By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 20 July 2020
If you like your Chardonnay bone-dry and sinewy with fresh natural acidity and little or no oak influence, the remote northerly appellation of Chablis is often a good place to start.
Yet it often gets forgotten by lovers of white Burgundy – who are willing to pay higher prices from more southerly white wine appellations in the Cote d’Or. You can get such good value from Chablis’ cool climate limestone-grown Chardonnays – particularly with its better Premier Crus.
Over the years Chablis has had its imitators – but its fame is fairly recent. In mid 1950s there were only 500 hectares here – and there are now 5,284 - and there has recently been rather dilute poor examples on the market so you need to buy with care.
Our tasting showed how good some of the Petit Chablis can be for bright vibrant unoaked Chardonnay if you pick your producer. Don’t be put off by the name Petit Chablis, it is often rather under-rated and overlooked – but it can be a serious wine, made from younger vines or from outlying vineyards within the appellation. With a good producer it can offer good value light-weight alternative to overpriced Chablis.
In Chablis itself the styles fall into two groups: steely minerally styles or rich fatter more succulent fruit styles. For richer often oak fermented or aged styles – head to the various Premier Crus – there are 40 of them – some like Montmains, Fourchaume and Vaillons vary hugely in style, but can be reliable buys. The seven Grand Cru vineyards which overlook the town of Chablis and river Serein are on a par in quality with Cote d’Or better known appellations, but are often not as pricey.
You need to know your producers as the recent vintages are a mixed bag. Highly recommended in my book are Jean-Marc Brocard, Domaine Pommier, Domaine des Hates, William Fevre, Sebastien Dampt and Jean Claude Bessin.
Recent Chablis vintages in 2018 and 2019 have been unusually warm. 2018 was a huge vintage with very generous fruit styles and a touch less steely than they used to be. Frost-hit 2017 was a more classic Chablis vintage with cooler nights giving steelier styles and some very good quality, whereas 2016 was very challenging with hail, rain and frost – but there are occasional highlights like Jean-Claude Bessin’s Montmains below.
Petit Chablis 2018 Union des Viticulteurs de Chablis (12.5%) ***GOOD VALUE***
£11 Marks & Spencer
Best supermarket example of Petit Chablis on the shelves. Creamy appley and elegant with vibrant snappy acid, steely palate and minerally undertones - so typical of Chablis. Made by the large Chablis co-operative, but don’t let that put you off. A well-made example from big yielding hot steamy 2018 vintage, it offers a zippy refreshing introduction to Chablis’ unoaked Chardonnays.
Petit Chablis 2018 Domaine Louis Moreau (12%)
£12.99 / £14.49 Majestic Wine
Another estate founded in the 1990’s in Beine – Louis and Anne Moreau now run this 50 hectare estate with prestigious parcels in the top Grand Crus. His Petit Chablis comes from the sandy Portlandian limestone soils of the plateau above the valley – classic unoaked style with flinty aromas, buttery citric palate, grapefruit crispness and steely length.
Petit Chablis 2018 Alain Geoffrey (12.5%)
£14.99 Oxford Wine
Floral fruity nose, lemony fresh palate – more perfumed than other Petit-Chablis we tasted. Unoaked crisp example of Chardonnay grown on the famous Kimmeridgian limestone giving such minerally undertones. Geoffrey recommends serving it with mussels baked in a bed of pine needles or congor-eel soup, but soft goats cheese works well too.
Petit Chablis ‘Hauterivien’ 2018 Isabelle & Denis Pommier (12.5%) ***STAR BUY***
£20.75 Lea & Sandeman
Quite pricey for Petit Chablis, but this beautifully-made example shows how good Pommier’s wines can be. The family now own 16 hectares, but originally started with just 2 hectares in 1990 - and are now organically certified. This comes from 25-year-old vines grown on clay soils – unoaked, lemon zest bouquet, appley, vibrant and fresh.
The Society’s Chablis 2019 Jean-Marc Brocard (13%) ***GOOD VALUE***
£14.95 The Wine Society
From 2019 vintage, this is still youthful with tight citric fruit palate, lovely density and purity – it could do with just a touch longer to soften – but at this price this is good quality unoaked Chablis. Jean-Marc’s son Julien is now taking over the reins at this impressive domaine which farms up to 180 hectares. Note its Diam cork – one of the more reliable closures for bottle maturation.
Chablis 2018 Jean-Marc Brocard (12.5%)
£9.70 hf bt Tanners Wines
Such a handy format, the half bottle – great for picnics and single servings. This also comes from the excellent Jean-Marc Brocard stable who make such quintessential Chablis. Lemon, white peach bouquet with broad generous fruits on the palate; elegant sleek example from warm 2018.
Chablis 2018 Domaines des Hates (13%) ***STAR BUY***
£20.95 Lea & Sandeman
Clear favourite in our tasting – made by charming Pierrick Laroche who revived his family’s vineyards (his father was a cereal farmer) by removing them from the grips of the local co-operative, reducing yields and bottling his own from 2010 under Domaine des Hates label. He is really in his stride now making elegant Chablis with richness and purity.
Chablis 2018 Domaine Sebastien Dampt (12.5%)
£19.95 Berry Bros & Rudd
Another impressive 2018 from a rising star in the Chablis firmament. Sebastien Dampt set up with 7 hectares on his own parting from his family estate (his brother is Vincent Dampt). He prefers stainless steel to oak making such pure elegant Chablis. A lovely combination of steely grip, vibrant acidity and generous rich fruits – starting to drink well now.
CHABLIS PREMIER CRU
Chablis 1er Cru Vaillons 2018 Seguinot-Bordet (13%)
£25.99 / £28.99 Majestic Wine
Another beautiful example from warm 2018 with ripe succulent fruits made by venerable old Chablis estate founded in 1590. New generation Jean Francois Bordet – who is also president of the Chablis wine board - makes a particularly luscious style of Chardonnay from long lees ageing up to 5 months.
Chablis 1er Cru Montmains 2016 Jean-Claude Bessin (13%) ***STAR BUY***
£33.60 Berry Bros & Rudd
Architect-trained Jean-Claude’s first vintage was 1992 when he took his father in law’s vineyards away from the local co-op to make his own. He may be a relative newcomer, but this partly oaked premier cru is superb, the most forward of his premier crus, with ripe orchard fruit, lemony freshness and rich leesy creamy palate showing the open style of fruit from the ‘left bank’ Montmains vineyard.
Join Rose’s Hidden Gems of France virtual wine tasting in association with L'Art du Vin on 15 & 22 August www.aduv.co.uk