Chablis Diary part 4: Terroir versus Oak

“In the eighties there were two big schools, cuve and oak; my father was always stainless steel; he used to say, I’m not in the timber business. But he has changed his mind,” says Fabien Moreau at Christian Moreau. “William Fèvre always used some new oak, but that stopped as soon as Henriot took over in 1998. We didn’t want to boisé the vin, to the contrary we wanted to keep freshness,” says Didier Seguier, who came to Fèvre from Bouchard at the time. Here you see the convergence in Chablis: protagonists for stainless steel have taken up oak, while protagonists for oak have backed off.

The two extremes remain Raveneau and Dauvissat on one hand, where everything is matured in barrique, and Louis Michel at the other, where everything is matured in stainless steel, but at most producers Petit Chablis and Chablis are matured in cuve, and varying proportions of oak are used for premier and grand crus. The approach is Burgundian in the sense that the oak exposure is graduated with the cuvée. On the Côte d’Or, of course, all the wines are matured in oak, and the tendency is to increase the proportion of new oak going from communal wine to premier cru to grand cru. In Chablis, all the oak is old and it’s the proportion of oak to stainless steel that changes.

Almost every producer was at pains to say that there is little or no new oak. The duration is usually quite limited: one common approach is to put a proportion into oak, but after around six months to perform assemblage with the wine matured in cuve. After assemblage, the wine is matured further, but exclusively in cuve. So why do I often find obvious oak on Grand Cru Chablis, and sometimes on premier cru also? In fact, it’s often necessary to wait a few years to let the oak integrate.

As a lighter wine than the Côte d’Or, even at Grand Cru level Chablis doesn’t have the same capacity to support oak or more extraction. Indeed, although maturation on the lees is common, typically for around 12 months for Premier Cru and around 18 months for Grand Cru, battonage is unusual in Chablis. “We don’t have the same body and strength as the Cote de Beaune, if we go too far with battonage the wine will be good at first but will tire quickly,” says Sandrine Audegond at Domaine Laroche. I wonder whether the difference is battonage is a contributing factor to the occurrence of premature oxidation on the Côte d’Or and its absence in Chablis

Each producer has his own view on how best to express terroir differences in Chablis.Is this done by vinifying all wines in the same way, so that the only significant difference is the terroir. This is the view of both Dauvissat and Raveneau (with only oak) and Louis Michel (with only steel), and Jean-Claude Bessin (all premier and grand crus with 60% oak). Or should vinification be adjusted to the Cru, as it is at William Fèvre, Droin, Laroche, Long-Depaquit, and Christian Moreau, with a general policy of increasing oak proportion going up a hierarchy of premier and grand crus. Somewhere in between are Pinson and the Chablisienne cooperative, where all premier crus get the same treatment, but grand cru gets more oak.GrandCruChablisTW1Grand Cru Chablis extends all the way from the bottom to the top of the slope

After years of drinking Chablis, I have a pretty clear view of the characters of the premier and grand crus. Montmains and Vaillons are the best premier crus on the left bank, with similar exposures on parallel hillsides in adjacent valleys. Close to the grand crus on the right bank, Fourchaume, Mont de Milieu, and Montée de Tonnerre have more structure and richness, and among the grand crus Preuses is always the most delicate and feminine, while Les Clos is always the most reserved, even austere, and needs longer.

But the grand crus extend all the way from the road just on the edge of the town to the woods at the top of the hill. With the much slighter slope along the Côte de Nuits, for example, everything depends on position on the slope: so especially for Les Clos, the largest grand cru in Chablis, how come it is always the most powerful wine made by any producer, irrespective of whether the plot is in a protected position under the trees at the top or exposed in the middle or at the bottom? Even within the smaller crus, there can be significant differences in soil types, so is any fixed view of their character more imagination than reality?

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The Oakiness of It All

We’ve come a long way since oak was merely a storage and maturation medium for wine. Judging from an all day seminar that Taransaud organized in London for the Institute of Masters of Wine, its role today is second only to the grapes themselves. The seminar was divided into two parts: a morning that considered individually many of the parameters that determine the effects of oak; and an afternoon looking at innovations to respond to changes in modern winemaking. Here’s a report on the morning; the afternoon will follow.

The background according to Henri de Pracomtal, Chairman of Taransaud, is that use of new oak is declining, down to 85% instead of a mandatory 100% when the vintage isn’t up to it in Bordeaux, although typically staying more or less around a third new, a third one year, and a third two year in Burgundy. The use of 200% oak (successive use of new barrels) is “dead.” There’s been significant backing off from new oak in the New World. The focus here was all on oak barrels,  although Taransaud also own Canton in Kentucky, where other formats are used. When they bought Canton, Henri was horrified to see oak chips, and wanted to stop their production, but “look at the profit margin” they told him. “Oak chips are for short term aromatics rather than long term élevage,” he says. The seminar was entirely about the effects of different barrel regimes on wine quality and style.

A long list of aroma and flavor compounds that are extracted from oak made it clear in a talk from Taransaud’s oenologist, Nicolas Tiquet-Lavandier, that the effects are profound. Considering how long oak has been used, it seems surprising that new compounds are still being discovered. I was also surprised that the role of oxygen loomed so large, with discussion about the porosity of the oak, entry between the staves, and through the bung. I thought it had now been established that basically all oxygen enters through the bung (which should mean there’s much less since the change to the new silicon bungs).

The heart of the seminar was a series of comparative tastings with wines that had been specially vinified under different conditions. The results of comparing French, Hungarian and American oak were fairly predictable, with a strong contrast between the toasty vanillin of Château Puygueraud (Côtes de Francs) 2011 in French oak and the stronger aromas of coconut from American oak. Since French and American oak are different species of trees this was not surprising, but the difference between French and Hungarian, which are the same species, was pronounced: the French oak gave a refined impression to the wine, the Hungarian was somewhat coarse. This emphasizes the effect of growth conditions on the oak: it’s colder in the Hungarian forests and the trees tend to be smaller. This links in to a change in the way tonneliers in France handle their sources – there is much less emphasis on individual forests, and more on the grain of the individual wood. “Within a forest is not a unique location. This is why we at Taransaud have gone our of the forest, we blend forests, the grain is very important, the tighter the grain, the more slowly the wine matures,” says Henri.

I was quite fooled by the blind tasting to test the effects of duration of seasoning. The wood at Taransaud is air dried by exposing staves in the open. A critical element is the need for rain and humidity in the first six months, which is becoming a concern in view of reduced rainfall in some years. The seasoning at first extracts compounds from the oak – this is crucial for reducing bitterness – and then adds other compounds as fungal infections occur; Henri likened this to maturation of cheese. I placed the three samples of Château Phélan Ségur 2010 in order on the assumption that more seasoning gives more subtle results, but this turned out to be too simple. Certainly the sample from 12 month seasoned French oak seemed a bit harsh compared to the others, but the 30 month seasoning seemed to produce a better balanced and more subtle wine than the 55 month seasoning, which had stronger wood spices. A similar test of American oak with the Swanson Vineyards 2010 from Napa Valley gave an overwhelming impression of coconut and dill on the 24 month seasoned sample, still pretty powerful and pungent with 36 months, but finally damped down a little with 48 months. Here longer is better. I was reminded that Paul Draper at Ridge, who uses American oak for the Montebello Cabernet, told me that American oak has a bad reputation not because of its intrinsic properties but because it’s not treated in the same way as French oak (it’s usually sawn instead of split and not air dried).

Blind tasting to test the effects of time spent in barrels also fooled me, as I was working on the assumption that impression of oakiness would be in direct proportion to time in oak (especially allowing for the fact that shorter time in oak would be followed by time in bottle). But Phélan Ségur 2010 showed the most vanillin, and even a touch of coconut, after 8 months in oak, still a touch of vanillin after 16 months in oak, but the cleanest and purest expression of fruits after an intermediate 12 months. However, the 16  months showed overall the most classic and best balance. Clearly this is not a simple matter of absorption into the wine with time, but of more complex interactions. For example, ellagitannins increase with up to 250 days in barrels and then decline.

The percentage of new oak at least was predictable: new oak was quite evident on the nose and palate of a Château Branaire-Ducru example from 2010, with an example that had been matured in second year oak showing more direct and purer fruits; but the blend had more weight, and was softer, rounder, and more complex. An interesting demonstration of classic balance obtained by not going to extremes.

Along the way, a panel of four winemakers commented on their impressions. With a range of different backgrounds (Sandrine Garbay from Yquem, Edouard Labruyère from Jacques Prieur, Peter Sisseck from Dominio de Pingus, and Stephan von Neipperg from Château Canon-la-Gaffelière), it was not surprising that their opinions differed. In a demonstration of how individual palates can agree or disagree, I was interested to see that there was one winemaker with whom I agreed on everything, one with whom I disagreed on everything, and two who were in between. I know whose wine I’m buying in the future.