“You see a new generation,” Nathalie Oudin tells me, “a lot of kids who have traveled and see the world, and they realize the quality of what they have here.”
Oudin is sitting in her office, in a small house by the banks of the river Serein, which runs through the village of Chablis and nearby towns in a corner of northeastern France. She’s describing the state of this familiar if often misunderstood wine region. Her parents reclaimed some family land in 1988, enough for 25 acres by the time Oudin began making wine in 2007. Her sister Isabelle joined her soon after, and the two officially took the reins in 2014, producing wines like Vaucoupin and Vaugiraut, premier cru bottlings from vines dating to the 1950s.
What Oudin isn’t mentioning, at least not explicitly, is that many of the kids taking over in Chablis are, specifically, daughters. Like Isabelle Raveneau, who, along with her cousin Maxime, is now responsible for both winemaking and farming at Domaine François Raveneau—owned by their respective fathers, Bernard and Jean-Marie.
Chablis is home to one of the world’s most distinctive white wines, arguably the purest expression of Chardonnay. It has been on a tear, achieving the status its truest believers had hoped for: to be valued alongside other great white wines of Burgundy, like Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet. A good dose of that fame has been propelled by the Raveneau family, whose obsession with quality helped command higher prices for their wines than most.
Less often discussed is the fact that the family’s wines—the top of the Chablis A-list—are mostly made by Isabelle, who has been taking over vinification duties from her father, Bernard. It’s much the same down the street, where Etiennette Dauvissat, with her brother Ghislain, has assumed the duties at the estate of their father, Vincent Dauvissat.
Dauvissat wines have been the other half of the fame equation along with those from the Raveneau family, such that connoisseurs utter the two in the same breath. And today, these standard-bearers are being guided by daughters: et Filles right alongside et Fils. To Nathalie Oudin’s point, they are part of a generation that has imported a broader perspective to a region long considered a country cousin to Burgundy. (Chablis is about two hours north of the Côte d’Or, Burgundy’s most famous winemaking area.) These sons and daughters—but especially daughters—largely grew up together, studied together, and are now making highly acclaimed wine together. “There’s a certain solidarity that exists here,” says Isabelle Raveneau.
Two things became apparent during a recent trip to Chablis: First, many of the old squabbles that once divided the region, especially about whether its destiny is to make fine wine or modest supermarket bottles, have largely been resolved by this new quality-minded generation. And second, it’s the women of Chablis who are largely guiding this change. Indeed, the ratio of female winemakers I visited was higher than anywhere else I’ve been in France, which is saying something. Whatever you think about Gallic male pride, the country’s vignerons and vigneronnes (vineyard managers) are generally ahead of the curve in terms of gender equality. (Not far enough, but farther than most.)
For this to manifest itself so distinctly in Chablis is especially heartening, because the region, also about two hours outside Paris, is in a sweet spot—having shaken off its inferiority complex, but not yet overexposed. True, those bottles of Raveneau and Dauvissat, among others, have become fodder for wine’s elite, with prices to match. A bottle of entry-level Dauvissat Chablis that cost $26 two decades ago now retails for around $80 in the U.S. (Top crus, like Les Clos, have seen even bigger spikes—nearly sixfold.) But there’s plenty of affordable Chablis around, and the region has mercifully avoided some of the family drama that has come with the resultant land craze in mainline Burgundy. For reference, a hectare in Chablis averages an estimated 167,000 euros ($188,838) versus 709,000 euros ($801,600) in the Côte d’Or.
So the market has concluded Chablis is important. But that’s a recent development. No one questioned the beauty of its terroir—the mostly Kimmeridgian limestone soils, dotted with tiny oyster fossils, that provide a unique vivacity and kick. But too often the wines ended up dilute and insubstantial, grown at high yields and reliant on uninspired, herbicide-derived farming that accommodated a market more interested in volume. For much of the latter 20th century, Chablis couldn’t decide whether it wanted to make basic wines or something serious—and many of its farmers did better, financially, by pursuing the former. That was followed by an ambitious phase, at the end of the last millennium, when winemakers followed the trend of many Chardonnay-growing regions, lacquering the wines with flavors of oak aging, creating something self-important and obscuring Chablis’s flinty raw beauty in the process.
Today, the region has shaken off both those habits. Oak isn’t uncommon, but it’s usually deployed in old barrels to enrich the wine’s texture without marring its flavor. The high yields of the past have largely been left behind, as even the respected local co-op, La Chablisienne, acknowledges smaller crops of better grapes, and resulting better prices, are a smarter choice. And it soon becomes evident that these better wines more often than not have a woman behind them.
This is the part where I’m supposed to offer up a magic reason why the women in Chablis are running the show. But so far as I could discern, there isn’t one. Maybe their fathers—and the previous generation were almost entirely fathers—proved especially convincing in persuading their daughters to carry the family mantle. But that’s also true on the Côte d’Or, where serious winemakers like Amélie Berthaut have defined the next generation. Maybe it’s reflective of France’s general education trends, with more women ages 25 to 34 than men completing the equivalent of full college degrees, at a rate of 36% versus 29%. After all, France typically requires intensive science-focused study before you make wine. But that wouldn’t single out Chablis.
Maybe there’s something in the water. Who knows. Not a single winemaker I visited seemed to even acknowledge the situation as unusual. That it was the most normal thing ever might be the best sort of progress anyone could ask for. And certainly the older generation seems to have no concerns. “It’s their property now,” Vincent Dauvissat says with a shrug when I ask about Etiennette and Ghislain.
Of course, this happy turn isn’t limited to young Chablisiennes. Alice de Moor has prominently worked the hardscrabble limestone soils of Courgis alongside her husband, Olivier, since the mid-1990s. And while the prestigious Moreau-Naudet domaine was devastated by the 2016 death of proprietor Stéphane Moreau—followed by relief that his wife, Virginie, would carry on his work—the reality was more complex. Virginie had been deeply involved in winemaking for years, as had their cellar master Corinne Simon (a.k.a. Coco). “Before me, she was Stéphane’s right arm,” Virginie tells me.
Some vigneronnes have revived historic family properties, like mother and daughter Laurence and Athénaïs de Béru, who took over the château of Laurence’s husband, Eric, in the family for 400 years, and began producing Chablis revered by natural-wine aficionados. Others made a conscious choice to split away from successful, long-established businesses, especially the house of Jean-Marc Brocard, a prominent producer. Clotilde Davenne spent 17 years as Brocard’s chef de cave and enologist before starting her own business in 2005. And Céline Gueguen, Jean-Marc’s daughter, left the family business in 2013 to found her own domaine with her husband, Frédéric, taking family land to farm and renting vines from her mother. It was a savvy means of sidestepping those family politics that seem to interfere, especially in Burgundy. “It’s always complicated to work with your family, your brothers and sisters,” she says.
Then there’s Eleni Vocoret, who greets me at her cellar door more than seven months pregnant, a ring still in her lip, so we can taste the new vintage. Born to a Greek father and German mother, Eleni met her future husband, Edouard, the scion of another important Chablis family, while they apprenticed in Blenheim, New Zealand. She followed him back to Chablis, and worked with the Oudins and Dauvissats before the two launched their own domaine several years later, with land Edouard inherited from his grandparents and his father, Patrice, whose Domaine Vocoret is one of the area’s largest independent wineries. Nothing wrong with the family business. But their desire was to make wines a bit richer in texture. Eleni explains this as she pours me a taste of their 2017 Le Bas de Chapelot, with its mix of ripe honeydew fruit and the glinty green edge that has made their wines instant reference points for Chablis.
And that might be the most essential aspect of change in Chablis—not just that women are taking over. But they’re also driving that transformation of Chablis into a place that makes important, collectible wines. The wines coming from the region today still have the gunflint punch that instantly identifies them, but they show far more depth than in the past: richer and more complex fruit and herbal aspects, the ability to drink beautifully both young and old. Chablis today has willed itself toward a more serious path, and it can thank the women who’ve decided to guide its future.
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