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.