All wine students get told that Chablis is an unoaked white wine at some points of our wine journeys. No oak in Chablis always stands, isn’t it? Nay!
Here’s what happen next. Then comes the day when we come across Chablis wine legends like Francois Raveneau and Rene & Vincent Dauvissat, widely regarded as two most traditionalist domaines. As curious tasters, we pry into why their wines top rest of their neighbours and find that oak plays a part! Raveneau is known for ageing their Chablis in oak barrels half the size of a barrique called feuillettes (around 100L per vessel). Similarly Dauvissat favours part ageing of wines in wood. Rene Dauvissat once remarked, “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.”
Baffling as these may seem, it is actually possible to reconcile the textbook version of Chablis and winemaking practice of top Chablis domaines. Here are two ways to harmonize these seemingly diverging views:
(1) Interpret “unoaked” in wine textbooks as “free of new oak influences”
Whilst Raveneau and Dauvissat endorse the merit of oak application in Chablis, it is clear that they are strictly using old oak of average 7 to 8 years old only. What compell them to use oak is to wield the benefit of controlled oxygenation to add complexity when maturing the wines. The wealth of old vines in both Raveneau and Dauvissat’s holdings translate into exceptional level of concentration in their wines – necessitating the use of oxygen to open up otherwise overly austere expressions.
(2) Chablis wines from different vineyards (and of different quality levels) require different winemaking approaches
14th generation Droin family tailors winemaking treatment to the terroirs they work with. Their Chablis – which best fits the textbook reference of generic Chablis – do not see any oak treatment at all. Rest of Droin offerings see varying degree of oak application in the form of barrel fermentation and maturation, with maximum new oak involvement capped at 10%.
Ultimately, as one begins to appreciate the Burgundian philosophy of embracing and celebrating terroir, it becomes only logical to acknowledge that practically, there cannot be a one-for-all winemaking formula for any one regions of Burgundy. In practice, when it comes to oak application in Burgundy, it serves mainly as a means to facilitate oxygenation rather than a seasoning to introduce oak-derived characters like vanillin or spices. To oak or not to oak shows a winemaker’s sensitivity to the place and how s/he charts the course towards achieving balance and complexity in Chablis, and very much all wines of Burgundy.