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.

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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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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?