After a somewhat difficult decade, Chablis' Domaine William Fèvre would appear – under new owners – to be back on its feet. RICHARD MAYSON reviews the changes.
The entrance to Domaine William Fèvre is adorned with Chablis bottles. Spanish Chablis, Chablis from California, Australian and Argentinean Chablis. It is a poignant reminder that this small, unassuming town in northern Burgundy spawned a style of wine that became a cliché around the world. Thankfully the more honest term, Chardonnay, has mostly taken over where Chablis left off. William Fèvre (pictured above left), now in his 70s, was one of the stoutest defenders of the Chablis name. His family had been growers in the region for 250 years and had seen the wines of Chablis wax and wane, and by 1949 the place had reached its nadir. From the thousands of hectares (ha) of vineyards that covered the Yonne in the 19th century, Chablis had dwindled to under 500ha. But during the 1950s and 1960s William Fèvre began building up his own vineyard holding which eventually grew to an enviable 47ha. Fèvre encouraged others to expand and replant and was one of the first to tackle the late spring frosts that wiped out the entire crop of Chablis in 1945, 1951, 1953 and 1957. By the 1970s, the market for true Chablis had recovered to the extent that the appellation had to be redefined. The town was plunged into strife as some growers (Durup, Laroche) argued the benefits of the outlying portlandian limestone while others, led by William Fèvre, defended the kimmeridgian clay. The authorities decided on the expansionist route, and there are now 4,500 hectares of vineyard in Chablis. Fèvre lost this battle, but not without a certain amount of small-town drama.
As well as being a vocal exponent of terroir, Fèvre also held strong views about the style and character of Chablis as shaped by the use of new oak. In 1979 Fèvre built an underground cellar simply to house new oak barrels. By picking late and fermenting and/or ageing the greater proportion of his wine in first- and second-year wood, Fèvre created his own distinctive style of wine: rich, fat, toasty and flattering. All these adjectives could be applied to a bottle of Fèvre’s 1995 Grand Cru Bougros that I drew from my own cellar earlier this year. It was hugely impressive but more opulent Côte d’Or than lean, racy Chablis.With interests in Chile and Chablis, Fèvre lost his way in the 1990s and three years ago the domaine was taken over by the Henriot family. The owner of the Champagne house in Rheims and Bouchard Père et Fils in Beaune, Henriot has raised a few eyebrows in small-town Chablis, especially with the appointment of winemaker Didier Seguier who has been transferred from Bouchard. Seguier has been changing the style of Fèvre Chablis, making the wines more expressive of their individual terroirs. With 80 parcels of vines, located on the kimmeridgian soil, Seguier has plenty of combinations to play with. Each parcel is vinified separately, the grapes having been hand-picked (much of Chablis is harvested by machine) and subject to a rigorous triage. ‘By picking earlier,’ Seguier explains, ‘we maintain more characteristic acidity.’ In 1999 Seguier obtained dispensation to pick before the official start of the harvest on 22 September. He explains: ‘We have also reduced the amount of new oak from around 20% to 5%. Most of the new wood is reserved for the grand crus.’ There is now a hierarchy, with 90% of the grand cru Chablis fermented in barrels and aged for 10 to 14 months on lees. Half the premier crus are fermented in wood and about 20% of the village wine.
Fèvre is unique in Chablis in that it owns a slice of six out of the seven grand crus. Only Blanchot is missing. It also owns substantial parts of historic premier crus: Montée de Tonnerre, Fourchaume, Montmains and Les Lys. I was privileged to taste the entire range of Fèvre’s 1999 Chablis, from the steely, minerally straightforward Domaine Chablis to the most distinguished of the grand crus. The name Domaine de la Maladière (which was favoured by William Fèvre himself) has been forsaken by the new owners in favour of Domaine William Fèvre.
Richard Mayson is a wine consultant and freelance writer.
1999 GRAND CRU CHABLIS from Domaine William Fèvre
The smallest of the grand crus: 9ha at the foot of the slope with its own château, Fèvre owns a 0.57ha plot. Lemon butter on the nose with a fine, steely flavour; the most delicate of the grand crus with a beguilingly powerful finish.
Fèvre owns nearly half the appellation, and produces two different wines. Bougros has a reputation for producing the burliest style of Chablis. The wine from the top of the vineyard on a thick layer of clay is full, almost fat with gentle oak evident on the nose. Richness and weight are offset by a streak of acidity. Côte Bouguerots from a 2ha plot on the steepest part of the vineyard is much more restrained, verging on delicate, with quintessential minerality. The oak is almost completely masked.
Fèvre owns two plots on either side of this sheltered valley. Floral aromas; green and grassy initially with underlying richness rising in the mouth. The finish is almost sweet in its ripeness and concentration. The richest and fattest of all Fèvre’s grand cru Chablis.
Fèvre owns two small plots on the south-facing slope. For the past two years Vaudésir has been the first of the grand crus to be harvested. On the two occasions that I have tasted this wine, it was closed initially but revealed its puissance on the finish. Quite opulent, almost Côte d’Or but for a powerful streak of acidity which extends all the way through the finish.
Situated above Bougros, Les Preuses faces both southwest and southeast. Fèvre’s plots, amounting to 2.55ha, reflect the somewhat convoluted aspect of this 11-ha grand cru. Both samples were closed, but with underlying ripeness and a wonderfully steely, flinty quality just offset by a hint of savoury new oak. Mouthwatering minerality. Perhaps the most impressive of Fèvre’s 1999 grand crus.
The largest and most homogenous of all the grand crus, Les Clos is deservedly the most famous (reflected in the price). Fèvre owns five small plots, mostly towards the top of the slope. Restrained lemon-butter aromas, quite minerally initially but with a crescendo of rich, almost sweet fruit towards the finish. Unusually for Chablis, this wine has texture which is offset by steely acidity. Très puissant.
THE BEST OF THE PREMIERS CRUS
Like Bougros, Fèvre has two very different holdings within Vaudesir and produces two distinct wines. The best is that from three hectares within the locality of Vaulorent alongside the Grand Cru Les Preuses. Overtly flinty with a wonderful searing minerally quality and a hint of beurre blanc. Perfect balance.
Montée de Tonnerre
Fèvre owns just 1.58 hectares of this 43-hectare premier cru just south of the main grand cru slope. The 1999 has a classic gun flint nose and a tight, restrained steely-minerally character and mouth-watering grassy length. Fine and focused.
On the opposite side of the town of Chablis from the grand crus, Fourchaume and Montée de Tonnerre, Vaillons extends to 104 hectares of which Fèvre owns 2.17 in the middle of the côte. Green and racy with a gentle beurre doux flavour and the merest hint of new oak. Underlying ripeness evident on the finish. Perfect poise.
Written by RICHARD MAYSON