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Grand Cru Chablis: Burgundy's Best Top-Class Whites
By Jim Clarke
Jan 17, 2017
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When one hears the words “Grand Cru Burgundy,” it’s probably the reds of the Côte de Nuits that spring to mind -- some of the most exciting, age-worthy, and often profound wines in the world.  One might also think of Corton, in the Côte de Beaune, so not far away or the white wine Grand Crus of Montrachet or Corton-Charlemagne.  But there are seven Grand Crus that seem to cross people’s minds less frequently, even though they represent the best values to bear the name Grand Cru Burgundy.  I’m talking about Grand Crus of Chablis.

For whatever reason, the wines made from Chablis’ top vineyards, aside from those of a few cult producers like Raveneau and Dauvissat, have yet to achieve the recognition enjoyed by their Grand Cru cousins 100 miles to the south.  Perhaps that distance is a factor; Chablis seems rather removed from its cousins.  It also probably doesn’t help that most Grand Crus aren’t tied to their more generic appellations -- we don’t see Bourgogne Grand Cru on labels, nor do we even necessarily tie the Grand Cru to a village name, unless the village has co-opted the vineyard’s name for its own.   The name Chablis, however, graces labels from the lowliest parts of the village -- Petit Chablis -- all the way up to the Grand Crus (never mind the fact that it has also appeared on California jug wines for decades).  It doesn’t really matter.  Why look a gift horse in the mouth when the wines speak for themselves and over-deliver so consistently?

Chablis’s prducers consider 2014 a superb vintage, cool and long.  It started early thanks to a mellow spring, the right amount of rain fell over the summer, and clear skies in September freed producers to harvest when they thought best without the threat of rot.  This continues a series of good to great vintages extending back to the start of the millennium, the only dips being the famously hot vintage of 2003 and, to a lesser degree, 2013, which suffered from humidity problems.  2015 was also very strong, though the Grand Crus from that vintage have by-and-large not been released yet.  The 2014s are easy to find, and while many are still a bit closed, enough of the wines are opening up and enjoyable, providing a glimpse of things to come.

Les Clos, at 26 hectares, is the largest of the seven Grands Crus in Chablis; its slopes look south-southwest over the small village of Chablis itself.  Despite the name, the walls that once enclosed the vineyards have long since disappeared.  Its size means a larger number of producers have plots there, in principle making it ideal to compare their various winemaking styles.  Drouhin Vaudon’s 2014 is still a bit austere; as it opens up I expect the floral aromas it shows currently to broaden and more fruit to emerge.  William Fevre’s 2014 Les Clos is a riper, fruitier wine, with lots of tree fruit aromas and a pleasant, long finish.  Of those I’ve tasted, Laroche has one of the top wines from Les Clos from this vintage, at least for drinking now, filled with spice and flinty notes, and absurdly long.

The Louis Moreau is similarly forward: fresh, floral, and delicate, with an elegant finish.  Moreau’s even higher-end bottling, the monopole Clos des Hospices Dans Les Clos, is more closed, but has a creamy texture that satisfies even when young.  Domaine Servin’s Les Clos 2014 embodies a lot of the classic markers of great Chablis, with citrus and chalk notes and vibrant acidity.

East of Les Clos is Blanchots, the only one of the seven Crus to face southeast, which means a concentration of morning rather than evening sun.  Laroche and Servin both produced remarkable Blanchots in 2014; the former leaning toward citrus and floral notes, while the Servin is juicier and ripe, with stone fruits coming to the fore.  A 1997 Blanchots from Laroche had deepened toward pear and flowers, with undertones of marzipan developing.  Blanchots is a bit of a specialty for Laroche – with 4.5 hectares, it’s the largest piece of Grand Cru vineyard they own – and their Réserve de l’Obédience is a barrel and tank selection made from various plots within the Cru.  The 2014 builds on the lemon and floral notes of the “basic” Blanchots (if one can call a Grand Cru “basic”) with added complexity and touches of yellow plum and flint.  It’s fuller and longer on the finish as well.

Valmur, on the other side of Les Clos, is a valley, creating a diversity of exposures.  It has a reputation for fruitier wines, which shows in the 2014s from Louis Moreau, William Fevre, and Domaine Collet -- stone fruits specifically.  To the west, the valley opens up to form the southfacing slopes of Les Grenouilles.  Samples of Les Grenouilles are relatively less common; not only is it the smallest of the Grands Crus at 9.4 hectares, but in addition 80% of that is owned by Chateau Grenouilles, the only producer in Chablis where the grapes are vinified in the heart of the vineyard itself.  Chateau Grenouilles’s wines need time -- even a 2011 was still reticent and closed -- and tend to somewhat reductive when young.  Nonetheless, they are concentrated and firm, with a vibrant mouthfeel.

Above Les Grenouilles one passes over a rise and then encounters the steeper slopes of Vaudésir.  The wines have the reputation for being the lightest and most delicate of all the Grands Crus, at least in their youth; the 2014 Drouhin Vaudon epitomizes this ethereal, elegant style; the William Fevre is similar, albeit more lean and tight.  Louis Moreau’s Vaudésir, on the other hand, has a less usual round and textured character, with pear, floral, and even marzipan notes.

The final two Crus, Bougros and Preuses, are part of the same, mostly southwest facing slope, with Preuses on top.  Bougros has a reputation for drinking well when young, a characterization which I’ve generally found to be well-deserved.  William Fevre’s 2014 and their reserve “Cote Bougerots” both follow through, especially the latter with its generous spice, mineral, and peach aromas.  Their Les Preuses, by contrast, shows some spice and lemon aromas, but is more tightly wound.  The Drouhin Vaudon Bougros 2014 was very pleasant and generous, with roundness and a well-textured mouthfeel and notes of spice, marzipan, and apricots.  Laroche’s Bouguerots (producers are also allowed to use this antique spelling) is more delicate than these others, though it shares the pleasing spice notes.

For Nathalie and Gilles Fevre and Simonnet-Febvre Les Preuses is their only Grand Cru vineyard; the 2014 Fevre shows an intriguing mix of saline and stone fruit aromas, which in older bottlings (I tasted ’13, ’12,’10, and ’08) remains consistent while the fruit develops a riper, more baked quality and spice notes come more into focus.  Simmonet-Febvre, pouring the 2014, 2012, and 2001, showed similar development, though the wines were tighter and more flinty and citrusy in their aromas.  A vertical of Dampt’s Preuses (2011-14) showed similar development, and fell in between the other two, with apple and pear fruits dominating.

In tasting the 2014s it was much easier to generalize about quality and character of the wines as a group rather than pick out the distinct character of individual Crus; while Les Preuses seemed fairly consistent in the balance of fruit to minerality across producers, for example, the wines from Les Clos were harder to pin down.  As with many age-worthy wines, they become more clearly themselves after a few years, and revisiting the 2014s in eight or so years would probably tell a much clearer story.  Great Chablis stays remarkably recognizable as such regardless of its age, or even oak use; many producers are using older barrels, but there’s no sharp dividing line in style between their wines and those fermented and aged in stainless steel.  Grand Cru Chablis remains a great value for fans of acid-driven, concentrated white wines.