The first experience of Domaine Laroche in Chablis with winemaker Gregory Viennois was not to taste the wine – but to jump in the car.
Drive north of the small and pretty (and clearly moneyed) town of Chablis – and up a rough slope through rows and rows of vines – and you reach the site of the region’s seven Grand Cru vineyards, though there is an unofficial eighth, a 1.35-hectare monopole called La Moutonne.
Viennois is an engaged and engaging attribute to the domaine, where he has worked for four years. Originally from the Loire, he describes soil as “cous cous like” and explains how, as harvest time approaches, he tastes the berries two or three times a day. “You have to anticipate [the exactly right moment to pick].”
Laroche is a significant player here, with stylish headquarters bang in the centre of town, a boutique hotel with the most gorgeous vistas, and one of the town’s top restaurants. While they buy grapes from 200 hectares of vineyard, they have a significant holding of their own: 90 hectares, including parts of three of the Grand Crus: Bougros, Blanchot and Les Clos.
From the mighty Les Clos, widely considered to be one of the top two vineyards (along with Vaudesir), there’s a stunning, sweeping view over the Premier Cru vineyards, of which there are 17. This is what could be described as the epicentre of the Kimmeridgian ridge, a section of land consisting of mineral-rich clay and marine fossils that bring a distinctive lime component to the wines.
The wines from here are often said to be the most pure expression of chardonnay (essentially the only white grape grown in this region) on the planet. At the top of the slope there’s a “lesser” soil, known as Portlandian, less rich in clay and fossils and so producing more fruity, less mineral wines. This is where Petit Chablis is produced.
It is notable in this region that no vines are grown on the flat, because there are no interesting soils and too much water. This land is given over to crops such as beans and corn.
Chablis, while technically part of Burgundy, is actually closer to the southern tip of Champagne and Sancerre than to Beaune, the heart of Burgundy. The weather is very continental, which translates as vastly differing temperatures between night and day, and a long and late ripening period which conserves acidity and freshness. Rainfall is relatively low at 650-700 millimetres a year.
Viennois explains that in a particularly good year (2014 falling into that bracket, at least at the time of going to press), no chemicals have been used. Laroche is not certified organic but certainly practises organic methods wherever possible. They grow barley among the vines to aerate soil against machine compaction, and while they never use herbicide or insecticide, they do sometimes need to fight mildew.
It is easy to talk of chablis being “mineral” but at the Grand and Premier Cru levels one discovers far more complexity than that. Ninety-five per cent of yeasts used at Laroche are natural, which means “natural” aromas and flavours can sing through. While aromas and flavours are mostly “green”: green citrus, green plum and gooseberry (Vau de Vey), green olive oil and artichoke (Domaine Vaillons), some of the wines can be quite rich with orchard fruits (Domaine Lechet).
While some of the wines are linear with a striking salinity (“rock water” is how Viennois puts it), those aged in big old barrels can be quite delicate and creamy. The Laroche Fourchaumes (the Premier Cru usually considered to produce the richest wines of the slope) has the power and muscle of a red wine, iron-like and producing a sensation like astringency. Similarly, the Laroche Les Clos has the (good) bitterness of a red wine.
When you have started drinking Grand Cru Chablis, it is difficult to go back to even Premier Cru. Compared with elsewhere in Burgundy, prices are still competitive, and Premier Cru represent some of the best-value quality wines around. They are reasonably approachable when young.
But when you move from Premier Cru to Grand Cru, there’s quite a leap in personality, though they do require cellaring. They even smell expensive.
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