The name Chablis today often conjures up images of generic dry white wine, but this misconception disguises the potential for the region to produce high quality wines in unique terroir. Part of the reason for this might be the historical popularity of the region, which was only awarded its own appellation in 1938. Viticulture is first thought to have come to the region during the Roman occupation, but it reached its peak of influence after the Middle Ages, at which point Cistercian monks manoeuvred winemaking to become a central part of the identity of Chablis. Chablis was in a prime position to lead the world of wine, with good river access to the Paris market and beyond via the Yonne river, from which the Seine, and Paris, can easily be reached.
While Chablis is officially part of the Burgundy region, it is quite distinct, both geographically and stylistically. Chablis is actually around 100 kilometres from the nearest neighbouring Burgundy vineyards, and is actually closer to Champagne than to other subdivisions of its region. This is historically due to its annexation by the Duke of Burgundy in the 15th century, but otherwise the key similarity between Chablis and other Burgundy sub-regions is the use of Chardonnay grapes. What differs, other than the terroir, is that Chablis is generally produced without the use of oak barrels.
Chablis today has around 4,900 hectares of vines, which surround the small town of Chablis and its 19 smaller villages and hamlets. This is just a small fraction of the 40,000 hectares utilised in the early 19th century, but a huge growth since its nadir in the 1950s, when only 500 hectares were used to grow wines. This shows the endurance of a region that is world famous for its wines, despite suffering a string of setbacks in the 19th and 20th centuries. The first wave of misfortune for Chablis came in 1856 with the advent of the Lyon-Marseilles railway. This new mode of transporting wines meant that the early advantage of river transport to Paris was interrupted by easy access to vineyards in the south of France.
The next blows to the supremacy of Chablis came in 1886, with an outbreak of powdery mildew, followed the year later by the phylloxera outbreak that led to the destruction of 70 per cent of French vines. Later, in 1957, a deep frost further devastated Chablis, resulting in only 132 bottles being produced that vintage.
Since then, Chablis has slowly rebuilt its capabilities. This was largely thanks to new techniques for surviving the spring frosts, such as the use of smudge pots to heat surrounding vines and also the spraying of crops with a constant supply of water. Previously, growers would diversify their crops, using more hardy varieties of grapes alongside Chardonnay. This was one advantage of other parts of Burgundy, which tend to be warmer.
The inconsistent climatic conditions, often featuring long, cold winters and hot summers, can be felt in the different vintages of Chablis. The weather system is semi-continental, with little influence from the ocean.
The soils of Chablis fall into two main types. Kimmeridgean rock is the most valued, made up of clay and limestone containing a vast number of small fossilised oyster shells. Portlandien rock is also to be found, which is slightly younger and less sought after. Grapes used in Grand Cru wines are grown in seven vineyards, with a further 40 appellations designated as Premiere Cru. These wines are made almost exclusively from grapes grown from Kimmeridgean rock-rich soils, and are often to be found on the southwest-facing slopes of the Serein Valley. The less refined Petit Chablis usually comes from the less rich Portlandien soils, and is also more likely to be grown on land with more exposure to the wind.