Chablis has an especially long history in England. The earliest reference to it was in 1664, when the Earl of Bedford’s steward at Woburn noted he had added 62 bottles of “Shably” to their cellar. A century later, it was the first white Burgundy ever sold by Christie’s and in the Nineteenth Century, Browning made an allusion to it.
Then I went indoor, brought out a loaf
Half a cheese and a bottle of Chablis,
Lay on the grass and forgot the oaf,
Over a jolly chapter of Rabelais.
The overall characteristic of Chablis is of a refreshing steeliness, with the better ones displaying an intense minerality, which means they excel with seafood or white meat. However, in popular culture it is considered to be a quaffable drink of no great import, something to be drunk at an office party or picnic rather than being taken seriously.
When it came to this generic prejudice, I was as guilty as the next person until some kind soul introduced me to Domaine Raveneau in the bar of 192 in Notting Hill. This was a revelation – we all know Chablis is a white Burgundy but this producer makes long lasting wines that effortlessly bear comparison with the greatest Meursault or Montrachets. The tell tale was there but so was an all embracing honeyed depth to offset it. The only problem is that the quality of Raveneau has become widely known and even their simplest village level wine goes for three figure sums.
There are a number of other well known producers, including William Fèvre, Dauvissat and Billaud Simon plus Maison Joseph Drouhin, who sell more than 90 per cent of their Grand Cru Chablis to leading restaurants around the globe.
Drouhin are one of the most important producers and negociants in Burgundy, with nearly 200 acres of vines, predominantly premier and grand cru plus they also buy in grapes from a number of top producers. Although they offer some of the greatest Burgundies, including Clos des Mouches, Montrachet, Bonnes-Mares and Chambertin, for financial reasons, they turned down an offer to purchase half of the fabled Domaine Romanée-Conti during the last war. Interestingly, Chablis is where the family originated in the Nineteenth Century but they moved south to Beaune after the ravages of Phylloxera and only returned to Chablis in the Sixties, gradually purchasing small parcels here and there until they now have four grand cru and four premier cru vineyards.
Since then, Chablis has had something of a revival, with the current acreage expanding 10 times from a low of only 1500 acres. Frédéric Drouhin, who is the president of the Domaine, also personally owns the Bougros Grand Cru Chablis vineyards, which produces on average about 100 cases of wine annually.
Earlier this year, I visited the Drouhin vineyards in Chablis with Frédéric, which was quite an eye opener when it came to seeing the difficulties they face in merely harvesting the grapes. The Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards are all located either on the top or sides of two hills that dominate the town. There were scorch marks alongside the vineyards where bales of hay had been burnt during the night to prevent frost from destroying the crop, while elsewhere there were the remnants of what looked like giant candles that had been lit to spread warmth around the vines for a similar purpose.
Because of climate change, conditions have become more extreme for the early stage of the vines flowering as the buds are coming out several weeks earlier which means there is more time for them to be exposed to frost or hail.
“Spring arrives sooner, so that March can be like June so we have a longer period of frost risk. Hail damage used to be only once every 30 years but now it is much more frequent. In March, we had 25 degrees heat and then two weeks later, minus two.. the weather has never been so extreme. It is not just hail and frost we have to think about but inspects, pests and rot can all dramatically affect production, especially because for the past decade we have been completely organic and biodynamic so we never use pesticides or herbicides.” Another negative aspect of Global Warming is that different species of inspect pests are arriving from the south of France. There is however, one positive consequence of Global Warming – harvesting used to be in October but now it is usually in mid-September, so the grapes ripen easier while the alcoholic levels have risen to 13 to 13.5%, which is quite manageable but if they reach 14%, the wines will be out of balance.
I tasted the whole range of the 2017 Drouhin Chablis production, ranging from the simple village level, which was pale green, zesty and citric with floral overtones. It is deliberately picked for low yields so it doesn’t exhibit too much ripeness, with a refreshing precise acidity with an almost bitter saline ending. Frédéric would prefer people to wait two years before drinking it but he concedes that the market prefers to drink it with minimal bottle age.
The three Grand Crus were all quite different, with the Bougros being the most muscular and structured. Earlier, there had been criticism of Drouhin’s Grand Cru Chablis as being too much like the other classical white Burgundies, so they have stopped using small barrels and resorted to older 500 litre vats to maintain that sharper edge that all Chablis has.
Frederic’s favourite is the Valmur, because it is more refined, with an almost oily texture like great Riesling. Because of its location further down the hill, it receives sunshine later in the day and is more harmonious than the other Grand Crus. The Les Clos Chablis is more generous although Frederic believes because it receives more sunshine, you have to be cautious not to let it become over ripe. It has exceptional length and intensity and is certainly more like a great Puligny Montrachet without the traditional sharpness of Chablis and a slight touch of honey. But as Frédéric says, that is the joy of all Burgundy – it is harvested from tiny plots using identical grapes yet the top varieties all have unique expressions despite having been picked in the same climatic conditions and receiving the same vinification.
The entire Drouhin family are involved in key aspects of the business, including Frederic’s brothers and sister. Apart from their 90 different Burgundies, they also have a large estate in Oregon that they planted 30 years ago. “We are always thinking of the consequences for the next generation. Our estates have already been passed on to them, so for the next decade all we are doing is focussing on training them for the future.”