the origins of chablis grands crus
Created during the Roman era, the vineyards of Chablis flourished between the 9th and 12th centuries thanks to the efforts of the religious orders of Saint Martin de Tours and the Cistercians monks of Pontigny.
867 : the monks of Saint Martin de Tours were bequeathed land around Chablis.
They planted their vineyards on the best-exposed slopes and these in turn became the historical heart of the Chablis appellation – the 100 hectares of Grands Crus.
1118 : monks from the abbey of Pontigny rented a vineyard in Chablis from the monks of Saint Martin de Tours.
From the 13th century onwards, the importance of Chablis increased both geographically and commercially. They became a major contributor to the town’s budget. By 1328, the vineyard was estimated at 500 hectares, divided between 450 different owners.
The wines were transported by road to Auxerre and then on to Paris via the River Yonne, and ultimately Rouen for export towards northern Europe. Comments of the time, such as “…as clear as spring water”, “…keeps excellently”, show Chablis’ specific status amongst French wines.
During the 18th century, whilst wine producers throughout the rest of the Yonne favoured high-yielding, lower quality varietals, the Chabilisiens remained true to the Chardonnay grape that had established the qualitative reputation for their wines. This perennial quality, linked to a relative shortage of other fine wines, created the solid reputation of Chablis.
Parallel to this, the Revolution (1789) was modifying land tenure throughout France and Chablis was no exception. Church belongings were confiscated and sold to private individuals, thus, dividing large tenures between the local bourgeoisie.
The vineyard surface of Chablis, which had remained relatively stable, started to expand dramatically during the first part of the 19th century to encompass over 38 000 hectares – well beyond the present-day limits. This placed the Yonne on the leader-board of France’s wine-producing departments!
The arrival of the railways heralded a change in fortune. France’s rapidly developing railway network provided a fast and efficient way of transporting large volumes of cheaper wines from the south to the major markets. For the first time, Chablis experienced competition.
The second half of the century brought a series of natural catastrophes. In 1886 powdery mildew struck, followed by phylloxera the following year. The vineyards were decimated.
By the time that replanting started in 1897, the surface area of vineyards in the Yonne, as a whole, had already receded by 45%. Luckily, the impact was much lower in Chablis, where only 15% of the surface area had been lost by 1902.
As the old saying goes, “imitation is the greatest form of flattery” and this has long been the case for Chablis. The first examples of “fake” Chablis were reported as far back as 1898. This ever-constant threat to their identity encouraged the growers to work together to define and defend the essence of true Chablis.
There were, of course, diverging viewpoints on the subject. Was it the fact that the Chardonnay grape was the only permitted grape variety sufficient criteria of “authenticity” or should the soil, and the presence of Kimmeridgian limestone, also be taken into account? How should the vineyards be ranked, and on what basis?
In 1919 a consensus was reached on a small number of vineyards sites that had been recognised and observed over centuries: Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos and Blanchots.
In 1938, Preuses and Bougros (initially spelt Bouguerots) joined them, forming the appellation Chablis Grand Cru with its seven individual sites, or “climats”.