The name game (Chablis, France – Day One)


When I was younger I didn’t like my name. In terms of my first name I didn’t really have a problem with James, but I didn’t like it being such a common name, nor did I like derivations and colloquialisms of it, like Jim, Jimmy or Jamie. Considering how uncommon my surname is and how much of an individual I attempted to be, you would think I would like my surname but this was not the case. I wasn’t a fan of the length of it nor did I like the fact that people could neither spell it by ear nor could they pronounce it when reading it. I love my name now, being proud of its uniqueness and also as the last male Scarcebrook in the family I have a sense of obligation to continue the name. People in Europe, particularly France, are similarly fiercely proud of their names, often naming their children after themselves. Continuing the family name carries over to the family business as well, but complications arise with splitting of estates between children or establishing new estates with the same name. Within the same village it is not uncommon to find several producers of the same name, and within an entire region this could multiply significantly. Not for the first time on my trip I arrived at the wrong winery because it had essentially the same name, even though there is no relation between them. This gets complicated out in the market as a producer’s name is effectively their brand, so when someone else is using the same brand their products can reflect on your own reputation. I guess this is another complication that makes wine so special, and it is important to trust your source, be it a restaurant, store or importer.

Limestone clay and a bit of chalk

Dauvissat is a wine that is synonymous with Chablis, mostly because there are at least four different producers with this name. There are in fact two Jean Dauvissat wineries and thus it is important to distinguish between Jean et Fabian, and Jean et Sebastian Dauvissat, the latter of which my appointment was with. There is no relation between these Dauvissats, but there is with Vincent Dauvissat who is also located in the village of Chablis. This Dauvissat family have owned vineyards in Chablis since 1899, but like so many others the fruit/wines were sold each year to negociants. Jean began bottling and selling his wines about forty years ago and back in the late ’70s production totalled about 3,000 bottles. Early on emerging markets like the United States and Japan were very important. His son Sebastian joined him when he was old enough, and today the estate produces roughly 50,000 bottles. Like the other Dauvissat estate in the village, Jean et Sebastian own vineyards in some of the same crus of Chablis, totalling nine hectares in Chablis village, Sechets Montmains and Vaillons Premier Cru, and in Les Preuses Grand Cru. Sadly Jean passed away several years ago, so the estate is now run entirely by Sebastian who welcomed me to the cellars.

The cellars of Jean et Sebastian Dauvissat

Since the end of the ’80s the vineyards have been entirely mechanically harvested which has a number of benefits. The first is that it is incredibly efficient without any loss of quality, and with the area of Chablis being small this is important. Another reason is that with such a small area the different parcels of fruit all tend to ripen about the same time (not surprising considering they are all chardonnay), and typically the harvest can be completed in just five days. The vineyards are of varying ages up to 80 years, and yields fluctuate each vintage depending on the parcel between 25 and 65 hectolitres per hectare. The fruit is pressed and the juice transported into the cellars by gravity for the clarification in stainless steel at cold temperatures. Depending on the wine the fermentation may occur in stainless steel and barriques of varying age. Following the fermentation the wine is kept for up to two years either in barrels, tanks or even cement vats, and after bottling is kept for a further amount of time. There are no wines available for sale less than two years old, a pretty amazing thing in Chablis where most customers expect young crisp and fresh wines rather than mature wines. With fewer people owning a cellar (particularly in some key export markets), Sebastian likes to keep and sell old wines so his customers can appreciate how a Chablis can evolve and improve over time. As such I tasted a variety of vintages going as far back as 2001. Click here to read my tasting notes.

The soils of the Dauvissat vineyards

When I came to France back in 2010 I visited Chablis for one day, having a great lunch at Le Bistrot des Grand Crus (which I returned to today), and wandered around some of the streets. I noticed that many of the domains in the region had cellars and more commonly tasting rooms to visit in town, which was really great to see in Europe as this is nowhere near as common as in Australia. There were several buildings with Laroche signage and I was delighted to discover that the tasting room was the only one open during lunch, so I stopped in and tasted some of the wines. I was really happy to return to Laroche and spend a little more time, as it is one of the most important in Chablis and was also one that I had in the shop before I left. Domaine Laroche dates back to the mid-19th century, and in pre-phylloxera times Chablis was just another part of the Yonne region, with wines being sold in nearby Auxerre and in Paris. The real boom for Laroche occurred during the overall Chablis boom of the ’60s and ’70s, when new ways to protect from frosts were introduced and also new markets were established for the wine, namely the United States and the United Kingdom. The estate grew from 10 hectares to 90 hectares today, pretty impressive when you think about it. 80% of the wine is now exported, not surprising considering less wine is being consumed in France and the ease of logistics around the world has reduced the prices.

The ancient press at Laroche

Etienne who manages the tasting room in town hosted me for the visit, and as I arrived there was a retired couple from England scouting a tasting location for their alumni groups visit. We had a look at the 13th century press, the likes of which I have only seen in one other winery (Pesquera in Ribera del Duero). The cellars in town were once used by the Benedictine and Cistercian monks who were the original viticulturalists and vintners in this part of France, and now house just a few of the barrels and also an extensive wine library dating back to the ‘70s. Etienne and I jumped into the car and headed up to the top of the Grand Cru hill, which is just north of the village and has the best exposition in a south-east direction. The vineyards are planted on some of the steeper parts of the appellation, but most importantly have some of the oldest and most concentrated soil compositions. There are seven grand cru vineyards, starting with and finishing with. The largest vineyard is Les Clos which Laroche have a number of hectares in. The Laroche wines are all vinified in a large facility between the villages of Chablis and Milly, which is understandable considering their volumes and lack of space within Chablis. Not only does the business have a hotel in town, but they also now have other estates as far away as Chile and South Africa. As far as large Chablis estates go, Laroche are one of the best, and amazingly put all of their wines under screw-cap (unless a particular markets asks for cork). Click here to read my tasting notes.

The Les Clos Grand Cru vineyard, the largest of the seven

My final appointment for the day was to return to another winery I visited in 2010, but for whatever reason didn’t leave me with much of an impression. I remember the wines being very good but nothing about them really stood out. Looking back I now realise that it was mostly to do with my inexperience, and I now understand why the importer in Australia works with them. The Defaix name is another common one in Chablis with at least three domains called as such. There must be enough confusion that my host made sure to remind me where it was and which one it was, but as I had visited I knew where to go.The main reason I got in contact with Helene was actually to try to arrange an appointment at her family’s estate which is in the Cote Challonaise appellation of Rully, an area I plan to be in next week. Now that Winter has arrived and they spend more time in Chablis, the Rully property is not heated (which is also apparently more difficult to do), so she asked if I minded tasting the Rully wines in Chablis, which I was happy to do.

Part of the Grand Cru vineyards in Chablis

In terms of the terroir between Chablis and Rully, they are very different. Not having been to Rully I can’t say exactly what it is like, but through osmosis I understand it is really similar to the Cote de Beaune where some of the most famous white wines in the world come from. This is easy to appreciate when you consider that Rully is only about 5km away from Montrachet, and yet is not part of the famous Cote d’Or. As far as viticultural practices and philosophies are concerned, the Chablis and Rully estates are treated the same way, albeit dependant on the terroir and the vintage conditions. All of the Bernard Defaix and Jaeger-Defaix vineyards are certified as organic which is a little uncommon for Cote Challonaise and very uncommon in Chablis. Helene explained that some of the reasons why it is so uncommon is because they are very traditional in Chablis, there aren’t really any problems selling Chablis wine around the world and thus they don’t need any additional marketing clout  and also it is more difficult and risky to operate organically or bio-dynamically in such a wet climate. Having a lot more experience not only in Chablis wine but also in organic wine, I could really appreciate the difference in terms of the quality, concentration and natural balance of the wines. With low yielding healthier vines the quality of the fruit is paramount, but just as important they really limit the amount of influence they have on the wine itself in the winery. At the moment they don’t own any parcels in Grand Cru vineyards, thus they must buy fruit, and I felt that I could see the difference that the organic practices had compared to those without. It was interesting going from the very mineralic and fine Chablis wines to the Rully white wines which are much richer and fuller, but again I could appreciate the attention to detail and the finesse. Click here to read my tasting notes for the Chablis wines, and my tasting notes for the Rully wines can be found here.

Click here to see more photos from my first day in Chablis, France.

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