Reflections on Chablis

As with the Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais, I was long overdue for a visit to Chablis. While I had stopped through a few times traveling between the Côte d’Or and Paris, I had spent no time in any cellars there since 2004. This May I made things right.

Chablis trumps the Côte d’Or in 2012 whites. While Chablis also experienced hail, it came in April before the berries set. This reduced the crop size from the very start - earlier-harvesting areas lost anywhere between 5 to 10% to up to 30% in the Grand and Premier Crus. From the start of the season, the best vines were focused on channeling their all into the clusters that remained. This is in contrast to the Côte d’Or where mid-summer hailstorms traumatized vines, promoted disease issues and ultimately gave many whites a tannic edge.

However, the reverse is the case for 2011. The Côte d’Or pulled off good concentration accompanied by proper purity, but the intensely rainy summer in Chablis promoted rot. A few of my über-taster friends get geosmin (an earthy, lightly green smell) everywhere. I often smell geosmin, too, but I tend to like it. One (wo)man’s fault is another’s (likeable) flaw. (I know they disagree.)

As I say of all cool climate regions, every vintage serves a purpose. In Chablis, the 2011s will make for pleasant, early- to mid-term drinking while the 2012s are maturing. Both vintages show the marked acidity for which Chablis is known as well as an excellent transparency of the region’s terroirs.

Producer Profiles & Top Wines

Caves Jean & Sébastien Dauvissat
This house began exporting to the USA after meeting the importer Neal Rosenthal, and the winery continues to work with the MadRose Group today. Though the family has made wine in the village of Chichée since 1899, its last half-century has been the busiest. Its first – and limited – in-house bottling was in 1963. Fifteen years later, Jean upped the number to 3,000. Today, Jean’s son Sébastien bottles 50,000. Highly conscientious, this is a house that releases wines when they are drinking well.

Domaine Bernard Defaix
I had met Didier Defaix, Bernard’s son who now directs the winery, in London during “Burgundy Week”, so I was pleased to meet him again at his domaine. The domaine’s production is half village and half Premier Cru. The Grand Crus are bought in. Unusually in Chablis, Didier farms organically and has been certified by Ecocert since 2009. Whatever the change in the wines, he jokes that his wife noticed a change in his hair – from blond to gray – thanks to the stress of monitoring it all.

Domaine Billaud-Simon
The ambitious domaine and négociant Faiveley purchased this quality-driven, classic house two months ago. What was very, very good should only become excellent. This domaine’s 21 hectares are found exclusively in the heart of Chablis. I was surprised to learn the winery has taken to chilling all their post-pressing must to 3° C until the end of the harvest. Only then, after a comprehensive and painstaking tasting analysis of all the cuvées, is the decision for how to lead the fermentations taken for all the wines.

Domaine Christian Moreau
After meeting Christian Moreau in Manhattan and London so many times, I was thrilled to meet with him and his son Fabien, who has been leading the winery since 2001, on their home turf. I have to say that I have a lot of respect for Fabien. His father is a tour de force, but Fabien takes him in stride. Their collective energy is impressively positive and it shines through in their wines. These wines are consistently some of the top from a large Chablis producer. It is notable that a producer of this size in this region harvests everything they cultivate (which they do entirely organically) by hand!

Domaine Daniel Dampt & Fils
(with Domaine Sébastien Dampt & Domaine Jean Defaix)
I discovered these wines while buying for the 16 restaurants-proud Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, and I’ve admired them ever since for their fantastic value. The first thing Vincent (Daniel’s son, as is Sébastien) insisted we do was go for a vineyard tour. This translated perfectly: I knew why their wines are so good; they love their vines. Dad Daniel now also works with fruit from his father-in-law, Jean Defaix.

Domaine Daniel-Etienne Defaix
I first tasted one of Daniel-Etienne’s wines on a rainy afternoon on a porch “down the shore” in New Jersey. It was August 2010, and I remember the moment as clear as a bell. Alas, I don’t recall which vineyard it was, but I do remember that it was a 2002 and that I was riveted. At the domaine, this Chablis master shared a wine from his first vintage with me, and it showed all the keen youthfulness one sees in Daniel-Etienne’s posts on FaceBook. Buy, keep and drink these wines…then repeat.

Domaine Drouhin-Vaudon
To sit down with régisseur Denis Mery is to become lost in time and in passion. Denis has worked in Chablis for 23 years, and Chablis courses through his veins. He oversees this domaine with impressive pride and great emotion. This is the largest Chablis estate to work entirely under biodynamic principles, and most of its Grand Crus are tread only by horses’ hooves, not tractors. Respect for the land, the heritage and the generation to come is top-of-mind at this domaine.

Domaine François Raveneau
If there is a cellar to visit in Chablis that will give you goose bumps this is it, not only for its bone-chilling temperatures but also for its rock star status. Naturally, this visit was to be different, and it was so for reasons I didn’t expect. This was the only cellar where I tasted 2013s from barrel as well as a five vintage vertical of Montée de Tonnèrre. Class and discretion not only describe these wines but also their makers, Bernard and his daughter Isabelle.

Domaine Gilbert Picq
When I visited Chablis in 2004, I tasted the oldest Chablis I have ever tasted…about sixty years old…was from this domaine. One doesn’t forget such treasures quickly, yet it is not uncommon that younger wines (a bit like people) do not carry the grace and interest of their ancestors. Chez Picq, however, this is hardly the case. These wines continue to be marvels, even prodigies. The depth of flavor strictly isolated from terroir (given that nothing but stainless steel is used) here is intriguing.

Domaine Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin
This appointment started with a stall, as there was a confusion of appointment times. This was corrected within five minutes when the impressively well-organized Benoît arrived and began opening bottles so quickly I couldn’t keep up. I’m surprised he’s entitled to a French passport, as industrious as he is. Benoît is certainly quick and focused, and this shows in his clean, mineral and precise wines.

Domaine Laroche
It was with surprise and pleasure that I met Sandrine Audegond at Domaine Laroche. The last time I saw her was in London for the 2010 Master of Wine exams. We’d lost touch since, and that was just about the time she moved on to Domaine Laroche. The wines I tasted with her were some of the first under her belt at this Chablis mainstay. Organic viticulture (again, this is rare in Chablis, but I managed to hit many of the most conscientious producers) is the norm here since the late aughts, and all Premier and Grand Crus are hand-harvested.

Domaine Louis Michel
This domaine is all about terroir, having decided to use exclusively inox, or stainless steel, about 40 years ago. This seems like a fairly radical decision for a family whose vineyards were first cultivated by Cistercian monks 1,000 years ago. And, that has not been the only decision taken to preserve the expression of terroir. Chez Michel there is no battonage and little to no lees aging.

Domaine Roland Lavantureux
Here is a domaine energized by new ideas. Brothers David and Arnaud are looking to take the domaine to the next level. Whereas their father bottled half of their vineyard’s production under the estate name and sold off half as a négociant, these brothers want to keep all the juice in the family. The party line here is that négociants lose money selling off their wine, especially when sold off in bottle. And the juice here is good, so all that needs to be done is to develop a smashing marketing game.

Domaine William Fèvre
Didier Seguier is one of those masters of the universe that know an impressive amount about everything wine – from vineyards and fermentation to processing and marketing. Furthermore, he makes it look effortless. Whether it is the 400 to 500 pre-selections made before every harvest, the harvests like 2013 that are shorted to five days rather than a dozen, or the operation of their Rolls-Royce of bottling lines, Didier knows exactly what is going on in this enormous house that produces 130 different cuvées every year. Kudos.

Wines Tasted at the BIVB
I began my visit to the area with a vineyard tour conducted by former Fèvre winemaker Eric Szablowski in a beautifully restored deux chevaux car. Afterwards, we tasted a selection of wines, some of which are included with the scores above in cases where I also visited the domaines. The rest are below.