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Chablis Boom Pits Pro-Growth Vintners Against Traditionalists

William Echikson
Posted: November 9, 2000

France's narrow D965 road passes through miles of nearly empty Burgundy countryside until vines sprout from all directions and three large, gleaming modern buildings suddenly appear. This is the entrance to Chablis -- and the new wineries testify to a renaissance for the village, which has long been producing crisp, lean, minerally Chardonnays.

But Chablis' boom has sparked a controversy that goes to the heart of contemporary French winemaking and that raises fundamental issues of growth vs. tradition, quantity vs. quality and freedom vs. regulation.

In New World wine regions, new vineyards are added all the time to meet demand. But in France and other wine-producing areas in the European Union, strict rules curb vineyard expansion in order to avoid overproduction of lesser-quality wines.

In recent years, the French government and the EU have been reducing vineyard acreage in response to a former wine glut in Europe. This put authorities on a collision course with growers who want to plant new vines so that they, like their New World colleagues, can meet demand and benefit from the current global wine boom.

These competing agendas are evident in Chablis, where pro-growth vintners keep pushing to expand. Until the 1950s, spring frosts used to make growing wine a chancy affair in the region's cool climate. In 1955, only 1,360 acres were planted. "My father couldn't harvest for five years straight," recalled Jean Durup, president of the FHdHration des Vignerons du Chablisien, which represents three-quarters of the village's winegrowers. But the development of reliable heaters made production more consistent.

Today, about 11,600 acres are planted in Chablis, and J. Moreau & Fils, William FKvre, Domaine Laroche and Pascal Bouchard have built modern wineries on the roads outside town to accommodate the expanded production. "Demand for white wines exploded, and we were able to help supply it," said Jean-Louis Daudon, CEO of J. Moreau & Fils, one of the town's largest merchants.

Room still exists to add about another 3,700 acres of vines within the village limits, and the local FHdHration des Vignerons du Chablisien is pressing for permission to do so. "I saw the beautiful things done in California," said vintner Jean-Marc Brocard, a federation board member who insists that parcels of good land are still available for cultivation. "We shouldn't close the door to future generations."

Without expansion of the appellation, Brocard would never have built his business; he started out with just under 4 acres and now has about 170 acres in Chablis.

But many of Chablis' leaders feel that new and reclassified vineyards wouldn't meet the minimum quality standards for the appellation designations. "We need to say stop," said local grower Christian Moreau, who runs Christian Moreau PKre & Fils. "There are some good hillsides still left, but many would never live up to Chablis standards."

The quality issue also fuels another debate in Chablis. Some growers want to promote some Chablis AOC (Appellation d'Origine ContrYlHe) vineyards to the loftier premiers cru status. The original classifications, done in 1945, were revised in 1978, when nearly 5,000 acres were eliminated from the Petit Chablis designation, large amounts of Petit Chablis were upgraded to Chablis and nearly 200 acres of Chablis were upped to premier crus. "We need to take another look every generation," said Brocard.

But Vincent Dauvissat, one of Chablis' best-known growers, blames the explosion of planted acreage and the 1978 reclassification for creating perennial uneven quality. "My clients tell me that the quality of Chablis is very variable. Petit Chablis doesn't merit a Chablis [AOC]; it just doesn't have the proper mineral flavor," said Dauvissat.

Some Chablisiens fear that further expansion will hurt Chablis' image, which is already less prestigious than that of many Burgundy appellations. The elite Chablis grand crus, from the appellation's top seven vineyards, fetch half or less than half the prices of grands crus such as Corton-Charlemagne or Montrachet from Burgundy's CYte de Beaune.

PhotoOne winemaker's union, the Syndicat de DHfense de Chablis, has long opposed the pro-growth plans of the federation. And this year, Moreau and Michel Laroche, CEO of Domaine Laroche, founded another association called Union des Grands Crus de Chablis, open only to owners of the 247 acres of grand cru vineyards. The union, which was founded last March, drew up a new proposed quality charter in October. Among other things, the charter opposes reclassifying vineyards that now produce village Chablis or the more ordinary Petit Chablis.

Even pro-growth Brocard admits there's the potential for a decline in quality from new and reclassified vineyards. But he claims that strict rules will not guarantee quality as well as having the freedom to please consumers does. "The marketplace is the best judge," he said.

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