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In Chablis, Shared Ends and Contested Means

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: June 6, 2000

In Chablis, Shared Ends and Contested Means

By Per-Henrik Mansson, senior editor

As of this spring, nearly two dozen Chablis producers have banded together with the aim of making better wines. What wine lover isn't seduced by such news? But hold on -- if the Union des Grands Crus de Chablis is so intent on improving quality, why are the area's two best wineries boycotting the organization?

It seems odd to me. Why would Chablis' two cult wineries -- Domaine Raveneau and Domaine René & Vincent Dauvissat -- turn their backs on a union that was conceived to put the top whites of Chablis on a par with the world's best Chardonnays?

Dauvissat and Raveneau share the same values as the group's mastermind and first president, Michel Laroche, the owner of Domaine Laroche. In fact, all three wineries lead Chablis in making top-quality whites from the area's Chardonnay-only vineyards. So what's the fuss about?

It's the old-age debate over what methods will get the best results. Laroche believes that his group will offer the perfect environment to challenge Chablis winemakers to achieve bigger and better things. He wants the group to become a source of stimulation and friendly competition among the appellation's vintners. The union plans to sponsor research and organize seminars, promotional events and vertical tastings of the winemakers' respective grands crus.

Originally, the plan was also to create a quality charter that would specify how to make better wines. But the group's vice president, Bernard Billaud of Domaine Billaud-Simon, says that there isn't yet enough support to pass specific rules. Instead, the idea was set aside in favor of a mission statement without any teeth in it. Basically, the members have merely agreed to "give their best efforts" toward making world-class white wines -- not exactly everybody's idea of a quality charter.

Bernard Raveneau believes that only strict rules will get results. "If you want to create something prestigious, you have to pass quality regulations," said Raveneau, who co-owns Domaine Raveneau with his brother, Jean-Marie. The Raveneaus might consider joining the association if it adopted such quality standards in the future, according to Bernard.

Vincent Dauvissat, on the other hand, doesn't think Chablis needs another bureaucracy, and he doesn't believe specific quality standards will change bad habits. "You can't legislate your relation to vines," says Dauvissat. "Wine is a personal thing. Some people will always prune long [which can lead to high yields and dilute wines]. And if you try to regulate how to do it, people will break the rules behind your back and do what they want in secrecy."

But Laroche's approach, favoring the carrot over the stick, seems popular among other Chablisiens. All of the 40 growers that own vines in the grands crus are eligible to join the union. So far, 21 wineries have joined the association, representing 70 percent of the 243 acres covered by the appellation's seven grands crus: Blanchots, Bougros, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Les Preuses, Valmur and Vaudésir. These vineyards cover about 2.5 percent of all vines planted in the Chablis appellation.

A test of the group's collective will is expected soon over the issue of mechanical harvesting. Everyone I've interviewed in Chablis over the years agrees that it's bad for quality to use machines to harvest grapes in the grands crus. The grapes can get crushed or at least bruised, and they then may suffer oxidation while they spend a couple of hours in big transport vats before they reach the presses at the winery. Hand-picking assures that the grapes arrive in better condition at the winery, often as whole and undamaged clusters.

Yet the Union des Grands Crus hasn't come out against the use of harvest machines. The reason? "Some wineries didn't want to join because they were scared of us imposing dictates such as a ban on mechanical harvesting," says Laroche. "The sort of strict rules advocated by Raveneau would have made these people stay away. If I do a quality chart that has concrete goals, we'll be 10 members. We must be more than that so we can bring along the others."

While the group's mission statement doesn't contain many specifics about raising quality, the bylaws mention that a winery which has been warned three times of a "consistent decrease" in quality can be kicked out of the union. However, no details are offered as to how low the quality must drop before such action is taken.

Laroche defends this soft approach, predicting that wineries will be influenced by the good example set by their peers. "We will appeal to their pride," he says.

Like all other Appellation d'Origine Controlée areas in France, Chablis is already regulated in a number of ways. At harvest time, the grapes must reach maturity levels of at least 11 percent in the grands crus, 10.5 percent in the premiers crus and 9.5 percent in the village Chablis vineyards. And under the AOC rules, yields in the grands crus are restricted to 45 hectoliters per hectare (3.3 tons per acre), although authorities regularly allow winemakers to pick up to 20 percent more grapes.

In certain vintages, these AOC regulations are violated by the wineries, Laroche and others concede. Among other goals, the union hopes to encourage the wineries to pick riper grapes with lower yields.

All of this is part of a larger, more ambitious game plan. The winemakers expect the Union des Grands Crus de Chablis to perform like a locomotive that will pull the entire appellation, much like the Syndicat des Grands Crus de Bordeaux has done for its region. By improving quality of the grands crus and letting the world know about it, the Chablisiens hope to drive up demand and prices for all categories of Chablis, from the grands crus down to the village wines.

This objective makes Raveneau and Dauvissat wonder about the union's true commitment to improving quality. "It's all about marketing," says Raveneau. "They figured that it might help pull up [prices of] their Chablis and petit Chablis."

"It's all just a show-off," says Dauvissat. "They want to sell their wines for twice the current prices."

Laroche doesn't hide his ultimate goals: "You can't reproach a producer for trying to increase his prices. But you must first increase quality."

Time will tell if Laroche has created just another promotional tool dedicated to buzz and spin, or if the Chablisiens will match their lofty aspirations with greater wines.

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This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Tuesday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.

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