They say when it rains, it pours—in the case of Chablis, when it frosts, it hails. It’s been a difficult couple of vintages, with vines destroyed by hail and frost in 2016, and two weeks of frost again in 2017. At Domaine Laroche alone, more than half the production for the Chablis appellation was lost in 2017, and more than 60% at the premier cru level. Grégory Viennois, technical director for the Laroche estates—which include the labels of Laroche (purchased fruit), Domaine Laroche (estate fruit) and Mas la Chevalière (the company’s Languedoc property)—shrugs in acceptance.
“We need to be fatalists,” Viennois (pictured right) says simply. “If the weather and the climate are not with us, we can do nothing.” This acceptance of the climactic challenges of Chablis must surely run in his blood—his parents and grandparents were farmers too. “With winemaking, it’s agriculture,” he reminds me. “You work with the weather. You can’t manage it. We have rainfall and steep slopes. You can’t fight against it. My father and my grandfather felt this way. So I prefer to work in prevention.”
As the technical director of Laroche, Viennois plays an important role in all the key steps that go into the making of a bottle of wine: when to replant vines, when to harvest grapes, how to press those grapes and blending decisions before bottling. He’s worked at Château Smith Haut Lafitte and for Stéphane Derenoncourt in Bordeaux; with Michel Chapoutier in the south of France; and in other countries like Spain and Australia. He joined Laroche in 2011. “I manage all the life of the estate, its global and long-term vision. If you are only involved with one step of the process, it doesn’t work,” he explains. He coordinates with several teams and with growers across Chablis. “Getting everyone together with me on strategy is the most challenging element,” he says. “We also need to be partners with our growers. We need to share the risks with the farmers. In Chablis, we have to adapt to each vintage. We need to be very ready. If you don’t share this passion and objective with your team, they will never understand the work.”
Viennois has a clear vision for the future in a region where a change in the weather can destroy a whole years’ crop, and where farming organically isn’t always possible—especially when someone else’s money is involved. “My motto is to take care of the environment. The farm is like an organism. You need to take care of all the parameters. The most important is to produce wine with less impact on the environment and wine free of chemicals and sulfur. I don’t take some risks because it’s not my money and not my estate. But I manage it like it’s mine. I have to take care that in 30 or 40 years, there will be good, healthy vineyards.”
In addition to farming in a healthy, sustainable way in a difficult growing environment, combatting frost is an important factor for the domaine. Laroche has begun pruning later in the season, in the hopes that buds will form later in the season, too, missing fatal episodes of frost. Grass in the vineyards is kept short to reduce moisture that might trap cold air. Aspersion is common, and there are experiments with blankets and duvets. The domaine has also experimented with electric cables, which can heat the buds during cold nights—although this is very expensive. Climate change and the erratic swings in weather attributed to it is increasingly becoming an issue for grape growers in many regions, but Viennois points out that in this cold corner of the world, there have always been extremes.
He also notes that agriculture and winemaking have changed significantly in France in the last few decades. Yields have decreased and press management has changed. Fruit comes off the vine riper and more concentrated because of changes in viticulture. The domaine meticulously manages its pressing program and ages its wines on the fine lees, which Viennois believes strengthens the whites, allowing them to resist oxidation as well as imparting ageability. “In oenology school, we learned to manage our presses like the Champenoise,” he says. “For me, it was an amazing mistake. The skins have good components that I can get if I press slowly and extract with low pressure. I learned winemaking with red wines. You need that cooking period, that maceration. You get a stronger must.” These fine lees, in addition to some natural exposure to oxygen early on, help strengthen the wines and ensure they will age well. “You get all the nutrients for the yeasts from pressing,” Viennois explains. “You have an easier fermentation and malolactic fermentation. In those lees you have the good phenolics, the good minerals, all the complex components we can’t fully know about, but which contribute to the complexity of the wines.”
Minerality is a catchphrase these days, especially for the wines of Chablis—but what exactly is minerality? “[It’s] a new word to explain what many vignerons and connoisseurs before called terroir,” Viennois says with a smile. “I don’t know how it works but it’s there, and you can find it by tasting. The more you focus on the notion of terroir—the wind, the atmosphere, the global environment—the more you can taste it in the wine. There is something magic, like a memory. It’s easy to imagine the place where the wine comes from.” He also points out that there are many expressions of minerality. “There’s no one notion of minerality but many iterations of minerality. The cold expression of minerality, with wines made from limestone and chalk, is different than the warm expression of minerality, like wines from Les Clos, which are fatter, with more phenolics in the mouth and a different texture. It’s another form of minerality. You can never make Les Clos anywhere else.”
When many different growers work with the same piece of land, like those making wine from the Grand Cru appellation in Chablis, what sets the wines apart? Viennois believes there is a Laroche style because there is a Laroche philosophy: no excess. This is also what, for him, makes a great wine. “A great wine is never excessive, in acidity, alcohol, fruit or oak. We try to make clear, bright, precise wines and there is a phenolic, chalky texture to them. If you were to draw the wine, it wouldn’t be a straight line. It would have movement. Each wine has its own personality and singularity. A great wine has no noise. It’s precise, with many layers, it evolves in the glass and it takes time to understand.”
Viennois hopes that the domaine will continue to serve as a role model of sustainable growing practices for others in the region. “The new generation has more responsibility for the environment. I think Domaine Laroche will continue to transmit good philosophies and examples. When you have a brand, you have values you try to transmit: what you do in the soils, your winemaking, your considerations. People need to understand the value of what we do, because Chablis is limited. You can’t do anything about the soils or the weather. But the human component is important.”