This past January Daniel and I spent a few very happy days in Chablis. It was unseasonably warm and rained the whole time, but Chablis is a special place and its pleasures were undiminished. There is a strange, austere beauty to the place that anyone who has visited will understand. The region’s wines soak up this strangeness and radiate it outward, giving us one of the wine worlds truly unique vinous creations. The fascination of Chablis is evergreen.
If you don’t drink these wines often I will furnish a few words of introduction. Chablis is more svelte than Chardonnay from elsewhere, including the Côte d’Or, and has none of the lewdness of bawdier new world examples. Chablis is less dulcet than, say, Meursault, but more incisive and with deeper cut. Their closest corollary in the Côte is the Hautes Côtes, though Chablis is usually firmer, as if a St. Aubin had been blanched. There is an unmistakable vitality to the pithy transparency of the region’s most convincing wines. I have always found the descriptors of ‘stark’ and ‘austere’ to be incomplete. There is a lucidity and frankness to Chablis that is unsurpassed anywhere else on the planet.
One morning we visited Vincent Dauvissat and afterward paid a visit to Isabelle Raveneau. I have always found it interesting that these two domaines produce the region’s most collected wines, but do not in fact typify Chablis, given the current fashion for steel-rendered reductive wines. All of the wines of both Dauvissat and Raveneau - including generics - spend 18 months in barrel, exceptions being the occasional early bottling for lower appellations should the wine feel ready earlier.
These august domaines have been compared often enough, so I will share a few notable ways in which their winegrowing philosophies diverge.
Walking into the Dauvissat cellar evokes an unexpected nostalgia. If you were disoriented and had forgotten your phone, you could be easily convinced you had time-travelled to the 12th century. Vincent is the archetype of the reluctant, self-effacing vigneron – not insignificant in a world with increasingly fewer vignerons yet no shortage of ‘winemakers’ - and his cellar reflects his intuitive, personal approach to growing wines. Vincent expresses ambivalence when pressed about technical aspects of wine production, the physical or chemical structure of his parcels, really any topic that even tangentially borders on the scientific. Daniel asked him about the differences in the soil in the grands crus Preuses and Clos, to which Vincent replied perfectly, ‘I don’t know, I’m not a worm.’ For Vincent, exploring the wines is enough, and he articulated the personalities of each of his with a relaxed cheerfulness. More on these below.
Characteristic of her generation, Isabelle is more forthright in discussing aspects of philosophy and craft. She marked a sharp contrast from Vincent in announcing that an individual wine ‘is about a winemaker first and a vineyard second.’ The idea is that, for example, a Raveneau Montée de Tonnere will indelibly and invariably present above all a personality marked by its deliberate, patient élévage in barrel, imbuing the wine with a wider-ranging profile and greater depth than other examples of the vineyard. The point is that exemplary husbandry and the conscious choice of élévage results in wines with a profound stylistic imprint, behind which lurk the markers of individuation specific to site.
Isabelle noted that her grandfather François Raveneau’s preference for long élévage in barrel results in wines that can be bottled as ‘adults’ rather than ‘pimpled teenagers.’ He believed that a wine was ready for bottling when it had become a complete version of itself; one cannot put an incomplete, raw wine into bottle with the hopes that time will shuttle it successfully toward a beautiful maturity. Wines evolve, of course, but are rarely marked by the sea-change of absolute transformation. If a wine is to evolve toward some ideal - say, a perfect spherical self - then it needs to begin its time in bottle as a spherical wine, thereby setting proper course for positive ageing.
The histories of these domaines are interconnected as evidenced in the number of shared appellations. François Raveneau acquired one of his four parcels in Clos, as well as the single parcel of Foret, as a dowry when he married Vincent’s father Réné. In addition to these, they share Vaillons and Montée de Tonnerre (Vincent’s first vintage from the latter vineyard is 2013, and the parcel is leased from his daughter’s teacher).
Raveneau’s Butteaux is from a single parcel at the top of the hill with a high proportion of clay and a windy, cool exposition; Isabelle shared that Butteaux does particularly well in warm vintages, which dovetails with our own experiences. Chapelot historically stood alone but is now typically subsumed, or at least can be, into the broader heading of Montée de Tonnerre. Chez Raveneau it is bottled ‘only in exceptional vintages,’ partly owing to the distinctiveness of the wine as well as a more pedestrian reason: its name is sweeter-sounding that the other lieu-dit used to produce the Montée de Tonnerre, ‘Pieds d’Aloup.’ In the last dozen years the Chapelot was bottled separately only in ’08, ’10, ’11, ’14, and ’18. Vaillons, as is its tendency, produces at Raveneau a soft, floral, user-friendly wine. The ‘Les Charmes’ of Chablis, as is often the case.
Of course there are the three grands crus, and we tasted through the ‘18s. Valmur was tight as a fist, Blanchot spherical and open and zen-like. Clos was somewhere between these but with more substance and obvious intensity. As mentioned above, Raveneau has four parcels of Clos which cover a wide swatch of soils, lending complexity and dimension to the vineyard’s inherent power. There is a potential virility and solidity to Clos that can be absolutely astonishing, an irrepressible vigor that marks this site as one of the most capacious in the whole of Burgundy. It is here in this ’18.
The Dauvissat ‘18s are stunning. Vaillons and Sécher presented, as usual, a fascinating contrast. The Vaillons is the ‘bigger’ wine, though not necessarily more concentrated, and more approachable young. Sechér is softer with a mysterious, diffuse beauty that contrasts sharply with the frankness of Vaillons. Vaillons is above all companionable, a labrador retreiver of a wine. Comparitively, Sechér has a pensiveness that makes the physical proximity of the vineyards perplexing. The beauty of Burgundy!
Forest is an about-face from the wines from the Vaillons hill. There is kenetic aspect, a motility to Dauvissat’s Forest that eludes them. Forest has intensity, density, grip and a remarkably tactile mouthfeel; the single greatest value in ageworthy Burgundy today? Then there are the grands crus. The nose of Preuses is gorgeous with its broad, spicy, slightly exotic character. Like Butteaux chez Raveneau, Dauvissat’s Preuses excels in warm vintages. Clos is more backward and austere, though enormously concentrated. 10 years in the cellar is about right in most vintages.
This offer focuses on the ‘17s and ‘18s, divergent vintages that produced many beautiful wines. The ‘17s are excellent and sometimes exceptional, thought the wines have more flesh and less cool-vintage character than some commentators perpetuate. They are softer than ‘14s, and even the higher appellations are already drinking well. Regardless, the ‘17s are the most classic wines of the region over the past decade, excepting the potently incisive ‘14s.
And then there is ’18. ’18! Vintage chart type-casters will find less pleasure in 2018 than they should. The best are giving wines but are neither heavy nor hot; they are solar but not loose. Those that find cool-vintage Chablis sere will find that the midpalates of ‘18s delightful and delicious. They challenge (or should!) our reflexive insistence on collecting only ‘classic’ vintages. But, yes, they have fruit: enemies of pleasure beware!
Both Dauvissat and Raveneau produced delicious ‘18s that modulate effortlessly between minerality and lip-smackingly delicious fruit. They possess a controlled power, and are entirely convincing. They will age better than most assume, as have the better ‘09s, which remain among the most satisfying and delicious surprises of recent memory.