Talk to any French winemaker and before long you're likely to hear the familiar grumbles about their lot. If it's not the weather, it's the unfair competition from New World wines robbing them of their market share or, failing that, the endless red tape that binds a country already hidebound by regulations. But a couple of hours south of Paris, in the ultra-traditional wine country of Chablis, there is an air of serenity. Producers have just enjoyed a near-perfect 2002 vintage and the wine is selling better than ever. In the words of winemaker Michel Laroche: 'In Chablis we have no reason to complain. Nobody's crying here.'

Talk to any French winemaker and before long you’re likely to hear the familiar grumbles about their lot. If it’s not the weather, it’s the unfair competition from New World wines robbing them of their market share or, failing that, the endless red tape that binds a country already hidebound by regulations. But a couple of hours south of Paris, in the ultra-traditional wine country of Chablis, there is an air of serenity. Producers have just enjoyed a near-perfect 2002 vintage and the wine is selling better than ever. In the words of winemaker Michel Laroche: ‘In Chablis we have no reason to complain. Nobody’s crying here.’

In a world increasingly dominated by fashion, it’s reassuring to see an old-timer like Chablis staying the course, especially as it is far from chic: it’s the wrong colour (we all prefer red, it seems), the wrong grape variety (Chardonnay is so passé), rather low in alcohol and certainly not ‘fruit-driven’. Yet we’ve lapped it up for more than 1,000 years, and its popularity shows no sign of diminishing: last year in the UK alone we drank more than 10 million bottles of this steely liquid – that’s 43% of the total production of the region. Perhaps there is still some hope that we are not, as some wine columnists would have us believe, descending into a bleak vinous future of fruit-laden, anonymous, alcoholic wines led by New World brands.

Many of the winemakers in Chablis can trace their roots back almost to the origins of the wine itself. Jean-Paul Durup is the 13th-generation manager of the Durup domaine, the largest family business in Burgundy. He is not surprised by the enduring popularity of Chablis.
‘We can resist competition from the New World as we’re so different,’ he says. ‘New World Chardonnays are useful in teaching young consumers about wine, but once they’ve tasted them, they move on to our wines.’ Like Laroche, he makes no secret of the prosperity the wines bring the residents: ‘Chablis is the economic heart of the whole department.’

Philippe Dry is better placed than most to understand Chablis’ appeal in today’s market. He is managing director of négociant J Moreau & Fils, which exports its wines to more than 80 countries. ‘The strength of Chablis is its homogeneity of image. It’s easy to understand. Are we fashionable? No. We are traditional – des vieux. But it’s out of the question that we should change our style of wine, because that is our strength. Our style of Chardonnay is unique: we must, above all else, keep our typicité.’

But what constitutes typicity? Good Chablis should certainly reflect its origins: the unique streak of minerality derived from the chalky, Kimmeridgian slopes and the lively acidity indicative of its northerly location. But a range of styles exists.

The debate about whether Chablis should be oaked has now largely run its course. The extremists have agreed to differ, but most concur that some oak, principally used for maturation of premiers and grands crus, is consistent with the traditions and character of Chablis. After experiments with new oak, oak use now tends to be more muted and fits more harmoniously with the essentially delicate character of the wines. It can add weight and richness without detracting from the Chablis identity.

Jean-Paul Droin was an early pioneer of oak in the 1980s. Since the early 1990s, his son, Benoit, has taken over the winemaking and gradually reduced the use of oak, ‘to keep the minerality’. The wines are,
however, distinctly oaky, particularly at grand cru level. Benoit is meticulous in his care of the wines, tasting every barrel every week and analysing the effects of varying ages of oak on different parcels. His enthusiasm for experimentation, after just a few years’ winemaking experience, suggests this is a domain where radical changes are still likely in the future.

Good Wood

According to Laurent Pinson, of Domaine Pinson, ‘wood is essential to keep the character of Chablis’. He and his brother took over a small range of vineyards, mostly premiers and grands crus, in 1983. Oak has always been a part of their philosophy, but Pinson recognises that ‘tradition now seems to be back in fashion’.

For some – such as Jean-Paul Durup and Jean-Marc Brocard – oak is still considered an irrelevance. Says Durup: ‘We are looking for authenticity of terroir. The particularity of Chablis is its minerality, which is not found anywhere else. Why would we want to mask this with wood?’ The Durup wines are indeed strong on minerality, and present an impressive consistency of style across the range. Brocard expresses the same sentiment as Durup regarding use of wood. On his wooden cases he prints: ‘My wine draws its aroma from the earth.’ Which goes to show that it’s not only the traditionalists who share the ‘purist’ view of Chablis.
Brocard started with just 1ha (hectare) of vines in 1974.
He is now one of the largest producers, with annual sales of 2.2 million bottles. His wines range from the rich, open, buttery style of the Montée de Tonnerre 2001 to the intensely mineral, lemony Montmains 2002.

A more contentious issue is that of yield. At a time when most quality producers around the world recognise that lower yields of healthy grapes give better wines, most Chablis producers are happy to produce up to the maximum levels permitted. Given that these levels have been raised as of April 2003 (effective from the 2002 harvest), this does not bode well for quality. Arguments in favour of higher yields usually revolve around the fact that it is hard to control yields and that, in any case, Chardonnay does well at high yields. This may be true, but it leaves Chablis in the position of having the highest permitted yields of any quality white Burgundy by some margin.

Chablis producers have the good fortune to be able to produce wines of recognisable ‘Chablis’ character at relatively high yields. But one is often struck by the ‘what if’ factor in tasting these wines: namely, what if the yields had been lower? Would the intensity and concentration of Chablis’ unique character be better expressed? Since our appetite for Chablis appears to be insatiable, however, producers have little obvious incentive to reduce their production in the short term.
But there are plenty of conscientious producers who do make efforts to control production levels, principally via limiting fertisiler applications, pruning, de-budding and green-harvesting. At William Fèvre, a further measure has been to increase vine density for all new plantings, up to 8,500 plants per ha instead of the 5,800 which is traditional in Chablis (compared with around 10,000 plants per ha in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or). Winemaker Didier Séguier claims low yields are not necessary for Chardonnay, but believes that for great wines, production should be limited to around 45–50hl/ha.

Harvesting By Hand

The William Fèvre domaine has some of the finest and oldest sites in Chablis, with land in six of the seven grands crus. Of course, there’s more to good winemaking than limiting production: they also harvest premiers and grands crus by hand in small boxes (the only domaine in Chablis to do this for all wines of these levels). The wines are leaner in style than many, but full of Chablis character. They are aged mostly in stainless steel, but a small proportion of oak is used, deemed by Séguier to be ‘necessary to express the best terroirs’.

For now, debates about reducing yields are likely to be put on hold. The 2002 vintage has been hailed as a success across the board. The wines are characterised by a full weight of ripe fruit, with excellent balancing acidity. The general view is that they will age very well. The wines are very easy to taste in their current youthful state (all of the recommendations for 2002 are vat or barrel samples), and many show great promise.

The current 2001 vintage is talked of as nothing short of a miracle. Producers are happy with the results of what promised to be a wash-out. Jean-Paul Durup says the criticism of the vintage is misplaced. ‘Quality all depended on the harvest date. If producers waited for the rain to pass, good weather returned. And the vintage has better structure than the 2000’. Michel Laroche adds, ‘I had never, in 35 years of making wine, seen the vineyard in such bad condition, with the sole exception of 1972. September was grey, cold and rainy. At the last minute, the weather changed.’ Nobody is saying that 2001 is a great vintage, and certain wines seem a little diluted. But for short-term drinking, it is a success. And the producers of Chablis are likely to be drinking to it for some time to come.

Beverley Blanning MW is a freelance writer.

Written by BEVERLEY BLANNING MW