Minerality in Chablis

Our group at -10 Degrees

The recent AWE trip to Chablis, from 4th to 7th February, was a great opportunity for a harmonious mixture of AWE and CWW members to reacquaint themselves with the complexities of the Chablis terroir and the wines’ various incarnations, during a well-selected programme of visits to small and larger producers and houses organised by Sopexa and the CIVB. The visit included the Fête de Saint-Vincent Tournante du Chablisien in Courgis on the Sunday, the report of which is included in a piece by fellow CWW member David Cobb. My report covers the two days’ tastings at vineyards, which confirmed for me why this region has maintained such a steadfast popularity, and is still something of a benchmark region for high-quality dry white wine.

Les Clos, with Chablis in the background

We stayed at the marvellous Hostellerie des Clos, in the centre of Chablis, which gave us the opportunity one afternoon to walk the length of the ‘balade des Grands Crus’ around all seven Grand Cru vineyards, in a moment of sunny afternoon respite from the otherwise arctic temperatures (the temperature in the shade during our stay never went above -10°). These vineyards are all on what the Chablisiens now refer to, in rather Bordelais style, as ‘right bank’.

The timing of our pleasantly warm afternoon walk was fortunate as these vineyards face south west, thus catching the most of the afternoon sun. They are also on the steepest slopes, which create ideal topography for an energetically warming uphill walk; also, the excellent drainage concentrates the wine. The soil on this right bank is all Kimmeridgian, of course, with its Jurassic shellfish fossils, and is supposed to be responsible for the minerality of the wines, that much-used, but not so much understood, term in the region.

Is it salt from the fossils perhaps, hot dried stone aroma from the stones, an organic-

Chablis Rock Strata in Brocard’s Cellar

mineral clay complex created by micro-organisms, a combination of all of these, or something else? I associate minerality with the smell of the dried seawater on the stones on Brighton beach on a hot summer’s day. Other people have different descriptors; whatever minerality is, all the tasters from our trip were convinced of its existence by the wines we tasted.

The left bank covers all the rest of the Chablis appellations to the south west of the river, including most of the Premiers Crus, Chablis and Petit Chablis. Most vineyards on this side are south east or east facing, on shallower slopes and therefore without such concentration. Soils for Chablis and Premiers Crus are supposed to be Kimmeridgian, giving steely minerality, and Portlandian clay for Petit Chablis, giving less intensity and softer, broader texture. There are, though, instances of Portlandian soils in village and Premier Cru vineyards. Why can’t it ever be simple? Then, you have production methods, to complicate things further…

Lucy Depuydt at Moreau

Our first visit, to the house of J. Moreau & Fils, served as an excellent introduction to the minerality discussion which dominated conversation during the three-day visit. The house is owned by the Boisset group, and operates from a pristine facility just to the north of Chablis. Encouragingly, Boisset insists on each house having its own winemaker; so Moreau’s viticulture and winemaking is managed by Lucie Depuydt, a young winemaker very focused on the complexities of the region’s soils. Dennis Dubourdieu, the white wine guru, is consultant, so the winemaking is squeaky clean. Malolactic fermentation is the norm (Lucy Depuydt suggested the reason for not doing it would be because the grapes were picked too late), and a small amount of oak, only old, is used on Premier and Grand Cru wines; Moreau even takes the trouble to condition new barriques with lesser wine, which is then sold on, to ensure the quality of its barrels. The house has no vines of its own, but strict guidelines with the 15 growers it works with, and the wines showed the clean, fresh linear quality (minerality?) that people associate with Chablis.

A 2006 Chablis Reserve, made from the best parcels of the vintage, showed the ageing potential of these wines, with a yeasty (one year on the lees), creamy nose and a fresh palate of dried apricots refreshed by steely acidity. The 2006 Grand Cru Vaudesir, the first vintage under Dubourdieu’s guidance, showed the reduced oak regime, with its fresh white-fruit richness and mouth-filling youthful acidity, in contrast to the more oxidative, smoky sweet-apricot flavours of the more oak-influenced 2005 Grand Cru Valmur.

Next was Domaine de la Meulière, run by Vincent and Nicolas Laroche, not part of the

Vincent Laroche, Domaine de la Meulière

Laroche family from a later visit, but independent, artisanal growers based at Fleys, to the east of Chablis. The brothers practise agriculture raisonnée, with manual harvesting, low intervention and grass growing between rows of the 24 ha of vines. They use oak sparingly (apart from one deliberate exception) to maintain the purity of the wine.

Their Petit Chablis 2010 was delicious, with ripe white pear, a smooth, quite round palate, and easy texture. No great ‘nerf’ or minerality, but a charming wine. A strange experiment punctuated the middle of the tasting: their Chablis 2007 cuvée Les Larmes de l’Oubli was ‘forgotten’  in a barrel (old of course, but still..) for 43 months, in the words of Vincent Laroche ‘just for fun’! Despite mutterings from some  members of our group, several of us liked its smoky, spicy, diffuse fruit style, with a hint of tannin on the finish. It wasn’t Chablis, but it was fun, as intended! All the La Meulière Premier Cru wines see no oak, for purity of style, and highlights were a classically austere and spicy white-fruited Vaucopin 2010, which won a gold at the Concours de Chablis in January, and a regal Mont de Milieu Vieilles Vignes 2008, Cuvée des Gougueys, of Grand Cru calibre, made from 62-year-old vines, with huge stony-fruit richness, balanced by ripe mouth-watering acidity. To contradict what I just said, this did in fact see 5% oak, but it didn’t show, perhaps just broadening the flavour.

Later, we visited the estate of Pascal Bouchard, long-established Chablis estate and negociant of the same name. Here, you get three companies in one:

The winery building itself is Pascal Bouchard, Grands Vins de Chablis, the father’s operation. This is slick and modern, a pristinely clean efficiency of design, perhaps to allude to the clean minerality of the wines. The viticulture is heading towards sustainable, with chemical fertilisers and treatments eliminated, and grass grown between the rows. He doesn’t want the oak used to show, only to broaden the flavours, and this is borne out by a superb Grand Cru Les Clos 2007, For this100% oak ageing is used, but it doesn’t taste oaky, instead showing open, buttery richness, ripe white stone fruit, apricots and clean, steely, Grand Cru linearity (d’you see how I managed to avoid the ‘m’ word)!

Romain Bouchard

Then DRB, described as a new concept, created by Pascal Bouchard’s two sons Damien and Romain. Romain refers to DRB as a “boutique negociant”. They buy must from single vineyard parcels of selected growers, and vinify at their father’s estate. There is no blending; in their words “…each wine offers the expression of its own terroir”. Both brothers are involved equally, although Damien tends to be more in charge of vinification. They try to avoid oak. However, the star of the range which they showed us was their Premier Cru Montée de Tonnerre 2010, which won a gold medal in the Concours des Vins de Chablis. This was vinified 100% in oak, simply because only 1709 bottles are produced and they don’t have a tank small enough. Although not new, I thought the oak did show a little, with a hint of creamy vanilla on top of ripe melon and lime flavours, and a long, austere, very dry steely finish.

Finally, Romain has his own estate cultivated with organic vines: Romain Bouchard, Domaine de la Grande Chaume. The land is leased in ‘fermage’ –  a very old French system whereby the rentis calculated according to the agreed potential yield in hectolitres multiplied by the price per hectolitre for the appellation averaged over the past five years. The wine was terrific. AB organic certified, it showed broad, diffuse white fruit, a stony, clean, yes, mineral palate, a youthful freshness and great balance. He is working toward biodynamic certification, in his words “bit by bit”.

Romain Bouchard’s comment on his methods told a lot: “I need to learn. I like everything, I am very open.” This open-minded attitude seems to be bearing fruit at this exciting Chablis estate.

Right in the middle of Chablis is Domaine Pinson. This family have been making wine here for 350 years. They make a different style of Chablis, incorporating new oak in some of their Premier (10-15%) and Grand Cru (20%) wines, with barrel fermentation. The result was superbly clean, modern wines, with a broader flavour than some of the other estates’ wines. The Premier Cru Montmains 2010 showed clean, crisp Chablis linearity, the Premier Cru Mont de Milieu 2010 was richer, rounder, riper, with a hint of the Côte de Beaune, and the 2009 Grand Cru Les Clos was magnificent, with waxy, toasty, smoky aromas, while still managing that floral, dry steeliness. A Chablis for people who don’t like Chablis!

Before dinner at Domaine Laroche that evening, we tasted all the award-winners in the

Eric Szablowski

2012 Concours des Vins de Chablis. The wines were all good representations of their appellations, and it was a pleasure to get the opportunity to taste them, but the tasting itself was illuminating because we were guided through it by Eric Szablowski, a local wine educator, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the region seemed to include the exact geological structure of every square metre of land in every vineyard. By the end of that tasting, we were totally convinced as to the terroir-derived source of the minerality of the wines.

An Ancient Press at Laroche

Mathieu Appfel, the Laroche viticulturist, showed us round the Laroche cellars, including the original press from the house, which was founded in 1850. Mathieu’s irrepressible combination of enthusiasm and charm was as enticing as the wines, and dinner was accompanied by a charming Chablis 2010 St Martin from Laroche vines, a clean, taut, searingly citrus Premier Cru Vaudevey 2008, a riper, fruitier Premier Cru les Fourchaumes Vieilles Vignes 2007, in Mathieu’s words “a hot appellation in a cold year”, and a tremendously pure Grand Cru les Blanchots 2006, showing that ageing 50% of the production in 30% new oak does not detract from the minerality of the wine.

Mathieu’s tongue-in-cheek estimation of how to succeed in the region was: “Good Chablis is made by an adventurous viticulturist and a lazy winemaker.” It seems to work for him.

The next day’s Wine Tasting at La Chablisienne conformed to expectation. All, I think, were aware of the quality reputation of this excellent co-operative, and the visit confirmed this. It does not buy on the free market, but all from its own contracted and regulated growers, whose entire production is bought. La Chablisienne takes a hands-on approach, with a team of viticulturists working in the producers’ vineyards, so the co-operative really does practise what it preaches. Long lees ageing is favoured (the youngest vintage we tasted was 2009, as the 2010s weren’t yet bottled), and a mixture of very little new and mainly old oak is used in varying proportions, on all Premier and Grand Cru wines. We were guided through the tasting by Hervé Tucki. Soil and minerality were the main tenets of his presentation, and the wines demonstrated this.

Too many wines were tasted to list all, but I found the Petit Chablis 2009, ‘pas si petit”’,clarified the concept of minerality for me quite usefully. This was a thoroughly commercial, well made and eminently sellable wine, totally ‘fit for purpose’, in the popular jargon. However, despite the lean, fresh citrus line it cut, for me it didn’t have that stony richness I call minerality; Indeed, La Chablisienne publishes a useful booklet called Minerality, which tries to explain this elusive descriptor. In it, the authors talk of a ‘…tension in the air. A sort of energy…’; this wine didn’t seem to have that energy. Most of the others did. Chablis 2009 La Sereine showed a creamy, round, rich leesy character, and a richer, steely, yes, mineral acidity. The Premier Cru Mont de Milieu 2009 was replete with white stone fruit, and showed that combination of richness and linearity which characterises minerality and creates balance. The wine of the co-operative’s own vineyard, Château Grenouilles 2008 Grand Cru, was easily the star of the show. The vines at Château Grenouilles are farmed organically, with no insecticides, fertilisers, or herbicides and vineyard sexual confusion, but not certified, and 50% of the wine is barrel aged. It showed a great clarity of white stone fruit, combined with creamy butterscotch, a rich but steely fresh palate and a mouth-filling, long finish. Richness and minerality in a glass. Hervé says: “For me, La Chablisienne is a producer.. In this, and the other wines as well, I think this attitude is borne out.

Finally, to the southwest of Chablis, in Préhy, is Jean-Marc Brocard. This is a large estate with about 100 ha of its own vines, plus 100 ha leased, and the Brocards also buy must from others. They are converting their vineyard to biodynamic production, with 35 ha currently certified, and a further 35 ha on the way. The winery is gravity fed; other points of interest were the ‘eggs’, egg-shaped cement tanks used for ageing some of the wines.

The tasting started with an useful demonstration of wines (of Bourgogne appellation, not

Pierre Jovignot at Brocard

Chablis) from each of the different soils. Kimmeridgian 2009 showed a slaty, lean aspect. Unfortunately, the 2009 Portlandian was not available, so we tasted 2007, which showed much more maturity, the fruit rather flattened by age, but softer, and broader. Jurassic 2009 provided a better comparison; Jurassic is of course a period, not a soil, but this was from vines on a mixture of Kimmeridgian and Portlandian soils, and it was lighter, less steely, more diffuse than the Kimmeridgian on its own, I thought. Less mineral? Maybe.

Pierre Jovignot, our ebullient host, guided through a hugely varied range of wines, most of very high quality and expression, punctuated by a visit from Jean-Marc Brocard himself, who charmed the party with the honesty of his description of his quest for quality. His Chablis 2009 Domaine de laBoissonneuse, certified biodynamic by Demeter, showed classic 2009 warmth, lots of white fruit and ripe apricots, and rich, mineral acidity. Several of the Premiers Crus will be certified biodynamic for the 2011 vintage, including Vaudevey where the 2010 was fabulous, with lean, fresh, linear white fruit and steely acidity. All Grands Crus were magnificent, Bougros 2009, tight, very powerful muscular, latent, with

Eggs and a Foudre at Brocard

loads of potential and mineral freshness. Les Preuses 2009, aged 100% in the egg vat, was amazing, with Côte d’Or richness, replete with ripe apricots and melons, and, although it had seen none a toasty, smoky, waxy, oak-aged impression. A surprising, atypical, quite majestic wine.

A three-day education in minerality. For such an imprecise, poorly-understood term, it elicits a lot of interest, and is fiercely promoted in Chablis, even in larger, very commercial operations like Laroche, Brocard, and La Chablisienne, who you might expect to shun a concept as difficult, even cerebral, perhaps ‘hard to sell’. Minerality dominated our discussions during the three-day visit, spawned a booklet from La Chablisienne, and descriptions from the smaller, booklet-less growers. The aforementioned booklet serves well as a glossary of associated terms: ‘petroleum, traces of seashells and iodine, tension, energy, purity, a crystalline expression of the wine’. The authors ask: “Could someone have dropped some pebbles in the wine?”, and describe “those first big raindrops that fall and dry just before a storm on a hot, dry, day”, which sounds a lot like my descriptor on Brighton beach. However you want to describe it, minerality is alive and well in Chablis.