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A strong case can be made that, of all the places where Chardonnay is grown, Chablis produces the most distinctive wines. Even “village” wines from good producers have a unique charm and minerality. But in the hands of a true master, working with old vines and elite vineyards, Chablis can scale heights unknown to other Chardonnay makers.
Such is the case with the wines of René & Vincent Dauvissat. Along with François Raveneau, Dauvissat is unquestionably Chablis’ greatest producer, owning some of the oldest and best vineyards, including prized sections of the grand crus, Les Clos and Les Preuses.
Since 1931, Dauvissat has been selling wine under their own label and they remain one of Chablis’ great traditionalists. As the torch has been passed down from generation to generation, little has changed here—the practices are still classic and remarkably similar to those used chez Raveneau.
If anything, the wines have become increasingly profound since Vincent Dauvissat joined his father, René, in the 1970s. Vincent prefers natural farming, using vine treatments sparingly, if at all. The fruit is harvested by hand and not de-stemmed; fermentation is part in enameled steel vats and part in wood, and all aging is in six to eight-year-old barrels.
Dauvissat has always aged their wines in barrel, believing that this allows the wine to breathe during the élévage. As René Dauvissat said in 2002, “Oak is very important to Chablis. The synergy of air and wood adds character and also helps soften the wine. Without oak, Chablis is too hard, too austere.” Malolactic fermentation occurs spontaneously and only the winter cold is used to precipitate tartrates.
Burghound has quoted Vincent Dauvissat as saying that “terroir is everything,” explaining his desire to allow everything to happen as naturally as possible.
René & Vincent Dauvissat are world-famous for their coveted Les Clos and Les Preuses. But insiders know of a third prize in their portfolio: the premier cru La Forest (a.k.a. La Forêt.)
At a price that’s half the grand crus, many knowledgeable observers regard La Forest as a near-equal, regularly achieving grand cru levels of expressiveness, depth and complexity.
Dauvissat produces three other premier crus—Sechet, Vaillons and Montmains—and they are among Chablis’ best. But as fine as they are, La Forest combines a rounder, more honeyed texture with deeper aromas and flavors. This enables the wine to reach a degree of weight and complexity typically found only in the best grand crus. There is also a pronounced forest floor characteristic with an anise seed nuance that comes with age; this, too, is an expression of the great La Forest terroir.
These qualities come from a high percentage of old vines (a 40-year average); a perfect southern exposure; and a classic Kimmeridgian soil that is—like the great grand cru Les Clos—mostly clay. Such soils are cool—cooler, for example, than Forest’s rival, Montée de Tonnerre—and they retain less heat. They are most sensitive to frost in the spring, and the fruit ripens more slowly.
The bottom line is that La Forest is vulnerable to reduced yields, due to Chablis’ frequent spring frosts, and difficult ripening in cool or rainy years. But in warm, sunny years, it excels, achieving a degree of complexity and richness that is of true grand cru quality.
Like his vaunted Clos, Preuses and Forest, Vincent Dauvissat’s villages Chablis and Petit Chablis transcend their appellations and have acquired loyal followings. Year after year, they display much of the richness and intensity of his greatest wines, along with their trademark minerality.
Vincent’s brilliant viticulture and winemaking play a huge role, of course; but the real secret to these wines is the location of the vines. The Petit Chablis comes from a single plot above the greatest of the grand crus, Les Clos, sharing its full south exposure. It is typically the last of Dauvissat’s vineyards to be harvested, bringing the fruit to full ripeness.
The Chablis parcel is adjacent to and faces Dauvissat’s La Forest. Forming opposite sides of a small valley, they share the classic Kimmeridgian soil, giving the Chablis the honeyed richness and 8 to 12-year aging potential of a premier cru. Made in miniscule quanitities, these are often the rarest and hardest to find of all of Dauvissat’s wines.
While Vincent Dauvissat farms all of his family vineyards—and makes all of the wines—some vines are owned by different family members. Thus, some of his wines appear under the “Dauvissat-Camus” label. As noted by both Steve Tanzer and Burghound, the cuvées are identical to those appearing under the more familiar R. & V. Dauvissat label.
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