Dauvissat Chablis Les Clos: 1983-2015


Here’s a riddle: Who doesn’t travel much but is virtually never at home? One obvious answer would be Vincent Dauvissat, who is at his most content working in his vineyards and letting the world come to his cellar. For nearly 20 years, I routinely scheduled my annual early-June visit to Dauvissat at 6:00 in the evening, at his request, and if I happened to arrive early, it was a good bet that Dauvissat would not be there yet. Sure enough, he would soon pull into his driveway, back from a full afternoon in the vines, and after quickly washing his hands, changing his clothes and grabbing a jacket he would lead me down the steep flight of slick stone steps into his cellar of delights.

Like his cousins the Raveneaus around the corner in the village of Chablis, Dauvissat is a classic traditionalist who’s happy to let his wines speak for themselves. And like the Raveneaus’ wines, Dauvissat’s wines are utterly essential items on the wine lists of France’s three-star restaurants, as in many, many other restaurants around the wine-drinking world, so finding more than the odd bottle or three in the retail marketplace can be a challenge.

Dauvissat's mid-slope holdings on deep marl soil

Not To Belabor the Obvious but . . .

You may note that my scores in this article, on average, are a bit higher for Dauvissat’s Les Clos than for the vintages of Raveneau’s Montée de Tonnerre that were included in my vertical tasting published on Vinous in August. (I tasted both sets of wines on the same day this past spring at the estates.) That’s entirely as it should be, as we’re comparing the top grand cru of Chablis to its finest premier cru. I would love someday to taste a dozen or more vintages of Les Clos from Dauvissat and Raveneau côte à côte. The next best face-off would be Raveneau’s splendid Montée de Tonnerre alongside Dauvissat’s top premier cru, his remarkably rich and nuanced La Forest. Both of these premier cru bottlings could be described as their respective estates’ flagship wines in terms of the size of their vineyard holdings and annual production. 

For old-timers, choosing between Dauvissat and Raveneau is analogous to the eternal Mantle-or-Mays debate (I’m dating myself) in which neither side is wrong. In any given year, either or both estates can make stunningly complex and ageworthy Chablis that transcends Chardonnay, and in most vintages they both do. Both have been family-run domaines since they were established, and both own a number of superb sites. (Dauvissat’s other grand cru, Les Preuses, is, according to my notes, the finest example made from this vineyard.) And at both estates, the next generation is in the process of taking up the reins.

From cellar to kitchen - a Dauvissat Chablis Les Clos vertical back to 1983

Four Generations of Dauvissats

Vincent Dauvissat’s grandfather Robert was a vigneron in Chablis during the 1920s and he bottled his own wine for the first time from vintage 1931 (he was one of the first domain bottlers in Chablis). Robert began with just 70 ares of La Forest and 30 ares of Clos—in other words, just a single hectare of vines.

But the estate’s lofty reputation was established by Robert’s son René, who in 1950 purchased the house in the village where Vincent still lives today, largely because it came with spacious cellars dating back to the 17th century. René and his wife Madeleine were responsible for expanding the family domaine through the purchase and rental of numerous parcels of vines in Les Clos, Les Preuses, La Forest (more commonly spelled Forêts or Les Forêts) and Séchet, as well as some then-marginal village land. Vincent, for his part, is the owner of vines in Vaillons and an additional parcel of Clos. Today the domain consists of 12.7 hectares of vines.

Vincent effectively started vinifying in 1976, at the age of 19, but had worked with his father for several years before that, during his school vacations. He joined the domaine officially full-time in 1979 and his father retired in 1989 (René is still with us, at the age of 92). In recent years, Vincent has been joined at the family estate by his son Ghislain and daughter Etiennette, both of whom have been officially full-time since 2013. Ghislain spends the bulk of his time in the vines, while Etiennette largely takes care of administration and the preparation of orders. “But they can be multi-functional,” says Vincent, and the three of them vinify together, he told me, “sur la même longueur d'onde” (i.e., on the same wavelength).

Vincent, incidentally, will technically retire at the beginning of 2020, but it’s hard to imagine that he will be any less present in the vineyards and winery for the foreseeable future. So let’s not panic!

Dauvissat's vines on chalk-rich marl near the top of Les Clos

Dauvissat’s Holdings in Les Clos

Les Clos is both the largest and the best grand cru of Chablis. As its name suggests, it was once surrounded by a wall but, as anyone who has personally viewed this steep, well-drained hillside knows, it’s no longer a clos. Its roughly 28 hectares are today shared by 28 owners, but, including négociant bottlings, there are two or three times as many examples of Les Clos on the market every year. This essentially south/southwest-facing hillside, the easternmost except for Les Blanchots of the seven grand cru us of Chablis (eight, if you include Albert Bichot’s six-hectare monopole La Moutonne, which straddles Vaudésir and Les Preuses), is perhaps the quintessential manifestation of Kimmeridgian marl: rocky soil with high levels of limestone and clay. It’s also a grand cru that can be compared with the greatest white wine sites on the Côte de Beaune, though happily it’s normally far less expensive, at least at the cellar door. Still, prices for Les Clos from the best growers have risen sharply in recent years.

Dauvissat’s hectare of vines in Les Clos is spread across multiple parcels in the middle and upper reaches of the slope. The average age of vines is about 55 years, including many that Dauvissat describes as “tiring,” and there are no young vines at the moment, although Dauvissat recently pulled up a parcel for replanting in another five or six years. Dauvissat has some vines on white marl soil (essentially calcareous clay-based soil) high up on the hillside and others on deeper marl in the middle of the slope. Another parcel, which Dauvissat describes as easier to work, features darker soil with a higher clay content and some underground moisture. It’s very humid in the winter in this parcel, he noted, and thus it’s more vulnerable to spring frost, but the coldest nights can also affect vines higher up the hill, as they have more than once in recent years. Dauvissat does only a single vinification of his Clos, though, as there’s never more than a day or two between picks, and the vines usually ripen equally.

The soil in Les Clos yields wines with density and fullness, but the marl also brings powerful minerality and finishing firmness to the wines, especially where the soil features a high calcium carbonate content in the clay. Through the years, successful bottlings of Clos have struck me as combining the best traits of Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne. That’s high praise, I know, but hardly an exaggeration—at least when it comes to wines from the finest estates. In the context of other Chablis crus, Les Clos delivers an unmatched combination of aromatic complexity, power, depth, mineral cut and longevity and is particularly slow to reveal its full personality.

Classic Clos, says Dauvissat, typically displays a sweet spice character, including notes of vanilla, cinnamon and juniper. With age, he adds, almond often comes out, and the wines can take on a frangipane aspect. My own experience is that Dauvissat’s Clos can show remarkably similar aromatics from vintage to vintage, particularly as the wines approach maturity—a function of the strength of the terroir.

Nothing but oak in Vincent Dauvissat's cellar

Hands On in the Vineyards and Hands Off in the Cellar 

One key to the consistently high quality of Dauvissat’s wines is his relatively low yields by Chablis standards—usually no higher than 50 hectoliters per hectare for his grand crus and a bit more for his premier crus, village wine and Petit Chablis. He accomplishes this almost entirely via strict pruning and ébourgeonnage following the bud break. In fact, Dauvissat told me that he’s not specifically seeking to limit yields in Les Clos or his other parcels. Rather, he’s attempting to preserve “a certain equilibrium so that the plants function well and are able to bring their grapes to maturity.” And he emphasized that his yields have generally been lower over the last ten years, not due to any particular steps he has taken in the vines but to climatic conditions.

Dauvissat also told me that he’s looking for ripeness more than for acid structure, and that he considers it important to keep the grape clusters aerated. He makes very sparing use of vineyard treatments and has farmed his vines biodynamically since 2002 but has never sought official certification. Dauvissat, who picks entirely by hand, emphasizes that there is no rule for when he brings in his Clos. “We begin the harvest when it seems good to us, according to our personal criteria for each parcel,” he explained. “There’s no rule as to order. Sometimes we start our harvest with Les Clos, but there are also years when we finish with it.”

Dauvissat presses whole clusters and carries out a débourbage lasting about 12 hours. The fermentation takes place mostly in steel vats, plus a small quantity of new barrels. In years when the grape skins are healthy, the natural yeasts start fermenting fairly quickly and the primary fermentation typically lasts between 15 and 21 days. But Dauvissat does not hesitate to add neutral yeasts to get the fermentations started in years in which the grape skins have been damaged by rot, pointing out that “the force of the terroir is stronger than that of the yeasts.” 

The wines then go into barrels for anywhere from 8 to 18 months, with the Clos getting about 20% new oak and most of his other wines a bit less. But he also makes extensive use of older barrels—the oldest barrique in his cellar is almost 40 years of age! I can’t say for sure as I don’t live in the cellars, but it appears that Dauvissat frequently uses a smidge more new oak than Raveneau; for sure he considers oak aging a critical tool for allowing his wines to breathe during their élevage. He believes that without the softening effect of oak, Chablis would be too austere. But there are no rules here: Dauvissat used a bit less new oak in 2015 and purchased no new barrels at all in 2016 or 2017 because of very low crop levels owing to damaging spring frost (and to spring hailstorms in ’16).

Dauvissat does not chill or filter his wines to eliminate tartrate crystals; rather, he simply relies on the chilly ambient winter temperature in his barrel cellars to do this. The malolactic fermentations typically take place between January and March, but may be later or even a bit earlier. Like his father before him, Dauvissat does not believe in lees stirring. Bottling takes place with relative low levels of sulfur: normally 20 parts per million free and 65 to 70 total.

Down the stone steps, riches await in the cellar

Some Brief Comments on the Tasting 

Our vertical tasting began with the stunning 2015 Les Clos, a wine that Dauvissat picked right after the hailstorm that struck Chablis just before the anticipated start to the harvest; my impression is that the 2015 will probably need another decade in bottle to approach its peak. In fact, the first wine we tasted that struck me as ready to enjoy now (but still capable of many years of evolution in bottle) was the 2009. All the wines we sampled were in fine form, although the rich, complex 1999 was a bit more evolved than I would have anticipated (still, it’s now 20 years old!) and there was some bottle variation with the 2004. Dauvissat singled out 2014, 2010, 2003 and 2002 as vintages that should be particularly long agers. And then of course there was the 1996, which he described as “the monsterand a bit of a special case.” I would also predict that the 2012 and 2008 bottlings of Les Clos will be long-lived.

Yes, the even-numbered years stood out in our tasting, but equally impressive was how nervy the riper, larger-scaled vintages could be. Some Chablis purists have expressed the opinion that grand crus, especially from the warmer vintages, can be less steely and “typical” than premier crus, but even the higher-alcohol vintages in our tasting displayed definition and vibrancy. And in any case these wines have their powerful minerality to fall back on for structure and longevity. Perhaps the closest analog on the Côte de Beaune might be Meursault Perrières, or even Chevalier-Montrachet, both of which in the warmest years can be supple and deceptively approachable early on due to lowish acidity but have their sturdy mineral underpinning to fall back on. And of course the Dauvissat wines enjoy the natural advantage of higher acidity even in the ripest years, owing to the more northerly climate of Chablis.

Thanks in part to global warming—as well as to Dauvissat’s stated objective of harvesting for ripeness more than for acidity—most of these wines were seriously ripe and tactile, even if they were tightly coiled in their youth. In at least a few vintages, Dauvissat picked his Clos just short of surmaturité or even noble rot, and the combination of fully ripe fruit and the controlled oxidation of barrel aging can give them considerable early palate presence. But even if they’re not painfully austere in the early going, they maintain outstanding grip and stony dryness 10 or 15 years later, once they’ve had a chance to absorb some of their baby fat.

For his part, Dauvissat believes that, at least until now, the powerful terroir character of the better Chablis sites has been strong enough to withstand global warming. “Of course we see that the vines tend to flower earlier, and then we have to pick the grapes earlier—a good ten days earlier than we did in the 1980s,” he explained. “But the Chablis terroir is so strong that I have no concerns about the quality or typicity of our wines.”

See the Wines from Youngest to Oldest

Read more about Stephen Tanzer's 2019 Burgundy verticals

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