There is little about Chablis that is not drawn up in contrasts. It begins with Left Bank versus Right Bank, the Serein River and the village of Chablis acting as the interface between. Petit Chablis giving way to the more important Chablis and then Premier Cru the varied and always impressive interloper separating the villages wines from the Grand Cru. Chablis as a varietal concept, as opposed to and unlike anywhere else in the world, seemingly unrelated to chardonnay.
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Antithetical wrangling does not end there. The sequential order of a substantial Chablis tasting is a going concern. The winemaker’s eyes will roll with Bachelderism consternation and concentration into the recesses of his or her head before deciding which Premier Cru should be assessed before the next. The geological contexts of Kimmeridgian and Portlandian soils have to be taken into account, as do slope and exposition of the particular cru. The permutations are endless for a place with one grape variety and four kinds of white wine.
Even the tenets of modern cuisine in Chablis and Auxerre are riddled with mysteries and a clash of cultures. Both Restaurant L’aspérule in Auxerre and Au Fil du Zinc in the Hôtel du Vieux Moulin in Chablis fuse Japanese cuisine with Burgundian gastronomy. As if the average inhabitant did not already enjoy a health advantage over the rest of the world’s population, such a paradigm shift only improves the probability of extolling the virtues of the French paradox.
The contraposition of Chablis is most often discussed in terms of fermentation. Oak or stainless steel? Chablis is repeatedly referenced as steely, invariably flinty and almost without fail in bone of contention annoyance as mineral cliché. The younger Petit Chablis and Chablis fermentations will never see the inside of a barrel (well, maybe a really, really old one) and wood is only employed as they move into Premier Cru, Grand Cru and increasingly, climats of highly regarded lieu-dits. The percentage of barrel ferments these days rarely exceed 25-35 per cent though in some cases 50 per cent is seen. In Chablis the words “new” and “oak” are never uttered together, or aloud.
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The greatest paradox of all is written in stone along a few ridges and across the most important set of hills above the river. Deep-rooted, inveterate purlieu of geology in eight names; Les Preuses, Bougros, Vaudésir, Grenouille, Valmur, Les Clos, Blanchot and unofficially (depending on political affiliations), La Moutonne. Les Grand Crus of Chablis are singled out not only for their exceptional terroir and climat but also for the impossibility of what happens when fruit is pulled from their chardonnay vines. The Grand Cru are oracles in complex riddles, transcendent mysteries and the most enigmatic of all Chablis. I suppose it’s because the rich fruit versus exigent stone is the epitome of Chablis paradox. You will read this later on in a tasting note, but it begs repeating.
I sit down to taste with winemaker Olivier Bailly and he apologizes that he will be pouring from half-bottles. I tell Olivier there is nothing for which to apologize. I wish more producers would pour from half-bottles. Their young wines show better, breath quicker and after they have emptied half of a half into my glass, one more tasting from that bottle and voilà, the bottle is finished. As we begin, Olivier shares a deep, innermost thought. “I have a secret. Inox barrels.” The Chablis paradox. Not only the paradox, but the enigma and the Catch-22. When you taste with 20 producers in just under a week you often see a pattern forming, of reasons how the Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru are considered and in what order. Bailly’s method of linear madness is not revealed until the tasting is completed. Only then is a second paradox considered.
Taken specifically from a block in the Vaupulent lieu-dit at the southern end of the larger Fourchaume. The style is rich but with mineral in the air, ethereal and intoxicating. Fourchaume does not always get to such precise and hovering heights. This is typically 2014 and elevated by citrus with extreme prejudicial clarity. Right in the linear wheelhouse. Long floral, waxy citrus finish. Drink 2018-2023. Tasted July 2016 @
Domaine Billaud-Simon Chablis Premier Cru Les Vaillons 2014, Ac Burgundy, France (330175, $39.95, WineAlign)
Composed from several lieu-dit in the Cru; Les Minots, Roncieres and two parcels each of high solar-powered Chatains and Sécher. A rounder, softer, fuller expression by sun and out of the open-mindedness provided by exposure. Here the house accentuation from stainless steel helps to preserve freshness and keep it at the maximum. A committal success in 2014 for a vintage that demands acidity and freshness, here buoyed by decisions and understanding. Exemplary Vaillons of lemon with a shot of lime injection. Drink 2017-2022. Tasted July 2016
Domaine Billaud-Simon Chablis Premier Cru Mont de Milieu 2014, Ac Burgundy, France (373548, $44.95, WineAlign)
Billaud-Simon’s vines are up the hill in front of the forest, with four plots that work their way south and west and of parcels 40-70 years of age. This has such air and pomp in its deep breaths with the most maleficent acidity and tension in its grip. As stirring a Mont de Milieu as you will find built on 40 hL/H yields of solid citrus meets yellow apple fruit. Terrific attraction and length. Superb. Classic unoaked Chablis. Can envision it unchanging for seven years followed by a slow walk into and through the preserved citrus museum. With fruit this clean it will petrify before it spoils. Drink 2019-2027. Tasted July 2016
Tasted at the domaine, from three parcels, Montée de Tonnerre, Pied d’aloup and Côte de Chapelot, climats up on the hill on the right bank close to the town of Chablis. Rounder (with 10 per cent old oak) than Mont de Milieu but still of terrific 2014 acidity, though noticeable with more orchard fruit to mingle with the stones. The tension increases with some time spent with the M de T and like well-structured Premier Cru Chablis will want to do, it lingers with a combination of tension and amenability. Part gentille Alouette and part Kimmeridgian flinty, this is a terrific example of the co-habitable duality of great Chablis. It is also indicative of the transformative restoration and direction of Billaud-Simon under the auspices of winemaker Olivier Bailly. I will let this bird rest for a couple more years and then a promise. “Je te plumerai.” Drink 2018-2025. Tasted July 2016
For some producers Vaudésir is the pinnacle of their Chablis expression and yet here it seems the entry point as it leads in a tasting of four Grand Crus. From three parcels in the amphitheatre, one right at the top by the wood and two at the mid-way point on the hill. A direct, in your sight lines Vaudésir, so very lemon-lime push-pulled and densely tart. It’s taut but not sour, tight but not cringing from the tightening of the winch. The most masculine of Vaudésir perhaps with few equals though unwavering and unquestionable in its achievement of balance. The Inox secret is discarded (or complicated, depending on your vantage point) in favour of 100 per cent (15-16 years) old oak. This is Grand Cru after all. Drink 2019-2029. Tasted July 2016
What separates Chablis from chardonnay begins with these 65 year-old vines, with healthy yields (50 hL/H) that are perfect for the vintage from this stoic and iconic Cru. Here is the essentiality of Les Preuses, “the juice of the stone,” saline, crustaceous, briny and simply, utterly trenchant. This is the vraiment Preuses impression, a fossil entrenched in the chardonnay and subsequently on the brain and the senses. A straight jacket Chablis with length up Les Preuses, back to the river and then straight back up and away into the woods. Inox barrel (sic) and old barrels used. Drink 2020-2030. Tasted July 2016
Here Les Clos is a magnified adaptive narrative of the Grand Cru, rich and full of ripe excess. Riper than most of the others, which is saying something. Magnetic, platinum mineral with very expressive fruit from Billaud-Simon’s take out of the grandaddy of all Chablis climats. The biggest bad boy of the flight and in the eyes of the world, textbook Grand Cru. Salinity, floral blossom airy and briny, though not quite expressive of the fossilized, ancient river trenchancy of Les Preuses. But again, Chablis at it old school, from very little shrouded or spice-driven wood, classic, cool-climate, mineral-driven Chablis. The summation confirms why it is poured after Vaudésir and Les Preuses but ahead of Blanchots. Drink 2018-2025. Tasted July 2016
From the top right (eastern) aspect of the white stones Grand Cru, just across the valley from Montée de Tonnerre. This is a fuller, slightly richer Blanchots but still so direct, piercing and impressed stone-dominant. Great lemon zest shaved into juice and an amplitude rendering dollop of curd. The lemon-curated and curative house continues to flex its citrus style. Once again, the enigma of Inox barrel and old barrels used. Why pour this last of the four Grand Crus? I suppose it’s because the rich fruit versus exigent stone is the epitome of Chablis paradox, in retrospect and with further addendum to what seemed obvious at the time. Blanchots is the gate-keeper of Grand Cru middle ground. Drink 2019-2027. Tasted July 2016
Well of course the difference is felt immediately, in simpler terms, affordably easy, accountable, preferential to commercial success. Acidity is prepared with necessary balance in advance of letting fruit run wild. This is waxy and pleasantly sour. A bit chewy as well. Nicely done. Classic unbaked chardonnay in every correct way. Drink 2016-2017. Tasted July 2016
Nicely crisp Chablis for the vintage, a bit lean and direct but with ripe acidity and balance struck. Straight to the Chablis point, with more lime than lemon and a minor bitter middle, ending with easy leaning angles. Commendable from dependable for 2015. Drink 2016-2018. Tasted July 2016
Imagine waking up every morning to work in this dreamy place where the cup of pure chablis essence runneth over. The soft-spoken winemaker is the youthful Matthieu Mangenot, a man who seems too young to manage the storied domain without the guidance of a father, grandfather and several generations of Mangenot men behind him. But make no mistake for this is his domain and the wines are in the hands of a traditionalist with a penchant for modern musical Chablis. Matthieu’s Chablis are alternative, ambient, precise rock and roll pop songs and totemic, epic poems. They could be from the early eighties or as current as a Spotify playlist today. The paradigm shift and the paradox of Chablis in 2016 are dutifully represented in Mangenot’s work at Long-Depaquit.
Tasted with winemaker Matthieu Mangenot at the Long-Depaquit domain, this is Chablis raised 100 per cent in stainless steel. Gifts the immediacy of mineral and acidity, from Chichée to the south of Chablis and also the eastern areas of Beru and Viviers. Higher altitudes where snow and then frost at the end of April 2016 will mean a tiny harvest but for 2015 the acidity is top-notch, despite the fat and easy vintage, with more mineral driven into the palate (with some perceived though feigning sweetness) and a real gelid glide down the backside. Drink 2016-2019. Tasted July 2016 @ @ @ #LongDepaquit
An achievement in the richer style of Vaillons Premier Cru, broad and expansive, not entering the cortex with overarching acidity but rather good host invitation. A Bichot Burgundian stylistic really shows in Les Lys, not so much a wood attack but the lees and fullness is certainly felt. Acidity is late and round, encompassing and caressing. A softer 2014 and a good foil to other, sharper, more piercing brethren. Kept in 100 per cent stainless steel to preserve the acidity and the freshness. Even in 2014 this was necessary, for freshness and elegance. Certainly showing the most lifted and modern of the three Premier Cru on this day. Drink 2017-2020. Tasted July 2016
Immediacy from the specific stony soil of Vaillons, unmistakable, of tang in impression and such a broad mouthfeel. The presence of Vaillons is nearly always noble, sumptuous, modish and sensual. Extract and tannin are very much a part of the program. Ten per cent of the take saw time in oak, lending an ingrained smack of spice. I would not exactly call it lavish though it is certainly a Vaillons surfeited with fruit, sun and stone. Drink 2017-2021. Tasted July 2016
Vaucopins is drawn off of five hectares on really steep slopes on the Right Bank. It is neither Les Lys nor Vaillons but somehow an across the river genetic and amalgamated combination of the two. Though there is a wild side to Vaucopins it really streams the vintage. Natural and corporeal because the fruit is untethered but habitual in that it mimics the Grand Cru. Its south-facing cragges and outcrops bring warmth to the kimmeridgian and that is why Matthieu Mangenot treats its élevage like a Grand Cru. The result is a very concentrated Chablis from 15 per cent (older Bichot barrels) oak fermentation. Drink 2018-2023. Tasted July 2016
The Long-Depaquit treatment for Blanchots is with 25 per cent barrel. A real preserved lemon and just a hint of paraffin is replete with such elegance and finesse on the nose. Les Blanchots is at once soft but also of a sexy smoulder, like flint that has been sparked, extinguished and left with a lingering wisp. So beautifully wound and full of demurred grace. But don’t be fooled, there is a punch of acidity and underlying spirit. The house accounts for a meaningful if ponderous part of the Blanchot riddle, its centrism wrapped in a mystery, in a fruit versus stone enigma. Recondite, interwoven Chablis. Drink 2019-2025. Tasted July 2016
Just because the richest of Grand Cru fruit can handle the added value, Les Clos receives a generous 35 per cent barrel fermentation. As per Les Clos the corpulence and amenability adds up to one grand and inviting Grand Cru Chablis. Always critically evident and full of joie de vivre, there is roundness on les Clos like no other Grand Cru and Long-Depaquit is front and centre to the end of that ideal. What separates this house’s style is the long and slowly evolving finish because and with thanks to the wood adding texture and cream to all aspects of its relationship with the largest Grand Cru. Drink 2018-2024. Tasted July 2016
The greatest of paradoxical moments is shared in confessional confidence with Moutonne because not just anyone can make a wine with the name and of such a singular distillation from within a venn diagram of places. While some lieu-dit in Chablis share affinities, territorial geography and climats with larger Premier Cru, it is only Moutonne that stands alone in the schematic drawn up for the Grand Crus. Though the Moutonne can’t help but take on the atypical characteristics of the 2013 vintage it also can’t escape from itself. Les deux visages are always relegated into the dichotomous and interconnected realm, of Les Preuses (five per cent) controlled with manifest destiny by Les Blanchots. Les Preuses’ fruit is feisty and must be heard and this is so necessary in the tropical and spicy vintage. There is no lychee here but there breathes some very ripe stone fruit and the great white geology of the Grand Cru. In spite of the vintage this is a beautifully managed Moutonne (fermented in 25 per cent barrel) with trenchant piquancy on the finish. Drink 2018-2025. Tasted July 2016
Good to go!