Why the hell don’t you ever see a 100 point Chablis? Pt 1/2

It’s not a silly question. It’s very important. One simply never sees a 100/100 or a 20/20 point Chablis. Why?

And why ask this of Chablis, rather than some other heralded dry white wine—when we all know that the wines given 100pts are ageworthy, massive reds from Bordeaux, California, or Piedmont; dusty, vintage Champagnes; or, if made of entirely white varietals, dessert wines1? (It would seem old, brawny and sweet are generally the orgasmic fancy of the 100 pointers).

And even for those critics who do not distribute 100 point scores like so many cheap after-dinner mints—the “serious” Old World critics, who seem to look down their aristocratic bifocals at us: Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson, Clive Coates, or even the Yankee outsider exception in the crowd, Allen Meadows—the greatest laurel Chablis can attain is a rare 98 points (Raveneau’s ‘98 Les Clos). Granted, Meadows is uniquely conservative relative to American critics: he has only attributed a 100 point score to the ‘45 DRC Romanée Conti2. For an idea how liberally someone like former Wine Spectator critic and cringeworthy barnstorming douchebag James Suckling applies a 100 point descriptor, see here:

But among Old or New World critics, only once did Chablis get a gold star. In November 20043, only weeks after Bettane and Dessauve split from La Revue du Vin de France4 in reaction to the Revue’s acquisition by the teen magazine publisher Marie Claire, the magazine awarded 20/20 points to the ’79 Raveneau Les Clos.

Pyrrhic victory for Chablis, perhaps, as makeup-covered, teeny-bopping Marie Claire was at the helm?

But, save for that: that’s it.

Really? Among the entire scored back vintage history of Chablis? Just one disputed, single instance of perfection, regardless of vintage and producer? “Even Raveneau was only able to get it together once in all those years”, you’d ask?

It’s odd, to say the least. But why not instead ask why there is rarely a 100-point dry Savennières? Keller Riesling5? Or Huet Vouvray6? You could just as easily prod our readiness to recognize perfection in those undeniably mesmerizing, ageworthy racehorses.

It’s because Chablis is the most amazing dry white wine in the world. It’s a standard-bearer for terroir-driven wines that show their minerality to nearly any taster (only Riesling gives Chardonnay growing in Chablis a run for its money regarding transparency). No one can argue with Chablis when it manages to transmit its Kimmeridgian or Portlandian limestone terroir in an indelible, recognizable aroma of the sea and its minerality.

Les Clos. A lunar landscape.
Follow the treeline: Les Clos, arcing down towards Blanchots on the right. A lunar landscape.
More chalky limestone in Les Clos.
More chalky limestone in Les Clos.

I often imagine the Pixy Stix powdered candy of my youth, whose sugar would be replaced with a powdery mineral concoction of crushed seashells. It’s thanks to this chalky minerality that Chablis fashions some of the most moving and, to my mind, perfect wines in the world.

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 6.08.39 PM
I know, my new flavor will probably not be met with great enthusiasm by the Pixy Corporation.

And so I find it such a curious aberration that there should never be a Chablis recognized as perfect. It should be a flagship for these wines, alongside great dry Riesling and dry Chenin Blanc, which nearly all suffer from this curious prejudice of the critical world regarding dry white wines.

I think we can agree that, somewhat paradoxically, even as Parker’s point system empowered wine consumers in America and helped develop the American wine market, we’ve ended up taken hostage by our notation system. It’s a seemingly intuitive, easily communicable system of relative values, which capitalizes on a much larger set of numbers than 20 to exude an air of clinical precision and objectivity; but, of course, it is fraught with bias.

It’s a quagmire. We do need a way to speak about wines relative to each other, in a legible hierarchy. And it shouldn’t be surprising that the grading systems we adopt reflect our respective academic systems (more on this later)7.

But there’s something interesting when you ask this question regarding perfection relative to Chablis in general, and I wonder if it has to do with the very nature of Chablis.

Making good Chablis is a pain in the ass. Here’s the crux; even in a “healthy”, normal vintage, you’re most often left with mediocre, fruity Chardonnay, not Chablis. It takes a vintage like 2002, maybe tricky 2004, 2008, or 2010 to make stellar, proper Chablis. You battle to eke it out of the earth and get it to come out right, and, at the tip of a hat—just as in many other Old World climates where appellation laws prevent most forms of human protectionist intervention8—frost or great heat and rain9 show up, and everything goes to crap. It’s a sick game; it’s a harsh, cold climate that’s unforgiving, and whether it’s in the élevage or the grapes to start off with, it’s as though you need to get lucky, then run back down Mount Olympus with a coveted thing that somehow shouldn’t belong to you.

Sure, there are other mythically fickle grapes that prove difficult to grow—Pinot Noir or Viognier10 come to mind—but to my knowledge, there’s really nowhere else where a good vintage is such a rare occurrence.

1939
A simpler era, where apparently the best was attainable. Seven points; seven possible wine regions; thank you. As Hitler was gaining foothold in Germany in 1928, white Burgundy was tasting perfect.

Even so: it’s as though we don’t want to envisage perfection in Chablis. We begrudge the notion. As if Chablis itself is so harsh and erratic that we can never bring ourselves to feel confident that we’re tasting the best nature has to offer. But that’s just silly.

***

What should a perfect Chablis be like?

On some level, there may be an eminently reasonable, optimistic conservative reticence to declare perfection at all. “You never know what nature’s capable of; best leave a bit of leeway for the future”.

Clive Coates has some suggestions:

“Chablis at its best is a magnificent wine, and is quite unique. The color should be a full, in the sense of quite viscous, greeny-gold. The aromas should combine steeliness and richness, gun flint11, grilled nuts and crisp toast. The flavour should be long, individual, and complex. Above all, the wine should be totally dry, but without greenness. The aftertaste must be rich rather than mean, ample rather than hard, generous rather than soulless. Chablis is an understated wine, so it should be subtle rather than obvious, reserved rather than too obviously charming”.12

But must a perfect Chablis be ageworthy? If, as Coates says, the “aftertaste must be rich rather than mean”, then tasting aged Chablis obviously seems to suggest so. Chablis rarefies with age, becoming a slightly honeyed, haunting expression of minerality prized by collectors.

Interestingly, Clive Coates, an Old World palate, tends to attribute near-perfect 19.5/20 scores to Chablis much less begrudgingly than other Old World critics. He is also someone who admittedly “happen(s) to like (his) Chablis young and vibrant”, who “will be starting to drink (his 2008) grand crus from 2012 or so”, noting “Classicists may prefer to wait until 2015”.13 Could this penchant for youth explain his ability to attribute higher scores to wines? Make no mistake: he does still adhere to more stringent standards once he classes the producers. Not a single 3/3 star producer in Chablis. Raveneau and Dauvissat, the long undisputed lords of Chablis, only receive 2 stars, but are somehow considered better than their neighboring 2 star ilk14.

In the next part of this two-part article: Chablis winemaker Patrick Piuze weighs in on perfection, and I share thoughts on some Chablis I’ve tasted that has marked me over the years.

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  1. I know what you’re thinking: what’s the highest rated Montrachet? For Burghound, it was the ‘92 Ramonet tasted 8/10 at 99 points, highest of all Montrachet. []
  2. http://www.princeofpinot.com/article/218/ []
  3. http://90pluswines.com/Wine/1949KXJS979/Raveneau-(Domaine-Francois–Jean-Marie)—Chablis-Les-Clos/1979.aspx. Gilman also gave 98 to the 07 Raveneau Les Clos. []
  4. http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/inside1004 []
  5. Update below in the comments as of 10/2014! []
  6. Jancis gave the 1947 Huet Vouvray Moelleux Le Haut Lieu a 20/20 in ‘03. But: that’s sweet. http://90pluswines.com/Wine/22392449947/Huet-(Domaine-Noel-(Gaston)—Vouvray-Moelleux-Le-Haut-Lieu/1947.aspx []
  7. Suckling admits the grade-school lineage of his 100 point scale, and explicitly states it is only for buying purposes : http://www.jamessuckling.com/about-me.html []
  8. Coates in The Wines of Burgundy notes that certain producers water the vines with automatic sprinkler systems once the temperature drops below freezing, or install oil-burning heaters among the vines. Generally, however, Burgundy seems to frown upon these human interventions that alter the course of the vintage. A picture of a new generation heater is visible here within the vines: http://www.thewinedoctor.com/regionalguides/burgundypart05.shtml []
  9. One sole grower fails to protect against oidium, and the rest of Vaillons falls: “In 2004, the incidence of oidium was greatest on the left bank of the Serein, particularly in and around the premier cru Vaillons. Several growers told me that one major vineyard owner in Vaillons failed to treat his vines, and that the spores quickly spread through the Vaillons valley. Some vineyards here were so affected that the fruit was not even picked.” []
  10. I could perhaps imagine a case being made for Viognier as equally difficult. But as so few hectares are under vine in prime parcels (it almost went extinct in the late 1970’s) vs Chablis, it’s less important given the massive production, popularity, and availability of Chablis. Sadly, hardly anyone knows or cares about Viognier. Thanks to burgeoning 80s exports, Chablis is so celebrated it’s counterfeited in California. []
  11. A debate rages on the usefulness of this aromatic description, and I do not wish to complicate this discussion with it. The French have held to their “pierre à fusil” descriptor for many years, but many folks have trouble understanding it: http://wineberserkers.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=27068 []
  12. The Wines of Burgundy, Clive Coates MW, UOC Press 2008, page 49. Visible for free at: http://www.ucpress.edu/content/chapters/10788.ch01.pdf []
  13. http://www.clive-coates.com/tastings/vineyard/chablis-grands-crus-2008. Four different 2008 Grand Cru Chablis tasted merited 19.5 scores: Jean Collet et Fils Valmur; Brocard Les Clos; La Chablisienne Co-op Les Clos; Domaine de Malandes Les Clos. In the 09 vintage, Coates also attributed three 19.5 scores: Dauvissat and Raveneau Les Clos, and Moreau Vaudésir. (see http://www.clive-coates.com/tastings/vineyard/chablis-grands-crus-2009). []
  14. The Wines of Burgundy, Clive Coates MW, UOC Press 2008, page 56 and 63. Visible for free at: http://www.ucpress.edu/content/chapters/10788.ch01.pdf []

8 comments

    • Bob Henry says:

      Quoting a 1989 Wine Times magazine interview with Robert Parker, he has two wine scales: zero to 40 points for non-age-able wines; zero to 50 points for age-able wines. (Add 50 more “base” points to each score and you derive a 100 point scale score.)

      The 10 “bonus” points [going from his 40 point scale to his 50 point scale] are “awarded to wines that have the ability to improve in the bottle. This is sort of arbitrary and gets me into trouble.”

      So if a white or red wine should be drunk up straight away or very soon upon release (because it doesn’t improve with time), the maximum score for that wine on Parker’s scale is 90 points.

      Quoting from the 1989 interview:

      WINE TIMES: “Do you have a bias toward red wines? Why aren’t WHITE WINES getting as many scores in the upper 90s? Is it you or is it the wine?”

      PARKER: “Because of that 10-point cushion . Points are assigned to the overall quality but also to the potential period of time that wine can provide pleasure. And WHITE BURGUNDIES today have a lifespan of, at most, a decade with rare exceptions. Most top red wines can last 15 years and most top Bordeaux can last 20, 25 years.”

      Now, it is not historically accurate to state that white wines never reach a perfect score (be it “20 points” by the Brits, or “100 points” by the Americans).

      With your indulgence, let me quote at length Jancis Robinson, M.W. who discarded her own 20-point scale and embraced a 26 point scale when savoring ethereal older bottles of Yquem:

      From Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine Web Site
      (Posted September 1998):

      “Notes From Attending an Yquem Vertical Tasting”

      Ms. Robinson’s prefacing remarks: “All in bottles with original cork unless stated otherwise.”

      1784 (President Thomas Jefferson’s collection bottle, 1 tasted by Michael Broadbent, H R [host Hardy Rodenstock] and German cronies at Wiesbaden in 1985 soon after H R’s acquisition of this Thomas Jefferson collection from a mysterious “bricked up cellar in Paris” before another was auctioned at Christie’s in 1986. The bottle tasted in 1998 was much darker than that described in 1985.)

      Very dark brown syrup with copper coloured rim. Bottle stink immediately after pouring. After 5-10 minutes a very beguiling bouquet of dried roses emerged and the wine was lively, aromatic, fragrant for a good 40 to 50 minutes. On the palate the wine was very gentle, very delicate, very feminine to the 1787’s more aggressive appeal, and the sweet fruit was lovely and very, very long before fading (earlier than the 1787). A marvel of a relic rather than unmitigated pleasure.

      1787 (another dark Thomas Jefferson bottle, engraved not labelled, with a deep punt).
      Deep, deep brown with a greenish rim and, like the 1784, smelt slighty mouldy at first. There was definite life here, however, in a wine that was slightly treacly, extremely lively with marked but not unpeasant acidity. On the palate a burnt sugar start, dry finish, no great persistence. After 40 minutes there was an intense nose of chestnuts, autumnal and briary. More robust and concentrated but less charming than the 1784. Powerful, chunky.

      1811 (the year of the comet)
      A quite amazing wine, served blind with 1831, 1911 and 1931 it was the most intense, yet least evolved of the lot.

      Deep amber with green gold rim. So vibrant and multilayered on the nose, it smelt as though it was just starting to unfold, yet was utterly convincing about the treasures it had yet to give up. Spicy and rich and so, so piercingly clean. Racy, long piercing essence of cream and spice. Very, very powerful, long and complete. After 40 minutes in the glass it took on a hint of rum toffees which is not a flavour I happen to like (c.f. the greater delicacy of the 1847) but that is the only criticism I could possibly muster. This is presumably a one-off and probably deserves an even higher ranking than the 1847. 25 points [Bob Henry comment: her 25 point score exceeds her own 20 point scale.] and still a great deal to give. I hope very much to have a chance to taste it again before I die.

      1828
      Deep amber.
      Nose not quite knit, slightly volatile. Dry finish. Less intense than the other wine vaguely in this style, the 1899 (as well it might be). 18 points and going downhill slowly.

      1831
      Wide, pale rim with a heart of deep amber. Very very intense yet subtle nose with nots of nuts and cream. A superb wine with layers and layers of flavour and richness. Angelo Gaja suggested baby powder and roasted hazelnuts. Wonderfully smooth texture. Its effect on this jaded palate was medicinal in the best possible way: a quite delicious pick-me-up. So long, yet delicate. A great, great wine that happened to be served with one or two even greater ones. 24 points [sic] and probably at its peak.

      1847
      The big issue of the day was whether this of the 1811 was ‘better’. (Both were absolutely extraordinary. The 1847 gave me more pure tasting pleasure, but apparently this wonderfully pure scent of raspberries and vanilla cream had been apparent on the 1858 and the 1869 tasted previously, whereas there is nothing quite like the 1811 for intensity and youthfulness.) Relatively light tawny-amber. Extraordinary nose, at first perfectly ripe, warm raspberries and then heady vanilla cream. Beautifully balanced. Gentle. Delicate. Perfect texture. Nothing could be finer. 26 points [sic] and probably still climbing, although the 1811 will outlast it.

      1861
      Extraordinary in every way. Looked almost like black syrup, a PX, with gamboge rime. Smelt of treacle toffee and tea and moved like a thick treacle too. Very very sweet and concentrated. Certainly not fine but, amazingly, well balanced. A one-off. 23 points [sic] and nearly at its peak.

      1893 (recorked 1996)
      Very very deep brownish mahogany; looks thick and treacly. Correct nose of sturdy deep richness. Intense flavour of a much more conventionally massive build than the 1899. Lots of ripeness and length and potential. 19 points and still a long way to go.

      1899 (recorked 1994)
      Layered mahogany. No nose to begin with but delicate and somehow convincing. Lovely dancing delicate texture on the palate. Great sweetness counterbalanced by acidity. Not one of the pinnacles of this tasting but a gorgeous and extremely satisfying wine. 19 points and still improving.

      1900 (recorked 1900)
      Fox red of only medium intensity and a yellow-green rim. Sweet and heady with a slight hint of estufa on the nose. Light in weight and sweetness with a slightly dry end. 16 points and fading.

      1911 (recorked 1996)
      Hint of dark brown (as opposed to rich mahogany) in slightly lacklustre hue. Initially slightly mouldy but underneath a gorgeous bouquet of steeped raisins. Very, very sweet at first with notable acid at the end of the palate. Slightly spindly c.f. the 1811 and 1831 it was served with. NB recorking. 19 points and ready.

      1931 (recorked 1997)
      Very clear, pale amber. Pure, clean, sharp but not especially intense nose. Quite lean and light with almost madeira-like acidity. With its less-than-usual charge of sweetness and exceptionally palate-rinsing-like crispness, this was the only wine that might have been difficult to recognise immediately as great Sauternes. It could almost have been a very old, light fortified wine. 17 points and on the way down

      1945
      Very very deep mahogany, extremely viscous. Yellow/green rim. Essence of rose petals on nose with something almost suggestive of oak. Rich. complex nose. Very intense flavour, extremely sweet – fuller and rounder than 1947 or 1949. Perfect texture, balancing acidity, and so much more than just sweet. 20 points and ready.

      1947
      As deep a mahogany as 1945 with similar development at rim. Smells creamy with hint of something vegetal and a floral topnote. Not as overwhelming sweet as either 1945 or 1949 but extremely youthful, lively and crisp. Could be great with nuts; less so with anything very sweet. Those who know the wine better than me were slightly disappointed by this bottle. 18 points and still considerable evolution to come.

      1949
      Deep tawny/amber with pale yellow rim. Scent of raisins, not as subtle a nose as the 1945 or 1947 with only medium intensity but.. on the palate a great thwack of purest raisin cream with great length of flavour. 19 points and not yet at peak.

      1950
      Looks much less viscous and much paler than the three vintages above; deep gold with some amber highlights. Relatively lightweight on the nose but definite creme brulee. A hint of something not 100 per cent clean about this bottle. Creamy and sweet on the palate, very refreshing, long, could give enormous pleasure served in isolation; next to the heavyweights of the 1940s it looked very slightly lean. 17 points and still evolving.

      1958
      Lively, deep orange and tawny. Both grass and sweetness on the very intense nose. Very compete palate. Extremely long and complex with many reverberations. 18 points and still climbing.

      1960
      Deep tawny with brown notes. Intense nose with strong floral notes on Christmas pudding
      flavours. Full, round, rich, long but slightly brawny and drying out at the end. Not fine, rather aggressive and old, hint of maderisation. 17 points and going downhill. [Bob Henry’s comment: 17 points is a rather high score for a “Not fine . . . maderi[zed]” wine.]

      1968
      Deep tawny marmelade colour. Very slightly mousey to begin with on the nose. Palate very rich and extremely long, but a bit of dryness at the end. Not complete; a bit jagged. 16 points and probably near its peak.

      1969
      Lively colour of a ginger cat. Looks more like an Australian stickie than an Yquem. Smelt of ginger Edinburgh rock. Very unsubtle. 13 points; can’t imagine evolution.

      1971
      Deep butterscotch colour. Rich creme brulee scent. Very very ful flavoured, quite brutal impact on the palate. This wine could become something splendid but for the moment is about 16 points.

      1973
      Pale tawny. Relatively simple, sugary nose. Lots of unresolved acidity on the palate. The wine may well improve in bottle but is an awkward. 14 points at the moment.

      1983 (imperiale)
      Deep apricot colour. Exotic nose of dried tropical fruit – mango? Gorgeous, full bodied, delightfully middle aged, between youthful and embryonic and fully blown. Long and powerful though a a drying hint of dried apple peel on the finish. 20 points and still a long way to go.

      1988 (double magnum)
      Very pale straw. Lovely pure botrytis notes. Youthful reminder of quite what a transformation bottle age is. Still relatively simple but very pleasurable. Sweet, uncomplicated, beguiling. 18.5 points with decades to go.

      1990 (magnum)
      Light youthful gold. Peachy smell redolent of botrytis. Also a hint of fine polished wood on the nose. Very long, firm, sleek, confident. Big and rich. 20 points and a long long way to go.

      1991
      Paler than 1990. Pale gold. Smells of very ripe pears. relatively simple and unevolved. Clean quite tart palate. Noticeably lighter bodied than 1990 — not as pure and tingling either. 17 points and developing but not a great Yquem.

      • Gargantua says:

        Thank you so much for posting this! I wonder how many of the Yquem were not fakes. But note my “manifesto” of sorts was regarding dry white wine! Cf. intense sweetness vs. cocaine–see part 2!

        • Bob Henry says:

          Given that Hardy Rodenstock was the host . . . who has been accused of faking wines . . . hard to say.

          “Jury Awards Bill Koch $12 Million in Counterfeit Wine Lawsuit;
          Court finds that collector Eric Greenberg defrauded Florida billionaire at wine auction”

          Excerpt: “(A judge did rule in Koch’s favor in a lawsuit against German wine dealer Hardy Rodenstock, but Rodenstock refused to come to America to contest the allegations.)”

          Link: http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/48298

          And this:

          “What’s in the Bottle?” – Slate

          Excerpt: “. . . Hardy Rodenstock, the suspected wine counterfeiter at the heart of the flap over the so-called Thomas Jefferson bottles.”

          Link: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2010/06/whats_in_the_bottle.single.html

          And this:

          “Hardy Rodenstock” (Wikipedia entry)

          Excerpt:

          The most famous Rodenstock tasting was held from August 30 to September 5, 1998 at Hotel Königshof in Munich, when a tasting of 125 vintages of Château d’Yquem, the oldest of which were of the 1784 vintage, was held. Two 18th-century, forty 19th-century, and all released 20th-century vintages of Château d’Yquem up to 1991 were featured in this vertical tasting, which was conducted over the course of a week. The week included five lunches, seven dinners, and over 175 other wines.[3][4] It is most likely the most extensive Yquem tasting ever and it has been the subject of a book.[5]

          The exclusive nature of the wine selection featured at Rodenstock’s tastings is indicated by the fact that Michael Broadbent, who is considered to be the world’s leading authority on old wines,[6] has tasted many of his rarest and oldest wines at Rodenstock’s tastings, in particular, most 18th-century wines he has tasted.[3][7]

          Other participants at his tastings included Jancis Robinson,[8] Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the then-owner of Château d’Yquem, Alexandre de Lur-Saluces.

          Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hardy_Rodenstock

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