Little Pleasures – a celebration of a less famous wine

Wine is the lifeblood of Chablis. The vineyards can be seen from the heart of the village and you often see grape growers going about their business.

Ah Chablis! That name conjures up all sorts of thoughts of stylish, sophisticated dry white wine. I love Chablis and think that the appellation / PDO has gone through a real renaissance over the last twenty years or so. There was a time when Chablis was frequently not what it ought to be and was instead a bit thin, green and tart.

This seems to longer be the case and the quality of Chablis available seems to be generally pretty high in my opinion. Sadly so does the price – and that is before Brexit. What makes Chablis such a pleasure though is the complexity, the minerality and is that sense that you are drinking a true thoroughbred – a classic. So why should that be a cheap wine? How can it be a cheap wine?

Cheap Chablis is always a disappointment and never shows you what Chablis should really be all about.

In some ways Chablis is a really simple wine to get your head around:

It is pretty much the northernmost outpost of the Burgundy wine region.

It’s only white.

It’s dry.

It’s only made from Chardonnay (Beauneois to the locals).

After that though it get’s a bit more complex because the differences are usually all about nuance rather than big, bold flavours. However the defining characteristic of Chablis should be all about the minerality in the wine. Minerality is the word we use to describe anything in a wine that does not come from the fruit or the winemaking. What actually causes these mineral characters is unknown and experts disagree – I have my own view that you can read about here – but they show themselves as stony, steely or earthy flavours and aromas.

Chablis’s beautiful vineyards.

Chablis should smell and taste stony and that is the defining character of the wine style. It should have that sense of the fruit being restrained and the wine brooding in the glass – rather than overt fruit leaping out at you. There should be tension in the glass between the (gentle) fruit, the crisp acidity and that minerality. They all vie for your attention, so the wine should feel beguiling and complex. Drinking a good, or great Chablis, should be an occasion.

I will write another day about the higher levels of Chablis Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines, but there is another subdivision of Chablis and it often gets overlooked.

That is Petit Chablis. I suspect very few of us go around actually knowing what Petit Chablis is, but it sells. It sells almost certainly because consumers assume that it has a relationship to Chablis itself – which it does.

Wine Map of France – click for a larger view.

The vineyards of Chablis – map courtesy of the BIVB.

The thing about Chablis is that it is really simple, pure even, until it isn’t. Chablis itself is all about the land in which it is grown. There are two important considerations with Chablis, the soil type the grapes are grown in and the aspect of the vineyard.

For a wine to be awarded the use of the Chablis name, or Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru, it must be grown in the vienyards around the (large) village of Chablis and be grown in the correct soils. These are a type of chalky limestone that was formed in the Jurassic era and was first identified in the village of Kimmeridge on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. That is why the soil is known as Kimmeridgian, sometimes Kimmeridgian Clay.

The village of Chablis with the vineyards behind.

The whole area was once ancient seabed – under a warm and shallow sea – and that is why it contains millions of fossilised mussels and oysters. Chablis must be grown in this soil and it is believed that it is this soil that helps the wine take on that mineral character. Chablis Premier Cru and Grand Cru must also be grown on Kimmeridgian soils, but in those instances they are on slopes facing south, south west or south east – this ensures they are riper than standard Chablis as the grapes get more sun.

Not all the land around the village of Chablis is Kimmeridgian though. At the top of the slopes there is a harder soil called Portlandian Limestone. It would be a waste not to plant anything in this soil, but there is no avoiding the fact that wine produced in these soils is different from Chablis – even if the same grape variety, Chardonnay, is used. That is why the wines grown in these soils are called Petit Chablis, so that we know they are different and perhaps that we should not hold them in such high regard as Chablis itself.

Traditionally we have been told that Petit Chablis is not mineral, instead it is is more fruity, but still crisp and dry. Broadly speaking I would say that is true, although it isn’t quite as clear as that makes out. Recently I have noticed that the quality of Petit Chablis seems to be very good right across the board – just like Chablis itself.

Chablis is a lovely place to visit.

I have to be honest that until a few years ago I was barely aware of Petit Chablis existing, let alone understanding what it was, so my experience of it has all been in the last three or four years. In that time though I have noticed more and more that the wines are on the whole consistently good quality and often fantastic value for money. It really does seem to be a very reliable appellation, I have tasted a good few of late and they all seem to deliver a classy glass of wine.

In fact they might be a perfect reliable classic French dry white wine to fall back on now that the likes of Chablis and Sancerre have become so expensive. Petit Chablis has certainly become something of a house wine Chez moi and something that I frequently order when dining out.

At their best – and all these are very good – Petit Chablis is crisp and refreshing with apple, orchard fruit, some light creamy notes and lots of acidity as well as a little touch of that minerality for which Chablis is so famous. They are of course unoaked so remain bright and lively, so would appeal to Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Sauvignon Blanc drinkers as well as lovers of White Burgundy.

Here are a few of the Petit Chablis wines that I have tasted and enjoyed in recent months:

 

2016 Louis Moreau Petit Chablis
Louis Moreau
Available in the UK for £12.99 per bottle from Waitrose

2017 Petit Chablis
Union des Viticulteurs de Chablis
Available in the UK for 12.00 per bottle from Marks & Spencer

2017 Petit Chablis Vielles Vignes
Domaine Dampt Frères
Available in the UK for 12.99 per bottle from Laithewaites

2016 Simonnet-Febvre Petit Chablis
Simonnet-Febvre
Available in the UK for 12.99 per bottle from Vinatis and Hay Wines

2017 Louis Jadot Petit Chablis
Louis Jadot
Available in the UK for 16.99 per bottle from Simply Wines Direct

2016 Alain Geoffroy Petit Chablis
Domaine Alain Geoffroy
Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from The Oxford Wine Company,Oddbins, Albion Wine Shippers

Anytime you want a true classic French dry white wine, then Petit Chablis seems to me to be a good bet. Please ignore the word Petit in the name, these are all wines that deliver great big dollops of pleasure.

 

Wine of the Week 58 – the other wine from Chablis

Chablis town, you can see vineyards on the slopes beyond.

Chablis town, you can see vineyards on the slopes beyond.

Having just returned from a week in Chablis I am all fired up with enthusiasm for the place and its wines. Most wine drinkers will feel that they understand what Chablis is, a classic, crisp dry white wine, normally unoaked and made from Chardonnay. Well, as usual I discovered that most of what we believe to be true about the place is not true. There are in fact may different styles of Chablis, many of them much richer than most consumers realise.

However, I will write about Chablis another day and restrict myself to Chablis’s poor relation today – Petit-Chablis.

In truth Petit-Chablis is no poor relation of Chablis, it is just a different wine. The wine of Chablis, wine that is given the appellation Chablis in line with the appellation contrôlée / PDO is named after this famous town, but defined by grape variety and the local soil. Chablis can only be made from Chardonnay vines and must be grown on the Kimmeridgian soils that are found on most of the slopes around Chablis. Kimmeridgian is named after Kimmeridge in Dorset and it is a calcareous clay and is a very fossil rich soil that contains the fossilised remains of ancient oysters and ammonites. The lime content of the fossils helps give acidity into the wine and, it is believed by some, to impart the typical minerality too.

On the outskirts of Chablis, the Kimmeridgian soil is hard to find and makes way for the harder Portlandian soils that are not so rich in clay or fossils and generally produce wines that are less mineral, but more fruity. More importantly Portlandian soils are also found on the top of the Chablis slopes, the plateaux between the valleys, so is often right by some of the very best Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru vineyards. The only wine produced on this Portlandian soil is Petit-Chablis.

Chablis vineyards, looking North.

Chablis vineyards, looking North, the town is hidden in the valley. Some of the vines at the very top of the opposite slopes are Petit-Chablis. On the slopes it is Chablis Grand Cru.

To many of us the name Petit-Chablis implies that the wine is somewhat lesser, although I understand that this is not so in French. With extensive tasting though, I discovered that this simply is not so. Although many of Petit-Chablis I tasted were pretty ordinary, others were far better than the dull generic Chablis wines that grace many of our supermarket shelves.

Wine map of Chablis, Petit-Chablis is in pale yellow.

Wine map of Chablis, Petit-Chablis is in pale yellow.

Frankly I was spoiled for choice as to which Petit-Chablis to write about today, Domaine Mosnier‘s was bright, focussed and very good, Domaine Moreau-Naudet‘s was richer and more mineral, La Chablisienne‘s Petit Chablis ‘Pas si Petit’ (not so little) is fresh with a touch of minerality. The Petit-Chablis from Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin is an extraordinarily fine wine, as is the one from Domaine Vincent Dauvissat. However as these last two are pretty pricey, although well worth it if you feel like treating yourself, so I have chosen a different producer’s Petit-Chablis to be my Wine of the Week – William Fèvre.

Didier Séguier (left) winemaker at William Fèvre. Alin Marcuello, hospitality manager is on the right.

Didier Séguier (left) winemaker at William Fèvre. Alin Marcuello, hospitality manager is on the right.

By the by, I often take the view that a top producer’s lesser wine, or appellation, is a better bet than a lesser example of a top wine, so think Gigondas rather than Châteauneuf, Coteaux du Giennois rather than Sancerre, Monbazillac rather than Sauternes, Côte de Castillon or Fronsac rather than St Emilion if you want good value.

petit chablis2014 Wiliam Fèvre Petit-Chablis
AC Petit-Chablis
Burgundy, France

Unoaked Chardonnay with 10 months lees ageing in stainless steel tank.

The colour is very pale, silvery and clear with a touch of green.
The nose offers green apple, green apple skin together with some blossom and floral notes.
The palate is surprisingly soft and round with appley and pear fruit. A steely, fresh quality balances the fruit with its lovely green acidity that is just off tart. This makes it a nice drinkable wine as the acidity is not too dominant, while little flourishes of chalky and seashore minerality add complexity and finesse. It has a lovely long finish.
This is an excellent classic French dry white and much  better than most of the basic Chablis in the supermarkets – 88/100 points
The 2013 is currently available and is a little richer and rounder. The 2014 will be available around October / November 2015.
This makes a perfect aperitif, or serve it with soft cheese, shellfish, grilled fish and white meat.
For UK stockists look here and contact Fells and Co.