Chablis Diary part 5: Louis Michel, the Master of Steel

“Our policy is, simply, to make wines that represent the terroir of Chablis: fresh, pure and mineral,” says Guillaume Michel. This translates to élevage in stainless steel. There has been no oak since 1968 or 1969.

Domaine Louis Michel stretches out to occupy all of one side of the Boulevard Ferrières, which runs from the World War Monument down to the river.  Underneath the old caves have been renovated into a snazzy tasting room; there is not a barrique in sight. At the river end of the buildings is the old tower that appears on the label, where Guillaume lives now.

Dating from the seventeenth century, the domain has 25 ha all in the historic vineyards of Chablis, almost on the true Kimmeridgian soil. More than half are premier crus. Why did your grandfather decide not to use wood, I ask Guillaume? “He didn’t like the taste of oak, and he didn’t have a lot of time to maintain barrels in the cellar. The tanks that because available at that time were steel with enamel coating;  stainless steel became available until the 1980s,” is Guillaume’s account of the transition.

The major difference between the cuvées, whether Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier Cru, or Grand Cru, is the length of time in cuve before bottling, everything else is similar. Petit Chablis and Chablis spend 6 months on lees, premier crus spend 12 months, grand cru spends 18 months. “There is no battonage because we use indigenous yeast and bacteria, and fermentation is very slow, it lasts three or four months, and I consider that the natural stirring during fermentation is sufficient; to add to it would be too much. The fact that fermentation is slow, and that it involves many different yeasts, is what brings complexity.”

Complexity is the name of the game here. While lees-aging in steel is common in Chablis, few others achieve the complexity of Louis Michel. Indeed, my experience has been that in blind tastings people often assume the textural complexity of Louis Michel premier and grand crus must mean that they have been matured in oak. Guillaume expresses some surprise when I mention this, to him the difference is clearly evident. And the wines are not matured by formula; adjustments depend on the year. “Usually the wine is matured on fine lees, but in 2011 I didn’t use lees because after 3-4 months fermentation the wine didn’t need any more, and the lees would have made it too heavy.”

Terroir differences certainly come out clearly enough, even within a single premier cru. “We have vineyards in all three parts of Montmains (the cuvées are called Montmains, Butteaux, and Forêts); my grandfather used to blend but I prefer to make separate cuvees. Montmains has more clay, Forêts has more limestone.  Butteaux has more clay with larger lumps of Kimmeridgian limestone. Clay brings flesh and roundness, limestone brings minerality.” Tasting the 2012, Montmains shows as a blend of savory and fruity,  Forêts is more savory and mineral, and Butteaux is an interesting intermediate. There are only a few hundred meters between the vineyards. In the grand crus, Vaudésir is rich and savory, Grenouilles is even fuller bodied, and Les Clos shows its usual austerity, together with the impression of salinity that is common in this vintage.

These are wines that often can be drunk relatively early, but this is to miss the point of the complexity that develops later. Guillaume says, “I think it is important to wait at least a few years. You know we work in a very reductive environment, the first time it sees air is when the bottle is opened. I would say a premier cru needs at least 4-5 years, and depending on the vintage can last for 20 years. When you bottle the wine, for the first few months you can drink it, but then depending on the vintage it closes down.” The message is: please don’t commit vinicide: give these marvelous wines time to develop.


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