early on.

Sébastien Dampt explains: ‘Vaillons faces mainly east – a very good exposition. In general, the wines have more freshness and a lot of minerality. In my range, it’s the wine with the highest acidity – very “Chablis” in style.’

One of the most interesting Vaillons climats is that of Les Lys which, unusually, faces north on very steep slopes. As a result, the wines are taut, cool, precise and worth knowing in a hot vintage. Cécilia Trimaille, the new régisseur (estate manager) at Domaine Long-Depaquit, states: ‘Les Lys is always more mineral, more delicate like lace, with a floral touch.’

Western potential

To the west of Chablis, 9pm, heading towards the village of Beine, are located some of Chablis’ most interesting (and in some cases, newer) climats. Here the orientation is very different, with very steep-sided valleys where the sun arrives in the morning, the soil is cool and stony, and the wines have a limestone-driven character with finesse, excellent ageability and briny/salty notes. Vau de Vey is seen as a potential top climat by many, with Vau Ligneau and Côte de Léchet also worth seeking out. Grégory Viennois of Domaine Laroche notes that Vau de Vey is a ‘cool plot with rocky soils, mineral aromas, concentrated and lively with high acidity’, and that it is ‘often the last site to be harvested at Laroche’.

To the east of Vau de Vey, above the village of Milly, Côte de Léchet is a highly regarded, individual climat. Vincent Dampt is a fan: ‘It’s not the most famous of the premiers crus, but it has one of the best capacities for long ageing.’ Côte de Léchet wines balance a lovely combination of mineral characters with sunny stone fruit and exotic fruit flavours.

Nearing the end of our clock tour, at 11pm one finds the underrated climat of Beauroy, notably different in exposition and soil. This windy site faces southeast, with thin, pebbly limestone soil and some blue clay. The sunny aspect produces wines with a generosity on the palate, more fruit-driven than floral, and very attractive in their youth. Romain Bouchard of Domaine de l’Enclos explains: ‘With an aspect of 45%, we are still in the Kimmeridgian zone. The soil at the top of the hill is poor, consisting of clay-limestone marls. Beauroy gives very expressive, fruity, floral wines.’

Ripe for exploration

It is wrong to try and over-simplify the subtleties of the Chablis Premier Cru climats. Perhaps the right-bank wines do show more similarities to the grands crus, with weight, power and stony tension to the fore. Left-bank wines can be cooler in style, showing finesse and precision. However, even within a single named climat there is notable variation – there’s wonderful scope here for wine lovers to compare and contrast different sites and producers.

The differences are often quite subtle, yet can be very significant. With age (and Chablis Premier Cru is capable of great ageing), the individualism of the respective climats becomes even more apparent and fascinating.