On the otherwise brilliantly clear morning of April 21, 2017, a smoky gray haze hung over the famous Chablis Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy. The night before, temperatures dropped below freezing just like the two previous nights. Exhausted, but plucky vignerons had again valiantly manned bougie smudge pots burning through the cold night air attempting to hold devastating frosts at bay from the vines.
The moment was particularly pivotal since warm temperatures in early April accelerated the growing season with early bud breaks on the vines. Just one night of frost, let alone three consecutively, can cruelly destroy vulnerable buds and carry away prospects for an abundant vintage. Coming on the heels of the 2016 vintage where frost and hail wiped out 80% or more of many producers’ production, the early 2017 conditions have been particularly dispiriting.
Yet after sleepless nights and long days, vignerons like Samuel Billaud in Chablis and David Renaud in Irancy, a nearby appellation also vulnerable to frost, meet with foreign visitors and local customers. Why? The answer lies with passion for the terroir and resilient, independent personalities proudly committed to the winegrowing métier as a way of life.
In the center of the town of Chablis, an unshaven and mildly gaunt Samuel Billaud patiently provides a tour of his cuverie and cellar which he acquired in 2015. After harvest, sorting occurs before the operation’s Bucher bladder press applies gentle, steady pressure to newly harvested Chardonnay grapes. Gravity then takes the juice to débourbage decanting tanks and then into stainless steel fermentation tanks where natural indigenous yeasts do their work. Élevage occurs in a mix of new but mainly older demi-muid casks.
Previously Billaud made wine for his family’s venerable Domaine Billaud-Simon estate. But after philosophical differences with his uncle over keeping the domaine on an independent course, in 2009 Samuel created his own label. In 2015 he came full circle by purchasing 4 hectares (about 12 acres) of well placed Grand Cru, Premier Cru and village Chablis vineyards previously belonging to Domaine Billaud-Simon. Samuel also purchases additional Grand Cru fruit from other well regarded growers.
A tasting at the domaine of a wide selection of wines from 2015 (see notes below) shows a true master taking full advantage of the vineyards’ distinctive chalky Kimmeridgean marl soils. Billaud’s exhilarating white wines balance a complex mix of ripe fruit and smoky aromas, pure fruit flavors, striking freshness and minerality, and long, seductive finishes. Not surprising, since Billaud values proper balance in all his decisions.
“We practice lutte raisonée but we are effectively biologique organic,” he says. “But in a catastrophic year like 2016 some treatments were required to have any crop at all.”
Conversely the more agreeable 2015 vintage required practically no intervention while delivering outstanding fruit leading to terrific wines. Over time Billaud remains committed to achieving financially viability while maintaining the vital, lively soils necessary for healthy vines and vibrant, scintillating wines.
Deploying the bougie smudge pots to combat frost and maintain crop size provides a similar balancing act, according to Billaud.
“It is expensive and time consuming to light the bougies so we can afford only to protect about ten percent of the vines,” he notes. “We protect the Grand Crus and Premier Crus.”
Just southwest of Chablis in Irancy, David Renaud faces similar decisions. He tends Pinot Noir and César old vines in a little amphitheater valley rich in Kimmeridgean marl and brown limestone. Picturesque ranks of vines and bushy cherry trees cover the slopes of the hollow leading down to the village. The unusual situation captures warmth and sunshine to help ripen the grapes and at the same time tempers the effects of harsh winds and cold Spring temperatures that occur frequently. Renaud’s fifteen hectares include well placed sites in premier crus Paradis, Les Mazelots, Vaupessiot and Palotte. His grandfather planted the Mazelot vines in 1935.
As a fifth generation winegrower, Renaud works with a special appreciation for both history and his current challenges and opportunities.
“The monks of the Abbey Saint-Germain-d’Auxerre began working this terroir in the 9th century and recognized its unique qualities,” Renaud says while walking the vines above the village. “In fact, the name of the nearby town of Vincelottes on the Yonne River means wine cellars in Latin.”
During his youth, Renaud worked with his grandfather and father in the vineyards before studying oenology. After returning home full-time, he began a gradual conversion to biologique organic cultivation with the goal of optimizing quality and taking full advantage of Irancy’s unique terroir. It was an ambitious, labor intensive change entailing significant risk considering Irancy’s cold, often damp environment.
But the move improved the quality of the wines and burnished the Renaud family’s winemaking reputation both in France and internationally. The domaine eventually obtained organic certification after David took full responsibility for the domaine in 2005.
No chemical fertilizers, herbicides or fungicides touch the vines which are trained simple Guyot style. He limits yields to around 45hl/h. Renaud’s rocky vineyards teem with vitality and life in stark contrast to nearby lifeless, dried out vineyards.
In the cellar Renaud proudly displays photos of his great grandmother and other family members involved in harvest and winemaking. He credits the family with instilling the passion and discipline needed to persevere along the path to quality despite difficult vintages. Renaud and the domaine’s small team continue to live out the winegrowing métier with meticulous vineyard work throughout the year. The delicious wines in the glass testify to the success of their hard work.
Domaine Samuel Billaud:
2015 Domaine Samuel Billaud, Chablis: Made from two parcels of vines on the Serein River’s left bank and one on the right. Fermentation in stainless steel tanks. Plenty of ripe fruit in the note with smoky hints. Medium bodied, ripe fruit–grapefruit, orange. Fresh acidity, refreshing mineral notes, clean dry finish. Correct, well balanced, delicious Chablis. Highly Recommended.
2015 Domaine Samuel Billaud, Chablis “Montée de Tonnerre” 1er cru: Made from two sites within the well placed vineyard near the Grand Crus. Fermented 80% in stainless steel and 20% barrels. Green apple and smoky notes on the nose. Concentrated fruit with notes of salinity and firm acidity. Delicious, refreshing minerality framed an elegant, pure fruit finish. Very classy.
2015 Domaine Samuel Billaud, Chablis “Séchet” 1er cru: Made from well located vines averaging over 70 years old. Complex aromas of ripe fruit and flint. Pure. transparent fruit with full ripeness balanced with terrific energy and freshness. Aged on fine lees for a touch creaminess. Long, pure finish. Delicious, complex, refined.
2015 Domaine Samuel Billaud, Chablis Grand Cru “Bougros”: Made from high quality fruit purchased from an old friend and respected winegrowing colleague, this outstanding wine has spicy, saline aromas. Ripe fruit with pronounced minerality. A vibrant, delicious wine with great class and refinement.
2015 Domaine Samuel Billaud, Chablis Grand Cru “Vaudésir”: Fermented and aged in older, neutral barrels. A marvelous Grand Cru where tension between ripe fruit and uplifting freshness hold in perfect balance. The aromas and flavors reveal ripe citrus, white peach and brown spices. This beautiful wine’s depth, vibrant freshness and mineral structure will enable graceful aging and improvement in the bottle to 10 to 20 years.
Domaine David Renaud:
2015 Domaine David Renaud, Irancy: This “classique” cuvée comes from vines in a variety of microclimates. Harvest yields of the Pinot Noir stay around 45hl/h before destemming and fermentation in stainless steel tanks with indigenous yeasts. Aging in stainless steel as well. Bright, fruity cherry and earthy notes on the nose. Juicy, fresh cherry flavors with moderate depth and fine tannins. An all together engaging and frank that over delivers for the price. Highly Recommended.
2014 Domaine David Renaud, Irancy “Les Mazelots”: Manually harvested Pinot Grapes from a specific lieu dit with very old vines. Aging in 600 liter demi-muids for 16 months before light filtering and bottling. Spicy, black cherry aromas. Rich, dark cherry fruit with superb freshness and distinct minerality. Fine tannins frame a long, fruity and delicious finish.
2015 Domaine David Renaud, Irancy “Vaupessiot”: From 60 year old vines. Maninly PInot Noir with just a touch of César. Aging in 228-liter barrel and larger demi-muids. Fresh dark red fruit. Medium body. Pronounced freshness and firm tannins. Will requires a few years of bottle aging to knit completely. Very fine.
2012 Domaine David Renaud, Irancy “Palotte”: Made from a fifty-fifty blend of Pinot Noir and César, a grape grown only in Irancy. Fermented with indigenous yeasts. Released after longer aging in wood and bottle aging. Dark red fruits on the nose with smoky notes. Rich, full bodied pure dark red fruit flavors. Fresh minerality balances firm tannins.
2012 Domaine David Renaud, Grume de César, Coteaux Bourguignonne: Made from 100% old-vine César. Released after extended élevage in barrel and in bottle. Red and balck fruit aromas on the nose, Fresh, fruity flavors. Full bodied and fresh. Firm tannins. Needs additional bottle aging to become fully balanced and delicious.
N.V. David Renaud,Crémant de Bourgogne: Made by the local cooperative with Renaud’s Pinot Noir grapes. A blanc de noirs produced with Méthode Champenois and secondary fermentation in bottle for 16 months. Lovely frothy bubbles, fresh fruity aromas with light yeast notes, Delicious, frothy flavors and a clean, dry finish. Outstanding.
(Opening Photo credit of smoky haze over Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos: (c) 2017 rodthompson photography)