What’s the Difference Between Petit Chablis and Chablis?
Is it a grape or a place?
By Erin Henderson
I spend a good deal of my work week leading wine tastings and teaching wine classes. In fact, that's kindof the whole point of The Wine Sisters.
Lately, students have been asking me quite a bit about the difference between all the Chablis labels. Petit, Premier, Grand Cru, regular ole’ Chablis … what is a wine lover to do?
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Well, for starters, this conundrum is both the beauty and frustration of wine – specifically wine hailing from European regions. Is Chablis a grape or a place? (A quick show of hands in my classes suggests people are 50/50 on the answer.) How does a wine enthusiast have any confidence as to what is in the bottle, if they don’t exactly know what it is?
In Chablis, the larger region is broken down into four parts (think of New York City: the city as a whole is made up from geographical boroughs such as Manhattan and Brooklyn). In order of hierarchy, Chablis’ regions go from Petit Chablis to Chablis to Premier to Grand Cru.
Grand Cru, unsurprisingly, has the best vineyard positioning, real estate, soils and slopes, and therefore the tightest regulations surrounding the grape growing and wine making. On the other end, Petit vineyards, which are mostly scattered around the edges of the Chablis region perched a top windy and cold hills, have looser regulations.
This is not to suggest that Petit is inferior to Grand Cru. They both offer specific attributes and it’s up to you to decide what is the right wine for the moment.
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Before we get to the differences, let’s start with the similarities.
- Chablis is a wine region located in the chilly, northernmost part of Burgundy (on the eastern side of France).
- It’s cool climate, where sunshine is limited (comparative to other wine regions further south and elsewhere in the world.)
- It only grows and makes Chardonnay (but, like many regions, such as Champagne and Bordeaux, we call it by the region name, not the grape.)
- Soils do differ on a micro-level, but on a macro-level, Chablis is made up of chalky soils made from ancient seabeds.
- Because of this mineral-laced dirt, Chablis wines are known for their flinty edge.
- These vineyards are scattered throughout the region, typically higher up the slopes and into the elevated plateaus, where it is windier and colder, and therefore tougher to ripen grapes.
- The soil is a younger mix of limestone and sand – not the premium, ancient Kimmeridgean soil from the Jurassic era that make up the vineyards of Chablis-level and up.
- Petit Chablis is fermented and aged in stainless steel for fresh, crisp, and bracing wines.
- General profile: Silvery-green in colour with subtle aromas and flavours of lemon/lime, steely minerality, flint, and occasionally a saline note.
- Food pairing: scallop crudo, oysters, grilled halloumi, cheese straws.
- Straightforward Chablis makes up about 2/3 of the wines produced in the entire region.
- Vineyards are dotted about the area on the enviable Kimmeridgean soil of fossilized sea life, but in less desirable sites further down the sun-bathed slopes in cooler micro-climates along either side of the Serin River.
- Because the Chablis vineyards are so wide-ranging, styles also vary considerably in style and flavour from simple to complex.
- Generally, most are fermented and aged in stainless steel.
- General profile: Green-gold in colour with aromas of green apple and lime and hints of white flowers. Verdant notes of fennel seed can be detected in some. Minor aging is possible, three to five years, though not necessary, and the wine will get more gold as it ages.
- Food pairing: Escargots, omelettes, creamy clam chowder, vichyssoise
- There are 40 parcels of land designated Premier Cru and within those 40, 17 are the leaders of the pack.
- Despite this weighty number, Premier Cru is only about 15% of the region’s output.
- All of these are found on the prestigious Kimmeridgean soil.
- Wines have cellaring potential, generally until 10 years old.
- Winemakers often choose to use neutral oak to age Premier Cru for a subtle impact on the wine's mouthfeel.
- General profile: Pale gold in colour with a silky, rich texture. The bright acidity and crisp notes come through in flavours of citrus fruit, floral, nuts, and stone fruit.
- Food pairing: Ham in the Chablis style (ham in a creamy white wine sauce), veal chops, truffle risotto, strong, runny cheeses.
Grand Cru Chablis
- Only seven vineyards are deemed Grand Cru, making up only 1% of Chablis' annual wine production.
- As you might expect, these vineyards are all found clustered on the best real estate: on the Kimmeridgean slopes of the south-west facing hills on the east side of the Serin River where they can reap the best and strongest sunlight.
- Grand Crus are often aged in neutral oak barrels for a short amount of time to add richness, texture, and complexity to the wine, but again, freshness and energy are key characterisitics of Chablis.
- These wines have the ability to age, 10-15 years and beyond, and many experts suggest waiting a few years before even opening a bottle.
- General profile: Pale lemon with savoury notes of flint, rocks, wool, almond, mushroom, lime, peach, and honey.
- Food pairing: Lobster, roast chicken (especially with cream sauce and mushrooms), sweetbreads, croque monsieur.
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