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In Search of Amazing Chardonnays

Lettie Teague heads to Chablis to find some of Burgundy's greatest wines.

Although there may be no more prestigious wine region in the world than Burgundy, there are actually Burgundian winemakers who would just as soon not advertise the origin of their wines—at least not where it can be readily seen. "Our wines are Chablis, and Chablis goes on the front of the label. Burgundy belongs on the back," Fabien Moreau of Domaine Christian Moreau Père & Fils said to me as we sat in his winery surrounded by the stainless steel tanks that are ubiquitous in Chablis, tasting the most recent vintages of his wines.

This sort of pride coupled to an odd sort of indifference was only one of the many contradictions I found during a recent trip to Chablis. The fact is, I can't think of a wine more rife with contradiction than Chablis. Though Chablis is one of six subregions of Burgundy, it's geographically more similar to (and just as close to) Champagne than it is to Burgundy's Côte d'Or, 90 miles to the south. It's also a world-famous name that virtually no one (at least no Americans) actually associates with a place. Instead, Chablis is, for many, a symbol or a synonym for cheap white, often packaged in a jug. And yet collectors know Chablis as one of the world's most sought-after wines. According to Zachys auction director Jeff Zacharia, "Collectors just close their eyes and put up their paddles until the bidding stops" when bottles of Domaine François Raveneau or Domaine René & Vincent Dauvissat are up for auction.

Indeed, my Chicago-based collector friend Scott Manlin loves Chablis so much that when I told him I would be traveling there, he petitioned to come along. "I'm a huge Chablis fan. I drink a lot of Chablis," he said, as if quantity alone were a travel credential, though he did enumerate a few of his other qualifications as well: four years of college French and a willingness to spend a lot of money on wine. (The former turned out to be even more useful than the latter, as many Chablis producers don't speak much English. The wines, on the other hand, proved surprisingly cheap, even in some of the best restaurants.) But at the same time Scott was trying to sell himself to me as a travel companion, he issued this warning: "I'm not drinking any old Chablis. I like to drink Chablis when it's young."

I didn't bother to remind Scott that Chablis happens to be one of the rare white wines that can actually improve with age and that the grands crus aren't even considered worth drinking until they've reached seven or 10 years of age, when they attain the kind of richness characteristic of a great Côte d'Or white. I knew it was useless to try to change Scott's mind when it comes to wine.

The village of Chablis, less than two hours by train from Paris, is small and charming in a rather stereotypical way (red geraniums in the window boxes, tourist shops and wineries with signs suggesting that visitors GOÜTER NOS VINS). And yet, unlike in most wine-tourist towns, top Chablis producers such as William Fèvre and Michel Laroche maintain not only tasting rooms but casual restaurants, too.

Still, there isn't much in the way of first-rate lodging in the village of Chablis, though Michel Laroche plans to open a small boutique hotel later this fall. The best lodging at the time of our visit was said to be at the Hostellerie des Clos, also the home of a Michelin one-star restaurant. "I think we might want to eat all our meals there," opined Scott, for whom the words Michelin and restaurant were always happily combined. This was before Scott and I came to call the place "Hostility des Clos," as the answer to our every request, no matter how small, was invariably, "That is not possible," accompanied, often as not, by a hard stare.

Fortunately, the producers of Chablis were a great deal more welcoming, perhaps because Americans are still such a novelty there. Sébastien Dauvissat (cousin to the more famous Vincent) told us he couldn't remember the last time an American tourist had visited his winery, just down the street from the Hostellerie des Clos. This was something we heard over and over, though no producer could quite explain why. Fabien Moreau thought it had to do with geography. "A lot of people thought I was pouring some kind of cheap white wine from California," said Fabien, recounting a recent trip to Boston. "They don't know where Chablis is."

How had a town with a famous name, less than two hours by train from Paris, managed to remain so obscure? Scott, who had been to Burgundy's Côte d'Or many times, thought it was because people didn't need to visit to taste the wines. Most of the wines, except those of Raveneau, are widely available. "I don't need to travel to Chablis to get the wines I want at reasonable prices," he explained.

This was perhaps the first time I'd heard Scott express an attraction to a reasonably priced wine. But it was the reasonable price of Chablis (the wines of Vincent Dauvissat and François Raveneau aside) that was one of their biggest attractions for me. An excellent village Chablis can cost around $20 while a top grand cru Chablis might be $50 to $65—less than half the price of a Côte d'Or white of comparable quality, and in certain cases (Coche-Dury, Comtes Lafon) as little as a tenth of the price.

Chablis also offers a truly unique interpretation of the Chardonnay grape. There is no place else on earth that can produce the flinty, minerally style of Chardonnay that is Chablis. Many winemakers have tried, to be sure, turning out unoaked Chardonnay in the "Chablis style," but Chablis's clay and limestone soils (a.k.a. Kimmeridgian) produce a wine that's impossible to clone. And the style of the wines is accordingly particular. A great Chablis isn't easy for a wine amateur to understand, especially if one is accustomed to big, oaky Chardonnays— the complete antithesis of minerally, high-acid Chablis.

"But it's the acidity that makes Chablis such a good food wine," Scott protested as we discussed Chablis's lack of mass appeal. "I don't think enough people realize that. You should mention something about that in your story." I assured Scott I would, but he didn't seem satisfied that his point had been made. "I think it's something that people really need to know about. If people understood how well Chablis works with food, a lot more of them would love it," he said. "Are you writing this down?" I nodded but put my pen away. Suddenly the idea of three days together seemed to stretch on indefinitely.

The one thing that struck both Scott and me with equal force was the complete absence of all Chablis vineyard signage. Although there are seven grand cru vineyards (the most famous of which is Les Clos) and 40 premier cru sites (only about half of which show up on labels exported to the States), none was marked in any kind of way. (Unlike, say, in the Côte d'Or, where signs often proudly announce the names of both the producers and the vineyards.) "How can we even tell where Les Clos is? Or Vaillons? Or Les Preuses?" Scott complained when we got out of the car to check the map that welcomed us to Chablis but didn't tell us much more.

The grand cru vineyards rise along a rather steeply pitched series of hills just outside the village while most of the premiers crus are located on the opposite side of the town. The Chablisienne, in an echo of Bordeaux, refer to the two sides as the "Left" and "Right" banks, though in their case it's the Serein River rather than the Gironde.

It wasn't until Fabien Moreau took us up into the vineyards in his mother's Audi ("not a good vineyard car," he noted, hitting rock after rock with the undercarriage) that the distinction between one grand cru site and another became clear. Fabien showed us the location of his family's various parcels, some so small they were measured in decimal points (e.g., .01 hectares of Blanchot). "Valmur is the hottest vineyard in the valley," Fabien said, pointing to the southern-facing slope. "And Vaudésir has the rockiest soil." Indeed, there were huge stones scattered along the Vaudésir vineyard floor.

At 60-plus acres, Les Clos is the largest of the seven grand cru vineyards. It also has the widest variety of soils, which means the wines can vary widely not only from producer to producer depending on the location of their parcel (over 100 producers have a piece of Les Clos) but within a single winery as well. "We're lucky that our parcel runs all the way from the bottom of the hill to the top so we have a range of flavors in the wines when we blend," noted Fabien.

While wines like Les Clos are the most famous among collectors, I believe it's the village Chablis that can best define the style of a producer—much in the way that a nonvintage Champagne is a good indication of a particular house's style. For that reason (and perhaps to Scott's dismay), I made sure all of our tastings included the producer's most basic wine.

But this was scarcely a hardship considering the uniformly high quality of the 2004 and 2005 wines. (The former vintage is currently on the market while the latter was still in the tank, soon to be bottled, at the time of our visit.) The 2004s showed classic Chablis style: They were intense with a clear mineral edge. The smaller 2005 vintage, according to almost everyone we talked to, had a similar minerality but an even greater intensity and richness. In fact, the 2005s, they agreed, were going to be some truly great wines. "The 2005 is the most complete," said Olivier De Moor, when we tasted both vintages of his minerally yet delightfully floral Rosette Chablis. De Moor produces only village-level wines—no grands or premiers crus. He spoke only French, which gave Scott an opportunity to put his four years of language study to good use.

There is another point of consensus among the Chablisienne: Grapes should be harvested by hand. While this is the case for just about every great wine in the world, it's still a fairly new idea in Chablis, where most wines, except the grands crus, are machine-harvested. Only a handful of producers, like Raveneau, both Dauvissat wineries (Vincent and Sébastien) and Moreau, hand-harvest all of their vineyards. "It's absolutely necessary in terms of quality," said Sébastien, who led us through a tasting of his young vintages then produced a wine that he would identify only as "an older vintage." He suggested that Scott and I try to guess its identity.

I looked at Scott. An old Chablis! What would he do? But Scott simply accepted the glass. The color of the wine was a dark gold; the flavors were rich and intense and the acidity vibrant. There was still so much life to the wine, I figured it had to be from a great early vintage.

"Could it be a 1990? Perhaps from Vaillons?" I asked, naming one of the great premier cru vineyards (whose wines, along with those from Fourchaume, can be so intense they are sometimes considered as good as grands crus). "It's the 1990 Vaillons Vieilles Vignes," Sébastien replied, looking a little nonplussed that I'd guessed correctly—though not as nonplussed as Scott did.

We paid a visit to Sébastien's cousin Vincent the following day. Unlike at Sébastien's winery, there was no sign welcoming visitors. That's because Vincent makes so little wine and all of it is sold right away. After Raveneau, the wines of Vincent Dauvissat are the most sought-after in all of Chablis.

Vincent, a lean and tanned man in his early 50s, was still getting dressed when we arrived. Holding his clothes over one arm and trailed by a very large Newfoundland dog, Vincent indicated we should wait near the doorway while he changed. Once properly, if still somewhat skimpily, attired, he led us down to the cellar to start our tasting. The first wine Vincent presented was the 2005 Petit Chablis. Petit Chablis is the simplest wine in all Chablis, even less distinguished than village Chablis.

I expected Scott to take umbrage at this, but the wine turned out to be truly profound, a Petit Chablis of unparalleled intensity and richness. This was due to the noble rot (a.k.a. botrytis) of the vintage, said Vincent. We went on to taste the premier and grand cru 2005s, all from barrel. The Sécher (a premier cru) was particularly spectacular, with the same firm minerality as the Vaillons but with an additional, wonderfully floral note. Of the grands crus, the Les Clos was surprisingly forward and accessible, while the Les Preuses was markedly more subtle, intense and austere.

Then Vincent brought out an old bottle, its label torn off. I was tempted to guess it was also from the 1990 vintage—it was as fresh and bright as Sébastien's wine had been—though it had more depth and persistence than his cousin's wine. As it turned out, it was a 1991 Les Preuses. At 15 years of age, it was a wine that I thought could change even Scott's mind about older vintages. Had he in fact reconsidered his position about old Chablis? I asked Scott after we'd bid Vincent adieu and were walking to the hotel. Scott didn't reply. He was in too much pain. "Those wines were spectacular," he said, "but my teeth are really starting to hurt from all that acidity."

But even in a semi-compromised state, Scott was nearly beside himself with excitement at the prospect of tasting the wines of Raveneau. The Raveneau winery was marked with a discreet ironwork sign. I glanced at Scott as we stood under the sign. Scott appeared somewhat faint. "Why are you looking at me like that? It's hot out here," Scott said, wiping his brow. "Maybe you shouldn't be wearing all black," I replied. "Black attracts heat. And it's not like you need to; we're only tasting white wine."

I'd knocked several times on the front door but there was no answer. We waited—for ages seemingly. Finally, the door opened and a tall, bespectacled man in jeans and an old green sweatshirt emerged and greeted Scott and me. We all shook hands and descended to the cellar, which appeared to be just below Raveneau's house. This seemed quite remarkable—that some of the most sought-after wines in the world, wines for which collectors had been known to pay upward of $800 a bottle, were lodged just behind a wooden door and down a few stone steps from the street.

Would the wines be as amazing as Scott and I both hoped and expected? I'd only had Raveneau Chablis a few times before, most recently at J.L. Barnabet restaurant in Auxerre, where Scott and I had dined when we were disappointed by the Hostellerie des Clos. At J.L. Barnabet the 2002 Raveneau Les Clos was so cheap—85 euros a bottle, about a sixth of what it would have been in New York City—that Scott wanted to order two bottles.

The Raveneau wines, simply put, did not disappoint. Or as Scott observed, "There's just more of everything in these wines." And he was right. Although we'd had some very good wines in the three days, there was an even greater intensity and purity of flavors in the Raveneau bottlings, and a depth and structure that demonstrated they'd last for decades.

We started our tasting with the 2005 wines, still in the barrel. The Montée de Tonnerre, a premier cru bottling, was particularly staggering, already seemingly fully resolved with enormous richness and depth and a penetrating minerality. Of the 2005 grands crus, the Valmur, to me, showed the best, with an extraordinary purity and intensity, while of the 2004s, the grand cru Blanchot was beautifully balanced with lovely floral aromas. "How is it your wines are so good?" Scott blurted out, in his increasingly proficient French. "There's no secret," Raveneau replied. "I just work in the vineyard." This didn't seem like an explanation, but it was all the enigmatic Raveneau was willing to say.

"How much of your wine is exported to the United States?" I asked Raveneau (in French somewhat less proficient than Scott's). "Your wines are almost impossible to find, not to mention very expensive." Raveneau threw up his hands in a gesture of helplessness. Of a very small production, an even smaller amount (about 400 cases) makes it to the States, he admitted. No wonder the competition was so fierce, the prices so high.

The Raveneau wines were certainly extraordinary, but I couldn't afford to drink them very often—not unless I moved to Auxerre. And yet so many of the wines that Scott and I had tasted had been quite impressive and reasonably priced, too. How could I convince the rest of the world, or at least my fellow Americans, that Chablis was worth trying? Was it by emphasizing its food-friendliness? Its two recent great vintages? Or even its close proximity to Paris? In the end, I think what I prize most about Chablis is its uniqueness. There's no wine like it anywhere else in the world. And as collectors of Raveneau well recognize, there's nothing like having something that no one else does.

Comments? E-mail Lettie Teague at winematters@aexp.com.

Published September 2006
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