France, Chablis: when Burgundy plays it cool

The Burgundian region of Chablis famously lies as close to Paris as it does to Beaune. An isolated pocket of vineyards in the no-mans-land between Burgundy’s Côte d’Or and Champagne’s Côte de Blancs, it is home to arguably the world’s finest expression of the Chardonnay grape. It’s a single-variety region, although satellite appelations around Chablis also grow creditable Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.

I travelled to Chablis twice in late summer 2015 for visits to several of its most important houses, from small, artisan producers like Vincent Dauvissat whose wines are so prized as to be on strict allocation, to the giant La Chablisienne Co-operative that is responsible for around a quarter of the entire production of the region. I’ve already reported on my visit to Simonnet-Febvre, but on this second tour I would taste a hundred wines and visit the most famous Premier and Grand Cru vineyards to gain a real understaing of how this remarkably consistent and high quality wine region works.

One region, one grape, four wines

Chablis is one region that has four appellations within it. The most prestigious are it’s seven Grands Crus which account for under 2% of production. Next come the Premiers Crus, with some sites considered the equal of the Grands Crus, and accounting for less than 15% of production. The biggest appellation by far is Chablis which accounts for 65% of production and, finally, Petit Chablis representing the final 18%.

It’s all about the dirt

KimmeridgeanChablis’ story begins 150 million years ago. That’s when the sea covered this area and the famous Kimmeridgean limestone sub-soil was formed; the earth is rich in tiny oyster shell fossils that contribute to the unique profile of these wines.

Like all of Burgundy, the region is minutely mapped into ‘climats’, small plots that are defined by geological and climatic conditions. Kimmeridgean soils predominate through all of Chablis’ climats and appellations, except for Petit Chablis, which tends to be made from vines planted at the very tops of the slopes, where the soils are of a more recent geological period of Portlandian limestone. Walk through the vineyards of a top Chablis Grand Cru and it is easy to see the Kimmeridgean soils on the surface.

Chablis chilled

It is fair to say that the growth and renown of Chablis as a wine region is only since the winegrowers really mastered frost protection. Arguably, that is as recently as 1957, when a deep spring frost did massive damage to the vineyards and led to the introduction of frost protection measures. Originally these were burning candles placed throughout the vines, now it is mostly acheived with petrol-feulled ‘smudge pots’, overhead sprinkling systems and, in the Cru Vaudesir, I saw an extensive experiment with electric heating cables that switch on automatically when the frost risk is greatest.

Mapping Chablis

chablis-mapBurgundy is obsessed with its terroir: the specifc soil, climate and exposition that defines an area. The 47 climats, 40 designated as Premiers Crus and seven as Grands Crus, are ranged in hills on either side of the River Serein. Notably, all seven Grand Cru sites are clustered together on one contiguous slope on the right bank of the river. Though little pockets of vines enjoy different orientations caused by the folds of the earth and bends of the river, the Grand Crus all face south and west. To stand and observe them from the other side of the river is a great demonstration of why terroir is so important.

To oak, or not to oak?

Most Chablis is today vinified in stainless steel tanks. But many of the very best Grand and Premier Cru Chablis wines are made with at least some oak. In some cases these are huge, old oak casks known as foudres. It is quite common for a small proportion of the best wines to be fermented and aged in smaller barrels, though this is normally done very carefully with not too much new oak, and often only a small proportion of the blend spending time in barrel. There are purists who say new oak has no place in Chablis, but for me some of the very best wines use it with great sensitivity.

The state of Chablis

Chablis has survived the ravages of the ‘ABC Club’ remarkably well. Ironically that may be because so many consumers do not realise that Chablis is 100% Chardonnay, but it is also to do with the style of Chablisien Chardonnay: it is always refined, lean and focused on the balance of fruit, acidity and the minerality of its specific terroir. It marches to a different beat to much of the world’s Chardonnay, and I have say, the consistency and quality of the wines is remarkable.

Is it my favourite Chardonnay producing region in the world?  The answer would probably be ‘yes’, but it also represents outstanding value: the top Premier and Grand Cru wines reviewed here are not cheap at £20 – £40 per bottle, but that is less than the top wines of other white Burgundy appellations, and the sheer number of 93-point+ scores I awarded these wines is testimony to the quality I found.

The Wines and Estates

Right Bank vs. Left Bank

chablis-2013My visit commenced with a large tasting organised by the Chablis producers where I was presented with a crash course in Chablis appellations and terroirs. I tasted a selection 26 wines from different producers representing the 2013 and 2012 vintage, and all appellations from Petit Chablis to Grand Cru. It also included an interesting Right Bank 1er Cru vs. Left Bank 1er Cru component.

click-here for tasting notes on 26 Chablis wines

Daniel-Etienne Defaix

alexandreWith just 28 hectares of vineyard, 15th generation Chablisien Daniel Defaix may not be a significantly large grower, but he is running one of Chablis most respected and unusual houses. They do not farm organically, but Assistant Winemaker Alexandre de Oliviera (right) explained that they do not use synthetic herbacides and spray only to treat symptoms, never as a routine preventative measure: “if you don’t have a headache, you don’t take an asprin.”

Eighty small tanks allow them to vinify small lots separately. Winemaking is non-interventionist. Fermentation uses only natural ambient yeasts so can last six weeks or more, followed by ageing with batonnage (stirring of the lees) for 18 months for Chablis, and 36 months for 1er Cru. So currently their 2010 Chablis is on the market, and as for the Premiers Crus, well they are currently shipping 2002 and 2003 vintages whilst most other producers are a decade ahead. “We have the largest collection of old bottles in Chablis,” says Alexandre, continuing “Our aim is to release the wine ready to drink, but also capable of very long ageing. The autolysis that occurs through the long batonnage creates glycerol which is a preservative.” The result is some stunningly good wines.

click-here for tasting notes on seven wines from Daniel-Etienne Defaix

JM and Julien Brocard

brocardHis family having spent four centuries in Chablis, Jean-Marc Brocard married into a wine growing family 45 years ago, and began an extensive programme of replanting and planting new vineyards, building the business over decades until the family operated 200 hectares of vines. “It’s an American wild west story,” says his son, winemaker Julien, “he  arrived with no money but believed in the project. We are the last of a group of family business that grew up at the same time – Moreau, William Febvre, Michel Laroche – all built similar businesses, but all have now sold. Brocard is the last.”

Julien (right) joined the business 17 years ago and has moved steadily towards organic viticulture, with half of their vineyards now organic certified, and 30 hectares certified biodynamic too. The beautiful cellars bear witness to his embracing of modern natural wine thinking too with striking black concrete ‘eggs’ for fermentation, new oak foudres (both used for the Crus) as well as stainless steel tanks. They try to match their vineyards to the appropriate vessel “to find the most sympathetic marriage,” and only indigenous yeasts are used in the entire operation.

Julien studied engineering in Paris, and when he returned to manage the vineyards he says “Everyone was trying to sell me chemicals to control problems, and I just thought ‘there had to be another way.’ When you stop using chemicals you can see the diseases, and once you see them, you can understand them.  Organic farming let’s me  see the symptom, biodynamics let’s me cure it.

click-here for tasting notes on 14 wines from Brocard

Domaine Slyvian Mosnier

mosnierThe small, vaulted cellars of Domaine Slyvian Mosnier are hugley atmospheric, reached by climbing down some steep steps just off the busy D965. Here Sylvian, now in his 70s, and his winemaker daughter Stephanie who is now in charge, met me to taste their latest vintage and some more historic wines.

With a family background in winemaking, engineer Sylvian grasped the opportunity in 1978 to acquire just two hectares of Chablis vineyard, at first selling the fruit before deciding to bottle his own wine. Through the 80s and 90s more vineyard was acquired, including Premiers Crus, as Mosnier’s wines picked up plaudits and press coverage. Stephanie, who herself trained as an engineer in Lyon, moved back to take over the domaine, which she has run since 2007.

Today they farm 18 hectares and produce around 50,000 bottles. I tasted the 2014s “bottled just last week; a good, fresh vintage, more fresh than 2013,” says Stephanie and the 2013 which produced a very small crop, with yields as low as 20hl/ha. The wines are terrifically authentic and beautifully made.

click-here for tasting notes on 13 wines from Mosnier

Jean-Paul & Benoit Droin

benoitWith 26 hecatres the Droin family’s holding is around the same as Daniel Defaix, and their vineyards cover 16 different appellations. The family is one of the oldest in Chablis with a wine-growing history that stretches back almost 500 years. Currently in charge is the latest generation of Benoit Droin, who took over from his father Jean-Paul 10 years ago, whilst his brother and sister chose very different career paths, the former working for Microsoft in San Francisco whilst his sister lives and works in Paris.

When one visits generational family domaines like this, it’s always intriguing to know how the parent handing over to child dynamic works, as I’m sure it must be fraught with difficulties. Although Benoit’s dad did not fully retire until two years ago, it seems Benoit certainly hit the ground running “My first change was to batonnage (lees-stirring),” he told me, “It was the first thing I stopped when I took over from my father – if you use batonnage you make Chardonnay, you do not make Chablis.”

Having said that, he is not afraid to use oak on his top wines, the nine Premier and five Grand Cru where they own vineyards, using only small Burgundy barrels but always as a minor proportion blended with wine made in tank. Pictured above, Benoît passionate, animated and eloquently descriptive as he talks about each of his terroirs: “Monte de Tonerre has so much blue clay that when you plough, the blade turns over the soil like butter,” he makes the motion of a knife curling soft butter. The Droin wines are Outstanding.

click-here for tasting notes on 13 wines from Jean-Paul & Benoit Droin

Domaine Long-Depaquit

depaquitOwned by Burgundy négociant Albert Bichot, I last visited the striking Château of Long-Depaquit in 2007, when a tour of their Grand Cru ‘La Moutonne’ vineyard was a highlight: a rare ‘Monopole’, a Grand Cru with a single owner, which straddles the boundary of the Grands Crus Preuses and Vaudésir. I met up with winemaker Matthieu Mangenot as we again visited La Moutonne (right, on the steep La Moutonne slopes). The estate was in the Depaquit family hands until 1970, when the last member of the family was blinded in a car accident, and decided to sell to Bichot. Since then holdings have been extended to 65 hectares including six Premier Crus and and six Grand Crus. They do not own vineyards in Petit Chablis.

All of Long-Depaquit’s Cru vineyards are harvested by hand, with whole bunches being pressed to mininise the risk of oxidation. There is no oak used in the Chablis, sometimes a little on their on Premier Crus, and the Grands Crus always see oak, but generally no more than 25%. Matthieu says he also prefers oak from the Vosges near Alsace rather than from central forests, as it gives a less vanillin quality. We were to taste several wines from the 2012 vintage, which is a favourite vintage of Matthieu’s: “From July onwards it was a fantastic year,” he says, “there was just nothing to do on the sorting table.”

click-here for tasting notes on 7 wines from Domaine Long-Depaquit

Go to Part II: Vincent Dauvissat, Moreau-Naudet, La Chablisienne, Château de Fleys, Dampt Freres, Guy Robin.

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