One of my goals for Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne, a weeklong series of tastings held in Burgundy every two years, was to learn about the differences between vineyards in Chablis.
It was the ideal setting, a day-long tasting with over 100 Chablis producers pouring over 600 wines, all from Chablis. The owners or the winemakers, sometimes both, did the pouring and were more than willing to discuss the wines. With the vast number of growers and négociants represented and all showing a wide array of their wines, you have the opportunity to revisit producers you know, taste wines from those you’ve heard of but don’t know well, and discover new growers.
Distinguishing wines from the various vineyards can be tough. Marc Cameron of Domaine Servin explained that, as opposed to the Côte d’Or, the vineyards in Chablis are large and have varying exposures—really many vineyards within one vineyard. Plus, the age of the vines can have a profound impact on the character of the wines. It was far easier to learn more about producers and to assess the 2010 vintage.
The Great 2010 Vintage
Let me jump right to the bottom line regarding vintage. The 2010 vintage in Chablis is fabulous, rivaling the superb 2008. The wines are flinty and mineraly with exquisite precision and focus. Chablis lovers should stock up as many are on retailers’ shelves now. The village wines and Petit Chablis remain unbelievable bargains and even the wines from premier and grand cru vineyards are under-priced compared to white Burgundies with comparable pedigrees.
Growers and Négociants
Unique as Chablis is in terms of climate and soil, it is similar to the remainder of Burgundy in commercial structure, with scores of small growers and numerous négociants. Many of the négociants own vineyards and buy grapes or must from others, just as they do in the Côte d’Or. Indeed, the line between growers and négociants who have substantial vineyard holdings is becoming blurred as growers expand by starting small négociant businesses.
Although many writers and sommeliers praise wines made by growers over those from négociants, my experience challenges that notion. While I generally prefer the Chablis from a négociant’s own vineyards to those made by the same team from purchased grapes, I believe that it is foolish to assert that grower wines are superior to those made by négociants. Tasting the Chablis from the domaine side of Drouhin, Fèvre, or Simonnet-Febrve, all of whom are both vineyard owners and négociants, should convince skeptics that quality-conscious négociants can and do make superb wines.
Oak versus No Oak
An ongoing debate in Chablis surrounds the use of oak barrels for fermentation and/or aging. As with most things vinous, the debate is not as simple as it seems. The complicating issues include new versus older barrels, bâtonage versus no bâtonage, and whether all wines are treated the same. Furthermore, the use of oak is not a static issue. When Joseph Henriot purchased Domaine William Fèvre in 1998, he reduced dramatically the amount of oak used for fermentation and aging. Drouhin has modified their practice, using no new oak for any of their Chablis since the 2004 vintage. With the exception of a few, such as Louis Michel, the self-described “Ayatollah of the tank,” most producers use some oak barrels for aging at least some of their higher end wines.
Frankly, categorizing producers by “oak versus no oak” is a bit like deciding whether you like a restaurant based on whether the chef uses chicken or veal stock. These are decisions best left to the winemaking team. The consumer’s job is to remember producers whose style of wine you like.
Yield is a far more important issue than use of oak, since it is especially difficult to ripen grapes this far north. Producers need to assess whether the higher quality wine made from smaller yields will command a sufficiently high price to offset the loss of volume. While the amount of high quality Chablis on the market continues to expand because of conscientious growers and négociants, there are still dilute and vapid wines that tarnish the image of the entire region.
What follows, an alphabetical order, is my short list of Chablis producers.
Domaine Barat: This Domaine delivers an extraordinary array of Chablis—at all levels from Petit Chablis to Premier Cru—for the price. They are the quintessential Chablis reflecting the diversity of the appellation. Their 2010 premier cru Vaillons is flowery and elegant while the Côte de Léchet is all about minerals and Les Fourneaux delivers a touch more ripeness. In the New York area, their premier crus are less than $30 a bottle!
Domaine Billaud-Simon: This estate turns out formidable wines by restricting yields. There is no formula regarding oak aging. Some wines see a barrel while others do not. Their 2010 Petit Chablis demonstrates that this appellation in the right hands can deliver marvelous wines. Billaud-Simon’s 2010 premier crus march, as they should, from a flowery Vaillons to a more mineraly Mont de Milieu to a muscular, yet still crisp and exceptionally long Montée de Tonnerre. The 2009 grand cru Les Clos was in a class by itself and had me rushing to find where I could buy it.
Romain Bouchard: Romain Bouchard represents the new breed of Burgundy growers. He has branched out from his family’s domaine, Pascal Bouchard (no relation to Bouchard Père et Fils), to start his own, Domaine de la Grande Chaume, as well as a small négociant business with his brother, Damien, called DRB. His classy 2010 Vau de Vey and the stylish DRB 2010 Vaillons and Montée de Tonnerre show his great potential.
Jean-Marc Brocard: Brocard makes a terrific line up of Chablis, from both their own grapes and those purchased from others, all of which accurately reflect the different terroirs of the appellation. Brocard’s 2010 Petit Chablis is better than most producers’ Chablis and is an amazing value. The next step up, Brocard’s village Chablis conveys the very essence of Chablis, while the premier crus Vau de Vey and Vaulorent have a captivating laciness to them.
La Chablisienne: One of the best cooperatives in the world, La Chablisienne controls a quarter of Chablis’ production. Its 300-plus members own more than 3,000 acres of vineyards. The co-op controls 80 percent of the grand cru Grenouilles and labels their flagship wine Château Grenouilles because one of its members owns a castle there. These are wines that rarely fail to satisfy.
Domaine Jean Collet et Fils: Most of this estate is comprised of village and premier cru wines, all of which are superb. They own over 20 acres in Vaillons from which they make two wines, a fruitier, but still structure one labeled Vaillons and another, labeled Vaillons Sécher, which is firmer still, edgy and cutting. Collet’s 2010 Montée de Tonnerre could easily be mistaken for a Grand Cru.
Domaine Daniel-Etienne Defaix: This 400 year-old firm is run by Daniel-Etienne Defaix, who represents the 13th generation of the family. He is corpulent and jolly—an archetypal Burgundian—who freely admits, “We are an old style estate.” They never use oak for aging (but they do perform bâtonage) and hold their wines in stainless steel tanks until they feel they are ready to drink. Their current release is the exceptional 2002 vintage. The wines are pure and fresh and are a revelation to those who drink Chablis young. He is especially proud of the wines from two premier cru vineyards, Les Lys and Léchet, which he describes as the birthplace of Chablis because it was here that the monks first planted vines. Defaix’s 2002 Côte de Léchet has an uncanny combination of minerality and creaminess. The 2002 Les Lys is stony and precise. The monks evidently knew what they were doing!
Drouhin-Vaudon: Although Maison Joseph Drouhin, one of Burgundy’s top négociants, is located in Beaune, almost half of their Domaine—95 acres—is in Chablis. Robert Drouhin had the foresight to buy vineyards in Chablis in the 1960s after the major frost of 1956 almost destroyed the entire appellation and many growers abandoned the vineyards. It was a shrewd strategy that has paid off handsomely since today they are one of the very best and largest Chablis producers. All of their Chablis are now labeled Vaudon, the name of their Chablis estate. Their 2010s across the board are outstanding, especially their grand crus, Les Clos and Vaudésir. Do not miss their 2010 (or 08 or 09 if still available) village Chablis from their vineyards, labeled Réserve de Vaudon. At less than $30 a bottle, it’s an outstanding value.
William Fèvre: In my mind, the wines from Fèvre took a giant step forward in 1998 after Henriot, who had just acquired Bouchard Père et Fils in Beaune, added them to his portfolio. They are among the first to harvest because their viticultural practices ensures a low yield. They clearly now rank among the top producers. Victor Pépin, Fevre’s export manager for Europe notes they use no new oak and no bâtonage so to not obscure the identity of the vineyards. Fèvre opts to use the vineyard name Vaulorent, which is adjacent to the grand cru Les Preuses, instead of Fourchaume because Pépin insists it’s the best vineyard allowed to use the Fourchaume name. Similarly, they use Les Lys, one of the many subdivisions of Vaillons, because it makes more structured wines. Fevre’s 2010 Les Preuses is especially glorious, marrying power and finesse. Frankly, their entire range of 2010s was strikingly good.
Domaine Louis Michel et Fils: The “Ayatollah of the tank” makes stunning wines. Their most important holding is just over 10 acres of the highly regarded premier cru Montée de Tonnerre. Michel’s sensational 2010 Montée de Tonnerre—mineraly with great length and finesse—is not to be missed. Also not to be overlooked is their 2010 Premier Cru Les Forêts—its combination of delicacy and flintiness stops you in your tracks.
Domaine Christian Moreau Père et Fils: This is another stellar domaine that made a consistently exciting range of 2010 Chablis, from a bargain-priced village Chablis to their grand cru, Chablis Les Clos. Winemaker Fabien Moreau told me they ferment their wines in stainless steel tanks using natural yeasts before transferring some of wine into old oak barrels for aging. Their wines always have an engaging texture that complements the underlying steeliness. Their grand cru Valmur and premier cru Vaillons were both particularly notable in 2010. I’d happily buy any of their 010s.
Domaine Louis Moreau: I was sold on this estate after tasting two of their wines blind (Les Clos and Vaudésir) at a tasting of 2009 Burgundy Grand Cru. Louis Moreau and his uncle, Christian Moreau, split the vineyards following the sale of the family business, J. Moreau et Fils, to Boisset. Their line up of 2010s is riveting.
Domaine Oudin: Another newish domaine founded in 1998, Oudin makes wonderfully expressive wines by limiting yields. The 2010 premier cru Vaugiraut is bright and lively, while their more south-facing premier cru Vaucoupins is slight richer and fruitier while maintaining all of the precision of Chablis. This is another estate to watch.
Domaine Pinson: Pinson limits yields and harvest everything by hand, which explains, in part, why the wines are so good. Pinson’s 2010s are a brilliant example of the range of Chablis. The village Chablis is clean and bright with identifiable minerality, the premier cru La Forêt delivers a flowery component to accompany the crisp acidity, the Montmains conveys slightly riper notes without losing edginess and the Mont de Milieu muscles its way to the end of the line without sacrificing elegance. The grand cru Les Clos is, well, everything a Grand Cru should be.
Isabelle et Denis Pommier: Consumers should keep their eyes open for wines from this small estate, established only in 1990. Pommier’s 2010s, especially the premier cru Côte de Léchet, have a lovely brightness and verve. Robert Kacher is the importer, which is never a bad sign.
Domaine Servin: With over 80 acres spread across four Grands Crus and three Premier Cru sites, Domaine Servin is an excellent source for a wide range of Chablis. Their village Chablis and Petit Chablis are great bargains and worth the search. Servin is a superb example of the variability in the use of oak; some grand crus, Bougros and Preuses, are vinified in oak barrels, while their Blanchots is not. Despite varying vinification practices—or perhaps because of them—they always seem to get it right.
Simmonet-Febrve: The highly regarded, Beaune-based négociant, Maison Louis Latour, acquired Simonnet-Febvre in 2003. They eschew wood aging, which explains in part why they deliver tightly wound, quintessentially flinty Chablis that reward cellaring. Jean-Philippe Archambaud, the cellar master here is proud—rightly so in my view—of their premier cru, Mont de Milieu, from which they produce a consistently excellent wine from their almost 4 acres. Their grand cru Les Clos and Les Preuses are sensational in 2010, and, in keeping with the Latour philosophy, very reasonably priced.
Other producers who I can recommend include Domaine Jean Durup Père et Fils (aka Château de Maligny), Domaine Long-Depaquit (owned by the Burgundy négociant Albert Bichot), Domaine Tremblay, and Domaine Vocoret et Fils.
Did I forget a favorite producer of yours? Email me at email@example.com