A Vintage of Smudge Pots and Hail in Chablis

Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash. ~Leonard Cohen

More and more, as time passes, I've begun to notice subtle changes in my palate. Progressing towards elegance over hedonism, and balance over flashy. If you're like any one of the average vino-sapiens reading this, raised up on California wine, Chablis can be a shock to the system, leaving most folks befuddled by a word not often found in New World wines, restraint. But with that said, I’d like to encourage each of you to give the old wine-world a good swirl, and put something new and fresh in your collective glasses and lean into it. I've had the privilege to attend many Chablis tastings over the years and quite a few of late, and I'm quite exuberant about the outstanding quality, the soul and substance of what I'm tasting and experiencing with and without food. 

Many a wine enthusiast has the bucolic idea of winemaking in their heads, elegantly manicured vineyards, picturesque tasting rooms, sheep gently grazing nearby, and people sitting on the veranda quaffing a glass wine on an idyllic sunny day. While that is sometimes part of the equation, that is an idea, which is mostly high-end production values of an expert marketing team, selling you the concept of wine nirvana. But often what happens behind the scenes before the wines are placed in the bottle you see on the shelf or on your favorite flash sales site, is the harsh realities of life are often part of the process.

While there are many things vintners today can control, but the weather is not one of them. Such is the case for the Chablis vintage of 2016, especially so for the vineyards of Louis Michel & Fils. A late spring frost (late-April) descended on their vineyards unexpectedly and panic set in.

This situation, you see is one of the worst times for a vineyard to be hit with a deep freeze, as it has the likely potential to kill recently opened and or swelling buds, the young shoots, and even freezing the sap in the vines themselves. Some of the worst affected parcels were the lower Chablis vineyards, but the frosts also hit the lower Montmains where the vines which survived produced the wine in this bottle, which I'm reviewing here.

What to do, as is their practice, their viticulture teams set out a vast array of paraffin smudge pots to counteract the effects of this late frost to possibly prevent complete devastation. This turned out to be one of the very worst years of frost damage in many moons, dating back to the early nineties. Many of the vineyards were extraordinarily damaged and produced no fruit that and many of the vines had to be replaced entirely. On top of that disaster, later in the year, in May, after the slow start of the growing season, a harsh May hailstorm struck the vineyards with great force, destroying many of the vines. As a result, as much as (50) fifty percent of the potential yield was a loss (gulp). How is that for a kick in the pants? Imagine that, none of them needed a safe place or a puppy either. In the above picture, it looks like a war zone, more than it does the bucolic scene many marketing teams paint for the garden variety vino-sapiens merely waiting to get their drunk on.

It wasn't until mid-June when the sun began to shine and got things going in the vineyard. Good thing vintners and the vines themselves are very resilient in the face of stiffening adversity. What the frost and hail didn't destroy, started to grow, and produce excellent fruit as a warm, dry growing season extended into the late fall, where the picking of the fruit ended in mid-October. The fruit which did come into the crush-pads was good to excellent. This is the scene in Chablis, it's not a wine growing region for the weak of heart, it will break you if you're not prepared.

But from what looked like the end, if you succeed, despite encountering many obstacles, which you've bravely overcome, then as Hemingway wrote, you'll be stronger in those broken places. Great advice from one of the great novelist of the twentieth century. Living in the 21st century it's easy to forget, bringing grapes to harvest, crushing'm, fermenting'm, making'm wine, the struggle is real. Out of the ashes, with their lives burning well, comes the poetry of the vineyard shining brightly in the bottle.

Now, let's get the tasting note. I wanted to say, "this is one of the better bottles of Chablis I've tasted" but if I were honest, and you can always count on me to be quite blunt, this wine, along with so many bottles of Chablis I've had the good fortune to taste over the years are quite stunning, to say the least. Just excellent, well-made wines, of real purity and substance. You simply cannot mistake these wines for something else, no domestic wines have the same verve of freshness, as pure Chablis does. I've consumed more than a dozen bottles, from various producers, over the last six months, and each time I look at my wife and say, "damn this is some fantastic juice!" She agrees heartily, giving her customary 'good' which means its freaking epic! She has a vastly different grading scale than I do and it's far more difficult to coax praise from her lips.

The terroir, all left bank Kimmeridgian soils and hard limestone in clay, gentle slopes that are exposed to the winds, featuring a South-east exposure. If you didn't know and since I've not mentioned it yet, we're talking about one hundred percent Chardonnay, all stainless steel (no barrels) fermented (12-16 months) and fermented using naturally (indigenous) occurring millennia evolved yeast. In other words, not the commercial yeast most winemakers use to give their wines predictable flavors and aromas for consistency of the product.

Louis Michel & FilsChablis Premier Cru 'Montmain': Nah, folks, this wine is the real deal, you're tasting what the vineyard is laying down here, and the price of entry is ridiculously low as well, you're looking at $25 to $40 depending on where you shop. Okay, so here comes the tasting note: On the nose, a gorgeous wet stone freshly plucked from a running mountain stream, untouched by human hands, a hint of honeysuckle blooms, and crisp apple scents perfume the air. On the palate, this wine is fresh and fat.

The mouthfeel is silky and sexy, counterbalanced by the crisp acidity, which is restrained — boatloads of the usual suspects, green apples and lemon curd round and creamy. The finish is long, lush and lasting. My score for this wine: 94 points. It could easily cellar for another 10 years. Okay, folks, that's all I have for today, have a great week, remember compromise is for relationships, not wine, sip long and prosper cheers!

Full Disclosure: Reviewed wines are (typically) from media samples provided solely (not for sale) for the review process.

All original content: Including text and photographs remain the copyright of the author, (W.R. Eyer) except where otherwise noted or absent the watermark.


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