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The wines of Daniel-Etienne Defaix: a vertical tasting of traditional-styled Chablis

Good Chablis is one of my favourite white wine styles. Although it's made from Chardonnay, the world's most popular white grape, Chablis is the antithesis of the rich, new-world style of Chardonnay that most people are familiar with. Instead of sweet, ripe, peachy, buttery fruit, the better examples of Chablis are savoury, minerally, austere and long-lived. In fact, most Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis is drunk far too young: unless the wines have seen new oak (a worrying modern practice here), then they really shouldn't be broached before their third birthdays, and are at their peak aged 5-7. Some may even continue to improve for longer.

This tasting presented an interesting (and quite rare) chance to try a range of vintages of wines from different sites, all made by the same producer, Daniel Defaix. Defaix is a traditional-style producer, with 25 ha of vineyards, including vines in three 1er Crus (Les Lys, Vaillon and Côte de Lechet) and one Grand Cru (Blanchot). They opt for a high planting density of 6700 vines/hectare, and the average vine age is pretty high (38 years). Production is some 170 000 bottles a year. Defaix take the noble attitude of holding back some of the production each year so they can offer customers wines that are ready to drink.

What are the wines like? Pretty good overall, and some are outstanding. All three examples from 1996 are superb wines, reflecting what was a very good vintage. The three 1995s aren't far behind, reinforcing that the optimum drinking time for traditional-styled 1er cru Chablis is around five to six years. As for the older wines, I felt that they were just on the downward slope, but this may reflect my own palate preferences; others may prefer this older-tasting style. I would add that it surprised me that none of the wines in this tasting could be described as over the hill. The oldest, the 1987 Vieilles Vignes, is still drinking very well, and not at all oxidised. Although Defaix are quite expensive by Chablis standards (the premier crus are pushing £20), these wines are pretty good value for money and, in light of their ageworthiness, are worth considering for the cellar.

Chablis Vieilles Vignes 1998
Slightly muted nose has a touch of honey. Palate is rounded and honeyed, with a mineralic core. A little bit simple, but showing good length and with good acidity. Very good+

Chablis Vieilles Vignes 1997
The nose is quite ripe, with nutty, earthy, mushroomy notes, a herbal edge and some honey. The palate shows good concentration and minerality. It's quite rounded, but there's high acidity, too. Showing signs of maturity, I'd say this is for current drinking. Very good+

Chablis Vieilles Vignes 1991
Quite a deep colour (but not as rich a gold as you might expect from a ten-year old white) with a rich, bready, honeyed nose: very rich and full, with the alcohol quite evident. The rounded, honeyed palate is thinning out a little. It's herby and waxy with some oxidation notes. Very good+

Chablis Vieilles Vignes 1987
Quite pale for an old white, this has a striking, herby, bready nose with a ripe, smoky cabbagey edge. Pungent, powerful palate with high acidity and a touch of volatility evident. A powerful, high acid style with real character: not at all oxidised, and ageing very well. Very good/excellent

Chablis 1er Cru Côtes de Léchet Vieilles Vignes 1996
A yellow/gold colour, this has a rich, ripe nose with some tropical fruit notes, and spicy, herby undertones. Lovely ripe evolved palate with good acidity: quite complex and full, in a really upfront style. Powerful stuff. Excellent

Chablis 1er Cru Côtes de Léchet Vieilles Vignes 1995
There's a sweet herbal quality to the nose, along with some smoky elements. Quite striking. The palate is rich and ripe, with a spicy character, complex honey and mineral notes and good acidity. Very good/excellent

Chablis 1er Cru Vaillon 1996
The nose has a striking smoky, mineral character. The palate shows high acidity, plenty of mineral complexity and a touch of honey. A rich, full style with good acidity. Still quite tight. Very good/excellent

Chablis 1er Cru Vaillon 1995
Quite refined. Restrained minerally, lemony, honeyed nose. Lovely balance on the subtly flavoured palate: minerally and citrussy with good acidity and a tiny hint of volatility. Very good/excellent

Chablis 1er Cru Les Lys 1996
Superb nose shows complex herby, mineral, honeyed, smoky notes with some tropical fruit, too. Rich, complex palate with smoky character and firm acidity. Very minerally and extracted. Excellent

Chablis 1er Cru Les Lys 1995
Restrained minerally complexity on the nose, with some honey and bready notes. The palate is quite powerful, showing rich, honeyed mineral character and firm acidity. Some signs of maturity, too. Very good+

Chablis 1er Cru Les Lys 1994
There's a bit of butterscotch and honey on the nose. The palate is rich with ripe mature fruit and some complexity. Nice balancing acidity keeping things alive, but this is quite advanced and should be drunk up soon. Very good+

Chablis 1er Cru Les Lys 1993
The nose is slightly volatile, displaying a citrus and butterscotch character, with some floral notes. Although this wine is showing its age, the palate is still quite fresh, with a light texture and good acidity along with some bitter marmalade character. Drink up soon. Very good+

Chablis 1er Cru Les Lys 1992
Lifted, fresh nose with floral and herbal notes. Light and delicate on the palate, with a tiny bit of volatility and the acidity receding a touch. Still a nice drink, but don't keep for too much longer. Very good+

Tasting presented by James Handford MW
Handford (Holland Park) stock many of these wines

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