Outside the Côte d'Or, the main outpost for white Burgundy is in the very north of the Burgundian geographical designation, so far north that the vineyards border Champagne and hail and frost are among producers' worries. This region is called Chablis, and the white wine it produces from the Chardonnay grape is known all over the world. With a distinctive taste of powerfully saline, minerally fruit, which is sometimes called a steely or metallic flavor, these wines are mass-produced and often inexpensive.
Chablis wine is produced solely in the town of Chablis, which at about 15 square miles is not much larger than a Côte d'Or village such as Gevrey-Chambertin. And yet vineyard plantings in the region have gone over 6,300 acres! Most of this wine is used to produce the basic Chablis, while close to 2,000 acres make up Premier Cru plantings. Grand Cru wines, which are much more expensive than regular Chablis, come from the 250 acres with the most exclusive soils.
While the typical Chablis is noted for its distinctively steely, almost intentionally lean taste, from Premiers Crus the Chablis style is often entirely different. Rich, round and nutty, the wine almost completely loses its mineral component, and is stuffed with light fruit and spice instead. Grands Crus are even richer and offer great aging potential, and can rival the best whites of the Côte de Beaune.
While Montrachet might be thought of as a more pure and finessed example of the Chardonnay grape, Chablis is the region most commonly associated with Chardonnay growth for most people. Wines with much less of a cost can be found, especially at the village level, but at the top level the wine is just as good as any boutique Côte d'Or specialty.
The history of Chablis began when Romans introduced viticulture to the region. Religious bodies soon took interest in grape-growing in Chablis, as with many other parts of Burgundy, and churches bought out many of the vineyards. Religious figures also introduced Chardonnay to Chablis, before it ever existed in the Côte d'Or.
Originally not officially part of the Burgundy region, Chablis was included in the 1400s, and by this time winemaking had grown to become a large part of the village's economy. Most wines were shipped to Paris to be sold, since Chablis bordered on a river that connected directly with Paris, and at that point the capital city of France had access to few other domestic wines. But Chablis's reputation caused it to spread all over the world, and at this point the region was bursting with vineyards.
And yet the introduction of the railway system, such a boon to regions such as Bordeaux that now could access the whole market of France, destroyed Chablis's hold on the Paris region and sent the village into a tailspin, for the simple reason that they introduced a massive amount of competition which overwhelmed Chablis in both quality and quantity. As the 20th century began Chablis winemaking had reached new lows, and it continued to sink as the Côte de Beaune emerged as a clearly better place for Chardonnay growth.
Quality was improved in 1938 when AOC introduced regulations for the Chablis region, limiting yields and thus the amount of wine produced, and disallowing the blending of any supplementary grapes into the Chablis blend. They also trademarked the Chablis name and attempted to enforce it across the world, with Chablis from America and even remote places such as Australia cited for stealing the village name. And since Chablis's basic wines are often lower-cost than Côte de Beaune grandeur, a Chablis resurgence has been taking place in recent years as the market shifts toward better-valued wines.
Climate and Viticulture
The scenic town of Chablis lies so far north that frost, hail, and snow are all serious threats. In the past, in Chablis's early days, crops would often be lost to particularly cold winters, and winemakers would be able to do nothing about it. This destroyed several Chablis vintages almost entirely, and ruined the quality of others.
Only recently have solutions been found to this problem, particularly smudge pots that burn all day long in order to keep the temperature in the area at least above freezing. The same thing is done in Champagne, and it works well, although even this time-consuming method was unable to save the horribly cold 2001 vintage.
The soil in Chablis is much different from in the Côte de Beaune. Rather than pure like the Côte de Beaune's iron-rich limestone, the calcareous soil in the region is more chalky and soft, but in Premier Cru vineyards has much more density and concentration. In the best vineyards the wine is improved by a strange viticultural phenomenon: fossilized oyster shells! Allegedly, the shells help the wines attain greater richness and character, although exactly how has not yet been proven.
- Chardonnay: Clear, powerful and minerally, the Chardonnays made in the basic Chablis village appellation typify a certain type of white wine called Chablis wherever it is made. Authorities are now attempting to enforce the Chablis trademark across the world to protect the Chablis name, which exemplifies the particular wine character for which it is known. The worst wines are lean and lack enough fruit to balance out their extremely powerful acidity and mineral force. The better wines show a citrussy character of lemon, lime, and often even kinds of grapefruit, with sometimes peach, pineapple, and more exotic melon and pear. Acidity is usually high to keep the fruit clear and vibrant. The forceful minerals come through more on the finish and are still combined with spicy fruit in wines that balance well enough. This is the ideal village style--cool and minerally but not necessarily too harsh or lean. Premiers Crus make a richer style with more exotic, round fruit notes, but they all produce their own style of wine. The Grands Crus are more Côte d'Or-like, with a deeper gold color and powerful flavors of yellow fruit. Most of the wines can age, but should be drunk within a few years. Premiers Crus, however, might be left to rest for five years, and Grands Crus are unusually ageable, with 10 years almost a minimum and a quarter of a century a good possibility.
Since Chablis is closer to Champagne than Burgundy, most of the producer names here will not be familiar from Burgundy. Drouhin has some property, as does Faiveley, but many of the négociant wines are only bottled by the négociants, and they do not even own the land. The lettering on the bottles will often be similar to that of the Côte d'Or, as well as the basic design of the bottles and labels, but other than that few similarities exist.
It's often useful to make two lists, of both the best wines and the best values, but in Chablis almost all of the 20 producers on our main list have holdings at both village level, for under $40, and top $200+ cuvées. This versatility is part of what makes Chablis great, and in fact was a prerequisite in our search for the region's top winemakers.
Here our list of the top 20 Chablis producers. All these producers are reliable for inexpensive village Chablis with good flavors, and better Premier Cru wine. Many of them make top-notch Grand Cru cuvées as well. The Cru wines are discussed under subregions.
- Domaine Billaud Simon
- Domaine A&F Boudin
- Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard
- Caves Jean et Sebastien Dauvissat
- Domaine Vincent Dauvissat
- Domaine Jean-Paul et Benoit Droin
- Domaine William Fèvre
- Domaine Corinne & Jean-Pierre Grossot
- Domaine Laroche
- Domaine Laurent Tribut
- Domaine Long-Depaquit
- Domaine Louis Michel
- Domaine Christian Moreau Pere et Fils
- Domaine Gilbert Picq et Ses Fils
- Domaine Pinson Freres
- Domaine Francois Raveneau
- Domaine Servin
From the outlying vineyards of Chablis, in land not even suitable for regular basic Chablis production, some Chardonnays can label themselves Petit Chablis. Simply styled, usually in an austere, minerally way, these basic wines are good entry-level offerings and are even less expensive than basic Chablis wines. Good producers include domaines Billaud Simon, Brocard, Dauvissat, Droin, Fèvre, Louis Michel, Laroche, and Servin. All should be under $20, and these wines are generally best drunk within the first year or two.
Then there is the basic Chablis. These wines can be made in different styles, ranging all the way from outstandingly harsh and austere to rich and exotic, but the wines are rarely complex and often vary significantly in quality and flavor from vintage to vintage. Still, they can age a little more than the Petit Chablis and often cost more like $30-$40. Almost all the producers on our list produce a good basic Chablis, but Vincent Dauvissat's rich, honeyed example shows the best complexity from that appellation. Look for any of the above 20 producers, or any wine that is rated, and it should be satisfactory for its level.
Since lieux-dits aren't really of much importance in Chablis, the 40 Premiers Crus make up the majority of quality wine here. It's important to understand that unlike in the strict Côte d'Or, many vineyards are allowed to use each other's names. This leads to more heterogeneity in quality and style of the wines.
- Beauroy: Consistent, sweet yet dense and minerally, the Laurent Tribut cuvée is a leader here.
- Butteaux: One of the better Chablis Premier Cru vineyards. Intense but capable of great density and exotic power, the Louis Michel competes with the similar Raveneau cuvée. Both are rich but intense; so is the highly minerally but often pleasantly spicy Servin. The Jean-Marc Brocard is citrussy and herbal, though not quite as complex.
- Chapelot: Smooth and exotic but with a powerful edge of minerals, the Raveneau style here is quite something.
- Chaume de Talvat
- Côte de Bréchain
- Côte de Cuissy
- Côte de Fontenay
- Côte de Jouan
- Côte de Lechet: This Premier Cru is common and reliable. The better wines come from Domaine Laurent Tribut, whose cuvée is totally austere and green but an enjoyable style in its own way, and Verget's much sweeter and more easygoing cuvée. Gentle but complex, the Verget is preferable for easier drinking.
- Côte de Prés Girots
- Côte de Savant
- Côte de Vaubarousse
- Les Epinottes
- Foret: Also spelled Forets or La Foret, this Premier Cru makes some great wine. Servin's Forets is their best Premier Cru, with spicy flavors of exotic yellow fruits and buttery nuts, and plenty of acidity and stony minerality as well. Dusty and stony, the Michel can be difficult, but also has a gentle side. The Dauvissat is an amazing, Grand Cru-level cuvée, which has seamless, rich, but exorbitantly powerful notes of flint, nuts, citrus, and zesty stone and spice. It offers improvement with age, becoming even more rich and flavorful.
- Fourchaume: An extremely common Premier Cru that also offers a large portion of the best wines here. Domaine Billaud Simon's Fourchaume is honeyed and exotic, the rich flavors almost entirely covering up a slight mineral harshness. Domaine Faiveley also makes a rich wine here, with nothing austere about its spicy, herb-tinged flavors. Look out for William Fèvre's Grand Cru-like example, known for its amazing creamy texture in combination with rich, exotic fruits and minerals. Roasted-ripe and also in an oaked style, Louis Michel's wine should be good for those who like this type of wine. Laroche's old-vine example is oaked and mixes the citrus and minerals with its oaky spice and richness. Verget's has similarly exotic yellow fruit but its honeyed richness is undercut by juicy, energetic minerals. The A&F Boudin cuvée is often more pure and cool, with smoother stony minerals. The Corinne & Jean-Pierre Grossot example seems much more austere and green, but its knockout citrus and mineral flavors are plenty complex.
- Les Fourneaux: A common Premier Cru, but many cuvées are less esteemed. Domaine Corinne & Jean-Pierre Grossot makes a dry citrus and mineral style that's a bit austere but true to classic Chablis flavors.
- L'Homme Mort: Here Domaine A&F Boudin's wine is deep and exotic, with penetrating citrus and minerals.
- Les Lys: This Premier Cru makes Domaine William Fèvre's most "ordinary" Chablis cuvée; while still great its aromas of citrus and minerals may not be good enough for fans of Fèvre's more exotic flavors. Domaine Long-Depaquit makes an unoaked example that is even more intense and stresses harsh citrus in its youth. These are about the only commonly seen cuvées here.
- Mont de Milieu: A Premier Cru essentially monopolized by the producers in our above list, with few extraneous domaines bottling pedigreed wine there. Domaine Billaud Simon makes one of the best cuvées, which has rich, creamy exotic fruit notes. A similarly exotic side is shown in the Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard example, although freshening herbs differ from the first wine's more buttery nuances. Domaine Pinson Freres makes similarly rich wine, but it is more of a sweet, honeyed style as opposed to being fruity. Citrus and stony minerals make up the more conventional Grossot cuvée, although it shares the richness that seems to typify most wines from this Premier Cru.
- Montée de Tonnerre: Montée de Tonnerre is essentially the best Premier Cru in Chablis, and one of only a few that can actually make wine that rivals the Grands Crus. In order to compete, a wine must be higher than the level of almost all other Premiers Crus. Domaine Billaud Simon's cuvée offers rich fruit flavors with a tinge of spice. The Jean-Marc Brocard is superconcentrated and acidic, but balances its harshness with spicy, almost earthy fruit flavors. The Jean-Paul et Benoit Droin is similarly fresh, perhaps a little less definitive, but still a great Premier Cru wine. Domaine William Fèvre's cuvée has plenty of exotic fruit and spice but doesn't hide its stony minerality. The Domaine Louis Michel is also honest about its origins, but with silky flavors of herbs it adds a bit of complexity to the typical Chablis flavors. Francois Raveneau makes the most rich and honeyed example here, but its precision is part of its mastery. Verget has similar sweet yellow fruit, plus the minerality to back it up. Generally, all these cuvées can be aged 8+ years for even more mellow flavors.
- Montmains: A Premier Cru at least as common as Montée de Tonnerre, but very rarely as high-quality. Many cuvées are reliable, but only a few excel. Look for Caves Jean et Vincent Dauvissat's Montmains, a phenomenal wine, but it is often too citrussy to drink young. Jean-Paul et Benoit Droin's example is top-quality, rivaling their Montée if a little less rich and deep. Drouhin, Faiveley and Verget, all more widespread operators, make wine of great intensity but little flavor, requiring aging and a tough palate. Domaine William Fèvre makes a wine of similar yellow fruit and minty spice, with more herbs than minerals, and this will be the most approachable wine of this group. Domaine Laurent Tribut's classic citrus-and-mineral cuvée also has great richness, making it a "moderate" style.
- Pied d'Aloue
- Sechet: A Premier Cru dominated by the Dauvissat dynasty. Remarkable is the Caves Jean et Sebastien Dauvissat version, with its ripe, citrussy fruits and strong mineral element. This is much different from Vincent Dauvissat's rich, concentrated but seamless cuvée of yellow fruits and spice.
- Vaillons: This is actually the most commonly seen of Chablis' Premiers Crus, although Montée de Tonnerre produces more quality wine. Dozens of cuvées are made in Vaillons; quality is fairly reliable but unsafe from an unrated wine. Most of the top wines come from the top producers, although the occasional more "independent" cuvée can satisfy. The wines show Chablis' more exotic, rich side, with less emphasis on minerals, and most wines can be drunk young. Domaine Billaud Simon's cuvée concentrates on yellow fruit, largely citrus, and is ripe but not rich. The Caves Jean et Sebastien Dauvissat is a bit more interesting, showing the same yellow fruit but a more vibrant spice character and an almost roasted ripeness. Domaine Vincent Dauvissat produces a landmark wine here, with layered yellow fruit and spice plus plenty of minerality. This competes with the wine from Domaine William Fèvre, which tends to be a bit drier and less exotic. Domaine Long-Depaquit is more exotic again, with great richness to its fruit flavors, but keeps itself vibrant. The Christian Moreau wine, especially the "Guy Moreau" cuvée, is creamy and exotic with nuances of herbs. Domaine Francois Raveneau tends to also be a top wine, even if its honeyed, buttery fruits could be considered a bit too seamless. The Verget can also be extra-rich, but balances its fruit and minerals well enough.
- Vaucoupin: A good Premier Cru, especially since quality even from lower-end producers is generally fairly consistent. Domaine Corinne & Jean-Pierre Grossot makes a wine of ripe, generous yellow fruit and spice, but with plenty of underlying minerally austerity. Domaine Gilbert Picq et Ses Fils has roasted fruit and oaked notes of spice and nuts. Domaine Long-Depaquit's cuvée shows a bit more complexity, its yellow fruit and stony minerality more vibrant and resonant.
- Vaudevey: A Premier Cru almost completely dominated by two producers. The Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard Vaudevey is one of the domaine's top Premier Cru cuvées, showing richness and density in its austere flavors of citrus and minerals that take time to develop. The Domaine Laroche is a more modern-styled wine, with a buttered-rich, seamless texture and aromas of roasted fruit and flowers.
- Vaulorent: This Premier Cru seems to have only one maker: Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard. This roundly exotic wine, labeled Vaulaurent, is full of yellow fruit and an oaked-spice, nutty character.
- Vaux Ragons
- Vosgros: Gilbert Picq et Ses Fils makes probably the best of the wines here, due to the cuvée's powerful, vibrantly saline mineral flavors and herbal, spicy nuances.
Located on a hill above the town, the Grand Cru vineyards make nearly all of Chablis' most top-quality wine. La Moutonne is considered a Grand Cru by many, but not officially recognized as either Grand Cru or Premier Cru by AOC, so cannot be counted as another one of the seven Chablis Grands Crus. Long-Depaquit's cuvée here, though, is really of Grand Cru quality. The other Grands Crus are described here; although terroir is far less pronounced than in the Côte d'Or, many of the Grands Crus share a general style among their wines. The wines are listed in alphabetical order.
- Blanchot: Good here is the old-vine cuvée from Domaine Billaud Simon, with its oaked flavor set of vanilla, spice, and roasted exotic fruits. Billaud's cuvées usually are unoaked, but the Blanchot differs proudly from its compatriots. From Domaine Laroche, the Reserve de l'Obedience is honeyed and rich with fresh, generous yellow fruit. Better than the basic Blanchot, it competes with Laroche's best cuvées. Domaine Long-Depaquit also makes a seamless wine, rich and smoky if a little bit undefined at first. Although vibrant, this will need time to gain complexity. Domaine Francois Raveneau's exorbitantly expensive wine isn't their best, but its honeyed, layered fruit should round out and become less austere with age. Domaine Servin's wine is also perfumed, with little austerity, and although mostly flavored with yellow fruit it has spicy characteristics. These wines share an almost exotic, tropical yellow fruit character, and are usually rich, although they vary in austerity.
- Bougros: This Grand Cru tends to be overshadowed a bit by its compatriots, but this brings prices down and calls more attention to the best wines here. Brocard's example balances honeyed fruit and minerally acidity well from day one, but should still be aged. The Bougros is Domaine William Fèvre's entry-level Grand Cru, but that doesn't deduct anything from its flavor. Full of exotic fruit with tinges of herbs and spice, the wine displays plenty of complexity and texture as well as decades of ageability. But wait—Fèvre has a lieu-dit wine of Côte de Bougerots, and this one tops many Chablis rankings. It combines steely minerality with dense, also vibrant yellow fruit in a bafflingly smooth fashion. The Domaine Servin has more sweetness but is similarly dense, even if much less complex. Almost nutty, it rarely shows much oak component but has an almost liqueurish ripeness.
- Les Clos: The best Grand Cru in Chablis and one of the best in Burgundy, Les Clos dominates the Chablis wine-producing region from far above the town itself. Although not inexpensive, its lauded wines are a great value compared to Montrachets and top California Chardonnays. Domaine Billaud Simon's unoaked cuvée is competitive, showing honeyed-rich but spicy notes of exotic fruits and more vibrant citrus notes, as well as minerality. From Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard a rather less energetic cuvée is produced. In danger of being overwhelmingly rich and "too seamless" when young, it needs time to develop an exotic character. From Domaine Vincent Dauvissat comes arguably Chablis' best cuvée, with intense but sweet aromas of almost every yellow fruit plus roasted, nutty aromas, flowers, herbs, and other Chardonnay nuances. Able to compete with some of the best white wines in the world, it can be aged for 20 years and poses a serious question to the dominance of Montrachet. Faiveley is a négociant that has gotten Clos right; the wine is noted for rich exotic fruit that shows up in the wine early. Domaine William Fèvre's cuvée throws down the gauntlet to Dauvissat's. Full of ripe, seamless citrus and minerals edged with spice, this complex wine is much cheaper than Dauvissat's masterpieces and can be as complex with the right amount of age. Domaine Laroche makes a wine of a bit more nuttiness, with rich yellow fruit but a little bit of dry austerity to make this wine headed for the cellar. Domaine Louis Michel makes a vibrant wine which is true to its basic notions of citrus and minerals all through its long life. Domaine Christian Moreau Pere et Fils makes two great wines here: regular Les Clos, and "Clos des Hospices", which are cooked, oaked wines showing tropical fruit, citrus, and minerals in a seamlessly sweet but perfectly delineated style. The basic Les Clos from Pinson Freres is better than the "Cuvée Authentique" version, austere and minerally but rich and very ageworthy for its yellow fruit notions. Raveneau is a very expensive cult producer, making the most expensive wines in Chablis; riper but slightly less complex than Dauvissat's, they hold a similarly tip-top critical pedigree. Domaine Servin makes the most oaked wine here, its creamy, Meursault-like flavors mixing strangely with the Chablis core of citrus and minerals. Although rarely available, this wine can be great when it is. Verget makes a wine of a clear stone element, supplemented by rich fruit, flowers and herbs.
- Grenouilles: Although often considered overclassified, this vineyard is home to a few good cuvées. Domaine Jean-Paul et Benoit Droin makes a remarkably rich, exotic wine with vibrant yellow fruit in a honeyed style that has been compared to Sauternes. This competes with the Domaine Louis Michel, which is similarly vibrant but less sweet and more in need of aging.
- Les Preuses: Billaud Simon's cuvée has supple, sweet yellow fruit that will provide plenty of enjoyment for early drinking. The same is true of the Jean-Marc Brocard, although its extremely exotic, almost spicy wines will have a bit more complexity at whatever time you drink them. Caves Jean et Sebastien Dauvissat makes their best wine here; its flavors of rich yellow fruit are similar to those of the great Vincent Dauvissat. The latter's vibrant, powerful perfume makes it an almost Côte d'Or-like wine, but the spicy yellow fruit and herbal elements are underlined by Chablis' classic notes of citrus and minerals. The greatest thing about this cuvée is its weightlessness, which makes it better young than the initially heavy Dauvissat Les Clos. Faiveley makes a wine of similar richness, but it is creamy rather than complex, showing plenty of oak spice and some yellow fruit. If it is a little light on fruit young, this one has the potential to improve with age. Domaine Servin makes perhaps their best wine here, a cuvée notable for its honeyed yellow fruit and elegant notes of flowers. All the wines are capable of aging for a long time, even if some of the lesser ones would be preferable early on.
- Valmur: In this Grand Cru, Brocard's cuvée has concentrated flavors of honeyed yellow fruit plus spice, nuts, and every other nuance that Chablis Chardonnay is capable of. This is Brocard's most ageworthy wine as well as its best. The Domaine Jean-Paul et Benoit Droin looks lean and dry by comparison, but its citrus fruit is vibrant and deep enough to make this one another great. Domaine William Fèvre makes a wine here that's curiously low on fruit, having instead an almost peppery spice element and harsh minerals. A wine that should definitely be aged, this promises more in its maturity. The Domaine Christian Moreau has serious citrus and mineral flavors, but also an almost roasted ripeness and as such plenty of early drinkability. Domaine Francois Raveneau makes one of the better wines here, but distinct lemon and mineral notes will be too austere for many drinkers. Rarely elegant, this is more honest to its Chablis origins. Look also for an old bottle of Verget's Valmur; the 1990s vintages are honeyed and exotic but have a great minty freshness.
- Vaudésir: This is a reliable Grand Cru, since even most cuvées from unknown producers excel, but once again look to the top Chablis names for the best wines. Domaine Billaud Simon makes one of Chablis' most remarkable unoaked wines, since it seems ripe and creamy, nutty and buttery, but in fact its yellow fruit and spice flavors were developed in a stainless steel tank. The Faiveley has the same Meursault-like buttered flavors, but has even more nuttiness and some spicy, herbal elements. Domaine William Fèvre departs from the typical flavors, the smooth citrus all but overwhelmed by harsh minerality, making this cuvée too intense for early drinking. Domaine Long-Depaquit's Vaudésir is lighter than average for this vineyard, with vibrant spice, yellow fruit, and plenty of minerality but little intensity.