Chablis and Chardonnay are common options on restaurant wine lists. But if you’ve ever been unsure about when to order one over the other, then this guide is for you. Discover the main differences between Chablis vs Chardonnay.
I had my first Chablis when I was at university many years ago. And let’s just say I was hooked. But if you’re unfamiliar with this crisp French white wine, you’re in luck.
In this tasting guide, I’ll cover the flavor profiles for both Chablis and Chardonnay in general. Plus, I’ll go over the different types of Chablis you can find, food pairing recommendations, and what you can expect to pay for a good bottle of each.
Chardonnay vs Chablis: Key Differences
Chablis or Chardonnay? Chardonnay or Chablis? It can be a difficult decision because they have some unique characteristics in both taste and style. But in one important respect, they’re actually the same.
Chardonnay and Chablis are both made from Chardonnay grapes. The main difference is that Chablis is a wine region in France that makes dry white wines using only Chardonnay grapes. Chardonnay, on the other hand, is made all over the world, in range of different styles.
So, all Chablis is Chardonnay. But not all Chardonnay is Chablis.
Chablis growing region
So why did the Chablis region become famous among wine enthusiasts for its Chardonnays? The answer has to do with the area’s unique growing conditions.
The Chablis area, located in a part of Burgundy, contains four AOC, or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, and only Chardonnay grapes are permitted to be grown on them:
- Petit Chablis
- Chablis Premier Cru
- Chablis Grand Cru
The climate is cool and the soil is a mix of clay and limestone. Together, these factors of the Chablis terroir help produce white wines with low residual sugar that are exceptionally crisp and clean with pronounced acidity and minerality.
In contrast, many other Chardonnay regions around the world, such as California’s Napa Valley, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and other areas in France, feature warmer climates. The result is a range of Chardonnay styles, from buttery to oaky to somewhat sweet.
But each AOC in the Chablis region creates distinct wines of their own, in varying flavor profiles and levels of quality.
Situated primarily on the outskirts of the Chablis area, the Petit Chablis appellation features vineyards with differing elevations and sun exposure. It also has a different soil makeup than the other appellations. This produces wines that are highly tart and acidic, and very citrusy. Meant to be consumed soon after bottling, these wines are light, fruity, and generally inexpensive.
The most common type of Chablis wine comes simply from the appellation of the same name, located around the town of Chablis. The elevated vineyards in this area generally produce pure, clean approachable wines with high minerality and citrus notes. Many are suitable to drink without aging.
Chablis Premier Cru
Premier Cru Chablis is produced in fewer vineyards and is typically regarded as higher in quality than those produced in the Chablis AOC. In fact, less than one in five vineyards in the region have a Premier Cru designation. These wines can feature more prominent citrus flavors, along with pronounced minerality from the area’s limestone soil. They can age well for up to 3 years.
Chablis Grand Cru
Even more exclusive is the Chablis Grand Cru. Only a small number of Grand Cru vineyards exist and they feature soil, elevation, and a cool climate that are considered ideal for growing Chardonnay. These wines are often fuller in both taste and body than other kinds of Chablis, with flavors ranging from green apple to passion fruit. Some producers even choose to age them in oak barrels, which can give them a thicker mouthfeel. Many Grand Cru are meant to age for up to 5 years.
Chardonnay vs Chablis flavor profiles
Chablis wines are characterized by a clean, dry finish, bright acidity, minerality, and hints of citrus. This can make them a great option for warm summer days, as these crisp wines won’t feel full-bodied or heavy.
That crispness is due in large part to the winemaking process. Chablis is almost always an unoaked Chardonnay, with most being fermented in stainless steel tanks. That helps emphasize the pure flavors and higher acidity of the white wine grape.
By contrast, other Chardonnay wines can often have prominent tropical fruit notes or feature generous oakiness. They can also feel and taste buttery.
That oak flavor comes from the barrels used to ferment the wine. And the butter notes are the result of a process called malolactic fermentation (MLF). That’s a second fermentation designed to mellow the acidity of the wine, which in turn makes it taste softer and creamier. It can also give the wine a more robust, full-bodied feel.
Unoaked, dry white wine like Chablis goes well with lighter seafood and white meat like poultry, as well as some spicier Asian dishes. Its high acidity will complement foods like lemon chicken, grilled shrimp, scallops, sushi, or curry.
Pair heavier oak-aged Chardonnay with grilled meats, roast chicken, rich seafood like lobster, creamier cheeses, and dishes with buttery or heavier cream sauces.
What wines are similar to Chablis?
If you’ve never had Chablis wines before, some of these other wine varieties may give you an idea of what to expect in terms of flavor and aroma.
Chenin Blanc – The bright acidity and citrus fruit flavors of Chablis are similar to those you might find in a dry Chenin Blanc. This type of wine hails from the Loire Valley, neighboring the region of Burgundy, the home of Chablis. It also has hints of minerality, though some Chenin Blanc does come in off-dry and sweet styles.
Pinot Gris – Also originally from Burgundy, Pinot Gris shares citrus and mineral notes found in Chablis. And like Chablis, they’re often produced using stainless steel tanks to give them a clean, dry finish. But Pinot Gris, along with Pinot Grigio which is made from the same grape, can feature other prominent stone fruit flavors like pear and apricot, as well as honey.
Dry Riesling – While many rieslings are known for being sweeter, dry Rieslings can be incredibly refreshing, crisp white wines. They often feature notes of citrus and minerality like Chablis.
Chablis vs Chardonnay cost
The price of Chablis can vary depending on the appellation where it’s produced. Generally, a good Petit Chablis can be an excellent value, usually starting around $15 a bottle. Quality Chablis and Premier Cru wines will be slightly more expensive at around the $25 to $30 mark. It’s not unusual for Chablis Grand Cru to command around $75 a bottle, and sometimes quite a bit more.
Other types of Chardonnay can also vary widely in price, though $15 will usually be the low end of what you can expect to pay for a decent bottle. Many good quality Chardonnays start closer to $20. Very high-quality Chadronnay can easily fetch upwards of $100 a bottle.
It’s a good idea to serve Chablis chilled between 45-55° Fahrenheit, depending on the type. Light and crisp wine like that from the Chablis AOC and Petit Chablis AOC should be served at lower temperatures to allow the bright acidity to shine. More full-bodied Grand Cru Chablis should be chilled only to about 55° so the complex flavors and aromas don’t become too muted.
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