Winemaker Christian Moreau on Life in Chablis
Jean Moreau et Fils was founded in Chablis in 1814 by Jean Joseph Moreau. In 1974, the Moreau family sold a 50% stake in their company to the Canadian firm Hiram Walker, transferring the remaining shares in 1985. It was then sold on to another company. But the Moreau family signed a contract to provide grapes for the new owners. In 1970, Christian returned home to Chablis and set about learning to make wine and take over the business for his father. “I was born in Chablis but I knew absolutely nothing about wine,” Christian says. “I spent five years in the vineyards just to learn.” Working with his father had its challenges. “My dad was a great man, but stubborn like me,” he says. “I had to shut up and listen to the boss. But honestly, it was very interesting because I was learning things from the beginning. To make a good quality wine you must have good grapes and good sanitary conditions. That’s at least 70% of the quality of a wine.”
“My son Fabien is the new boss,” he says with a smile. Neither of Fabien’s brothers wanted to run the domaine but Fabien decided to become a winemaker early on. After obtaining his National Degree in Oenology in Dijon and a Masters in Business Administration at the E.N.I.T.A in Bordeaux, he traveled to New Zealand for a year to study winemaking. “In 2001 when Fabien came back, I gave him the key to the domaine. We get along very well together. He’s the winemaker and I look after the customers. But I’m close by and here to help.”
Fabien has instituted changes in the vineyards, most notably discontinuing the use of herbicides and pesticides and becoming organically certified in 2013, no easy task in the marginal climate of Chablis. Christian has no doubts about his son’s new approach. “Fabien is doing better,” he says. “I used way more treatments in the past. In Chablis there are about half a dozen producers who are really certified. We are moving more toward this with the new generation.” The pride in his son is palpable, and Christian notes how involved Fabien is with all aspects in the vineyard and the winery.
This freedom will be crucial for the domaine as Chablis moves into a future of climate change. Christian has noticed changes from the early 1970s to today. “There is definitely a change,” he says, noting that harvest is a full two weeks earlier than it was in the 1980s. “We’ve always had problems with frost in Chablis, but now it’s hail. We are moving toward extreme weather. In 2016, parts of Chablis were completely destroyed by a hail storm. Some parcels we didn’t even harvest—there was nothing left.” The domaine is experimenting with ways to combat the frost like using blankets to cover the vines, and winemakers in Chablis are fatalists by necessity. “What can you do?” Christian says pointedly. But while the domaine’s old vines (some are 40-60 years old) and organic farming help keep quality up, Christian worries about quantity. “The cellar is nearly empty,” he states. “For two years in a row production has been down up to 80% in some of the vineyards. Supply is going to be a big problem, especially if everyone in California wants to drink Chablis.”
“The quality overall in Chablis has gone up in the last five years,” he says. “The vines are getting older. You get more concentration. I think that’s a major factor for quality.” Christian assures me that quality is key for the future of Chablis. “There is a lot of competition in the world,” he explains. “We are not the only ones making Chardonnay, and we’re not the only ones making Chardonnay in a cool climate. It’s everywhere. We can’t sit back and say, Chablis is the best. We must keep improving and looking for quality. That is the challenge.”
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