“Au Vieux Chateau”
Daniel-Etienne Defaix’s ancestors were already cultivating the vine in the sixteenth century at the Château de Faix near Avallon, not far from Chablis. Etienne-Paul Defaix installed the family as vignerons in Chablis during the eighteenth century. Today, Daniel-Etienne Defaix continues this long family tradition as he maintains a domaine of 26 hectares planted exclusively to Chardonnay and primarily in a series of vineyard sites classified 1er Cru.
The vineyards are fertilized, when necessary, with a natural compost of cow and horse manure. Treatments in the vineyards are severely limited and never done within two months of the harvest. All the wines at this estate are vinified in a similar fashion. At harvest a strict triage is done to eliminate unripe and unhealthy grapes; the grapes are pressed slowly for three hours, separated parcel by parcel, with only the finest juice maintained for bottling at the domaine. The wines normally ferment for three weeks (sometimes as long as a month) using only indigenous yeasts and at a temperature of 18 degrees Celsius; the malolactic fermentation is always completed but never artificially rushed (on rare occasion, the ML has taken two years to finish). The wines rest on the fine lees in stainless steel cuves for at least 18 months (and sometimes longer for the 1er and Grand Crus) undergoing a type of batonnage without exposure to air and without the addition of sulfur (utilizing the CO2 created by the malolactic fermentation to conserve the freshness of the wines). The wines are generally not fined nor are they filtered prior to bottling and the wines are never exposed to a “passage a froid” to precipitate the tartrates … the elevage of two winters in a cold cellar does that work naturally. The Domaine Daniel-Etienne Defaix releases its wine to the market only after obtaining several years of bottle age at which point the market has the pleasure of having access to wines that more fully express the remarkable and unique terroir that is Chablis. Note also that the high quality corks used at the domaine are purchased two to three years in advance to secure the finest quality and to ensure the stability of the cork.
|Chablis Vieilles Vignes: This cuvée is sourced from vines the age of which is between 45 and 70 years. A wine of exceptional concentration for a village level appellation, this wine is always a true expression of the kimmeridgian soils that make Chablis so distinctive. Aged for thirty months before release, Defaix’s old vines Chablis is richly dense with a classic “pierre a fusil” bouquet and long mineral-infused finish.|
|Chablis 1er Cru Vaillons: Grapes are planted in a steeply sloped (28 degrees) hill in the original parcel of “Vaillon”» with a southeast exposure. The soil here is particularly influenced by iron deposits which yields a wine of fruit and spice and great density. The Vaillons is influenced by notes of “soubois” and, although lacking the elegance of its two companion 1er Crus, it is often the most generous wine of the domaine. The average age of the vines is 45 years.|
|Chablis 1er Cru Les Lys: Again, the vines here are from southeast facing slopes in a section of Les Lys known as “Clos du Roi” (effectively a monopole of the Defaix estate). The Defaix domaine owns 3.5 hectares of this 5 hectare 1er Cru. The resulting wine is long-lived and displays remarkable finesse and length, a classic Chablis. One often encounters the flavors and aromas of bergamot, acacia and honey in the Les Lys alongside a compelling freshness, a wine of excellent tension. The average age of the vines is 45 years. Daniel Defaix, the enthusiastic gourmand that he is, enjoys this wine particularly with scallops, lobster, line-caught bar and turbot.|
|Chablis 1er Cru Cote de Lechet: The Defaix vineyard holdings in the Cote de Lechet are placed at a 38 degree slope facing southeast. The majority of the Defaix vines are situated within the Clos des Moines parcel. In all, Defaix owns 3.5 hectares of this special 1er Cru which gives the most emphatic and pure expression of the minerality that is the mark of this unique and compelling appellation. As with the other 1er Crus, the vines are 45 years of age on average which results in consistently smaller yields and greater concentration. Perhaps the most complex of the trio of 1er Crus, Defaix promotes the Cote de Lechet as a fine accompaniment to all the white meats, citing specifically rack of veal, farm-raised chicken (best when immersed in crème and married to morels!) or how about risotto with black or white truffles.|
“The Last of the Mohicans” The Long-Aged Chablis of Daniel-Etienne Defaix
Chardonnay grows everywhere, but Chablis is Chablis, and there is nothing else on earth remotely like it. Its extreme northern latitude; its distinctive soils, rife with the fossilized shells of an ancient sea whose bed transformed into Chablis’ best vineyards; Chablis at its best is a triumph of terroir over grape variety. Regrettably, much Chablis produced today underplays the region’s potential. Many offer an ultra-crisp, clean, early-bottled style not a far cry from straightforward Loire Sauvignon Blanc; others employ obvious oak, perhaps to compensate for Chablis’ innate leanness relative to its (marginally) more sun-blessed cousins in the Côte d’Or. Yet both of these styles mask the chiseled, marine soul of true Chablis. Furthermore, like all great white Burgundy, Chablis reveals its true expressive power only over time, and much Chablis today—even from the greatest of crus—is pushed through fermentation, crammed into bottle, rushed into the market, and consumed before it has even begun to blossom.
We are fortunate to work with a notable and dramatic exception to this phenomenon: the ever-exuberant Daniel-Etienne Defaix, whose family has been plying their trade in and around Chablis since the seventeenth century. Daniel-Etienne—or “Danny,” as he is affectionately referred to—calls himself “Le Dernier des Mohicans” (“The Last of the Mohicans”); in generations past, long aging in Chablis was more the rule than the exception, but today Danny is virtually alone in that practice. The Defaix family—one of the oldest winegrowing families in the region—owns thirty hectares of vines, the vast majority of which are in premier and grand cru vineyards, but Danny designates only his best lots each vintage as cru-level, declassifying the remainder as villages. Amazingly, we have just received Defaix’s premier crus from the outstanding 2005 vintage—wines which were bottled in September of 2016, a full eleven years after harvest, and left to rest in bottle for nearly two years before entering the market.
Long aging, however, is not the only way in which Defaix distinguishes himself from the pack. He relies exclusively on naturally occurring yeasts—a rare practice in Chablis—and his fermentations routinely last between three and six weeks (inoculating gets it done in four-to-six days), with malolactic fermentation sometimes requiring two years to finish in his frigid cellar. He favors extraordinarily long lees contact, but employs batonnage only for the first two years, and then seldomly; this extended period of yeast autolysis guards a wine’s color and promotes a generosity of texture, according to Danny. Furthermore, it takes a significant amount of time for the lees to settle, and Defaix relies on patience rather than fining or filtration—two practices which are de rigueur in the region.
Young Chablis can be delicious and useful at the table, certainly; but it is only with age that it can attain sublimity. What a rare treat it is, then, to have access to such powerful expressions of a singular terroir released at such a prime point in their development—and at prices well below much villages-level Chassagne-Montrachet or Meursault. We are thrilled to share Defaix’s monumental 2005s with you this season.
2005 Chablis 1er Cru “Vaillon”
The astute reader will notice the singular “Vaillon” instead of the more commonplace “Les Vaillons” on Defaix’s label. The boundaries of this vineyard were extended in 1976 to take advantage of its popularity in the market, but the Defaix family owns a prime parcel of old vines (45 years of age) in the original cru—the Vaillon. The steep 28-degree gradient and iron-rich soils of this southeast-facing site render a wine of spicy richness, and Danny’s 2005 is a real powerhouse. Showing both remarkable concentration and excellent acidity, this wine has a luscious quality that contrasts gently with the more chiseled crus below. At thirteen years old, it still feels downright youthful, such is its density of fruit and commandingly long finish. It’s an authoritative, hugely impressive wine that should continue to blossom for many years to come.
2005 Chablis 1er Cru “Côte de Lechet”
In fascinating contrast to “Vaillon” above, Defaix’s “Côte de Lechet” is a master class in mineral precision. This remarkably steep site (a 45% gradient) with very poor soil produces a wine that Danny describes as embodying “the real, true mineral expression of Chablis,” and even the generosity of the 2005 vintage cannot dull the blade of this limestone scythe. Freshly blasted chalk dominates the nose, with notes of candied lemon, acacia honey, and fresh herbs lurking underneath; still, this is a wine of minerality first and foremost. The palate is strikingly broad, but with a strictness and linearity that carries the intense limestone of the nose all the way through the lengthy finish like an ice luge. This is a wine of immense tension and mouth-watering salinity that, like the “Vaillon” above, also comes across as youthful, but offers a great deal of secondary pleasure at the moment as well. The family owns a 3.5-hectare parcel of 45-year-old vines in this distinctive cru, most of which are planted within a parcel known as the “Clos des Moines.”
2005 Chablis 1er Cru “Les Lys”
“Les Lys” is a tiny five-hectare cru of which Defaix owns three and a half hectares, all in a southeast-facing section called “Clos du Roi”—effectively a monopole of the domaine. Its poor soils of pure Kimmeridgian limestone produce perhaps the most complete and distinctive wine in Defaix’s cellar. Combining some of the power of the “Vaillon” with the chalky intensity of the “Côte de Lechet,” the 2005 “Les Lys” ratchets up the aromatic complexity of the previous two, yet comes across as startlingly pure and harmonious. The almost viscous palate displays the richness of the vintage, yet with shimmering tension and muscular strictness rather than opulence. There’s an enormous sensation of dry extract on the chiseled finish, where acidity and minerality interlock like two sides of a zipper. Once again, one gets the impression that this wine is just entering its early maturity, and if the 1971 Danny blind-tasted us on during our last visit is any indication, this 2005 will reveal mind-bending complexity and as-yet-unplumbed layers over the next several decades.