The entrance to Raveneau’s cuverie in a back street of Chablis is as discrete as the wines themselves. A simple metal sign above the door spells out Raveneau. A steep flight of uneven stone stairs leads down to the old cellars, which are crammed with barriques. But next to them is a newly excavated barrel room that was built three years ago. “It’s less picturesque but much more practical,” says Isabelle Raveneau, Bernard Raveneau’s daughter, who has joined him at the domain to take charge of marketing. Before the cellar was excavated, there were cellars on both sides of the street, and moving the wine around was a major hassle; today winemaking can rely more on gravity. But however more convenient the cellars may be, nothing significant has changed with the wines, which remain almost unchallenged at the very peak of Chablis.
It’s hard to find descriptions to do justice to the subtlety of the style. Fruits are of course generally in the citrus spectrum, but they meld slowly into a more savory aura, with notes of liquorice or anise bringing a splendid complexity to the finish. From time to time I find Chablis from other producers with intimations of this style in individual wines, but no one else with this consistency across the range. Premier crus age for ten years or more, grand crus longer—I am finishing up my 2000s at the moment. For me, Raveneau is a unique representation of Chablis. The absolute master of the (old) oak style, Raveneau’s wines have gone from being impossible to find, ten years ago, to impossible to afford, today.
So I asked Bernard Raveneau, what’s the secret, what gives Raveneau Chablis its unique quality? “It’s the origin, the travail attentif in the vines. A chef would say that if the ingredients are top quality, there is no need for artifice: it’s exactly the same with wine. Many people today say they use something special, such as biodynamics, but there is no secret here, except that we never go to extremes.” Yields are low, typically around 38-30 hl/ha, which certainly assists quality, but they are not so extraordinarily reduced as to explain the unique character. Nor is it a feature specifically of vine age, as vines vary from 10 to 60 years old (and clones and selection massale are both used for planting). And it’s not due to any single terroir, as the same style runs through the range from Chablis to Premier Crus to Grand Crus.
“My father had only 3 ha,” says Bernard Raveneau, and looking at Isabelle, adds, “we grow only slowly.” About 15 years ago, he added 2 ha to bring the domain to its present 9 ha, with 1 ha in Chablis AOP, 6.5 ha in Premier Cru, and 3.5 ha in Grand Cru.. You get the impression that the details of the vines are regarded as less significant than the terroir, which rules all. Élevage is the same for everything from Chablis to Grand Cru. “It’s the origin that makes the difference,” says Bernard. Fermentation and malolactic fermentation are done in stainless steel cuves, then the wine goes into barriques for 10 months. New wood is used only as barrels need to be replaced, which means in effect a few each year.
The deceptive simplicity of approach produces the greatest wines in Chablis, but Bernard has an interesting view of Chablis vis à vis the Côte d’Or. “Chablis is the New World of Burgundy. In the 1960s, Chablis was 700 ha, today it’s 5,500 ha – so it’s a very new vineyard and people are more modern, they like investing in technology, where in Côte d’Or it’s very traditional. Here in Chablis, it’s a different mentality. People in Chablis pay more attention to winemaking; on Côte d’Or, if malo doesn’t start, they’ll shrug and wait until the Spring when it warms up, here people will do something about it, to get the process finished.”
We tasted the 2013s from barrique. The Chablis has relatively direct fruits, citrus with apple overtones, then that slightly malic impression continues on Forêts, and it’s with Vaillons that the impression changes to Raveneau’s typical slightly savory quality. Butteaux is a bit more restrained and herbal. Montée de Tonnerre begins to show more of the balance of the grand crus, with fruit intensity coming up. In the grand crus, Blanchots is delicate, Valmur broadens out, and then Clos shows the characteristic austerity of youth, distinctly more backward than the other grand crus, but all the same it is surprisingly approachable and the potential complexity is evident. I am surprised, because I had a bottle of Clos 2009 only a couple of weeks ago, and the fruits were distinctly closed; in fact the 2013 barrel sample seems readier! Good though the barrel samples are, these are not wines for instant gratification, and I fear that vinicide is committed on too many Raveneau Chablis’. I ask Bernard if the wines tend to close up for a while, but he says that they begin to open out after four years or so, and then typically come to a plateau: he doesn’t feel they really close up. I leave without being able to define the secret of Raveneau, but as convinced as ever that these are Chablis’ for the ages.