We may think that Chablis has always been Chablis, and its Chardonnay famous across the world since the beginning of time, but actually it was close to insignificant in the early 50's, and William Fevre is maybe the one that bears the responsability for making Chablis wines what they are today. Let us remember that the Chablis region had 6000 hectares of vineyards before the phyloxera and that it had only 500 hectares in 1955 : Replantation had not been fully decided for several reasons, one being that pre-phyloxera Chablis wines (18th, 19th century) were mainly everyday wines for the Paris region, convenient because the barge transportation of the time made it easier for Paris merchants to buy the wine there. In the 20th century, after the phyloxera debacle, the Languedoc region took over the everyday wine supplier role because the transportation methods had changed and improved.
So, in the late 50's, when William Fevre felt (against the trend) that something great could be made out of the Chablis' Chardonnay and actively bought abandonned vineyards to replant them, the real estate value of the Chablis vineyard being then very affordable.
This hyperactive-multifaceted man was also an ENA graduated high-ranking executive in the ministry of economy until 1981 and he could run his winery, imagine and put in place there all kind of innovations in parallel to his Paris job. He has been known to stay awake 22 hours out of 24 everyday most of his life.
Against the frost, he invented the "chaufferettes", these tiny portable cauldrons dispatched by the hundreds in the vineyards in spring during the strategic nights when a temperature-related danger threatened the buds.
In the vathouse, a sealed-off bottling room behind glass windows, with a pressurized and air-filtration system to ensure perfect and secure bottling conditions. Facing the bottling area, several lenticular filters (in use here since 15 years), a technique derived from the pharmaceutical industry and which allows a slow and soft (but costly) filtering, through slow-flow, low-pressure screening/filtering of the wine.
While most of Chablis' grapes are machine-harvested (95%), at William Fevre it is all done by hand, and in 14 kg boxes and with sorting tables for 1ers Crus and Grands Crus, with 6 to 8 people per table. Didier Seguier says the sorting phase is very important. The intact clusters are then pressed (Wilmes press) without crushing nor destemming and the juice goes further down by gravity (another of Mr William Fevre's innovations) into the orange debourbage/settling tanks (picture above, on the right), which are 10-12°C regulated, for about 12 to 24 hours. Mr Seguier says the debourbage is one of the most important stage for the future wine. The fine lees and deposits will feed the wine thereafter. The juice then goes down to 20°C-regulated fermentation vats for the beginning of the fermentation. At this stage, he and his aides will decide where the wines goes next to continue its fermentation, casks or vats.
Back to the fermentation phase : The wine goes in casks as soon as "the first gas" comes out. Only indigenous yeasts for 1ers Crus and Grands Crus chablis at William Frere. We walk down to the 16°C cask cellar (feels warm because it is so cold outside). This is the 2005 wine, the last of 2004 was bottled las week. The wine stays there 5 to 8 months. The 2005 wine in there is at the end of its alcoholic fermentation/beginning malolactic fermentation. At William Fevre, they avoid long stays in casks and bring the wine back into vats for an altogether cask/vat time of 12 to 15 months. Figures on casks point to the different plots and climats, even though Didier and cellar workers know the traditional names. One, for example displays 1509, which points to Premier Cru "Montee de Tonnerre" of the "Chaplot" plot, and Didier Seguier gave me the answer immediately when I asked.
__1 Petit Chablis 2004. 100% vats. Maturity was long to come this year. Harvested sept 27, which is late in our time (sept 18 in 2005). This year was also very productive and there was no frost-related loss, which also explains the tardive maturity. Fresh wine, minerality.
__2 Chablis 2004. Clear wine with greenish reflections. Elagance and purity. The very saline side, he says, comes from the kimmeridgian fossil-bearing soil. The stones are 10-20-30 centimeter deep under the earth, not as a monobloc mass and the roots go deep under between the rocks. The rocks occasionally surface after plowing. He says grape varieties express their minerality the best at the northern-most area of their region and this can be checked for the Pinot Noir in the Cote D'Or and for Cotes du Rhone for Syrah. For Chardonnay too, best minerality is in the northern zone of the Appellation.
__3 Chablis Premier Cru Montmains 2004. This terroir is rather cold with later maturity. Elegance and minerality too. B. says it is reserved. He says it is normal, it closed itself after the bottling, and this phase lasts between 2 weeks and 2 months, sometimes more, but it is the proof of a good millesime and a long laying down potential. He points to the light and greenish robe as a good omen in that regard. Here, they often have these light greenish robes because they don't look for late maturity, as they harvest early. They also have this light robe because they harvest in boxes : The juice only goes out in the press.
__4 Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons 2004. Earlier harvest in this particular terroir. This is a "solar" terroir, very well exposed, which went out perfectly on that difficult 2004 millesime. Delicate, present and ripe nose. And the mouth is already very mineral which is rare so early for this plot. Wide and long spectrum, B. says.
__5 Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume "Vignoble de Vaulaurent" (name of the climat) 2004. He says connoisseurs know that Vaulaurent always has this creamy texture which makes the wine more akin to Grands Crus than Premiers Crus. Question : Why has Vaulaurent not been chosen as one of the Grands Crus ? Because it is technically on Fontenay (at the limit of Chablis) zone and in spite of its unique soil and terroir, the authorities who made the selection for the Appellation long time ago did not want to include it. Rich. Silky. The soil here is kimmeridgian marl; the stones bring the minerality and the marl brings richness. Nice structure.
__6 Chablis Grand Cru Bougros "Cote Bougerots" 2004. W.F. owns 6 hectares of Bougros (more than half of the Bougros G.C. surface). The "Cote de Bougeros" is made of 2 separate plots in the lower part of the Climat. Steep slope (50%) well drained, lots of stones, a hard place to grow for the grapes, but they stay dry and healthy here... Impressive nose, some wood. Toasted side in the mouth which will tone down with time, after 2, 3, 4 years. He says that just the minerality alone (without any wood involved) can give this toasted, smoked side and can mislead to think some new wood gave its imprint.
__7 Chablis Grand Cru Vaudesir 2004. Also a solar terroir. Great Chardonnay.
__8 Chablis Grand Cru "Les Clos" 2004. Elegant, with complexity. Classy. Smoked side, lemon side too. Even a little spicy, B. says.
This was a great visit. Thank you, Didier for your time and for the tasting....
William Fevre wines are sold in France (35%) and abroad (65%).
William Fevre . 21 Avenue d'Oberwesel 89800 Chablis - France
phone +33 (0)3 86 98 98 98
fax +33 (0)3 86 98 98 99