In this final article (here is the first) examining our curious critical prejudice against dry white wines, I examine our inability to fully appreciate perfect Chablis with Patrick Piuze and share tasting notes on four of my all-time favorites.
If you’ve not yet tried a Piuze Chablis, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Patrick Piuze left his wine bar in Montréal in 2000 to make Chablis, and after working for Leflaive, Verget, and Brocard, he knocked it out of the park in his first solo vintage: the outstanding 2008. Some dubbed him the new Raveneau. In addition to his Grand and 1er cru bottlings and his absolutely stellar Petit Chablis, Piuze also vinifies AOC-level grapes that he purchases from growers in various Chablis regional terroirs that he groups in a single bottling: “Terroir de Courgis”, “Terroir de Fleys”, “Terroir de Chichée”, or “Terroir de Fyé”.
These subdivided AOC bottlings compel us to listen even closer to Chablis. “Talk to people in Courgis or in Fleys, and they’ll tell you it’s all the same. But it’s not,” Piuze notes. Piuze also notes how in one particular portion of the grand cru Valmur — where he purchases grapes from Domaine Vocoret — there is a significant difference in the size of the grapes based on the varying amounts of limestone and clay underfoot; he notes how this invariably affects drainage and drastically changes what ends up in the glass1.
One senses in Patrick Piuze a respect for his growers’ grapes and a deeply ingrained reverence for the Chablis terroir, a humble and passionate man before his task. He did have some slightly irreverent things to say, however, about wine critics’ inability to recognize perfect Chablis:
Aside from needing to be an authentic expression of terroir, what is a perfect Chablis? When does a Chablis distinguish itself from others to the point where it deserves to be considered perfect?
In Chablis, we produce Chablis, and the Chardonnay grape is only a vector to accomplish that goal. What deserves to be called “perfect” is when the wine talks about its origine — where it’s from. Chablis can be described as acidity and minerality, bonded together, lending Chablis its own particular personality.
Do you think Chablis must age its ten years and acquire tertiary characteristics in order to be considered perfect? Should a luscious, younger Chablis be judged perfect by critics?
In Chablis, vintage is a very important issue, quite simply because we end up with two distinct styles of wine. The spine of the wine can differ from one year to another. These two different spines are based either in alcohol or (more frequently) acidity. Acid-spined wines take more time to melt down into tertiary aromas, but offer up a lot more afterwards.
Some vintages age faster than others (the 2000 vintage, for the most part, is on the way downhill, but 1998 is still going strong)2 and sometimes we can be pleasantly surprised by a vintage that was expected to be short-lived but which then gets a second wind and can go another decade. The opposite may also prove true: 1996 was supposed to age for a century, but the acidity never melted away and the wines are already old!
Aside from selecting a more durable cork with your first ‘08 bottling (cf. video on your website), do you seek to make vins de garde3, or do you let the grapes and vintage dictate that? You use no new oak, even for grand crus… do you think this shortens the aging potential of your wine?
Without wanting to seem presumptuous, I try to understand every year and adapt to it. Yes, I think 2008 will go a long way, and, for example, 2009 is fun to drink young. I try to adapt more than trying to “make”.
I never like to be called a winemaker, I don’t make wine; I can only make it worse! That is why I do only minimal intervention. Aside from choosing the harvest date, and where we are going to put the unfermented juice…that’s it, the rest really isn’t up to me. Nature has her way and I think it’s wiser to leave it to that.
Any Chablis you’ve tasted which you considered perfect?
Sure. Here is the recipe: be in a very good mood with people you love and that are ready to open themselves to a great moment. Then and only then do the wines come into play. Right place, right people, right wine.
Why do you think that there are so few examples of Chablis, and dry white wines in general, judged as “perfect” by the critical community?
The first thing to remember is that perfection can almost only be awarded in mathematics. Wine is just a relative judgment, so perfection can only be a statement that involves the person that who made that statement.
The first word that can be a prejudice for a journalist is “perfect”. Not many want to risk themselves on that terrain. The world’s tendency in taste leans more towards richness and power than sharpness and purity. And, even the most rigid people have to sell their content, so they have to be careful with their readers.
Also, if we take a closer look at the scoring table, Petit Chablis will never score more than 90 because of its level of appellation. When they score 90 on Petit Chablis, I think it’s perfect Petit Chablis for them … the same applies to the other village-level wines.
I think that Riesling has the same problem as Chablis in that regard. With the exception of Egon Muller: given his notoriety, the miniscule size of his cuvées, and their price, giving 100 points to one of Muller’s wines can be done only because a tiny number of people will actually be able to taste the wine, and, in turn judge the journalist.
That last point brought up by Patrick regarding Egon Muller’s Rieslings brings me to Exhibit A regarding our critical prejudice towards dry white wines: sweetness. As Muller’s wines tend towards the sweetest trockenbeerenauslese, the scores gradually approach 100 points4. It’s obvious Muller makes fantastic spätlesen and auslesen, but ultimately, dry white wine just can’t get a break.
Here’s why. Dry white wines are faced with an abject sensory prejudice on the part of their human tasters. Our desire for intense sweetness can rival cocaine addiction, and it’s likely a remnant of the evolution of our senses:
“Our findings clearly demonstrate that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and -addicted individuals. We speculate that the addictive potential of intense sweetness results from an inborn hypersensitivity to sweet tastants. In most mammals, including rats and humans, sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants.5”
As we generally associate heightened pleasure with sweetness, it’s not surprising that dessert wines represent the champion high scorers of the white wine world. Tokaji, Sauternes, icewines, TBAs … all of these sugar monsters regularly find themselves judged as perfect after the “sensory overload orgasm” that they provoke among human tasters.
What remains nebulous given this rather pleasing, intuitive theory is exactly how red wines manage to surmount this prejudice. They’re obviously bringing something else to the table; what is that thing? Your thoughts in the comments.
Final exhibit today? Piuze’s evocation of the culture of grading and mathematics. In Old World France, home of the “sur vingt” (20 point) grading system, 20 is an ideal grade reserved for God6. You must revolutionize the art, some say. Blaise Pascal got a 20; you’re overjoyed earning 16, 17 or especially 18; these earn “High Honors”. But 20 is only attributed in subjects such as math, where one is indisputably correct.
It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that Old World critics, a product of these stringent systems, often shy away from 100 point scores. Like the French system, the English system typically stops at 70%7. So, unless their sensory apparatus is pushed over the edge by intense sweetness, they’ll probably remain in that posture.
Without wanting to diverge from Patrick’s formula for perfect Chablis, I’d like to wistfully talk about “Chablis I have loved” — reference points for me in my tastings. No grand cru (even if not all grand cru is fabulous; sadly, a great deal of it is over-oaked, disjointed nonsense) or Raveneau bottles below, because that’s not bringing a lot to the table. Here are four woefully undervalued Chablis that marked me indelibly:
2002 Vincent Dauvissat Chablis (tasted June 2009): Sure, it’s just village-level Chablis. But it was absolutely perfect. Of the three bottles I’d purchased for a $19 pittance, this was the most perfectly preserved. It had an expansive malolactic, buttery, honeyed, somewhat oaky8 Chard character on the nose, but followed with a big, saline maritime kick on the palate alongside a fabulous 2002 level of acid; later on the nose, it gave off an oxidized, dairy creaminess a bit. It sat very lightly on the tongue, and while it was lovely with seared scallops, I’d shudder to imagine it with oysters. I could have spent a long time basking in the nose, but it went quick. I’ll never forget it.
2008 Patrick Piuze Chablis 1er Cru Vaucoupin (tasted 2009 – 2010) This was one of the most impressive Chablis I have tasted, with citrus, white flowers, such a punchy youthful cut and acidity, Chablis minerality for days, and an elegant balance that will forever be etched in my mind as a paragon in this style of unoaked Chablis. Every taster with whom I shared this wine was floored by it. I’m dying to see what my last two bottles will be like in 2018.
2008 Alice et Olivier De Moor Chablis Bel Air et Clardy (December 2010) The night we tried this wine, it showed like a rock star and just squished a 2008 Piuze Vaucoupin alongside. This is indeed fireworks, and the minerality and honeyed silkiness and touch of yeasty brioche were still well within what I would wish to admit as genuine Chablis…perhaps a bit of a surprise for me, as the last time I’d tried it alongside the ‘08 Rosette at a Dressner tasting, I found it a bit overwrought and heavy with a sweet, yeasty brioche aroma, and I didn’t want to welcome it into my Venn diagram of “real” Chablis. It obviously just needed to integrate, as this showed splendidly, and even brought me to ponder why I wasn’t hoarding the wine. The 2012 vintage of this wine (July 2014) is awe-inspiring as well; a far more powerful iteration given the plumpness of the 2012 vintage, but a piercing acid and a tidepool of crushed limestone mineral to wash away the rich, honeyed midpalate attack. The wine is so bright and pure that it’s difficult to taste other wines afterwards … a bit like being forced to prep food with a blunt knife after using an incredibly sharp one.
2010 Laurent Tribut Chablis (March 2014): Here was my first Tribut bottle that was just on fire. Somehow this was still available at a Paris boutique in March 2014, and this bottle kept all of its promises vis à vis the godly 2010 vintage; screaming crushed shell saline mineral and an acid that was almost too intense, but just what I love and seek from the vintage. It felt like it could burn a hole in your lip it was so dry… but oh, so good!
There are so many other fabulous Chablis producers: Pico, Duplessis, Bessin … but I can’t list them all above. What was the first Chablis you tasted that shook you to the core? Let me know in the comments.
- http://www.patrickpiuze.com/Vendanges-2009-Grand-Cru-Valmur.html. [↩]
- Please note this interview dates back to Sept 2011. [↩]
- Structured, long-term aging wines. [↩]
- http://90pluswines.com/Wine/3132A353/egon-muller/.aspx ; compare with his other wines. Even Beerenauslese never hits 100 points. [↩]
- Lenoir M, Serre F, Cantin L, Ahmed SH (2007) Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. PLoS ONE 2(8): e698. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000698, visible here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0000698. [↩]
- This strange form of sadism helps the French educational system maintain high standards. While one may contend that this helps explain why France’s educational system consistently outranks the United States in standardized exams (for 2006 data published 2009 on Reading and Math, France is typically 18th and the USA 27th -33rd; the gap closes for science, with France leading at 20th vs the US 22nd.http://www.geographic.org/country_ranks/educational_score_performance_country_ranks_2009_oecd.html) one does have to wonder how much innovation is sapped from the French student or researcher given such a system where the carrot of perfection is forever dangling from a stick out of arm’s reach. A night and day contrast to the American university system of “student as luxury consumer”, where an astronomically higher annual tuition is far less subsidized by the federal government, and many professors are willing to encourage their students, push them along their educational path, and recognize work as meriting an A. And then, there is the American A+ ; the very plus which amends itself seems to undermine the previous “standard” perfection. [↩]
- Perhaps at the University of Nottingham, 100% can be awarded outside of the arts, but elsewhere, it is often not so: http://studentblogs.swan.ac.uk/monica-reardon/?p=76. [↩]
- Vincent Dauvissat is a staunch defender of oak usage for Chablis: “Oak is very important to Chablis. The synergy of air and wood adds character and also helps soften the wine. Without oak, Chablis is too hard, too austere.” http://www.rarewineco.com/producer/dauvissat-chablis/. [↩]