Chablis is one of the most widely recognized of all wine names. It's a white wine made in the north of Burgundy from the Chardonnay grape variety, but the classic Chablis style is a million miles away from how you'd normally expect Chardonnay to taste. While Chardonnay typically makes rich, broad whites with flavours of peach, pear, pineapple, fig, toast and spice, Chablis is normally crisp, fresh, focussed and citrussy.
This is because the region of Chablis is about as far north as you can successfully grow the Chardonnay grape, so instead of broad, richer notes, the wines show fresh, bright flavours. The combination of a cool climate and interesting soils results in distinctive wines, which is why they have become so highly prized.
Just as with the rest of Burgundy, there's a hierarchical organization of the vineyards of Chablis. At the top of the tree are the seven Grand Cru vineyards (in total, around 100 hectares), then 40 Premier Cru vineyards (750 hectares) and then the generic Chablis vineyards (2900 hectares). In addition, there are around 550 hectares of vineyards labelled Petit Chablis. Wine quality doesn't always track the vineyard hierarchies, however, and there can be some excellent wines across all the categories, depending on the skill and dedication of the winegrower.
What should you expect from a good Chablis? First of all, freshness and purity of flavour. Good Chablis is a bracing, fresh wine with good acidity, but this acidity must be in balance, with some richness to the citrussy fruit. A regular Chablis or Petit Chablis is ready to drink now, but it can be a bit of a waste to drink Premier Cru or Grand Cru Chablis too young because they just won't show what they are capable of without a few years' bottle age.
The good news is that if you want to see why Chablis is so highly regarded, The Perfect Cellar has got some great examples, at all price points.
Two to try
Charly Nicolle Petit Chablis
a perfect introduction to Chablis: there's really nothing 'Petit' about this at all.
Chateau de Beru Chablis
from one of the rising stars of the appellation, a serious expression of Chablis