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Working for Change in Chablis

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: December 18, 2001

It sounded too good to be true when a group of Chablis winemakers announced they were going to police each other's work and improve the quality of the appellation's grands crus.

In Chablis, the grand cru designation applies to only 247 acres divided into seven vineyards. They can produce some of the most distinctive and thrilling Chardonnays in the world, wines that develop extraordinary finesse and complexity with age.

But in some vintages, including 2000, 1999, and 1990, the appellation production exceeded the legal limits, even in a significant percentage of grand cru vineyards. The resulting wines were pale, thin imitations of their true potential.

Against this sad background, the Union des Grands Crus de Chablis was founded in early 2000. The member wineries own 70 percent of the grand cru appellation. They wanted to show discipline among themselves and other growers. The union hired a Paris-based public relations firm. Soon, a quality charter adopted by the group was printed on faux parchment and mailed to journalists.

Frankly, the whole thing smelled like another high-octane promotional act to me. Was this not clever spin and buzz, so the Chablisiens could raise prices?

My skepticism only grew when two of Chablis' star domaines, René & Vincent Dauvissat and François Raveneau, snubbed the fledgling union. To this day, Vincent Dauvissat scoffs at the whole idea of organized vineyard management. One of his grands crus, from a vineyard called Les Clos, is considered one of Chablis' finest, and he doesn't care to join an association in which colleagues can tell him what to do. "I can police myself, thank you," says Dauvissat.

I have never seen much evidence of Burgundians cooperating with each other. They are more like warlords protecting their respective fiefdoms, even though some of their domaines cover just 4 acres. The union charter, however, called for something that was radical for Burgundy: inspections of their members' vineyards to make sure yields were kept in line with the law. Now, that was serious, and I doubted it would actually become reality.

But today I must bend to the evidence at hand: The union is on track to deliver on its promises.

The first inspection occurred on July 18, 2001. "I was astounded that the vignerons accepted this idea," says Michel Laroche, union president. "I'd have thought they'd be nervous about their colleagues and neighbors checking their vineyards."

Afterwards, letters were sent to seven growers whose vineyards needed a serious "green harvest," or crop thinning. "I got one letter," admits Laroche, who heads Domaine Laroche, a large merchant and grower in the area. Later he thinned the culprit -- a 10-year-old, over-vigorous parcel of his vineyard in the grand cru Les Clos.

Joseph Drouhin challenged the union's will on another hot issue: harvest machines.

Some growers argue that harvest machines are useful for quick picking when rain heads for their vineyards. But let's face it: A harvest machine behaves with the delicacy of a bull in a china shop. The harvester bruises the grapes, and it doesn't distinguish between the ripe grapes and those that are unripe or affected by rot. In Chablis' grands crus, harvest machines are now the exception, but they're the rule in the rest of the appellation, where the harvesters pick 80 percent of the vineyards.

The union wobbled over the issue, and Drouhin turned down an invitation to join the group. It had invited the Beaune-based negociant because Drouhin owns grands crus vineyards in Chablis. But then the union banned the harvest machine, a move that cost them two founding members that didn't want to switch to hand picking, but won over Drouhin. The local cooperative, La Chablisienne, switched from harvest machines to hand picking in 2001 to stay in the union.

Today, the union counts 18 members, and is determined to enforce its quality charter and crack down on members who violate it. "We apply the rules, and if people don't want to follow them, they can leave," said Laroche.

The charter calls for organic vineyard methods. The members hold blind tastings to check the quality of each other's grands crus before they are sold. Those wines that pass the test can affix a UGCC sticker on the bottles.

In Burgundy, the union is breaking new ground and setting an example, with cooperation yielding real change. Laroche and his colleagues could have limited themselves to window dressing. But their actions show genuine purpose that should reward Chablis lovers in years to come.

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