Domaine Raveneau Chablis Montée de Tonnerre: 1985-2015


Raveneau and Dauvissat. Dauvissat and Raveneau. While most Chablis lovers have a favorite, virtually all of them agree that these two outstanding estates are at the top of the Chablis pecking order—and have been there for decades. They have a lot in common, including superb premier and grand cru vineyard holdings built up over time, assiduous work in the vineyards, a traditional approach to vinification, and élevage mostly in used oak barrels—not to mention their unusually dense, deep, site-inflected wines with uncommon mineral energy and staying power. The two cellars are around the corner from each other in the center of the town of Chablis, and the two families are linked by marriage. They are also the subjects of my first two Chablis verticals for Vinous.

I began in late April with an extensive tasting of the Raveneau family’s top premier cru Montée de Tonnerre, staged for me by the newest generation of Raveneaus: Isabelle Raveneau, daughter of Bernard Raveneau, who has steadily taken over winemaking duties since joining the domain in 2010, and her first cousin Maxime, son of Jean-Marie Raveneau, who just joined the estate in 2017. As it turned out, tasting with Isabelle encouraged me to take a fresh look at the Raveneau wines, which I have been relishing since before Isabelle was born in 1983.

A message to the old-timers who still yearn for the penetratingly dry, steely, borderline-painful Chablis wines of a generation or more ago: get over it. The climate has changed, and it’s hard to find anyone in the sleepy village of Chablis who would rather return to the bad old days. “So far, global warming has been good for us,” is the way Isabelle described it to me two months before this summer’s record heat wave at the end of June.

Maxime and Isabelle Raveneau in their cellar

The History of a Great Estate

Domaine François Raveneau was founded in 1948 when François Raveneau consolidated his holdings with vineyard parcels owned by his wife’s family (Andrée was the sister of René Dauvissat, the father of Vincent). Chablis was a depressing place following World War II: it had essentially been a zone in slow decline since phylloxera, through two world wars and the Great Depression. Earlier in its history, Chablis had enjoyed centuries of popularity, owing to its proximity to Paris (wine could easily be shipped there on the river) and to its popularity in the English market, but the development of France’s train network in the late 19th century subjected Chablis to greater competition from more southerly regions with far less expensive wines. In fact, between its peak in the 19th century and the 1950s, total vineyard acreage in the greater Chablis region declined by 98%! By the 1950s, barely 500 hectares of vines remained.

And even those remaining hectares of vines vexed their owners. The extreme northerly position of the Chablis region, which is located roughly half-way between Paris and Beaune, subjected it to brutal winters, followed by the constant risk of destructive spring frosts and the challenge of getting the fruit ripe enough to make palatable wines. With the harvest normally taking place in October, if not into early November, cold, rainy weather—and even frost—was always a possibility at the end of the season.

Economic conditions were so bad that François Raveneau’s father actually sold some of his best vineyards prior to 1948. The 1950s brought more hardship for the fledgling estate, with the 1957 crop decimated by May frost, and mediocre-to-poor-quality harvests in 1951, 1954, 1956 and 1958. But with great courage and foresight, François made strategic purchases of prime parcels through the 1960s and 1970s, including a couple of favored climats that were virtually unknown at the time, such as the premier cru Chapelot, situated low on the Montée de Tonnerre slope.

Raveneau's vines in Chapelot, at the bottom of the Montée de Tonnerre slope

Raveneau made his wines in a very natural way, harvesting by hand, fermenting in large tanks, eschewing early clarification of the must and aging his wines mostly in older barrels—a blend of barriques and the smaller feuillettes (a demi-pièce, roughly half the size of a barrique at 132 liters) that were far easier for workers to lift and, in an earlier era, could easily be shipped up the river to buyers in Paris. He practiced extended lees aging in those barrels, allowing for slow, controlled oxidation during élevage in search of more stable, longer-lived wines, without excessive use of filtration or sulfur that might strip the wines of material. Raveneau built his reputation steadily but slowly. Happily for American consumers, Berkeley-based importer Kermit Lynch, after years of trying, finally convinced the elusive Raveneau to send a bit of his wine from the 1979 vintage to the U.S. market in refrigerated containers; until then Raveneau had been afraid that his wines would not survive shipping overseas.

François Raveneau’s younger son Jean-Marie joined him at the domaine in 1978 and when François retired in 1995, his older son Bernard came back to the family estate after years of working for the local vineyard owner and négociant Maison Régnard. The two brothers jointly directed the estate, with Jean-Marie essentially in charge of the vineyards and Bernard handling the cellar. They have more or less stuck to their father’s traditional methods over the past decades, with the notable exception of taking advantage of their more spacious new barrel cellar (finished in time to age the 2012s) to eliminate most of the feuillettes, which could be arrayed in double rows in their old cramped cellar, and even to add some demi-muids.

I tasted these stunning wines with Isabelle Raveneau, who joined her father Bernard full-time in 2010, after having finished winemaking school in Beaune and spending a decade away from the family domaine, with her travels including work on the commercial/marketing side of wine in California, Australia and England. Isabelle has gradually taken over winemaking responsibilities since then; “it’s a process,” she told me this spring. Bernard technically retired a few years back but is still very much on the scene, as is Jean-Marie, who continues to take care of the vineyards, now helped by his son Maxime.

Vines in the Pied d’Aloup climat within Montée de Tonnerre

Raveneau’s Holdings in Montée de Tonnerre

Although the estate is small (just 10 hectares in total), the Raveneau holdings are choice: prime vineyards in the grand crus Blanchot, Les Clos, and Valmur and land in the premier crus Montée de Tonnerre, Les Vaillons, Butteaux, Chapelot, Mont Mains and Forêt. In fact, until vintage 2007, my annual visit to Raveneau began with their premier crus: the Raveneaus did not even offer a village wine until they began producing about 5,000 bottles a year from vines they planted around the bottom of the premier cru Montmain. (They added a Petit Chablis to their portfolio in 2014, from vines they planted on the plateau above Les Clos in 2010.)

Montée de Tonnerre is an exceptional premier cru, situated just to the east of the unbroken hillside of Chablis grand crus on the right bank of the Serein River, separated from Blanchot by only a narrow valley. It shares the classic Kimmeridgian limestone-chalk soil of the grand crus, as well as their favored south/southwest exposition. If Montée de Tonnerre rarely achieves quite the density of the top grand crus, it shares some of their finesse and stands out for its citrus/mineral spine and aromatic complexity. And with its combination of depth and mineral strength, Montée de Tonnerre is potentially the longest-aging premier cru, although of course wine quality and longevity vary depending on altitude and exposition, not to mention the farming practices, harvesting strategies and winemaking talents of its many owners.

While there are many outstanding versions of this privileged premier cru, Raveneau’s is arguably the best. It’s also their largest single holding (3.12 hectares of vines out of a total of 10), which is why the family was able and willing to show me a substantial range of vintages back to 1990 at the winery in late April. Raveneau’s parcels are divided roughly 50/50 between Chapelot at the bottom of the slope, where there’s a bit more clay in the soil, and Pied d’Aloup at the top of the hill, both of which face more or less south. According to Isabelle Raveneau, the family owns about ten different plots in Montée de Tonnerre, with vine ages ranging from 5 to 70 years and an average age somewhere between 30 and 40.

In many past years, the Raveneaus have bottled a single tank of their Chapelot separately, although this wine does not normally go to the U.S. market. The Chapelot was most recently made in 2014, 2011 and 2010, and there will almost certainly be a 2018. But the rest of the time—and especially in years with short crops—there is just a single Montée de Tonnerre bottling.

The François Raveneau, Vigneron sign is one of the most iconic sights in Chablis

The Work in the Vineyards

According to Isabelle Raveneau, her family prunes to get a targeted number of clusters, then removes the second and third buds on each cluster to reduce the ultimate yield and open up the fruit. They make sure that the shoots are well positioned and that the bunches are separated, in order to provide for good aeration and ensure better maturation. Still, says Isabelle, “Chablis is a high-yielding place,” despite the Raveneaus’ attempt to limit production. Typical annual production of their Montée de Tonnerre is normally between 45 and 50 hectoliters—and sometimes higher if Mother Nature is particularly generous. On the other hand, production has been cut dramatically in some recent years—in 2016 by spring frost and hail, in 2015 by heavy rain, with some hail, just prior to the harvest and in 2012 by a combination of spring frost, heavy rain in early June, a difficult flowering and summer heat and drought.

The Raveneaus have always been relatively early harvesters, as they look for healthy levels of natural acidity and rely on slow fermentations and long aging on the fine lees to round out their wines. The harvest at Raveneau is normally carried out in six days, with the multiple plots in Montée de Tonnerre typically picked over two days.

The new, more spacious barrel cellar at Domaine Raveneau

Vinification in the Age of Isabelle Raveneau

Isabelle Raveneau inoculates the must to launch the fermentation, which takes place in steel tanks. Although articles about the estate through the years have made reference to wild-yeast fermentations at Raveneau, Isabelle assured me that she and Bernard have often hesitated to rely exclusively on indigenous yeasts because they want to make sure that the wines ferment to total dryness. The fermentations can take anywhere from two weeks to two months to finish. The cellar is kept cool during the fall, then warmed up again for the malolactic fermentations, which typically finish by the end of the year but can linger until late winter. Isabelle does no batonnage and racks the wine into barrels after the secondary fermentation finishes, where it remains on its fine lees for 10 to 12 months of aging (the Raveneaus’ village Chablis gets only 6 or 7 months in oak). As the estate purchases only about a dozen new barrels each year, these casks are frequently used first to ferment and age the large Montée de Tonnerre cuvée, where their influence is be minimized as the new barrels ultimately make up no more than 5% or 10% of the finished blend.

For many years, Bernard and Jean-Marie Raveneau worked mostly with barrels from Séguin-Moreau but today the estate uses mostly Chassin barrels, as the Raveneaus followed Stéphan Chassin when he left Seguin-Moreau to establish his own cooperage in 2005. And just last year, Isabelle also began using some barrels from Tonnellerie de Mercurey.

After finishing, their oak aging, the wines are assembled in large stainless steel tanks for at least a few months, then fined, lightly filtered and bottled, typically during the second April, May and June after the harvest, with about 30 parts per million free sulfur and 70 to 80 ppm total sulfur, according to Isabelle.

A second mini-vertical of some older vintages

My Tasting with Isabelle Raveneau

Like her father Bernard, with whom I tasted annually for more than 15 years, Isabelle is clear-eyed and disarmingly honest when discussing vintages and the family’s wines—which is to say more critical than the norm in Burgundy. (When my notes and scores are typically more laudatory than those of the man or woman who made the wines, that’s almost invariably a sign of a producer with very high standards.) While it’s tempting to say that her statement that she typically likes her Montée de Tonnerre best at about 10 to 15 years of age (with variation according to the style of the vintage, of course) reflects a generational leaning, Bernard Raveneau as well rarely made immoderate claims for the longevity of his family’s wines. But clearly, some of the estate’s top bottlings from the best vintages—especially its grand crus but Montée de Tonnerre as well—can go on for three or four decades in a consistently chilly cellar. Some vintages give pleasure virtually from the start, Isabelle told me, “but high-acid vintages can stay closed for a long time.” And of course these latter wines can eventually deliver great complexity without loss of grip or thrust. At our tasting, Isabelle told me that, for her palate, ’99, ’96 and ’95 are too old, but I had no problem with the first or last of those vintages. For complexity, she went on, “2008 is best, along with 2010, 2004 and 2002.” You’ll get no disagreement from me. All four wines were exceptional in our tasting.

Is today’s market more afraid of austere wines than older Chablis drinkers, I asked Isabelle, wondering aloud whether this may have influenced her winemaking or the family’s choice of harvest dates. “We have adapted to the change in the climate,” she responded. “That has been more important than consumer tastes.” She went on: “Today's wines are less austere in general. The climate has changed the style of wines in Chablis but in a good way—at least so far. And there’s much more good Chablis today than there was 30 years ago.”

One final note: After my tasting at Raveaneau, I subsequently I retasted a few of these wines in a mini-vertical chez moi, and added several additional vintages from my own cellar, including a few from the 1980s. A vertical tasting of Raveneau wines is always a special occasion, and I was very fortunate to enjoy two of them this spring.

See the Wines from Youngest to Oldest

Read more about Stephen Tanzer's 2019 Burgundy verticals

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