The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1750)
It must have been a decade ago that our Norwegian friend Andre suggested that I accompany him down to Chablis where for years he had been a client of none other than Domaine Francois Raveneau, along with Dauvissat the most reputed winery in Chablis and the one that attains the highest scores and prices on the secondary market. I had been going to Chablis every year for around 20 years, mainly to taste and buy at William Fevre, and to stay and eat the langoustines at the Hostellerie du Clos. Little did I realise that if I stood at the entrance and looked up the street, a hundred yards away I’d see a small black wrought iron sign hanging from a door, a worker bent over with his viticultural tool, and underneath it three words. Francois Raveneau Vigneron.
And thus, with some trepidation, I met Bernard Raveneau, and headed through the little wooden door from the street down the steep steps into a hidden paradise. The cellar. Just like another ‘Mr No’ that I have mentioned in these pages, Francois Cotat in Sancerre, these great winemakers have the reputation of being very reserved, but it’s purely because they have no choice but to turn people away and decline visits, otherwise they’d have a permanent queue outside the door. In fact, they are charming, modest and if I might say so, true farmers of the land.
They are also in a very different world from the current era of globetrotting cult domaines. No massive marketing, no sassy website and social media sites, no fancy cars and self-aggrandising architectural follies. Indeed, the new cellar at Raveneau, built a few years ago, was a matter of some stress and is practical, simple and, like the wines, slightly austere, as if they had just expanded into the garage next door which is pretty much what happened. Luckily, there is no room, or desire, for the great design statements that you find in Bordeaux and Napa, to name but a couple of regions. There are no sharply tailored suits, no press packs on biodynamics and endless photos of horses ploughing in the fields (though I have seen them some of the steeper vineyards of Chablis) and, above all, no excessive pricing.
But there is great, great wine that seems able to transcend decades; wine that doesn’t fear the consequences of age or fall prey to the false promises of the latest fashion trend. You get what the two brothers decide to produce, and it’s much better like that.
Of course, on the retail or secondary market, bottles sold at such humble prices appear sadly to have gravitated into the orbit of the luxury commodity wine galaxy, well beyond the reach of most normal mortals or genuine wine lovers. It is therefore a luxury to be able to compare different vineyards side by side. But there is hope for those who are not millionaires. For years when saying goodbye after the annual tasting, case safely in the car boot, we would be asked where we were having lunch, and whether we’d like a table at Au Fil du Zinc in the village. Stupidly we were always too busy tasting, or rushing further south to Beaune, so always declined, but recently with my wife I have come to my senses and the wine list there has a range of top Chablis that will not make your wallet dissolve, some of it released from the cellars of Raveneau when it is considered ready to drink. The food is also imaginative, clever and remarkably well priced for its high quality. My tip to you for the day… Just kindly leave some for us.
2009. It was the first vintage we tasted together, a year of more sunshine than you might wish for the classic Chablis profile, but if you want to understand what Kimmeridgian oyster shell soil can produce, here is as good a place to start as any. And, being a more forward vintage, at 12 years old the premier crus are settling into a very nice place and happily approachable now.
Chablis is split by the River Serein, which quietly intersects the village, flowing under bridges dripping with boxes of bright geraniums and petunias, gently meandering past countless domaines, walls covered in blood red roses, chub flashing silver under water lilies. It’s all quite bucolic. As you head across the bridge to the north, the T junction marks the end of the village and in front of you stands the massive bulk that is so famous, the grand cru slope of Chablis, a hill that faces south west, topped by a tuft of forest, carved by various indentations and mini valleys. The greatest vineyard of all, Les Clos, is right there in front of you, a steeper climb than you think, and to the right Blanchot, then a dip and a slight shift more south/south easterly and you are into the premier crus and Montee de Tonnerre. It’s a big vineyard facing Blanchot and the lapping up afternoon sun.
Behind you, south of the village and on the left bank, lies the hill that comprises Montmains, facing south east, like a long finger split into three sections, the tip being Montmains proper, the middle Foret(s) and the bottom south west part Butteaux, at the southerly end of Chablis, sitting on white clay. Again, if you want a lesson in soil, just look at Les Clos, the brown soil covered in lumps of white rock as if some giant had wielded a huge salt mill over the vineyards. Oyster shells fossilised millenia ago when this was all underwater. The tasting descriptors so beloved of the critics - oyster shell, salty, sea-pool, may seem more like flights of the imagination than reality, but I think Chablis transports you more quickly to the notion of terroir than any other wine and has an imprint (when properly made on the right soil) that is so distinct as to be easily spotted. The one wine that gives you a fighting chance in a blind tasting.
But being such precious wine, I don’t open more than one bottle at a time, so never get a real chance to see if I could indeed taste the subtle differences between some of the famed crus. I just read about them in the critics reviews, though all they are presumably doing is regaling us with their rapid tasting notes scribbled down between slurps and spits in the cellar. I’ve been lucky enough to do that too, but I wanted actually to sit down over a few hours and consider a bottle, not just a rapid series of tasting samples.
Needs must. The tedium, depression and repetitive frustration of covid-induced lockdowns can make you branch out. My wife had missed her much planned 60th birthday party celebration during the first lockdown, and here we were again a year later, now in confinement no3. The curfew had been changed from 8pm, at which one could at least grab a rapid early supper with suitably socially distanced friends, to 6pm which killed it stone dead, and now to 7pm, a sort of rather useless no-one’s land.
Friends invited us over for an aperitif before the curfew. It was our host’s birthday too, so we could celebrate (in miniature) the two together, a spark of light in the gloomy darkness. Some lovely prawns as an appetiser and, well, maybe I could bring something to toast with. In France, the de riguer default would be champagne, but I don’t have any as I fail to appreciate bubbles or the price you have to pay for them – I’d much rather have a bottle of grand cru Chablis than a frankly mass-produced grand marque champagne. Which set me to thinking…
I had some half bottles and stoppers from a covid-prepared tasting in Beaune. I would open the two 2009s, fill the two half bottles and take them to our friends for a comparative aperitif and toast. The remnants would sit in their 75cl bottles at home and we could re-assess them when we had dutifully rushed back for the 7pm curfew. On Instagram I am surprised as to how many people decant red wines for hours and hours, and some whites too, so here we could see how 12 year old Raveneau reacted to three hours of gentle oxygenation. Just for the gathering of scientific knowledge of course…
Butteaux, famed for its left bank minerality and less of that ripening afternoon sunshine. Heavy white clay. What was I saying about so called terroir and oceanic minerals? If I had to describe this wine, from a solar vintage, I’d have to say it was all about texture, creamy, cool and mineral, a ridiculous sounding mixture of cream and rocks. Yes, a little greenish fruit, gently tooth coating, but fundamentally about that texture that you I think find with aged Raveneau (& Dauvissat) and a thick chalky minerality. You can see why people go on about the shells.
And heading a little north, with a touch more suntan? The splendidly named mountain of thunder? Yes, more of that texture again, at first on the nose it seemed again that we were in the same place, but with the palate, the focus sharpened, as if we were turning the lens, a little more fruit, perhaps even a hint floral, a little richer and sweeter across the teeth and then, for sure, a layer of citrus that kept the finish going. A flicker more ripeness, and, somehow, an extra level of definition, a delicious sharpness to the picture.
And after the curfew had tolled and me had plodded our weary way home? The colours of both wines were so youthfully pale as if fixed in a time warp. We wondered if the Butteaux had softened out its contours a little, but to be honest they remained where they were, pretty much ageless, a wonderful message somehow conveyed by a field of grapes from the marine life of a few million years ago. A glass left for the next day showed where they were heading, the Butteaux into a more burnished middle age, the character now a bit blunted, but the Tonnerre showing a vibrant minty nose, still uplifted by acidity,