Where has all the chablis gone? (And what should you drink instead?)

Countryside and vineyards outside of Chablis, Burgundy, France
As it becomes harder to get hold of this stellar white, it may be time to broaden your horizons Credit: Jumping Rocks/UIG

Where has all the chablis gone? Granted, chablis has never been easy to get your hands on: locating a good bottle involves kissing almost as many frogs as finding a handsome pinot noir. But lately it has got even harder, and if you’ve struggled to find names you know and love, or wondered why you have to hunt harder to find any at all, well there’s a reason. Or, rather, reasons.

Chablis is a wine we love for its gently padded lemon curd flavours; for an indefinable, haunting quality

These come front-loaded with an apology. I’m often told the word that most makes wine-civilians want to stick their fingers in their ears and go, “La, la, laaaa” is “vintage”. But there’s no getting away from the fact that a little back story is needed here.

While 2015 was a lovely year for red wines in this corner of northern Burgundy, it wasn’t a good one for whites. Chablis is a wine we love for its gently padded lemon curd flavours; for an indefinable, haunting quality that evokes the dank, chalky smell of the marine fossils pressed inside the region’s Kimmeridgian clay; but also for its nervy energy.

In 2015, a warm summer deprived chablis of its energising crystalline focus, the lean hunger that makes you sit up and pay attention like a meerkat. The absence of this focus is particularly felt in cheaper wines: the benevolent sun has rounded away their features like a river smoothing away the edges of pebbles. They’re less interesting than you want them to be – slightly fudgey and bland.

Credit: Zoe Barker

Then along came 2016, a year that for wine growers was like a snakes and ladders board, with an awful lot of snakes and not many ladders. Severe frosts in spring, and Biblical hailstorms at the end of summer, cut the 2016 harvest in half. That’s obviously an overall figure. Hail is like a demon of destruction and bad luck. It can take all, or almost all, from one grower, and leave others close by with their crop miraculously intact.

“In 2016, some of our suppliers lost as much as 90 per cent of their harvest through bad weather,” says Richard Weaver, buying and merchandising director at Majestic. Like many others, they’ve had to be flexible about the quantities they buy. For instance, the 2016 from Domaine Vocoret, one of my favourite chablis producers, will appear in Majestic in August; but the producer was one of those badly hit, so there’s much less of it than usual, and what is available is unlikely to last long.

There’s another problem: 2017. Granted, the fat lady hasn’t yet sung, but, along with great swathes of vineyard areas across Europe, Chablis was once again devastated by frosts in spring. Naturally the prospect of another short harvest is having an impact on price. Add this to the still-plummeting pound, which has hiked wine prices in the UK, and it’s no wonder a good bottle of chablis at a decent price is even harder to come by than ever.

Chablis is the first to acknowledge that it’s having a “tough” time in the UK but it’s a bit stuck: the fluctuations in the weather and in the British economy are beyond its control. For our part, we might love a bottle of chablis – we still drink more of it than any country but France – but even supermarket buyers who know they could lazily flog ropy bottles on the name alone are encouraging drinkers to look elsewhere.

Look elsewhere – but don’t give up on chablis. Its wines have a magic that nowhere on earth can reproduce

Only Chablis grows chardonnay that tastes like chablis. But if you’re up for considering a different style in the interests of getting a better wine for your money then there are other places to look. I am thinking in particularly about the £9-£15 drinking level.

Other parts of Burgundy have the similar issues with exchange rate and vintage conditions, but it’s still worth looking down south in the Mâconnais. This region has come up and up over the last few years, simply as a result of other parts of Burgundy getting crazily expensive. Good producers have invested ambition and time and money, and it shows – look for wines from the AoPs of Viré-Clessé, Saint-Véran and Pouilly-Vinzelles as well as those with the word Mâcon in the appellation.

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The antipodean fashion for lighter, twangier, earlier-picked, less oaky wine has also made Australia a good place to hunt for a bottle of chardonnay for a tenner or thereabouts.

At Tesco, buyers are looking beyond chardonnay to plug the chablis gap: specifically to Italy. New additions to the (redesigned) finest* range include a greco and a falanghina made especially for the supermarket by one of the best producers in Campania (I’ve mentioned one of them in my wines of the week, below).

And finally, look elsewhere – but don’t give up on chablis. Its wines have a magic that nowhere on earth can reproduce. If you need a fix now then try Samuel Billaud Chablis Les Grands Terroirs 2015 (The Wine Society, £16). Perhaps there isn’t the electrifying spark that made the 2014 wines so exciting to drink –but it’s bloody good all the same.

WINES OF THE WEEK: what to drink instead of chablis

Victoria Moore's recommendations for when chablis is scarce

Domaine André Bonhomme Mâcon-Villages 2015France 
(13.5%, The Wine Society, £11.50)

A super example of the value that wines from the Mâconnais can offer. This one’s made from 50-year-old vines and has plenty of personality. I suspect it is even better in cooler years, when there’s more of a lemony flick.

Hill-Smith Estate Eden Valley Chardonnay 2015 Australia 
(13%, Waitrose, 228 branches, £10.99)

A superb example of new-wave Australian chardonnay, from the cool of the Eden Valley. Detailed and satisfying, wild yeast gives it complexity and French oak brings a nutty backdrop to the rounded flavours of cool white peach and lemon curd. Incredible value. Open the cheese straws.

finest* Falanghina 2016 Italy 
(13%, Tesco, £7.20 until Mon)

Falanghina is an Italian grape found in Campania. It makes white wines with a subtle orange tang that do not taste remotely like chablis, but which chablis drinkers often seem to enjoy.