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 100 points 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 here3 :
But among Old or New World critics, only once did Chablis get a gold star. In November 20044, only weeks after Bettane and Dessauve split from La Revue du Vin de France5 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 Riesling6? Or Huet Vouvray7? 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.
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.
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)8.
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 intervention9—frost or great heat and rain10 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 Viognier11 come to mind—but to my knowledge, there’s really nowhere else where a good vintage is such a rare occurrence.
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 flint12, 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”.13
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”.14 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 ilk15.
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.
- 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. [↩]
- http://www.princeofpinot.com/article/218/ [↩]
- Aww, bummer. Suckling finally took the original video I’d cited, Searching For 100 Points, down. Well, not to worry, the following video illustrates the point. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/inside1004 [↩]
- Update below in the comments as of 10/2014! [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- 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.” [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- 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). [↩]
- 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 [↩]