Don’t expect me to explain the market for Chablis to you – it generally leaves me confused!
There is a certain lack of wine here in Chablis, and a lot of it sells rather quickly; yet a significant amount of this volume departs the producers’ cellars for less than €7 per bottle for Chablis, and less than €10 for premier crus – for larger orders of-course.
The average domaine size in terms of hectares is much larger than in the Côte d’Or, though because of the pricing of the wine, the turnover per domaine is rarely more – only four employees for 80 hectares wouldn’t be uncommon in Chablis. Because of this larger number of hectares per domaine there is often a blurring of lines between ‘agriculture’ and ‘viticulture’ – you definitely won’t find such large tractors in the Côte d’Or, though the latter does have a few harvesting machines. Harvesting machines are not the exception in Chablis; for all the evocative images of a horse ploughing the rows, Chablis is machine-driven – even very well known domaines, of quality, may harvest their Petit Chablis and Chablis by machine and their more important wines by hand – even a proportion of the grand crus have machines doing the work.
Then there are the wines: I’ve slowly, organically, built up a list of producers that I like to visit, put together largely through tasting blind. This has taken me more than three years and the result, so far, is that this January I’m making almost 50 producer visits to taste their 2014s – but this list really doesn’t reflect the larger reality of wine from Chablis. Because of my methodology, I search out only the interesting stuff, so I’m insulated from the market realities. Of-course you are too if you buy only from domaines that I like!
It’s really only through open, off-the-record, discussion with (certain) producers that you appreciate that there is a lake of not great wine that comes from Chablis – grand crus that taste like poor villages wines – here I fail you, as my modus operandi doesn’t bring me into contact with them! But that being true, one has to ask the question why?
30 years ago there was also a lot of ‘sub-moderate’ wine in the Côte d’Or, but a virtuous circle of new generations that have; travelled the world and taken on different perspectives, seen price growth which has enabled investment in their cuveries, and the best working materials, has gathered critical acclaim that has further increased their apparent desirability and pricing, which has, slowly-but-surely, increased the average quality of wine. This has without doubt been helped by benevolent vintages, but domaines are equipped to deal with most things today.
The question I’m struggling to answer today is ‘why not in Chablis?’
The top wines from Chablis are fabulous, with a quality, desirability, tastiness and most importantly, character, that can match almost anything from the Côte de Beaune, yet where is the virtuous circle? Are there insufficient critics reporting? Is the, generally, more agricultural structure to blame? The desirability of the land reflects, if to a slightly lesser extent, the feeding frenzy of the Côte d’Or with parcels of grand crus very hard to come by today – at almost any price. Certainly the small, everything by hand, model of the Côte d’Or – for example, someone like Jean-Claude Bessin – is rarer in Chablis, yet there are exponents of the mechanised approach that really make compelling wine too.
It’s clear to me that low pricing has a hand in the problem, and you will know me as someone who pushes back against pricing excess, but in the last 10 years the price of a villages Meursault has doubled, Chablis considerably lags – I even have to suppress laughter when a producer of Chablis tells me that they will increase their prices this year – by perhaps 10 centimes…
In the end, I see pricing as indicative of the problem, and the lack of price appreciation as affecting the virtuous circle, but the totality of the issue still escapes me.