The evolution of Chablis

One version of frost protection for William Fevre in Chablis

Chablis, the home of the original un-oaked chardonnay, has always been near the upper limits of vine-growing at the 48th parallel.  It is the classic cool-climate region where spring and autumn frosts are the greatest viticultural risks and vintages really matter.  In addition to its northerly latitude, Chablis’ vineyards lie on both banks of the narrow and cold Sereine River and chilling winds from the Morvan Mountains in Burgundy contribute to the cold.  Vines are trained low to capture as much warmth from the ground as possible and the best sites are on south-facing slopes, up and away from the river.  Severe frost in 1945 and the winter freeze in 1956, led to an almost demise of Chablis from over 100,000 acres in the late 1900’s to about 1,250 acres in the mid-century.  Over time and with new technology in frost protection, vineyard acreage has increased gradually to about the 12,000 acres today.  Frost protection measures include water aspersion, fuel-heating systems, plastic sheeting and even electronic protection using low-voltage wires.

Funny thing is, there is less need to use them.  Global warming is clearly evident in northern European wine regions and Chablis is no different.  Harvests are three weeks earlier than forty years ago and acidity levels have dropped by 15-20% making the wines less “tart” and much more approachable for today’s global wine consumer.  William Fevre installed electronic frost protection in some of its grands crus vineyards in 2003 but has not had the opportunity to use them.  In fact, their last bad frost was Spring 2003.

At their best, Chablis wines are the crisp and mineral wines we have always loved, but perhaps global warming will broaden the appeal of the range of Chablis wines.