PETIT CHABLIS IS SO MUCH BIGGER.
Puzzling to find a wine partner for a cracking salmon rillettes recipe with a top chef recently the winner of my matching taste-off was a Petit Chablis 2014 from William Fevre. The choice confirmed my thoughts gathered on a recent trip to Chablis, “the Chablisienne should try and find another name for Petit Chablis”.
I often hear wine enthusiasts say it’s “Chablis that didn’t make the grade”, “from young vines” or “from poor vineyards”. Sadly, it’s not surprising as the name does suggest an inferior wine but after tasting in Chablis for 2 days, believe me, from a good producer Petit Chablis deserves a far better name. William Fevres’ crisp, citrus ‘PC’ belies its handle and took the salmon rillettes to another level.
The Chablis vineyards surround the quiet stone walled town of Chablis in central France and are part of Burgundy, even though they’re over an hour’s drive north of Beaune, the region’s spiritual capital. But, in true Burgundian style, the vineyards are the key to Chablis quality. The French have a name for all the stuff that makes a vineyard good, bad or amazing be it soil, aspect, drainage, microclimate, protection, slope etc, etc. That word’s ‘terroir’. It’s a strange ‘mot’ but it comes in handy sometimes.
The Petit Chablis vineyards are generally located on the exposed plateaux above the hillside vineyards and whilst the vines don’t grow on the superior Kimmeridgian limestone slopes, like their wines, their Portland stone soils are under-rated.
Nonetheless, Petit Chablis is the entry category of the four Chablis appellations, the others being Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru. Because of their superior ‘terroir’, Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards produce better grapes which in turn, produce better wines, “you get a bit more of everything with a Grand Cru”, smiles Elaine Defaix of Domaine Benard Defaix. There is a downside of course. Petit Chablis and Chablis rock in at about £12 and £16 respectively, Premier Cru will set you back about £25 and, deep breaths, Grand Cru can carry a £50 tag. The upside is that there’s a Chablis for all pockets.
Being Burgundy, the Chardonnay grape is king and the very best vineyard plots, the seven Grand Cru’s of Blanchots, Bougros, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Preuses, Valmur and Vaudesir, lie on the steep, protected, south-west facing Kimmeridgian slopes that overlook the River Serein and the town. There are 40 Premier Cru vineyard plots and two, Montee de Tonnerre and Fourchaume, flank the Grand Crus on these treasured ‘Right Bank’ slopes.
More Premier Cru vineyards, including Cote de Lechet, Vaillons and Montmains, lie behind the town on south-east facing ‘Left Bank’ slopes but, that said, it’s difficult to define exact slope directions within Chablis’ complex contours, as the ever rolling indulations create critical protection and sun exposure in ever changing measure.
The A.C. (Appellation Controllee) Chablis vineyards still lie on the respected Kimmeridgian soils but their sites are less beneficial than the Premier and Grand Cru sites, again showing the vital importance of ‘terroir’, especially aspect, slope and microclimate, in a chilly northerly region where praying for sunshine and fighting for ripeness is an annual event.
I was in a restaurant recently when the next table ordered a 2014 Grand Cru Chablis. I checked the wine list. £120! Ouch! My recent trip confirmed my thoughts as I watched the wine being reverently poured; for me, Grand Cru’s needs 5–10 years to reach their full potential so he’d have been better off ordering a Premier Cru. And, it would have saved him a fortune t’boot!
The producers that produced my widest smile on my recent trip? Jean-Marc Brocard, Christian Moreau, Samuel Billaud, Seguinot- Bordet, William Fevre, Bernard Defaix and Domaine Raveneau. Pull the cork on any of their wines, be it Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier or Grand Cru …. happy days!