It is difficult not to fall in love with Chablis: its rolling hills sit quietly through the centuries, beaten by harsh brutal winters and bathed by comfortable summer warmth, all the while being silent witnesses to the generations of winemakers ceaselessly toiling along the Seine River and its tributaries. I would like to think that the winemakers here realized the sheer beauty of the region, and strove to create wines reflective of Chablis, creating a style of Chardonnay so distinct and unique to the region that its instantly recognizable and difficult not to be seduced by its gustatory charm.
At the northern-most end of Burgundy just south of Champagne, sits the world-renowned wine district of Chablis. Famous for its austere wines, Chardonnay vines were first planted in Chablis in the 12th century by Cistercian monks, with Chablis wines being exported to surrounding regions since the 15th century. Strategically positioned along the Seine River, Chablis winemakers held monopoly over the burgeoning French market, broken only in the 19th century by the arrival of new railway systems connecting the whole of France, and made worse by concurrent oidium and phylloxera infestations. Despite these setbacks, Chablis winemakers continue to produce wines of high quality and regard well into the 21st century, popular amongst both the adventurous and the discerning.
Viticulturists in Chablis certainly do not have it easy in a region that is notoriously fraught with weather hazards. With its cool continental climate and the wet winds blowing in from the west, Chablis is especially vulnerable to spring frost, rain, and hail storms. With Chardonnay being an early-budding grape variety, it is especially vulnerable to frost during spring, which can significantly reduce the yields during harvest. Heavy rainfall during the growing season brings its own set of problems, from disrupting flowering and fruit set, to causing fungal infections and encouraging rot. Lastly, localized hail storms can physically damage vines or destroy entire vineyards. To counteract these hazards, viticulturists employ an arsenal of measures, from heaters to keep frost at bay, to protecting their vineyards from hail with nets. The strategic location of the vineyards also plays an immense viticultural role, with the best vineyards facing the South or Southwest direction. This allows the vines to obtain adequate sun exposure, so that the Chardonnay grapes can ripen adequately amidst this cold and harsh environment.
Chardonnays from Chablis are instantly identifiable by its fresh, lean, and unpretentious style. Its flavors boast a sharp combination of green (green apples, unripe pear, gooseberry) and citrus fruits (lemon, lime, grapefruit), further accentuated by its invariably high acidity. Secondary flavors from oak (e.g., vanilla, nutmeg), lees ageing, or malolactic fermentation (e.g., butter, milk-powder) common in Chardonnays from other regions are often insignificant or absent, reflective of the protective wine-making processes practiced in Chablis. Other distinguishing traits of Chablis wines are its prominent flint-like minerality (goût de pierre à fusil), and the hints of salinity in its finish, especially when the vineyards are situated in areas with Kimmeridge clay. Chablis is situated within the Paris Basin, within which a special type of calcareous subsoil rich in the fossilized remains of prehistoric oysters (Exogyra virgule) may be sporadically found, and is thought to contribute to the salinity and pronounced minerality of Grand Cru and Premier Cru Chablis wines which many discerning tongues crave and seek.