Testing the Legend: The Chablis of Vincent Dauvissat and François Raveneau
Very few domains achieve ‘legend’ status, and even fewer drinkers actually get to experience wines from these estates. DRC, Leroy, Rayas, Soldera, Conterno’s Monfortino, Pingus, JL Chave, Egon Muller – prices and rarity put these wines out of reach. So it is hard to test for ourselves whether these legends truly live up to their status. But then there is Chablis where two of the most legendary white wine producers in the world sell their masterpieces for surprisingly reasonably prices. These wines are hard to find and you have to look for them out of British Columbia, but when you find them you can get the premier crus of Vincent Dauvissat for $60-$70 a bottle and those of Raveneau for about $80-$150. By legend standards, this is downright accessible compared to a $1,500 bottle of DRC. With effort the main barrier rather than price, it’s possible to cobble together enough of these wines for a dinner focused entirely on them, which is just what I and some industry colleagues did.
What Makes These Wines Different?
The problem with Chablis does not lie in its terroir, but with its producers. Arguably possessing the greatest landscape in the world to make Chardonnay, many Chablisean domains have failed to present the distinct harmonies that unparalleled Chablis is. The reason lies in the predominance of mechanical harvesting, the use of selected yeasts and temperature controlled fermentation, reductive wine-making and extensive fining and filtration. The end result has been unpleasant and undesirable. It has undermined Chablis, even as the fame of the name sells wines no matter their quality, prices of the top wines remain depressed compared to their Cote d’Or counterparts.
This is why Dauvissat and Raveneau matter. Their wines are meant to represent what Chablis should be: some of the greatest white wines in the world, unparalleled in character and quality. One is told to taste Dauvissat or Raveneau to understand Chablis. If this benchmark quality is to mean something, we must comprehend what it is these producers see in the land that others do not.
Dauvissat swears the famous kimmeridgian soils, when broken, actually smell like a great bottle of Chablis. This, despite the scientific evidence that minerals in the soil do not express themselves as aromas in the wine. Whichever version you prefer, Dauvissat’s soulful belief in place highlights the profound influence of soil on the choices he makes when producing his wines. He is not to deprive them of qualities that he believes are fundamentally derived from those soils: the ‘mineral’ and sea aromas for which Chablis is famous, its lactic yoghurt-like acidity, and the profound ability to change from its primary stoneyness to honey, mushrooms, and general woodsy funk with age. But there is no fear of richness, as the incorrect belief of Chablis’ character might suggest. Dauvissat uses 20% new oak and lets vintage richness come through in his wines (as a taste of the 2006’s will attest to).
The intellectual and reserved Jean-Marie Raveneau is of a similar school of winemaking, embracing the cooler climate of Chablis vs. the Cote d’Or by responding to global warming by moving up his picking dates (apparently on average one day earlier per year). That cooler climate results from the more northerly siting of Chablis and also the fact its river basin is part of the more northerly Seine system rather than the Rhone basin to which the Cote d’Or belongs. Raveneau has particularly low yields (which is necessary to make wines from young limestone like kimmeridgian) and ages his wines in 7-8 year old oak feuilletes (small barrels about half the size of barriques) in a damp underground cellar with no artificial temperature control. The unique oak aging methods help give Raveneau’s wines their distinctive balance of roundness and texture with bright, expressive acidity.
Evaluating the Legend
The tasting focused mostly on two Premier Cru sites, both of which are highly respected, as well as a single bottle of Les Clos, generally considered the greatest Grand Cru. La Forest/Foret (there is no consistency in labeling), in the hands of Dauvissat and Raveneau, is considered by many to be Grand Cru quality with its greatest rival being Montee de Tonnerre, which is situated on the right bank of the Serein river next to the Grand Cru vineyards. Dauvissat’s Forest benefits from 40 year old vines and the quality of its soils, which retain less heat than those in Montee de Tonnerre and so allows for very slow ripening (and thus the potential for greater phenolics).
Overall impressions proved consistent with the reputation of these two domains, as one would expect with such universal praise. These wines are clearly at a level far above any other in Chablis and sit amongst the great white wines of the world. They all offer balance, ageability, and the complete range of Chablis flavours. This is the reason these wines have long been known to those in the wine trade as some of the world’s great wine bargains and perhaps the most accessible legends. My thoughts on several wines follow.
Flight 1: Dauvissat 2009 La Forest vs. Dauvissat-Camus 2012 La Forest
The 2012 was a little young for proper comparison, showing some reduction and also smoke and flint. It very much needed age, but I was able to rate it Very Good+ to Excellent with a view that it will improve considerably. The 2009 was very rich and impressive, confirming that 2009 is an underrated vintage in Chablis: oak and coconut cream with caramel, green apple and minerals. This is impressive wine. Excellent.
Flight 2: Raveneau 2006 La Foret vs. Dauvissat 2006 La Forest
One expects far less from 2006 in Chablis which was an underwhelming too warm vintage of short lived wines. However, Raveneau and Dauvissat proved producer matters over vintage. The Raveneau was a little reticent on the nose, but the balance was very long and elegant. Not a flashy wine, but perfectly structured and nice balanced richness on the palate. Very Good+ to Excellent.
The 2006 Dauvissat was outstanding and very aromatically expressive. I considered it very classy and restrained for 2006, though lacking somewhat on the finish compared to the Raveneau. Excellent.
Flight 3: Raveneau 2004 Montee de Tonnerre vs. Raveneau 2006 Montee de Tonnerre
This was the flight of the evening, with both wines truly oustanding. The 2004 offered a crunchy, vegetal nose. This is high acid, real gum-tingling Chablis. Butterscotch flavours couple with greater citric acids than the warmer vintages sucha s 2006 and 2009. Saline and spearment. Excellent to Excellent+.
The 2006 was Chablis in all its funky greatness. Very high levels of dry extract with substantial acidity for the vintage. Excellent to Excellent+.
Flight 4: Dauvissat 2000 La Forest vs. Dauvissat 2006 Les Clos
The 2000 Forest was a step down from the other wines in the tasting, not quite as alive or profound. Nonetheless, it is still impressive wine with interesting mint and quince notes. Very Good+.
The 2006 Les Clos was surprising as one expects true greatness from this vineyard from a producer like Dauvissat. And it was excellent wine, with interesting salty notes and a lot of density and elegance. However, it seemed to lack verve and the necessary level of acidity to put it into the category of true greatness. I think it’s still a wonderful wine, but would suggest saving the money to spend on a different vintage or, if you are buying 2006, select one of the premier crus tasted above instead. Excellent.