November in Burgundy is grey. The dense clouds are low, the temperature hovers slightly above freezing, and the humidity induces a kind of closed-in shiver that is not quite bone-rattling but creates a sensation of being fogged in and hunkered down. The weather and atmosphere permeates. October often presents an Indian Summer of warmth and sun, with the excitement of harvest and bubbly fermentations, but come Toussaints, the skies and fog descend and enclose, the temperature plummets, mists rise off the soil, and doors are shut as a more interior life begins. Soon the winter pruning will start, and the cold morning mist will mingle with the smoke of the burning sarments vine cuttings, producing a wonderfully memorable haze and distinctive smell that permeates the region with a quiet melancholy.
This is one of my favorite times to visit in Burgundy. Growers have time to chat between their fall tastings and salons, the new wine is developing in barrel or tank, the previous vintage is bottled or near complete in its elevage, and people begin the serious business of evaluating the quality of the new vintage that has recently arrived in their cellars. As a buyer or journalist one has the unique opportunity to taste and evaluate the previous year’s offerings that by now are (mostly) finished wines, as well as to weigh the new vintage to get first impressions of taste, depth, structure, and promise.
We arrived at the home of Louis and Anne Moreau in the early afternoon after landing at Charles de Gaulle, and while Anne was traveling, Louis welcomed us into the family compound in centre ville Chablis. We were soon on our way to Beine, home to the cellars of Louis Moreau’s two estates, Domaine de Bieville and Domaine Louis Moreau. Six generations of Moreaus have farmed the hills around Chablis since the Restoration in 1814, first settling as coopers, then beginning their acquisitions of vineyards with the purchase of the Clos des Hospices in the then soon-to-be classified Grand Cru Les Clos. Through the latter part of the 20th Century Jean-Jacques Moreau and his brother Guy expanded their holdings, and created the negociant business of J. Moreau. The family reorganized its estate and ownership in 1994, selling the negociant business to Boisset, and at the same time forming the Domaine Christian Moreau for Guy’s son, and then buying further vineyards and creating the estates of Domaine de Bieville and Domaine Louis Moreau for Jean-Jacques’ son (and Christian’s younger cousin) Louis.
Louis Moreau had just returned from 8 years in California, studying oenology and viticulture at Fresno State University, followed by work with Clos du Bois and the new vineyards and winery of Roederer Estate in Mendocino. He took over the family vineyards, and today works 120 hectares producing the appellations Bourgogne Blanc, Petit Chablis, Chablis 1er Cru, and Chablis Grand Cru. He and his cousin Christian share the monopole of the Clos des Hospices, just under one half a hectare (40.9 ares) of old vines Chardonnay that routinely ranks among the finest of Chablis bottlings.
Louis’ holdings are dominated by Petit Chablis and Chablis, complemented by over 20 hectares of Premiers Crus Vaulignot, Fourneaux, and Vaillons, and slightly more than 5 hectares of the Grands Crus Les Clos, Valmur, Vaudesir, and Blanchot. The vineyards are farmed organically, having begun sustainable agriculture (lutte raisonée) in the late 1990s. The Louis Moreau vignobles are centered around the village of Beine near the new winery cellars, entrepot, and boutique, with significant portions across the river in Fleys near the Grands Crus, and in the 1ers Crus hillsides surrounding Chablis itself.
As most of the vineyards now approach 50 years of age, vinification is increasingly in small parcels, allowing for each village terroir to show its own character, while giving flexibility for the final assemblage of the Petit Chablis and Chablis. All the wines are vinified in stainless steel, except for the Grands Crus, most of which are fermented and aged in older oak barrels of 228 and 500 liters. What is exceptional, and to my experience quite unique, is the aging regimen after the fermentations are complete. The Petit Chablis and Chablis are assembled and aged sur lie for a full year, while the Premiers Crus are aged on their fine lees for 18 months, and the Grands Crus rest in their old barrels for two years on the lees. This extended lees contact gives an added richness to the wines, while protecting them from oxidation and making them quite drinkable upon their late release. In spite of this extended lees aging, the wines see a minimal dose of sulfur, preserving a freshness and taut nervosité that adds to the fruit-mineral balance characteristic of classic Chablis.
I tasted the following wines on the afternoon of Wednesday, 16 November and morning of Thursday, 17 November:
2016 Petit Chablis (predominantly Beine vineyards). Just finished alcoholic fermentation, malolactic not yet begun. Leesy cloudy. Lemon-lime citrus with background of nectarine. Rich entry with quite a bit of depth and fat. Crisp, stony finish adds cut and length to the showy fruit.
2016 Chablis (55 year old vines from Fleys and 20+ year old vines from Beine). Alcoholic fermentation nearly complete. More linear, focused mineral nose with tension. Lively rich entry, almost peachy fruit. Complex finish with fruit-skin tones to add to the wet stones minerality. Long, complex, and spicy.
2016 1er Cru Vaulignot (40 year old vines). Still a bit of sugar to ferment, leesy notes. Sweet ripe apple and pear fruits, with a background of chalk and stone. Finishes long with increasing precision, a laser-like focus of minerality to complement the fruit depth.
2016 1er Cru Vaillons (mostly 70 year old vines planted just after WW2). Alcoholic fermentation about 2/3 finished. Almost like freshly-pressed grape juice with hints of grapeskin and seed tannins. Predominantly ripe pear and apple flavors showing superb ripeness, but impeccably balanced by argilo-calcaire minerality. Suave and elegant.
2016 Grand Cru Vaudesir (barrel fermented, from 4 year old 228 liter barrel). Nose a bit subdued, slightly reticent. Showing more powerful mineral structure than fruit. Dense and “unrepentant”, not much expression but an impression of weight and depth carried across its stony structure.
2016 Grand Cru Les Clos (middle slope, a parcel named “Felix”). Stony nose with a hint of saltiness. Rich and dense entry of apple and pear, soft and silky in the mid-palate. Finishes finely tuned, with a reassertive minerality to lend precision and structure to its balance.
The wines below were recently bottled:
2015 Domaine de Bieville Chablis. Light green-straw. Lovely ripe pear with a background of wet stones. Full ripe pear entry gives way to crisp freshness and mineral structure. Quaffably delicious.
2015 Domaine Louis Moreau Chablis (predominantly Fleys with about 25% Beine vineyards). Straw gold. More mineral green apple notes, with a hint of the saline. Full rich entry with much more complexity, apply with a lemon-lime acidity in the background. Good long finish, with salty minerality providing structure and depth.
2014 Domaine Louis Moreau 1er Cru Vaulignot. Light gold. Nose of wet stone minerality and green apple. Finely tuned crystaline intensity to its nectarine fruits and passion fruit acidity. Crisp and lean, nervous tension to finish.
2014 Domaine Louis Moreau 1er Cru Vaillons. Straw gold with green facets. Ripe, full, and richer in the mouth, and a background of chalky wet stones. Persistent bright fruits of apple and nectarine with ample acidity gives an intense finely tuned expression of focused minerality and structure. Great length.
2013 Domaine Louis Moreau Grand Cru Valmur. Straw-gold. Ripe nose of wildflower honey and a background of wet rocks. Wild and rather herbal, full, rich, and yet focused and precise. Long, intense, clean finish. Delicious.
2013 Domaine Louis Moreau Grand Cru Les Clos. Medium straw-gold. Chalky nectarine with notes of grape skin. Dense, rich and full entry, quite complex with elements of honey, peach, and nectarine mid-palate but sustained to a long, linear, persistent finish by mineral structure and depth. Precise. Focused. Excellent.
2008 Domaine Louis Moreau Chablis Grand Cru Clos des Hospices. Brilliant straw-gold. Wet stones mingling with forest floor, nectarine acidity. Lush, full entry with bright citrus-zest freshness and slightly saline background. An incredibly long finish turns towards truffled honey and candied orange peel. Still very young and developing complexity. Excellent from magnum tonight but has years to go.
Domaine Louis Moreau is a producer who continues to refine his trade. Organic vineyard practices, small parcel fermentations, extended lees aging, and patience before bottling makes this a domaine to follow closely. Unfortunately, nearly half the crop of the Petit Chablis and Chablis were lost to frost and hail in the 2016 vintage. But while the pressure for higher prices is strong, Louis Moreau’s depth of vineyard holdings and long aging process gives balance to a difficult result in the 2016 vintage.