Tracking the trajectory of winemaking in Chablis

How do the winemakers of Chablis create such a rich and subtle diversity of wines from a single grape and a single region? In this extract from her book The Wines of Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois, Rosemary George MW discusses the role of the winemaker in transforming the familiar Chardonnay grape into a unique wine

Words by Rosemary George MW

Given that Chablis comes from a single grape variety, namely Chardonnay, grown in one small area, and consequently subject to a narrow range of climatic conditions, you could expect the flavour of Chablis to be uniform, even to the point of being uninteresting, but that is not at all the case. On the contrary, there are as many nuances of flavour as there are wine growers. It is the human hand – the coup de patte, or paw, as the French wine growers say, or their pif (nose) to use another French slang expression, which guides each vigneron. All begin with the same basic raw material, the quality of which is determined by their work in the vineyard, as well as the climatic conditions of the particular vintage, and the final product is always unmistakably Chablis, but there is a rich diversity of subtle variations in style and personality, which is the direct result of their contrasting methods and philosophies.

Winemaking methods in Chablis continue to improve, as they do throughout the world. The techniques for making white wine in Chablis are not so different from the methods from other great white wine vineyards, so here I want to focus on the issues that struck me as particularly current and pertinent to Chablis towards the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

It is now very rare for a young grower to claim to have learnt their trade entirely from their father

One of the most noticeable differences is that, unlike their parents, and certainly their grandparents, the new generation of wine growers has studied and travelled. It is now very rare for a young grower to claim to have learnt their trade entirely from their father; they will have been to school in Auxerre, Dijon or Beaune and acquired academic qualifications and diplomas. Indeed, you need to have completed a certain level of study and passed a minimum qualification before you are allowed to set yourself up with a vineyard and run a cellar. Even those ill-suited to the classroom will manage a token qualification. In addition they will have travelled, maybe only to Sancerre and Mâcon but sometimes as far afield as Australia or New Zealand – most will have broadened their horizons beyond the banks of the Serein and will have an experience of winemaking elsewhere in France or on another continent. They have brought that experience back home, with some positive results.

Another striking factor amongst the new young generation is the number of women in line to take over family estates. Even at the end of the twentieth century, there were only a handful of women in Chablis and the Auxerrois who actually dirtied their hands with grapes. These days there are as many women as men studying oenology and there are several cellars where a woman is now overseeing the winemaking. To name but a handful, consider Domaine Raveneau, Domaine Pinson, Domaine Tribut, Domaine Gilles and Nathalie Fèvre.

The wines of Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois
The white wines of Chablis are considered to be some of the finest in the world

An overall observation, in contrast with ten years or so ago, is the trend towards minimal intervention. As Philippe Rossignol at Maison Régnard said, we do as little as possible to the wine. Fabien Dauvissat contrasted the amount of work in the vineyard with the lack of intervention in the cellar. ‘Wine does not make itself, so we show the wine the way,’ he says. Thierry Mothe laughingly recalled his oenology professor suggesting that the best investment in the cellar was a chair, which would encourage you to sit back and do nothing! Lucie Depuydt at J. Moreau & Fils is firmly non-interventionist: ‘you only do the essential; less is better,’ she says. ‘We are not in Australia!’ quipped Didier Seguier.

When I asked the question, ‘What has changed?’ the replies were many and various. There is a much greater appreciation of the importance of hygiene. Back in the early 1980s you could still see some very rustic cellars in Chablis, but happily this is no longer the case. Streamlined modern installations are now the order of the day, with money invested to good effect. The need for temperature control is understood, as is the process of malolactic fermentation and there are more reasoned decisions about the élevage or ageing of the wine. Élevage is one of those words which it is quite impossible to translate accurately into English. It is not so much ageing, but bringing up the wine, as you would a child, to render it an enjoyable adult. At its simplest, making white wine is a very straightforward procedure: you press the grapes, ferment the juice and clean it up so that it no longer looks like grapefruit juice, and that gives you wine.

It is not so much ageing but bringing up the wine, as you would a child, to render it an enjoyable adult

So, what is good Chablis? What gives Chablis that indefinable taste of gunflint, its steely acidity and ethereal fruit and flavour? Its basic character undoubtedly comes from the unique combination of soil and grape variety, but the role of the wine grower is paramount in determining the quality of wine. Technical competence is obviously important, but above all it is the love and attention that a wine grower gives his wine that makes the difference. The best wines come from people who really care about what they are doing, who are not content with half measures, who live and breathe their wines.

As opposed to most of the premiers and grands crus, which have developed weight and depth, you can detect two contrasting styles of Chablis and Petit Chablis. There are the young, fresh wines, intended for earlier drinking, that have seen no wood, while the fuller, more complex, oak-aged wines merit further development in bottle. It is impossible to say that one style is better than the other; it depends upon context and personal taste – there are occasions when one is more appropriate than the other. There is no recipe and you have to make decisions quickly during the harvest; to quote Olivier Bailly from Billaud Simon, ‘ça fait le magique du métier’ – that accounts for the magic of the profession.