Chablis Diary: the New Wave in Chablis

I was going to call this blog “the Young Turks of Chablis,” but that would not have been quite accurate since change is not so much coming from a younger generation as from producers who have simply rethought what sort of wine they want to make. The common feature lies with people who established domains relatively recently, sometimes turning around old family domains with a change of generations, sometimes starting from scratch.

Chablis seems to me to have shown less change than other areas of Burgundy over the past twenty or thirty years. Whereas on the Côte d’Or there has been a steady move towards growers bottling their own wines, and recently “micro-negociants” have become the form of expression for producers who do not own vineyards but want to make high quality wine, in Chablis there remain many small growers who send their grapes to the cooperative (admittedly La Chablisienne is one of the best co-ops in France).

Large producers from Beaune have not made a huge impact in Chablis, although Drouhin-Vaudon is long established, Louis Latour bought Simonnet-Febvre in 2003, and Faiveley bought Billaud-Simon in 2014. Land prices in Chablis have not soared in the same way as the Côte d’Or, but fragmented holdings and unwillingness to sell have restricted supply, so it has not been easy for new producers to come into the market. However, in the past few years there have (finally) been some changes, and visiting this week, I found several (relatively) new, dynamic producers.

I found the first Young Turk on a previous visit in 2014 (A Visit to Patrick Piuze). Patrick’s driving force is interest in the variety of terroirs. “The essence of the place depends on the mosaic of soils, when you realize this you want to make lots of cuvees not just one. Most people here blend, they don’t worry if the vines are old. We try to buy grapes we like from special sites. I want to be as close as possible to a domaine without having to purchase land.” A bit tight when young, his wines have real intensity, with alcohol levels a bit lower than average.

My first visit this week was to Catherine & Louis Poitout, who have set up their domain in an old building on the banks of the Serein. The domain started in 2011 with family vineyards from both sides. There were many small parcels of varying qualities, and in 2012 the holdings were rationalized. “The true taste of Chablis is mineral, with the most simple vinification,” says Louis. “We do the same vinification for all cuvées. There is never any wood, everything is kept as simple as possible.” The range extends from a direct and fruity Petit Chablis, to Chablis Bienommé where minerality begins to emerge, Chablis Les Venerées from old vines, offering increased sense of texture, and premier crus Vaucoupin (all minerality) and Les Fourneaux (herbal and round).

The Pitout domain is in a charming old house on the banks of the Serein.

But the most unusual Pitout wine may be the Vin de France, Franc de Pied, L’Inextinct, which as its name indicates, comes from very old, ungrafted vines. “We found this parcel in 2012, it was in very bad condition, the vines had been cut across at the base, and everyone thought they would die because they’d been cut at the graft, but they just regrew. They are ungrafted and we regenerate them by the old method of sticking a shoot in the soil. The wine is labeled as Vin de France because it doesn’t fit our idea of Petit Chablis, and it’s not in Chablis AOP.” It offers great sense of fruit purity, with richness on the palate, but retaining the liveliness of Chablis.

The Fèvres are a very old family in Chablis, but the husband and wife team of Nathalie & Gilles Fèvre formed their own domain relatively recently. Both Gilles’s grandfather and father were presidents of the cooperative, and Nathalie was the oenologue. “In 2003 we decided to form our own domain so we left the coop,” Gilles explains. With 12 ha of family vineyards, they built a small winery, and then in 2005 the domain expanded to 50 ha with the inheritance of more family vineyards. “All the wines are around the village (Fontenay-près-Chablis), basically between here and the grand crus, so we are a right bank domain.” The Petit Chablis is lively and crisp, intended to be consumed in the first year, Chablis has greater weight and more fragrancy, Fourchaume has greater sense of texture and that fragrancy of the house style comes out more clearly, Valourent moves towards greater richness, and Preuses shows more subtlety. A tasting here is a real demonstration of differences in right bank terroirs. “You can taste the difference in the grapes from different terroirs when they come into the cuve,” says Nathalie. There is light use of wood in vinification. “We think 30% in barriques is enough, we want to keep freshness and minerality, Chablis should be tense and mineral.”

Nathalie & Gilles Fèvre constructed their winery in the heart of the vineyards at Fontenay-près-Chablis.

Samuel Billaud spent twenty years making the wine at the family domain, Billaud Simon, sold to Faiveley in 2014, before leaving to form his own domain, which is now located in renovated mediaeval buildings right under the ramparts of Chablis. The very stylish cuverie has many small stainless steel fermenters to allow vinification by parcel. He has a few family vineyards but also buys grapes as a negociant. His bright style brings out lively citrus flavors across the range, starting with a Petit Chablis coming from a vineyard that used to be considered at premier cru level long ago but was not included in the AOC. The same style follows in a Bourgogne that is a blend between the areas of Chablis and Mâcon, and then the style intensifies in the Chablis. There’s increased sense of focus and precision in the premier crus, increased richness moving from left bank to right bank, and then from premier cru to grand cru. There’s consistency of style, with greater texture and flavor variety, and more subtle impressions, moving up the range.

Samuel Billaud’s domain is a cluster of old buildings around a courtyard in the center of Chablis.

My last visit in Chablis was to Thomas Pico who created Domaine Pattes Loups with only two hectares of family vineyards when he decided that he wanted to be organic, but his father, at Domaine Bois d’Hiver, didn’t want to make the conversion. Today Thomas has about 12 ha for Pattes Loup (with roughly an equal area remaining in Bois d’Hiver). Even allowing for the fact the most of the wines were tasted from cuve, because the 2015 vintage is undergoing an unusually long élevage, these were among the most concentrated and forceful wines I tasted in Chablis. Fruits tend to citrus, bright and intense. It takes about a year for the wines to develop roundness; the 2014s are just beginning to soften. Thomas is committed to an artisanal approach. My companion, the Anima Figure, remarked that winemaking has become more scientific. “No it hasn’t,” Thomas shot back.

Thomas Pico has a modern building for Domaine Pattes Loup in the village of Corgis.

Each of these producers has their own style, of course, but the common feature is a sense of authenticity, a commitment to a view of the typicity of Chablis that preserves freshness and minerality. It’s a wonderfully refreshing antithesis to a general tendency to make all wines taste the same, with vaguely amorphous soft aromatics that can be attractive but don’t convey a sense of place.

Here are suggestions for reference wines that give a good idea of the style of each producer:

  • L & C Poitout, Chablis, Les Venérés
  • Nathalie et Gilles Fevre, Fourchaume
  • Samuel Billaud, Mont de Milieu
  • Pattes Loup, Chablis, Vente d’Ange



Is Global Warming Changing the Hierarchy of Premier and Grand Crus?

With premox and other problems shortening the longevity of white Burgundy, I have been drinking up my last 2005s, a bit earlier than I would have done previously, and in the past year I have noticed a surprising change in the relationship between premier and grand crus in Chablis.

Take the example of Louis Michel’s grand cru Les Clos and premier cru Montée de Tonnerre. As Louis Michel is the benchmark for Chablis matured in stainless steel, the difference is a pure view of the effect of terroir on fruits, with no complications from different regimes of oak exposure.

Les Clos is always magnificent. For every producer it is the most reserved, steely, and mineral of any of his premier and grand crus. Just beyond Les Clos, separated from the band of grand crus by a small hollow, comes Montée de Tonnerre, always the best of the premier crus, and for some producers often pretty much up to grand cru standard.

I started drinking Louis Michel’s 2005s in 2009. Les Clos showed the house’s typical deeply textured structure, reflecting long maturation on the lees. Reflecting the warm vintage, it was a little richer than usual from the start, with stone fruits mingling with citrus.

Montée de Tonnerre was also a little richer than usual, but with the balance more in the direction of citrus, nicely textured under the fruits, with layers of flavor. Absolutely top notch for premier cru, but less depth than the grand cru.

Today things are different. Les Clos has become quite phenolic in the past year, and the sense of minerality has declined; it’s beginning to seem a little tired, and in a blind tasting I might place it farther south than Chablis. By contrast, Montée de Tonnerre is the absolute quintessence of Chablis: one sniff, and that cool, steely minerality shows that you are in Chablis. Fruits remain in the citrus spectrum, and there’s still some reserve on the finish. In a blind tasting I would place this as grand cru Chablis, and its steeliness might even make me think about Les Clos.

While the relationship between Les Clos and Montée de Tonnerre may have reversed, another grand cru, Vaudésir, has stayed truer to type. The textbook spiciness is overlaid by Louis Michel’s granular texture, stony rather than mineral, but with age the fruit spectrum is turning towards peaches and cream; phenolic hints intensify in the glass, following the path of Les Clos more slowly.

When the Crus were defined, the main distinction between them was reliability of ripening. But this was in a much cooler era: what ripened best in the 1930s may go over the top sooner in warm vintages in the new millenium. I suppose it all depends on what you mean by Chablis. If you want a rich white Burgundy, grand crus from warm vintages may fit the bill. If you want the historic saline minerality, premier crus may show more typicity.

The hierarchy of crus has always been defined, I think, in terms of wines tasted shortly after the vintage; it happens that the best age longer. That also may be changing with warmer vintages, with some of the grand crus richer and more delicious at first, but more likely to decline into blowsiness before the premier crus. How will the market react to this change, and will it be necessary to revise the classification of premier and grand crus?

LouisMichelThe best cru of 2005?

Chablis Diary part 7: a Visit to Domaine Laroche and the Question of Screwcaps

Any visit to Domaine Laroche that starts by seeking guidance from your GPS is doomed to failure: you go round and round a square with no apparent way out that will lead to Laroche. In fact, Laroche headquarters are in an old monastery built between the ninth and thirteenth centuries to which access requires driving through an archway that doesn’t seem wide enough for the car. The best way to get there is actually to park at the Laroche boutique in town, and then someone will show the way though a couple of narrow passage ways to the winery.

LarocheTW With 90 ha, Laroche is one of the largest producers in Chablis. There are 60 ha Chablis, 25 ha premier crus, and three grand crus. The Chablis St. Martin under Domaine Laroche comes from their own 60 ha and is a selection of the best lots. It’s about 70% of total. The other 30% is blended with purchased grapes and named just as Laroche (because it’s not just the domaine) and called only Chablis. You have to look carefully at the labels to distinguish.

The Chablis is all stainless steel with no battonage; premier and grand crus come from assemblage of lots matured in cuve with lots matured in barrique. There’s steady graduation of intensity and power going up the hierarchy. The top wine is the Réserve de l’Obédience, which is based on blind tasting to blend the best lots of Blanchots. My experience in the past has been that this carries a lot more oak than Blanchots or the other premier crus, but sales manager Sandrine Audegond says this it varies according to the vintage. “In the last five years, the oak level has varied from 30 % to 100 % (majority of used oak, however), as a result of the blind tasting.”

I ask whether the style of Chablis in general and Laroche in particular has changed with global warming? “No, not really, if there’s been any change it’s due more to viticulture. If the grapes are ripe, if you have thick skins, you will always have minerality. In Chablis, to be absolutely frank, we have an awful climate, summer can be quite unsettled. The blessing of the place is that we have a long dry period in September,” says Sandrine.

What about Laroche’s much vaunted move to bottling under screwcap? “Michel Laroche was dark red when he saw cork manufacturers because he was fed up with quality,” Sandrine explains. Petit Chablis and Chablis are now under screwcap; premier and grand cru are done under either screwcap or cork, and the buyer can choose. What difference do you see in the development of the wines, I ask. “If you want to keep freshness, keep the screwcap, but you will lose some complexity. If you want to develop very complex character, stay with cork.”

Chablis Diary part 6: Negotiating Chablis, a Visit to Patrick Piuze

Until Patrick Piuze came along, it was hard to think of a negociant who made interesting Chablis. Some of the large firms from the Côte d’Or have taken positions here, the Chablisienne cooperative is a major player with about a quarter of all Chablis, but the running is mostly made by individual domains.

Patrick’s winery in the heart of Chablis is an old building bought from Vocoret, in fact it still says Vocoret on the side. Inside it’s larger than it appears at first sight from the cramped interior, as it’s connected by a tunnel under the road to caves on the other side. This was constructed in the period when a Vocoret was the mayor of Chablis, it probably wouldn’t be possible today, Patrick explains.

What is the driving force to be a negociant in Chablis? “I wasn’t born here, I came from Montreal. I ended up in 2000 in Burgundy at Olivier Leflaive and they asked me to look after the winery they were building in Chablis. I’m still here. Even if land is cheaper here, I had no money, the only way to make a lot of appellations is to be a negociant. The essence of the place depends on the mosaic of soils, when you realize this you want to make lots of cuvées not just one.” Production is  65% Petit Chablis or Chablis; 35% is premier and grand cru.

“We try to buy grapes we like from special sites, before we worry about having a specific appellation such as Blanchots etc. There are a few barrels of each wine – no single barrel wines.” That’s all very well, but I wondered how it’s possible to get grapes from top sites. “Well the structure of Chablis is different, there are many growers. The people we buy from may produce wine, but aren’t looking to distribute more bottles, it’s fast cash to sell the grapes. If a grower hasn’t created a brand, vinifying doesn’t have the same plus value. I want to be as close as possible to a domaine without having to purchase land.”

Patrick harvests the grapes with his own team. “Choosing harvest date is one of the most important things. And it‘s important to decide whether to pick in the early morning or afternoon, it depends on the conditions. We are an early picker. Harvest is typically 90 days after flowering. A wine can have only one backbone. 90% of white wines in the world have an alcohol backbone, but we have an acid backbone. Our wines are 12 or 12.1% alcohol, never more than 12.3%.”

Petit Chablis is matured in cuve, Chablis is a mixture of cuve and barriques,  premier and grand crus are entirely in barrique. Not only is the wood old, but it’s chosen specifically for its history. “We buy only old barrels, to add density not makeup. If you lose the minerality you might as well make Macon. We only buy barrels from high acid vintages, because the wine of the first year marks the barrel.”

The style here reminds me just a little of Verget, where Patrick worked for a period, in getting to full ripeness without excess, but it’s a bit tighter; there’s a sort of silky sheen to the fruits, a sense of stone fruits adding to the citrus and minerality of Chablis; yet always with that wonderfully moderate alcohol. I pushed Patrick on why he can get such a complete impression at alcohol levels a per cent below everyone else, but I couldn’t resolve the mystery.

We tasted a range from 2012 and 2011, and that sense of tension counterpoised against the elegant fruits runs through the whole range from premier crus to the more overtly full grand crus. Terroir comes right out: Preuses the most feminine as always, Bougros racy, and Valmur ripe. It’s easy to understand why the wines sell out within a couple of weeks of the vintage.

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.

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?

Chablis Diary part 3: What is the Meaning of Chablis – the Fruitiness of It All?

All across the northern limits for winemaking in France, from the Loire in the west, across Chablis, to Champagne and Alsace in the east, wine styles continue to evolve in response to global warming and better methods of viticulture that increase maturity in the grapes. In the Loire Chenin Blanc no longer tastes of wet dog, but now shows an almost waxy, almost nutty, spectrum of stone fruits: Sauvignon Blanc is rarely herbaceous and may go so far as to show apricots. Over in Alsace, there’s a trend towards wines with more residual sugar, while in Champagne dosage has decreased to keep the balance. In Chablis this week I was struck by the sheer fruitiness of many wines: fruitiness is not a quality I would have associated with Chablis twenty or thirty years ago.

When I asked producers how they see Chablis today, the answers were pretty uniform: it should retain freshness and minerality. When I followed up by asking how its character has changed, the answer was generally dismissive: it hasn’t really changed at all, they would say. Global warming has been beneficial; chaptalization has become rare, difficult vintages have turned out much better than they used to, but that essential tension between fruit and acidity, perhaps what the French call nervosité, hasn’t changed at all. I don’t agree on this last, crucial point about character.

I remember when most Chablis was thin and acid, where the fruits (if you could detect them) were bitter lemon or grapefruit. Granted that citrus remains the dominant flavor in the Chablis spectrum, often enough today it moves from fresh citrus to stewed fruits, rounder and softer, and often enough there are notes of stone fruits running in the direction of apricots. Minerality is hard to describe, but like pornography you know it when you taste it, and it’s fair in my opinion to say that in many cases it has now become subservient to the fruits.

When I visited Verget last year, I had an interesting discussion with Jean-Marie Guffens about his entry into Chablis as a negociant. “They were all so bad in Chablis twenty years ago. For me, concentration is important, lower yields and riper. But everyone said, we are making Chablis, it’s never ripe, the typical Chablis is green. People said, when you make ripe Chablis, it loses its character. But you can’t make wine from unripe grapes – all green wines taste the same. Today I count about twenty people making good wine, twenty years ago there were almost none,” is his position. In conventional terms, Verget’s wines have often struck me as a half way house between traditional Chablis and the Côte d’Or, although I’m sure Jean-Marie’s view would be that “traditional” Chablis simply shows the accumulated history of failure in the region and is a misleading expression of its terroir.

Well, anyway, the typical Chablis isn’t green any more. Back in the eighties, the issue of steel versus oak was quite controversial in Chablis, but now most producers have settled into a compromise in which the top wines are matured partly in steel and partly in (old) barriques. The extremes of all oak and all stainless were defined by the principal protagonists many years ago, but others have been adjusting the balance of stainless and oak to get their desired style, and it’s here that I see the most change. Steel producers now use some oak; oak producers have backed off on the proportion. At one time, William Fevre was using quite a bit of new oak, but that stopped when Henriot took over in 1998. You don’t often get the chance to compare the two styles directly, and the closest I came was at Billaud-Simon, where the Mont de Milieu is vinified in stainless steel but the Vieilles Vignes from one parcel sees some oak. The stainless Mont de Milieu was to my mind closest to the aspirations for minerality, but the Vieilles Vignes had rounder, softer fruits with more immediate appeal. I have the impression that Bernard Billaud’s heart is in stainless steel, but the introduction of some cuvées using oak is a concession to the market.

The most overtly fruity style comes from Long-Depaquit, owned by negociant Albert Bichot. “The styles are really different here,” says régisseur Matthieu Mangenot. The common features are freshness and minerality. But Bichot’s style is to produce wine with fruity character. We don’t want to say to our premier cru customers, buy the wine and wait ten years, the objective is to bring emotion to the wine even when young.”

As a rough measure, it seems to me that it might be possibly to classify producers on savory/fruity balance. The most savory would be Raveneau and Dauvissat, both comitted to oak, and perhaps for that reason my favorites. But there is no exact correlation between use of oak and tendency to savory. My order of producers by style would go like this:

ChablisProducersThe balance changes with every cuvee and vintage, of course, but perhaps this is a useful guide to thinking about how producers fit into changing styles. The differences are not as violent as the arguments in some other locations between modernists and traditionalists, but the fruity style may be more modern, at least in the sense that wines like this would have been difficult or impossible to produce until recent times.

Chablis Diary part 2: the Legend of Raveneau

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.

RaveneauTW3Only the metal sign indicates you have found the master 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.

RaveneauTW4Some of the best wines of Chablis came from these cramped old cellars

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.

RaveneauTW10This cellar may be new but the barriques are old

“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.

Chablis Diary part 1: A visit to Vincent Dauvissat

This is part 1 of the Chablis Diary. It continues with Raveneau, the savory/fruit index for producers, and terroir versus oak.


The first time I visited Vincent Dauvissat, a few years ago, I committed, well not exactly a faux pas, but perhaps a mis-step. Vincent had said that the duration of élevage in (old) oak barriques depended on the vintage, and I asked how he decided when the wine was ready to bottle. He looked at me, a little startled, and said simply, “The wine tells me,” but with an air of surprise at the naivety of the question. Over the years I have met many vignerons who practice what they describe as a minimalist approach, but few who in fact let the wine speak for itself so clearly.

Things have scarcely changed superficially since that visit. On one side of the courtyard is the house, on the other is the cellar. The house open; the cellar is locked. The children who played with the toys in the courtyard now help with the domain. The vineyards are the same; just over half are premier crus, there are Grand Crus and Chablis AOP, and a little Petit Chablis. Dauvissat has been biodynamic since 2002. I ask whether this extends to practicing by the phase of the moon. “Well, I’m a peasant, you have to be practical and efficient, so it depends on the weather.”

DauvissatTW3The courtyard at Dauvissat

The cellar is full of old barriques, with an average age of ten years. “The fact that the wine matures in a container that breathes brings out the terroir for me. New oak loses the subtlety of terroir, the delicacy on the finish, I don’t like that,” Vincent says. Élevage, exclusively in the old barriques, is in fact generally around a year. I ask whether there are differences in élevage between the various crus? “No, no, it’s the same work in the vineyards and the cave. The only difference in élevage is the Petit Chablis, which has only 9 months.” So the differences are due to terroir.

DauvissatTW6Dauvissat’s old cellars are stuffed with barriques

We tasted the range from the 2012 vintage. Petit Chablis has the most simplest fruits, Chablis begins to pick up in intensity, Sechets a little more, and the Vaillons really demonstrates the classic minerality. Coming to the grand crus, Preuses has more weight, and then Les Clos is as always the most austere, mineral, savory. Is Les Clos always the best, I ask. “Well each Cru has its style. Clos is always the most powerful, but Preuses has its own distinct aromatic spectrum,” is as far as Vincent will be drawn

We were discussing the aging potential of Les Clos, when Vincent says that of course it ages well, but the Petit Chablis also ages; the 2012 (which we had just tasted) will last fifteen years. He proved his point about aging by bringing out an old bottle to be tasted blind. Estimates of the year were just off, we thought it was 1995, but it turned out to be 1996. No one was able to pinpoint it as a Petit Chablis however: I would have thought of a Premier Cru. The impression was quite tertiary, with wide flavor variety; perhaps beginning to tire but still with some life. Certainly there seemed to be some convergence with premier or grand crus of this vintage, and I don’t know of any other producer whose Petit Chablis would last almost two decades.

To give Vincent the last word, “The wine speaks” is a perfect summary of Dauvissat.

Minerality and Oxidation in Puligny Montrachet

I was caused to think about minerality and its causes once again by the conjunction of two events: I was impressed by the classic minerality of an old Burgundy; and I saw an interesting explanation of the phenomenon in pages from Filip Verheyden’s forthcoming book, WINE.

What is minerality anyway? A bit like pornography, you know it when you see it, but it is hard to describe where to draw the line. Personally I view it as a sort of flinty, smoky, precision, sometimes associated with a clear touch of gunflint, always with good acidity. It’s a classic feature of traditional Chablis and some other white Burgundies; perhaps it is clearer in Chardonnay than other white varieties because it stands out against the full body and opulence.

The wine that prompted me to think again about the issue was Domaine Leflaive’s premier cru from Puligny Montrachet, Les Clavoillons, when I just drank my last bottle of the 1996 vintage. It showed Leflaive’s hallmark style of a steely backbone, a whiff of gunflint (there’s that minerality), and a great sense of precision to the fruits on the palate. While there are some other Puligny’s in this style, Leflaive for me is its epitome. While the wine has all the richness you expect from a Puligny premier cru, it conveys to my mind a definite sense of minerality. I have drunk my way through a case of it, starting a couple of years after the vintage, and it has matured steadily from an initial sense of opulence to showing more clearly its steely structure as the baby fat of the young fruits slowly resolved. For me it’s shown a full blown mineral style roughly since 2004.

Surprisingly little is known about the causes of minerality. The one thing we can be sure of is that it does not come from taking up minerals from the soil. Minerals are present in trace amounts in grapes, and therefore in wine, of course, but far below the threshold at which they could influence taste: in fact, if minerals accumulated to the point at which you could sense them directly, it would probably be illegal to sell the wine. The only compound that’s ever been associated with minerality is a thiol (sulfur-containing compound), benzenemethanethiol, which might be a component of smokiness. This leads to the thought that minerality might basically be a consequence of the presence of reduced sulfur compounds in wine. But why should this be a feature of wines from specific places?

In his new book, an introduction to wine that succeeds in presenting major issues without pandering to simplification or the purple prose so beloved of some wine writers, and which is beautifully illustrated (and I recommend the book for mavens as well as novices for its prose and insights), Filip suggests that minerality develops in wines coming from grapes that are grown on poor, stony soil. The critical feature is not so much the presence of the stones as the fact that stony soil is poor in nutrients. The lack of nitrogen forces the yeast to utilize sulfur-containing amino acids as an energy source during fermentation, and in so doing, they generate volatile thiols that give the wine its impression of minerality.

This idea gives a practical explanation for a suspicion I’ve had for years about the connection between thiols and minerality, but I still find several aspects confusing about the connection. If minerality is related to the presence of thiols, it should be less evident in wines that have had more oxidative treatment, because oxygen destroys thiols. You might think this would mean that Chablis matured in stainless steel would be more prone to minerality than Chablis matured in oak (because there is more oxidative exposure in oak barrels), but I’ve never quite been able to convince myself that there’s a correlation. And if the connection is true, shouldn’t minerality decline as a wine gets older and has more exposure to oxygen; but the impression of minerality in my Clavoillons definitely increased after the first few years.

And that brings me to the problem that plagues white Burgundy today: premature oxidation. For more than the past decade, white Burgundy has erratically taken a sudden dive into oxidation. Premier or grand crus that used to last ten or fifteen years – indeed that might not even peak until after a decade – suddenly begin to decline after four or five years, showing notes of madeirization. No one knows the cause: some suggestions have been quite hilarious, such as changes in mowing between the rows, others have a ring of plausibility, such as increased battonage (stirring the lees when the wine is in the barrel, which tends to increase oxidative exposure), use of lower sulfur levels at bottling (sulfur protects against oxidation), and so on. The most obvious explanation lies with the corks: Philippe Drouhin told me that it is typical to find a case in which some bottles may be oxidized while others are perfect. “What could be the difference between them, except the cork,” he asks. (I wondered for a while whether the problem reflected changes made when corks stops being washed with chlorine, but if the solution was that simple, it would have been found by now.) The puzzle for me is why premature oxidation should affect white Burgundy so widely. Whether it’s practices in viticulture or vinification, or a deficiency in the corks, why should it seemingly affect all producers; they don’t all have identical practices or the same suppliers of corks.

So that brings me back to minerality. Reduction and oxidation are yin and yang. If minerality is indeed due to thiols, it requires (relatively) reduced conditions; having more reduction, should mineral wines be less prone to premature oxidation? Actually, it is my general impression that white Burgundy in lusher styles is more prone to premox (as it is abbreviated in the trade), but I can’t really support that assertion systematically. Could a difference along these lines explain why Chablis seems to suffer from it less than the Côte d’Or? On the other hand, the only time I have had a prematurely oxidized Chablis, it was from a producer famous for his use of stainless steel rather than oak. Every time I think I’ve found a correlation that might reflect a basic cause, I’m confounded by a counter example. It’s very confusing. In the meantime, I’m forced to drink my white Burgundies up to a decade earlier than I used to, which is very annoying.

The most amazing thing of all is that in spite of great advances in placing viticulture and vinification on a more scientific basis, we still don’t really understand in detail the effects of oxygen. That it has a dramatic effect is clear: anyone who has tasted the same wine bottled under both corks and screwcaps knows that after even a few months, you have two different wines. This has to be due to differences in oxygen exposure. There isn’t any agreement on whether oxygen is needed for the aging of red wines (by breathing through the cork), and the pros and cons of corks and screwcaps continue to be debated partly because of this lack of understanding. But that’s a topic for another day.

Tasting note

Domaine Leflaive, Puligny Montrachet Les Clavoillons, 1996

I hate to say it, but they just don’t make Burgundy like this any more. The nose is pure gun smoke and flint, very Puligny, very Leflaive. Complex palate mingles peaches and cream with citrus, the latter showing especially on a long textured finish, with a lovely balance. The palate has broadened out with age and has reached the heights of elegance and is sheer perfection after fifteen years. A grand cru might have a little more weight, but it could not have a better balance and flavor spectrum.