Jean Collet started Domaine Collet in 1954, the heir of a Chablis grape-growing family since 1792. After the days of Jean, came Gilles, one of the most animated personalities in Chablis. He’s generous, lively and usually the life of the party, always keeping his personality from being as serious as the wines he crafted over numerous decades with his father, and even more so now with his son, Romain. In 2008, Gilles was struck with nerve damage on one side of his body and had to prematurely pass the baton. After only a few years of Romain putting new ideas to the test in the cellar and vineyard—natural yeast fermentations, organic and biodynamic farming—Gilles stepped aside completely and Romain began to make notable leaps from vintage to vintage.
At the young age of twenty-one, the eccentric and fun-loving Romain knocked it out of the park with his first vintage, 2008, which was the first vintage we imported. The foundation established by centuries of viticultural knowhow passed down through generations and Romain’s relentless curiosity and desire for improvement further set the stage for decades of inspired drinking from this domaine gifted with an average vine age of about fifty years. Romain pointed out that, “I am the luckiest generation. To have old vineyards like these to work with in my lifetime is something special, and it’s thanks to my grandfather, Jean.”
Organic viticulture is now part of the domaine’s practice under Romain’s direction—and with full support from the family. The two Grand Crus Valmur and Les Clos, the 1er Crus Montée de Tonnerre, Vaillons, Butteaux and Forêts have all been converted to organic farming, as well as a good portion of the Chablis AOC wine, where the organic culture tests were first done. The rest are sustainable, lutte raisonée, farming with the intention of eventually having all the sites fully converted.
The style at Collet is directed by the deep history with their vineyard parcels, how they grow, how they’re different from each other and ultimately how they respond in the cellar through their fermentations, and more importantly their cellar aging. Each wine has something to say, and the Collets have taken the route of customizing their approach to exemplify the natural talents of their many different climats.
For example, their parcel bottled as “Montmains,” is almost purely Kimmeridgian limestone marl rock and topsoil with next to no clay content. It is made exclusively in stainless steel to keep its edges intact and support its dynamic mineral and textural pressure. By contrast, across the Serein River on the right bank where there is more clay and deeper soils on the same limestone marl bedrock, Montée de Tonnerre is aged exclusively in oak barrels (younger, but none new), a common thread in the French wine world for wines grown in more clay-rich soils. Many vignerons believe that big clay soils need a little sculpting and are better served in oak to round out and polish them rather than in inert vessels, like stainless steel, which can’t introduce oxygen to the aging wine. I applaud this choice, since I’ve noticed that if white wines from clay-dense soils aren’t raised in wood, often the muscle from the clay can render them more square and monolithic. They can also be less inviting with much of the finer nuances muted. -TV
Lay of the Land
Despite nearly unequivocally mentioned in the first breath by sommeliers as one of their favorite wine regions, Chablis often appears in books as the “I guess I should make a little room for Chablis in my Côte d’Or Burgundy bible” category. Indeed it’s not as sexy and elite as the Côte d’Or, but there is a lot to say that doesn’t get said enough. So, while I don’t intend to write an entire book out of this section on our website, perhaps I can bring some ideas not often discussed about Chablis, but relevant to better understand the subject—one that is not so expensive a lesson in understanding terroir compared to that Golden Slope, further south. (Maybe Chablis should consider changing its name to the Côte d’Argent, or maybe the Côte de Platine—a little silver or platinum could be a competitive contrast to the gold.
Chablis winters can be bitterly cold and dry. The lack of snowfall can be deceiving when you’re feeling the bite of the wind, and there are precious few easily found and inviting establishments to duck into and shake off the chill with a warming drink. Its semi-continental climate is similar to Champagne’s to the north, with the winds that whistle in from the North Sea. The frigid air that goes straight to the bone is caused by a relative lack of trees, which fully exposes to the elements, making one of the best refuges to warm up a 50-55°F cellar.
The summers are usually dry and moderate, but that’s all changing. While it’s hard to say what each vintage will bring, the extended forecast is clear: it’s getting hotter. The effects of rising temperatures and increased weather volatility are already felt each season. In many more vintages than the past, the tapering of Chablis’ natural acidic snap is becoming more common. Of course, super fresh vintages still come around, but with record-shattering summer heat happening almost every year, the overall composition of Chablis is, on the average, leaning in a little more toward the soft middle road on vibrancy than the extreme for which it’s known.
Today, (in 2019), frost damage is a commonly occurring antagonist caused by unexpected heat spikes late in some winters. Premature bud burst is the new norm, followed by a corrective dip in temperature back to cold leaving the vegetation exposed to frost burn. While frost can take out an entire parcel for the year, it can clip the potential yield of others, exacerbating the problem of quicker ripeness due to the smaller yields with a likely imbalance in the grapes. If you’ve made it out of frost season, then comes the invariably destructive force of hail—a terribly demoralizing event that can happen anytime in the summer. The domino effect of climate change is severe in areas like Chablis, the historical limit of where Chardonnay can ripen consistently for still wine production. Recent vintages in Chablis already demonstrate the heat’s softening of its vertical axis, so they’ve become more rounded and less angular.
A perfect area to exemplify Chardonnay’s merits, Chablis is classified from least to greatest (in theory) from Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru, and this is based on three factors: bedrock, exposure and historic reliability. The bedrock isn’t going to change, neither will the exposure, except that the variable of that exposure’s impact will. While I may have painted a painful but honest picture of the forecast, the good news is that within our lifetimes there are less well-known vineyard sites today that maintain the right kind of soil for serious Chablis (although they are likely classified as Chablis AOC wines), but are more protected from the extremes of full exposure to the elements. The last two factors, while assets in the past—like the northwest exposition of the Grand Crus and their ability to be less affected by frost because of that same aspect), may become the liabilities of the future—although no one wants to talk about these things, especially those who own the more historically prime spots.
Chablis’ soils are a combination of Kimmeridgian limestone marls and Portlandian limestone scree with various topsoil mixtures of clay and rocks derived from the limestone bedrock—classically Burgundian in general bedrock type and topsoil constitution. These rock formations have influence on the shape of the hills. Those capped with the harder Portlandian rock have more steep, resistant ridges resulting in a more concave hill shape below, like Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits. This deeper inward belly captures more soil such as clay, Portlandian scree and underlying Kimmerigian marls—this is what largely defines the right bank, home to the Grand Crus and much of the fleshy right bank 1er Crus. The hills without a Portlandian limestone cap rock are more convex and maintain less topsoil (mostly on the left bank), similar to the hillslope shape of the Côte de Beaune. Wines on these hill shapes typically have more straight lines, overt mineral nuances and less excess body fat.
As a large generalization, the vast majority of the left bank Chablis 1er Cru vineyards have much less marne (clay and limestone mixture), and a shallower soil depth than those on the right bank. This often results in left bank wines leaning more toward verticality and expressing stony, minerally nuances and textures, while the right bank wines tend to be more corpulent and horizontal (within the context of Chablis, not Chardonnays from further south in Burgundy), with mineral nuances tucked further inside, or simply overshadowed by the denser body. These differences are also somewhat easy to find in Chablis AOC wines or Petit Chablis made exclusively from one side of the river, or the other.
(In our product pages there are links that will direct you to 3-D Google map images of each of the 1er Cru and Grand Cru sites from Collet.)
A final thought from our geologist friend, Brenna Quigley, who joined me on a trip to Chablis in 2016: “It’s also important to note that the change from Kimmeridgian to Portlandian is a very transitional one, and can occur over a distance of several meters. Even geologists cannot always agree on clear boundaries between the two—hence some of the arguments over what counts as true Chablis, or true Grand Cru.” -TV
Jean Collet - 2011 Chablis, Vieilles Vignes
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This area of our product description has nothing to do with technical information but rather a subjective look into the wine in its earliest stages from when we’ve tasted it in vat and discussed its tendencies with the winegrower, to tasting the wines shortly after bottling and perhaps some years after the vintage date. In any case, it’s imperative to take note that these assessments are largely based on young wines and not specifically what they may become with plenty of time in the cellar. It’s also important to note that the information in this section is not vintage specific.
Many of a wine’s youthful characteristics may hold up to some degree over time, but there are too many potential scenarios for each (and every individual bottle and taste from a particular bottle as it opens up in the glass, and many other factors, like our mood or the weather—see our sort of disclaimer here) to change in unexpected ways. When one considers a wine’s natural balance in certain vintages, how it was crafted, how much sulfur was added and how it was handled after bottling makes it difficult to know where it’s headed after its first couple of years; some wines in their youth are vigorous but can quickly fall flat. There are techniques deliberately employed to give a forceful display of pleasure and intrigue when young, but are not equipped to stand the test of time with that seductive youthful energy fully intact. On the other side, many wines are not extroverted in their early years but blossom into a glorious artistic interpretation that remains true to its terroir and can give goosebumps, or inexplicably bring us back in time to smells from our childhood. Our categorization of each wine is not made by a single taste of a specific vintage but an assessment of what we have noticed, or what other tasters and especially the winegrowers, have contributed to our experience with the wine; who knows the wine better than the one who raised if from bud break to bottle and has analysed every nuance and tendency and the conditions in the vineyard and cellar as it evolved?
As much as anything in this section, I’ve attempted to add a few more dimensions (at risk of being too abstract and/or personal) to the shape of the wine. There are more common descriptors like Acidity, Tannin and Body, all of which are important and more easily understood, but they leave too many supporting dimensions like Finish, Intensity, Core and Texture that bring the wine out of a one or two dimensional view and into 3D.
A range of descriptors for each of these categories could go on forever and there are many creative words that may be more apt than what was chosen. That said, I’ve decided to at least keep the range within each category simple.
There are largely only three words, and sometimes four, that separate each with a dash between them. Some wines exist all the way to one side of this simplified range and are bolded only where it seems to fit in. Others have two, or rarely all three bolded, and I hope that the implication is obvious that when there are numerous descriptions bolded that the wine seems to fit in a more broad range, or somewhere in-between the two words.The most important thing to consider is that the wines are calibrated to my palate and it’s likely to not be consistent with yours. However, my goal is to at least be consistent so when you taste a wine categorized as having a dense core, instead of a lithe one, or an electric intensity instead of subtle, you at least have an understanding of what it may be like be on one side of the spectrum instead of the other. In this way you can theorize to some degree what some different dimensions of a wine may be like if you’re familiar with some wines we work with already that have been assessed.
The three categories chosen represent an oversimplified grouping (like most of the details included) of each producer based on their general approach to wine. There is not one category that is better than another, they’re simply different.
The inspiration to use these words to classify the polar opposites of one’s approach to wine comes from the centuries old debate of nature versus nurture. Without completely attempting to breakdown and rebuild the concept, I suppose if we consider the parallel of parenting children, this may (or may not) be an easy way to understand the idea.
Most of us know the helicopter parent who must always be in control and overprotective to make sure their child doesn’t get hurt by something around them, or enjoy a piece food they happened to pick up off the ground and put in their mouth. This parent (the nurturer) also has a plan and intends to execute it with accuracy and little room for negotiation while employing as much knowledge to ameliorate any risk around any conceivable corner and to protect their child even to the point of potentially suppressing their true personality.
The naturalist (listed under the category naturer) is the opposite. They see their child grab the food off the floor and watch to see what happens knowing it won’t hurt them if they taste it and wait to see whether they like it before stepping in to stop them from grabbing the next morsel. They’re likely to give the children the opportunity to figure it out for themself and allow nature a stronger say in the development of the child, or for our purposes, the wine. These are the winegrowers who embrace random developments in the name of discovery, and sometimes they are willing to push the limits and let the wines take on undesirable characteristics in order to open up the possibility to uncover something pure and honest. In this case maybe the flaws are understood but left alone because if the treatment of it means destroying the terroir or something unusually curious, they may not want to move to correct the wine in the cellar. Sometimes the risk is well calculated and the wines bounce back, other times they don’t, but at least it’s just wine and not a kid.
We work with a band of winemakers who march to the beat of their own drum. Some are on the opposite sides of the spectrum, but most play somewhere in-between. We have no problem embracing the full monty naturalist or the overprotective nurturer, but we have our limits on both ends.
Every detail counts when it comes to a wine’s vineyard soil. Soil constitution can be divided into a few basic but distinguishing categories that play a role in shaping the wine and some are more significant than others: bedrock type, soil composition (what is that dirt actually made of), depth and grain size (clay, silt, sand, gravel, cobbles and/or boulders). These factors determine soil nutrition and water retentive abilities which influence the shape and taste of a wine. The soil is also one of the reasons specific grapes were chosen; for example, in Austria, Grüner Veltliner thrives better in soils with a high water retentive capacity and easy access to nutrients, while Riesling develops its complexity in poor soils and a much more stressful environment to find its peak expression.
For winegrowers who minimize manipulation in the cellar and vineyards in order to give voice to the terroir the soil becomes paramount. Consequently some consistent patterns emerge from different wine regions around the world grown on similar soil types and experienced tasters often find those links in blind tastings. The connection between soil and wine remains one of the most consistent qualities/traits of a vineyard and its resulting wine despite the influence (or non-influence) of those who crafted it. It’s also one of wine’s great somewhat unsolved mysteries.
This category is subdivided into Forbidden, Never and Sometimes. The first implies that it’s against the regional wine law, the second that it isn’t forbidden but not needed or never used, and the last pertains to those who use it when necessary.
This detail has been included for no other reason than to stimulate thought and discussion about the subject. It’s an interesting debate and there are many good perspectives on all sides. Whether it’s important to the quality of a wine or not is up for grabs and we are always open to try to understand different viewpoints.
Irrigation is worth noting because there are many places in the world where it’s forbidden by law, like much of France; most believe it’s still completely forbidden there but in some regions, especially in the south, growers are now able to attain legal permission in the wake of climate change. For example, many of the stony limestone vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are being irrigated, and some believe these zones shouldn’t have been included in the appellation altogether for this reason.
Dry farming is the practice of not using supplemental irrigation but relying completely on the rainfall (and subterranean water) that occurs on the plot of land being farmed. In theory (a word I feel obliged to use when speaking about wine concepts), dry farmed vineyards are likely to develop deeper root systems than those that are artificially irrigated. Roots grow to where the water flows and vines won’t work hard for water if they don’t need to. If going deep is the only option for survival, they will dig.
Drip irrigated vines often tend to have clustered root systems at the surface where the water supply is located, especially when the frequency is very regular and the length of time of the drip short. Frequent shallow irrigations in one particular spot will keep roots from working deeper into the soil, and in theory miss possible opportunities to uptake soil components deeper below the surface that could potentially increase the complexity of the grapes. However, in more attentive and precise agricultural approaches to those who value a soil’s contribution to the complexity of a wine may consider irrigating for longer periods with bigger gaps in frequency, simulating a somewhat natural rainfall. This will saturate deeper below the topsoil and if the soil has good water retentive capacity, it will develop a reserve the roots can dig deep to reach.
Dry farmed vines with more deeply developed root systems have the benefit of not relying on an unnatural water supply because of their access to water deep below the surface, so they can weather a drought on their own. However, the climate is changing and dry farming may no longer be so easily taken for granted in some parts of the world.
According to soil scientist and California vintner, Ryan Stirm, late season compensation for drought by the use of artificial irrigation may—depending on how the root systems have developed—promote more vegetative growth via the hormone auxin, which tricks the vine and keeps it growing and developing more sugar in the fruit at the expense of ripening the seeds. Physiologically, dry-farming naturally balances the plant hormone cycles throughout the year and saves an enormous expense and can potentially make more compelling wine with deeper complexity in certain elements. This is not to say that wines grown with artificial irrigation are not complex, but perhaps express their complexities in different ways.
As mentioned before there are regions where irrigation is forbidden by law, and those where it’s permitted but the winegrower doesn’t apply it or isn’t even equipped to do so if it’s needed. The last category, “Sometimes,” is not a mark indicating good or bad. I believe that conscious winegrowers interested in quality are prudent with this countermeasure to drought but they likely understand the pros and cons on both sides of the theoretical argument.
Notes compiled in 2019 by Ted Vance (The Source) and Romain Collet (Jean Collet)