You may well have seen the recent images of fires burning in French vineyards in a desperate attempt to ward off the unseasonal frost. That’s not an uncommon sight in Chablis, one of the country’s most northerly grape-growing regions, but temperatures there have dipped so low this year that some producers have seen the entire year’s harvest wiped out. “While we are used to spring frosts, we’ve never dealt with such conditions, with snowy nights in the middle of April,” says Julie Fèvre of Domaine Nathalie et Gilles Fèvre, which faces losses of between 50% and 100% of its crop.
Apart from the obvious impact on the vignerons’ livelihood, why should this matter to wine drinkers? There’s plenty of chardonnay out there, often at cheaper prices, but none of it – not even English chardonnay – offers quite the lean, mineral style of chablis, France’s unique expression of the grape. Or at least that used to be the case: ironically, given this year’s savage frost, climate change and higher summer temperatures have been more influential in making it harder to make chablis in the classic style.
Of the different classifications, I find the most typical and expressive premier crus are those in which you really can taste the difference between the wines. (Cheaper premier crus are blends of more than one cru, while more expensive ones tend to have name of the cru on the label.) Basic chablis, and petit chablis, are generally made in a more approachable, fresh and fruity style that is sometimes not all that different from cheaper mâcon to the south; grand crus, which make up a mere 1% of production, are much fuller, richer and subject to extended oak ageing, and more the kind of wine that would appeal if you’re into, say, meursault.
The other factor that is changing the face of chablis is that a new generation has taken over, in many cases inspired by the natural wine movement, experimenting with natural yeasts or ageing their wines in amphoras. That can bring a different and often intriguing complexion to the wines, but they’re perhaps less typically “chablis”.
If I were to give one piece of advice about chablis, which remains one of the most popular wines on our supermarket shelves, it’s that you need to shop around. Sometimes, the comparisons are astonishing. At the time of writing, Asda is charging more for its own-label chablis (£12.50) than Marks & Spencer (see today’s picks below), while, at £11, M&S’s Petit Chablis is cheaper still. Likewise, I wouldn’t want to pay £16.99 for the admittedly very decent Domaine Louis Moreau Chablis 2019 at Waitrose, so wait for a money-off deal (Virgin, for example, has one from the same producer for £14.99). And the glorious Fèvre Vaulorent in today’s picks varies between £28.20 and £36, depending on where you shop. Brexit, of course, doesn’t help, so enjoy chablis while you can still (just about) afford it.
Five cracking chablis
Marks & Spencer Chablis 2019
£12, 12.5%. Classic, old-school chablis: lean, mineral, with just a touch of cream. A perfect shellfish wine.
Aldi Specially Selected Chablis Premier Cru 2018
£13.99, 13%. This might sound pricey for Aldi, but it’s actually great value for a chablis premier cru. Already showing signs of maturity, rich, creamy and almost honeyed. Drink with a chicken pie.
Majestic Definition Chablis 2019
£14.99 (on mix six), 12.5%. A “does what it says on the tin” kind of wine from Majestic’s ‘Definition’ range. Bottled under screwcap to maintain freshness. Grilled plaice would be ideal.
Domaine Fèvre Chablis 1er Cru Vaulorent 2018
£28.20 Four Walls Wine Co, £28.95 Vin Neuf, 13%. Situated just next to the grand cru Les Preuses, this is spectacular chablis. Mouthwateringly fresh, but will easily keep for seven to eight years. Drink with seared scallops.
Domaine Jean Collet Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons 2017
£24.05 (by the £288.54 case) Christopher Keiller Fine Wine, 12.5%. Frustratingly, you can get this only by the case, so find some fellow chablis fans to share the cost. You’ll be rewarded with a wine of fabulous purity that I’d drink with something posh such as langoustines.