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Recent vintages from the stars of Chablis: Raveneau, Dauvissat, Fèvre and Michel

July 18, 2010

RECENT VINTAGES FROM THE STARS OF CHABLIS: RAVENEAU, DAUVISSAT, FEVRE AND MICHEL – Vin Vino Wine, Palo Alto, California (7/17/2010)

Rebecca and Rob at Vin Vino

I adore Chablis, especially Chablis with a dozen or more years age on it, and especially from the very top producers: Raveneau, Dauvissat and Fèvre. But great Chablis when it’s first released can be quite enjoyable too, before it enters a dumb period for several years, eventually emerging as the layered, complex glory that is mature Chablis. A good place to get a sense of the new vintages are the tastings that Vin Vino Wine in Palo Alto usually does once or twice a year. For this one, we sampled two of Chablis’s Grand Crus–Les Clos and Les Preuses–while the rest were premier crus. We had two each from my favorite producers–Raveneau, Dauvissat and Fèvre–and two from Louis Michel, who uses exclusively stainless steel for fermentation and elevage, and whose wines in this tasting were dominated by reduction.

Since I use the term reduction a fair amount in tasting notes, it’s worthwhile to take a moment to explain what’s meant by this term. Reduction basically refers to the process by which yeast converts or “reduces” sulfates to hydrogen sulfide (also known as H2S). The term “reduce” is used because in this process molecules lose, or are “reduced” by, oxygen atoms. In oxidation, by contrast, molecules gain one or more oxygen atoms. Hydrogen sulfide is always a factor in winemaking, regardless of whether a winemaker adds any during the process of winemaking, as it is a natural byproduct of a lack of nitrogen in the vineyard. This lack of nitrogen manifests during fermentation when yeast, which use nitrogen for energy, become stressed through either cold or very warm fermentation temperatures and release hydrogen sulfide. The major solution is to add small amounts of nitrogen in the form of diamonium phosphate (DAP), or similar nutrient formulas, during fermentation to feed the yeast to stop them from becoming stressed. Other causes of higher hydrogen sulfide levels in wine are residual sulfur on the grapes as the result of late spraying for powdery mildew, and the fact that some yeasts, like Montrachet and some strains of Steinberg, are known to produce higher levels of H2S. If a winemaker does not add sufficient nitrogen to feed the yeast, or does not remove the hydrogen sulfide by adding small amounts of copper sulfate at timely intervals, wine containing a large amount of hydrogen sulfide is likely to form more serious mercaptans, obliterating the natural flavors of the wine and producing aromas of garlic, cabbage, skunk or rotting garbage. Hydrogen sulfide by itself, at sufficient levels, gives wine a sulfurous, rotten egg smell, and a sense of sulfur on the palate, that can also overpower the wine and prevent its true flavors from being expressed.

Reduction was not a problem with our non-Louis Michel Chablis. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that Raveneau, Dauvissat and Fèvre all use barrels, predominantly older barrels, for their Chablis, thereby providing a level of oxygenation to the wines that stainless steel tanks, like those that Louis Michel uses, do not.

The Raveneaus were the stars of this tasting for me, although I also very much liked the Fèvre Les Preuses. Below are my tasting notes and further thoughts on yesterday’s tasting, and further below are my notes from a similar tasting at VVW last year of ’06 Chablis. But first, background on each of these four Chablis producers.

Robert Dauvissat founded Domaine Dauvissat in 1931. He started with around 2 hectares. His son René expanded the domaine, and made it one of the stars of Chablis, from 1989 with the help of his son Vincent (who now runs the domaine). Today the domaine consists of almost 12 hectares. Fermentation is partly in vat and partly in barel, one quarter of the barrels are new, but that might be increased to 60% in certain years. Fermentation is lengthy, maturation over 6 to 12 months is in old barrels and feuilettes.

William Fèvre made his mark in Chablis with Domaine de la Maladière, an estate that he founded, whose first harvest was in 1959. The domaine became the single largest owner of Grand Cru vineyard sites, with vines in every one except Blanchots. It owns 15.2 hectares of Grand Cru vineyards and 12 hectares of Premier Cru sites. In 1998 Fèvre sold the domaine to Henriot Champagne, who had control over other famous names in Burgundy such as Bouchard Père et Fils, and since 1998 the domaine has been run by the Bouchard winemaking team, which has dramatically curtailed the use of new oak.

Domaine Louis Michel & Fils was founded in 1850, and continued under 5 generations of family leadership. Jean-Loup Michel has been in charge since 1988. The Michels believe their terroir can only be successfully brought out by vinifying in a neutral environment–hence the stainless steel vats. After malolactic fermentation, the wines are left on their fine lees for 8 months in the case of village wines and 12 in the case of Premiers and Grand Crus. They own a total of 22 hectares, including pieces of Vaudésir and Les Clos, as well as the Premier Crus Montée de Tonnerre, Montmain, Vaillons and Forets.

Domaine Raveneau was founded in 1948 when Francois Raveneau collected together a set of disparate vineyards owned by his and his wife’s family. The latter are the Dauvissats. Raveneau was always more of a traditionalist, producing a Chablis for each vineyard he owned, each in the style that was given to him by the weather and microclimate of that vineyard in that vintage. The wines tend to be austere when young, and often don’t show that well for a decade. However, between 10 and 30 years, they open up to wines of layered complexity and spectacular depth, revealing the essence of Chardonnay that was hidden in the structure of the young wine. Francois’s sons Bernard and Jean-Marie took over for Francois in the late 1980s, and have carried on the tradition as well as Francois’s meticulous winemaking style. Raveneau’s properties total only 14 acres, and include vineyards in about half of the Grand Crus and several of the Premier Crus. In Raveneau’s hands, the Premier Crus rival most Grand Crus from other producers. Their Premier Cru vineyards Vaillons, Chapelot, Butteaux, Montmains and Montée de Tonnerre all show lovely depth and complexity upon release and that often increases dramatically with age.

’08, ’07, ’06 and ’05 Chablis – Tasted 7/17/10

Vin Vino has stopped buying Louis Michel, so the representatives here were from the ’05 and ’06 vintages. As mentioned above, the stainless steel fermentation and elevage on these wines probably exacerbates the reductive tendencies, and I got quite a bit of reduction on both of these wines, especially the Les Clos. Our two Raveneaus were both ’07s, which is a classic year for pure, minerally Chablis. The rest of our samples were all ’08s, a vintage that a number of producers are calling the best in two or three decades for Chablis. Late summer and early autumn weather was perfect there, in contrast to rough conditions in the rest of Burgundy. The wines are described as more aromatic and fleshy than the ’07s. All of our ’08s were quite good, but I was especially taken with our Fèvre Les Preuses.

2006 CHABLIS – Vin Vino Wines, Palo Alto, California (1/9/2009)

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2010 8:32 pm

    Thanks for this post–always love to read about (and, of course, taste + drink) Chablis. Interesting about the reduction in the Louis Michel. Is this an issue you’ve found in other stainless steel fermented Chablis?

  2. July 18, 2010 8:54 pm

    Sasha,
    Thank you. Funny you should ask about reduction and other stainless steel fermented Chablis. I happened to have another one for lunch today, the ’99 Brocard Les Clos. Brocard is also 100% stainless steel. I did find reduction on this bottle as well, although not as overpowering as on the two Michel samples yesterday.
    –Richard

  3. July 20, 2010 7:29 am

    What a great shot of R&R, both beaming! (And is that Julie in the background – so great to see her back in action!) Oh yeah, and the Chablis – not bad either. My fave was the Dauvissat La Forest – incredible lemon oil texture.

  4. Alan McEwen permalink
    December 3, 2010 3:54 pm

    Oh the times!

    Discussing Rav with all and Victor. Tasting etc.

    Wish I was back at VVW.

    Looking at my 80’s to pop open.

    -Alan

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