Most of France was under an icy spell when I arrived in Chablis Jan. 18. The gray, stone buildings of Burgundy seemed even starker in winter's chilly grip, but the mood was convivial as I joined about two dozen members of the Union des Grands Crus de Chablis for its annual tasting, this year of the 2015 vintage.
The atmosphere was like a small-town community meeting, the winemakers greeting each other as they entered, the small talk interspersed with salutations of "Bonne année" here and there. After a welcome from Domaine Laroche general manager Thierry Bellicaud, we got down to work, the room quickly hushed until a latecomer elicited friendly heckling for his tardiness.
The wines were tasted blind, 38 in total, broken into three flights. Some had been bottled, but most were samples from tank, assembled for the bottling which will take place over the next few months. It was a relatively quick exercise, with the group working through all the wines in about 2 hours. A crib sheet with a list of the wines was handed out afterward.
Overall, I was impressed with the 2015 vintage. The majority of the wines were potentially outstanding, offering quality and consistency. On one hand, they reflect the warmth of the '15 growing season, on the other hand, they exude freshness and balance. They are precocious and charming, approachable enough to attract a broad audience, yet with the aging potential to satisfy Chablis connoisseurs.
After looking at the list of wines, among my top scores were four examples from Vaudésir: Domaine Gérard Tremblay, Domaine Laroche, Long-Dépaquit and William Fèvre. There were also three wines from Blanchots, including Domaine Laroche's Réserve de l'Obédience and a pair from Les Clos.
It was difficult to identify specific crus because the wines were ordered randomly. Certain styles emerged, from the linear, vibrant, mineral wines of William Fèvre to the rich, round, fleshy, almost exotic versions from Servin. I asked one winemaker afterward if he could recognize his wines. He did, however, not the individual vineyards.
What was recognizable was the distinctive expression of Chardonnay that is unique to Chablis. Its climate and landscape are influential, but most important, its Kimmeridgian soils, a mix of limestone, clay and oyster fossils, imbue a steely profile and mineral essence that says Chablis in an understated way.
Founded in 2000 to promote and protect the image of the grands crus, the Union des Grands Crus de Chablis consists of 13 member estates, each owning a parcel or parcels in one or more of the seven grands crus. They have a quality charter governing practices from planting to harvest and the length of time before the wine is sold. Vineyard inspections and blind tastings are conducted each year. More information about the Union can be found on its website, www.grandscrusdechablis.com/en.
After the tasting, the group commandeered one of the few restaurants in town open for business, for a cold buffet. Each member brought a magnum of an older vintage to enjoy before heading out into the frosty night.