Image and Expression: How Chablis Is Shaped Through the Lenses of No Oak, Neutral Oak and New Oak

Christy Canterbury Master of Wine

October 17th, 2021

Chablis' complex landscape - an assemblage of hills, valleys, plateaus, altitudes and expositions - creates a portfolio of diverse Chardonnays. The region's range of expressions within a single vintage, not to mention amongst vintages, is striking.

Chablis' ancient Kimmeridgian soils act as a refracting lens, focusing Chardonnay in aromatic and textural expressions in a way that no other region can. The wines are scintillatingly nuanced.

But of course, winemakers envision and produce the final wines. In a Burgundian cellar, Chardonnay and oak are words that are often expected to feature together. However, oak generally plays the role of an "extra" in Chablis rather than a "supporting actor", as it does more often in the Côte d'Or. In some cellars, oak doesn't even get an audition.

Most Chablis producers that use oak do so to round out the crisper edges of their Chardonnays that even full malolactic fermentation can't entirely relax. During a visit, when the first wine in a tasting is noted to have a portion of new oak, the next sentence frequently is, "Ce n'est pas pour boiser le vin." That is, "It's not to make the wine taste oaky." Granted, many young wines aged in oak do show their elevage, or how they were aged before bottling. However, most producers know those notes will subside in due time - as they intend. I can only think of one enologist, Guénolé Breteaudeau at Domaine des Malandes, who stated specifically that he likes his higher-end Chablis wines "toasty". However, he is joined by many colleagues that are in favor of the noticeable oak "enhancement".

A major challenge for Chablis producers using oak is that many feel the tonneliers don't make barrels for Chablis. They make barrels for Chardonnay. Producers generally look for their barrels to be toasted low and slow, or at low heat for a long time. Still, Chablis is so transparent that it is hard to hide new oak, particularly in Chablis' youth. The only wine that sees new oak in the cellar of Virginie Moreau at Moreau-Naudet is her Chablis village; it's a cuvée with enough volume to hide the oak so that she can condition the new barrel for use on higher level wines the following vintages. To that point, Generally, it's the higher-end wines that see some portion of new oak aging because they have the concentration and structure to handle it.

The Chablisiens have traditionally used the Burgundian pièce, a barrel of 228 liters, as well as the smaller feuillettes holding 132 liters. The latter are good for smaller parcels, leftover juice from larger parcels and possibly topping up. However, in their on-going general efforts to keep keep oak flavor discreet to neutral, they are buying more and more demi-muids. These are much larger barrels of 500 to 600 liters. There are also foudres - even larger barrels - in some cellars like Brocard's.

There is an idiosyncrasy of Chablis and its vignerons in their quest to let vine terroir show in their wines more than that of the forests of France. Many ferment in stainless steel or other inert, lined vats then transfer the wine to barrel for aging. Where new oak is involved, the wood integrates better if a wine is fermented and aged in the barrel. Still, many producers prefer the control that stainless steel allows in alcoholic fermentation, especially the regulation of temperature control, for both ease of use and cleaning as well as the preservation of primary fruit character and minerality.

Of course, it is more than oak - or lack there of - that marks the wines. Preferred ripeness levels, types of presses, battonage and timing of sulphur use and bottling dates all influence the final texture and style of wine. Plus, there are some concrete and stainless steel eggs as well as amphora in the cellars in Chablis.

A staunch believer in the stainless steel tank from start to finish on every wine, from Petit Chablis to Les Clos, is Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel of Domaine Louis Michel. He has never had a barrel in his cellar and declares he never will. Guillaume favors a pure, crystalline style of Chablis. Sébastien Dampt - for his wines and his father's wines (Daniel Dampt) - also eschews oak. Sébastien, does, however, use a concrete egg for his Premier Cru Beugnons. Didier Picq at Domaine Gilbert Picq feels as adamant about stainless steel; his style is just richer and more generous in fruit character. Even early on his wines have a deep yellow color.

Similarly passionate about refraining from oak use is Daniel-Etienne Defaix, whose son Paul-Etienne is taking over his father's eponymous domaine. The difference in these wines is that they undergo extensive lees-aging with battonage in their lined fermentation vats then aren't released until many more years of bottle age. The wines from the domaine that I tasted this year hail from the 2007 vintage. The expression is delightfully unique, with the techniques achieving roundness, creaminess and age-worthiness without any oak use.

Most other producers, however, use oak in some form or another. As François Servin once told me, "I like my wines to have a Burgundian style to them." Moreover, many producers carefully observe their wines and amend their techniques over time. Some producers recently have begun using oak. Other producers have dialed back oak usage, even in Grand Crus wines, especially where younger vine age makes the wines more impressionable to oak influence. For example, Louis Moreau of Domaine Louis Moreau mentioned this year that while he stopped using oak on his Vaudésir Grand Cru a while back, now that the vines are gaining in age, he's reconsidering returning to some oak.

Of those that do use oak, some winemakers never use new oak. One is Didier Séguier at William Fèvre. He implemented a sea change when he arrived in 1998. After all, William himself was among the first to embrace new oak usage. Séguier is unusually lucky to be able to do this. The worry about buying second-hand barrels is their provenance and handling. Being part of the Henriot group, however, means that Séguier has an excellent source from his colleagues at Bouchard Père et Fils in Beaune. Somewhat similarly, Patrick Piuze likes not only old oak for vinifying and aging his Premier and Grand Crus, he likes older oak that was first used in a cooler vintage. Also unconventional is Patrick's preference to vinify his "Terroir de..." line of wines in stainless steel but without temperature control.

Those carrying the torches at the most-heralded Chablis producers, Renée et Vincent Dauvissat and François Raveneau, buy new oak only to refresh the barrel options, as Vincent Dauvissat says of his program. Vincent vinifies in lined tanks and barrels while Isabelle Raveneau vinifies in stainless steel tanks. Then, both send their wines into oak to age with minimal new oak used.

The permutations are endless, and it is very hard to separate producers into styles groups. Among other reasons, their Petit Chablis, Chablis and Premier Crus maybe taut and fresh and only their Grand Crus marked by oak or richly ripe fruit. Plus, there is always the vintage factor and the fact that some buy Grand Cru fruit or juice for which they do not chose the harvest date. Still, I will try to make some distinctions below.

This is a broad generalization, but a selection of other top producers not previously mentioned that I find has a style less marked by oak include: Jean-Claude Bessin, Billaud-Simon, Clothilde Davenne, Domaine de l'Enclos, Domaine d'Henri, Drouhin-Vaudon, Elenie et Edouard Vocoret, Gautheron, Hamelin, Jean Collet, Jean-Marc Brocard, Julien Brocard, La Chablisienne, Nathalie et Gilles Fèvre, Oudin, Pinson, Samuel Billaud and Vrignaud.

Wines with more fruit generosity and evident oak early on and especially with regard to the top wines include Bernard Defaix, Christian Moreau, Domaine Laroche, Duplessis, Guy Robin, Jean-Paul et Benoît Droin, Lavantureux, Long-Dépaquit, Roy, Ventoura and Vincent Dampt.

Post-Script

As a singular style of Chardonnay, Chablis deserves more attention. It deserves an evaluation apart from other Chardonnays, including those of the Côte d'Or. I believe this for several reasons, including the wide variety of styles of Chablis and the habit of how we drink it.

First and foremost is that Chablis is subtle. Rather than "listen to it" and let it "develop in the glass", we tend to quaff it. It is relatively light and refreshing, after all. Chablis often is served as an aperitif or early in a meal then followed by something else. Too often, Chablis serves as a drink to "wet one's whistle" rather than a pièce de résistance.

Second, Chablis is also served far too cold far too often. (For more on wine service temperatures, see my previous article.) Take any wine, much less a "quiet", nuanced one, and the cooler (or colder) the temperature, the less expressive it will be. For the most part, Premier and Grand Cru Chablis should be served at cellar temperature.

Third, unoaked wines or wines with little to imperceptible oak tend to be drunk before more markedly oaked wines. In professional tasting, we generally taste in the order of less to more complex wines, yet sometimes more complex wines are tasted before simpler yet more oak-forward wines. In that mix, Chablis - even with some new oak - can be lost easily.

Fourth and finally, most Chablis is consumed young - rather too young, even the Grand Crus. Once again in professional tastings, we tend to taste younger wines before older wines. If older Chablis isn't in the mix, it could be inadvertently deemed less age-worthy, further lowering expectations.

Here's to more Chablis filling our glasses soon!

October 17th, 2021