he importance of the work in the vineyards cannot be overstated. Guillaume Michel at Domaine Louis Michel in Chablis is a firm believer in the philosophy that if you do a good job in the vineyard 90 per cent of the work is done when the grapes arrive at the winery.
– I remember my grandfather saying that he didn’t have the time to vinify in barrels, because he had to much to do in the vineyards, smiles Guillaume Michel.
Domaine Louis Michel is often the first name that pops up when unoaked Chablis is mentioned. All made in tanks, this is the way it has been here since the 1969 vintage.
– It was my grandfather who took the decision, continues Guillaume Michel. It’s a matter of preserving the authenticity of each terroir, of working with very pure and clean wines. We like to work with the differences in terroir, so it is very important to have the same vinification for all the different terroirs. It is important to have an aromatically neutral vinification.
Up until recently it was believed that the winemaking history of the family began in 1850, but thanks to Guillaume’s mother and her genealogical pursuits that date has been moved back to, at least, 1640. Around that time a winemaker from nearby Tonnerre settled in Chablis, marking the beginning of the family’s ventures in this town.
– For my grandfather it was a big move when he stopped using barrels. But even when he was using oak the challenge for that generation was to find old barrels without any oaky taste. When they got the opportunity to vinify in tanks, for my grandfather it was a revolution that would make his life easier.
Since his arrival at the domaine in 2006 Guillaume Michel has continued what his grandfather started. He has developed the philosophy even further by separating the various sub-appellations when bottling the premier crus and by returning to the use of natural yeast.
– When I arrived here I said if we want to make terroir wines we’d better start using natural yeast again. Do it 100 per cent. Towards the end of the 1970’s my grandfather stopped using it and went for selected yeast instead. But natural yeast also means you have to be more careful in the vineyard. If you spray without thinking you will kill the yeast. For instance, we don’t do a late botrytis spray.
Technically the wines from Montmain, Butteaux and Forêts could be blended and sold as Chablis premier cru Montmains. This was done in the past, but not any more. Today all three receive their own bottlings.
– The Montmain area is the left bank, explains Guillaume Michel. Butteaux and Forêts are sub-appellations of Montmain, and we also have vineyards in Montmain itself. Since we want to focus on the character of each parcel we have decided to bottle them separately.
The wines from all three parts of Montmain, blended or not, may be labelled as Montmain. But if you want to put Butteaux or Forêts on the label it has to be 100 per cent from that particular sub-appellation.
– Butteaux is quite cool and rich in clay, says Guillaume Michel. It brings roundness to the wine, sometimes a bit of rusticity. You have Kimmeridgian marl in the clay that brings high minerality.
– Forêts is more on rocky soil, with the bedrock very close to the surface. This wine is much more concentrated. Forêts is a bit lower in terms of altitude. Often I say that Forêts is the most right bank of the left bank wines. To simplify, Butteaux is round and Forêts is very focused.
From a commercial point of view this philosophy has not made life easier at Domaine Louis Michel. Butteaux and Forêts are more difficult to sell than Montmain, which is one of the well-known premier crus of Chablis, and they require more explanation.
In similar manner Sechets was separated from the Vaillons cuvée in 2009.
– Sechets is in the next valley from Montmain, Guillaume Michel. It is part of Vaillons. The climate is hotter, often you get riper grapes there. You have stone fruit characteristics in the wines.
– The vines in Sechets are 40–45 years old. They are quite weak and produce tiny berries. Yields are low and concentration high. In 2012 for instance, we had half the allowed yield. We have less than one hectare and in a normal year we produce about 2500 bottles.
Domaine Louis Michel covers a total of 25 hectares. A very large part – 15 hectares – is the domaine’s premier crus. In addition to that there is two hectares of Petit Chablis vines, six hectares of village Chablis and two hectares of grand crus.
– Vaudesír is the biggest of our grand crus, says Guillaume Michel. It is always the one that is the most generous in its youth. Vaudesír is interesting because it is actually a valley. One side facing south, very hot, producing concentrated and powerful wines. The other is facing northwest. That’s where our vineyard is. In hot vintages it is easier to keep some freshness in the wine in this part of Vaudesír.
In Grenouilles Domaine Louis Michel has half a hectare at the top of the slope. This nine hectare grand cru is to a large part – 7.20 hectares – is owned by the cooperative La Chablisienne.
– Vaudesír and Grenouilles are quite similar in terms of soil. Vaudesír has a bit more of clay. Les Clos, our third grand cru, is very rocky. Les Clos is the typical Kimmeridgian soil of Chablis.
© 2014 Ola Bergman