Simon Smith, Manager of our Dorchester branch takes us on a trip to Chablis.
The Chablis region is over 100 km North of Beaune and so quite detached from the rest of the Côte d’Or. In rough terms, if you cross the Channel at a polite hour, Epernay makes an ideal place to stop for a midday break. You can then reach the town of Chablis by mid afternoon depending on how many courses you have for lunch.
The limestone and clay soil found at the centre of the Chablis region is referred to as Kimmeridgean, the name taken from the Dorset village of Kimmeridge which also shares the same soil type. It is one of the main factors that determines the style of Chablis and gives the wine its’ distinctive minerally character. The soil is packed full of tiny fossilised oysters and very rich in minerals. We visited Domaine Jean-Hugues Goisot in St Bris where we learnt the Latin name for these creatures is “Exogyra Virgule”. Ghislaine spent half the tasting trying to teach me how to pronounce this properly, but failed. They have a cuvée of St Bris named after this which is referred to in our house as “tiny oysters”. Much easier!
Domaine William Fevre
Despite arriving in Chablis just a few days before harvest the team at Fevre kindly showed us around and treated us to a fantastic tasting. This is one of the most historical estates in Chablis and is now responsible for some of the regions finest wines.
Since his first vintage in 1959 William Fevre has built up an enviable 47 hectares of vineyards in Chablis. The Domaine owns over 15% of the total land area of Grand Cru vineyards giving it the largest holdings. The 15.2 hectares are spread across Les Clos, Preuses, Valmur, Vaudesir, Bourgros and Cote de Bourgros. Fevre also produce a Blanchot and Grenouilles from bought in grapes. The rest of the estate is comprised of Chablis and Chablis Premier Cru.
Although the vineyards and winery are still owned by Monsieur Fevre, the business was bought by the Henriot family of Champagne in 1998. Didier Seguier now makes the wine at Fevre but continues the tradition at this Domaine for producing a terroir driven, classic Chablis. Having toured the wine making facilities I got a sense that there is real attention to detail, as well as constant innovation. This reflects well in the quality of the wines.
Grapes are hand picked and transported to the winery in small boxes to ensure they arrive in the best condition possible. Once there a sorting table is used to make a selection of the best bunches. A pneumatic press is used for a more gentle extraction of the juice. The stems are left on which allows faster extraction and therefore less skin contact. This helps retain the classic minerally flavour from the soil, where as skin contact would impart more of a “chardonnay” flavour.
The next stage is selection of the juice. The first 5% of the pressing has a slightly higher acidity and the last 5% is a little richer. These are vinified separately so they can be blended in later depending on the character of the wine. At Fevre they also vinify each parcel from within a vineyard separately. For example the Domaine has several plots within Les Clos. The vines at the top of the slope on poor soil have deep root systems and produce wines that are very mineral. Vines at the bottom on the richer eroded soil give fuller wines. This gives Didier more flexibility when assembling the final blend.
The use of oak, in particular new oak, has been quite a contentious issue in Chablis. At Fevre, barrels are used but only 2% are new and only part of the harvest spends time in wood. For the village Chablis, 90% is vinified in stainless steel tank and 10% in barrel. The different Premier Crus vary from between 40-60% in barrel depending on vintage conditions and vineyard. While about 80% of the Grand Crus are vinified in barrel. The benefit of using barrels is that the process of micro oxygenation helps open up the flavours and aromas of the wine. After the fermentations and some maturation the wines are returned to stainless steel tanks so no wood character is imparted and the purity of the fruit is retained. During our visit to Chablis we also tasted with Christian and Fabian Moreau. Here, we were told, there is no rigid formula for how long the wine is left in barrel before being returned to tank. The wine is very much in charge! I liked this intuitive style of winemaking which had very much in common with the philosophies at Fevre. Chablis is blessed with a unique terroir that produces wines that can’t be replicated elsewhere in France or even the world. There is no need or desire to produce a Meursault look a like here. Just a strong will to produce wines that offer an honest translation of where they come from.
During our visit to Fevre we were treated to a fabulous tasting of Chablis, Premiers and Grand Crus. This was a great opportunity to experience not only wines from different terroirs but also from different levels of the quality hierarchy.
Chablis 2008 – Pale lemon with green tinges. Concentrated nose of citrus and some mineral notes. More citrus on the palate with touches of white fruit on the finish. Good acidity and clean mineral finish.
Chablis 2007– A little less concentrated than the ’08, but still has a lovely weight of citrus and green apple fruit running through. Finishes fresh with nice mineral notes. Good quality for village level.
Montmains 2007 – Most of the fruit comes from Butteaux at the western end of Montmains. This area produces some of the most mineral wines of this 1er cru. There is a great concentration of lemon citrus and yellow fruit on the nose. The palate is beautifully balanced, with crisp fruit and lively acidity. One of my favourites of the tasting.
Vaillons 2007 – This 1er cru runs parallel with Montmains and has the same South East exposure. There is also more limestone in the soil where as clay dominates in Montmains. This has resulted in a wine which is more floral, with notes of spring flowers on the nose. The palate is rounder, with generous white fruit flavours, citrus and a fine mineral structure on the finish.
Les Lys 2007 – Named after the French Royalty who favoured wines from this northern part of Vaillons. The soil here is fine clay and the vines have a slightly cooler aspect to the rest of the 1er cru. This is much firmer than the Vaillons, with focused acidity and tight mineral structure. Really nice wine that I think should age a little better than the Vaillons.
Fourchaume 2007 – The largest of the 1er crus and one of best known. The nose offers a combination of blossom, ripe citrus and stone fruit. This has the most weight of the wines tasted so far. The vines are grown on relatively deep, rich soil and this comes through in the wine. The palate is concentrated with a supple texture and nice rounded fruit. There is still a good underlying structure to this wine but my personal preference is for a touch more austerity.
Vaudesir 2007 – Located at the higher end of the grand cru slope between Valmur and Preuses. We had walked around the Grand crus the previous day and noted the steepness here. Its quite a warm spot, lying in an enclosed valley which would also make for a cracking pheasant drive! The nose has subtle aromas of flowers, apple, lemon and wet stone. These continue on the palate which is rich, concentrated and has a great balance between power and elegance. It finishes bone dry, with great line and incredibly purity. Just a little more of everything when tasted alongside the 1ers.
Les Preuses 2007 – This is a blend of two parcels within the vineyard. Vines on the South East facing slope give a really mineral character to the wine. Vines on the flatter part of Preuses produce wine with more richness and weight. A hugely complex nose of lemon, lime and sea shell. The palate starts with a rich citrus character and gradually finishes with great purity and focus. Incredible elegance. My favourite of the tasting.
Les Clos 2007 – This has the reputation of being the most powerful and ageworthy of the Grand Crus. Again, it is blended from a number of parcel within the vineyard, which helps add complexity to the finished wine. The nose offers citrus zest, crushed stone and a delicate hint of spice. There is a serious presence on the palate. Masses of fruit, a firm spine of acidity and once again, an underlying structure/minerality. The interplay between these seems to give the wine a real sense of vitality and a finish that goes on forever. Requires cellaring as do all of the above to a greater or lesser extent. 2007 does not seem as forward as the 2006 that I tasted here on my last visit, although, personally I love the style of the vintage.