What is the difference between Chablis and Chardonnay?
Chablis is a village famous for it’s wines made from the Chardonnay grape while wine labeled Chardonnay refers to any wine that is made from the Chardonnay grape, the most widely consumed white wine in the world. Chardonnay is known for being a “canvas” which adapts to the terroir of the region in which it is grown.
Chardonnay is now grown all over the world but what makes Chablis unique are the vineyards around Chablis having lots of limestone in their soil, adding a special twist to Chardonnay.
Chardonnay Origins and Grape
Chardonnay has its origins in the Burgundy region of France. Modern research suggests that it comes from a cross between Pinot Noir and another grape variety brought from Croatia several thousand years ago. It is still grown in Burgundy but is also widely grown in areas such as California, Australia, New Zealand, and Italy. Many people accuse the Chardonnay grape of being “bland” or “blank”. However, this is in fact the great advantage to Chardonnay; the grape is known for being able to adapt its flavor based off the terroir in which it grows, due to its somewhat neutral nature.
Chablis Origins and Location
Chablis is a village in France, within the Burgundy region of France. Due to quality control laws, French winemakers label their wine based on the region the wine is from rather than the grape in the wine. This seems confusing considering Burgundy is the most famous region of France for single variety wines, but there is lots of historic reasons for this. Much of this naming convention starts from the fact that we did not always know what grape was going into a wine. White wine has been grown in Burgundy since the time of the Romans, long before dna sequencing. Whatever grew was harvested and wine was made. As time passed, the best grapes, and the best vineyards where identified. Less appealing vines where removed and clones of the good ones planted, until small vineyards were very famous for having the best wine, all without ever knowing what grape was in the wine. Which lead to naming by region not grape. Fast forward to today, and some of the most expensive and revered Chardonnay in the world is grown in the areas around the town of Chablis, which is in the northwest part of Burgundy and close to the larger city of Auxerre. The areas surrounding Chablis are known for its unique soil. The soil has its origins in an ancient limestone seafloor, which includes fossils, and is chalky and filled with minerals. This soil is called “Kimmeridgian Clay”. The Chardonnay vineyards exist along the river Serein, where much of the soil is made out of this Kimmeridgian clay.
Chardonnay is medium in acidity, low in tannin, and high in alcohol content. It is a medium bodied wine that is medium in dryness and fruit-forward. Many chardonnays are known for having a “buttery” taste. This taste comes from malolactic fermentation, in which malic acid in the wine is converted to lactic acid duration the fermentation process. This adds a dairy-like characteristic to chardonnay.
It is known to be relatively adaptable to terroir to give a unique taste based off the location in which it is grown. This includes a lighter, more restrained character when grown in cooler climates, as well as a bolder, stronger flavor when grown in warmer climates. The vessel in which Chardonnay is aged also has a significant impact on its flavor. Oaked chardonnay adds various unique flavors (such as vanilla and caramel), while unoaked chardonnays have less of these flavors.
Chablis Production and Characteristics
Its singularly unique presence near the town of Chablis accounts for much of the uniqueness of the taste of Chablis. The town is in a relatively northerly part of the world, with a cooler climate and less sunshine than other winemaking regions within France. This produces an end product which is lighter in body, lower in sugar, and more acidic than a Chardonnay grown in other parts of the world.
Also, unlike many other Chardonnays, Chablis is almost always fermented in steel tanks or neutral oak barrels. This differentiates Chablis from the much oakier Chardonnays grown in other regions. Chablis is a crisp wine that is very high in acidity and drier than other Chardonnays. The soil it grows in gives it a unique minerality. Various notes in Chablis have included citrus, white flower, and pear. Chablis has many characteristics similar with other Chardonnays, although it also has some additional twists.
Chardonnay Fruit Notes
Chardonnay notes include apple, melon, peach, citrus, etc. Chardonnay notes can vary greatly depending on the climate in which the grapes are grown. Grapes grown in warmer regions have more tropical notes, while grapes grown in moderate climates have more stone fruit notes. Finally, aging chardonnay in oak barrels can bring forth vanilla, cream, and caramel notes.
Chablis Fruit Notes
Chablis notes include citrus and white flowers. It also has notes of peach. Overall, it has more tart notes than sweet notes, and the fruity notes are balanced by the mineral-like notes of the wine.
Chardonnay pairs well with a variety of foods. This matches the variety of wines that can be produced with the grape, depending on the type of climate it is grown in and the way it is aged. Generally speaking, chardonnay pairs well with poultry, pork, seafood, and cheeses. Oaked Chardonnay pairs well with seafood such as halibut and clams. Unoaked Chardonnay pairs well with other seafoods, such as sushi and oysters.
Chablis, being a lighter wine, pairs well with lighter meats such as chicken. It also pairs well with various seafoods such as oysters, clams, and bass. Chablis tends to pair with largely the same types of foods as other Chardonnays, with some minor differences.
Classifications of Chablis
Further adding to the confusion regarding Chablis is it’s classifications. Each of the classifications of Chablis are intended to be a quality reflection, that is overseen by the EU and French government. The specific terrior of the vineyards varies in slight ways such as inclination of the ground and soil quality which some attribute to the difference, while others point to tradition and entrenched bureaucracy. The classifications are Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru, and Chablis Grand Cru. The entry level is Petit Chablis. It is typically grown on flatter vineyards that are newer and less prestigious.
Chablis is the most common classification of Chablis and is more expensive than the cheaper petit Chablis. To compare it to the American system, it would be like labeling a wine Napa Valley. Chablis is crisp and has a steely character. It pairs well with a wide range of foods, to include cheeses, oysters, and shrimp. Chablis Premier Cru is the next step up in Chardonnay. It is typically consumed two to three years from bottling, and his fuller bodied. It has notes of pineapple and herbs, and pairs well with oyster and chicken. This would be equivalent of vineyard designated wine in the US. The higher quality of Chablis Premier Cru can be attributed to different levels of sun exposure and higher quality soil among these vineyards. Many of these vineyards are very old, and have established labels associated with them. The highest designation of Chablis is Grand Cru, which is aged for at least 5 years, and pairs well with lobster, roast chicken, and fish. This would be the equivalent of a special labeling, or reserve bottling in the US.
One last note on Chablis. In the 1970’s and 80’s US wineries started labeling boxed white wine Chablis. Being a quality designation in France, the name Chablis is protected, just as Champagne is. The law suit that ensued took decades and millions of dollars to sort out, with one of the worst lasting effects of this infringement being consumer confusion about what Chablis actually is. Much of this California Chablis is generic bland white wine, often made from the grenache blanc grape, grown in hot vineyards in the central valley. This has nothing to do with the true Chablis.
The reason why Chablis is so similar to Chardonnay is that Chablis is made from Chardonnay. Chardonnay is the most popular white wine in the world, originating in Burgundy but now being grown all over the world. Chablis, on the other hand, refers to Chardonnay that is grown around the town of Chablis within a specific part of the Burgundy region.
Chardonnay is known for being a very “flexible” wine, which adapts much of its characteristics to the terroir in which the grape grows. That being said, it tends to have certain characteristics, such as being high in alcohol content, medium bodied, and medium in dryness. It is also known for being a “buttery” wine, due to malolactic fermentation.
Chablis has some unique characteristics that make it distinct from other Chardonnays. It is higher in alcohol content, lighter bodied, and has a mineral taste which can be attributed to the soil in which it grows. Chablis has slightly different fruit notes from other Chardonnays. It tends to pair well with similar foods to other chardonnays. Chablis is a very specific subcategory of Chardonnay which is exclusively grown in a very specific region of Burgundy.