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Northern Burgundy winegrowers persevere

Dave DeSimone
| Tuesday, May 16, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Chablis winegrower Samuel Billaud after several sleepless nights battling frosts.
Dave DeSimone
Chablis winegrower Samuel Billaud after several sleepless nights battling frosts.

BURGUNDY, France — On the otherwise brilliantly clear morning of April 21,, a smoky gray haze hangs over the famous Chablis Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy. The night before, temperatures dropped below freezing just like the two previous nights. Exhausted, but plucky vignerons had again valiantly attempted to hold devastating frosts at bay from the vines by burning bougie smudge pots in the cold night air.

The moment was particularly pivotal since warm temperatures in early April accelerated the growing season with early bud breaks on the vines. Just one night of frost, let alone three consecutively, can cruelly destroy vulnerable buds and carry away prospects for an abundant vintage. Coming on the heels of the 2016 vintage where frost and hail wiped out 80 percent or more of many producers' production, the early 2017 conditions have been particularly dispiriting.

Yet after sleepless nights and long days, winegrowers in Chablis and in Irancy, a nearby appellation also vulnerable to frost, meet with foreign visitors and local customers. Why? The answer lies with the growers' resilient, independent personalities and their passion for terroir and winegrowing.

In the center of the town of Chablis, an unshaven and mildly gaunt Samuel Billaud patiently provides a tour of his cellar. After harvest, sorting occurs before Billaud uses a Bucher bladder press to apply gentle, steady pressure to newly harvested Chardonnay grapes. Gravity then takes the juice to decanting tanks and then into stainless steel fermentation tanks where natural indigenous yeasts do their work. Élevage occurs in a mix of new and mainly older demi-muid casks.

In 2015, Billaud purchased 4 hectares (about 12 acres) of well-placed Grand Cru, Premier Cru and village Chablis vineyards. He masterfully takes full advantage of the vineyards' distinctive chalky Kimmeridgean marl soils. His exhilarating white wines balance a complex mix of ripe fruit and smoky aromas, pure fruit flavors, striking freshness and minerality, and long, seductive finishes.

In Pennsylvania, try the 2013 Samuel Billaud, Chablis 1er Cru, France (call the PBCB at 1-800-332-7552, option #1 to order). The wine has ripe citrus aromas with classic hints of gunflint aromas. Pure, precise fruit of medium concentration balances with rich acidity carrying through a refreshing, dry finish. Highly recommended.

Just southwest of Chablis in Irancy, David Renaud tends Pinot Noir and César old vines in a little amphitheater valley rich in Kimmeridgean marl and brown limestone. Picturesque ranks of vines and bushy cherry trees cover the slopes of the hollow leading down to the village.

The unusual situation captures warmth and sunshine to help ripen the grapes. At the same time, it tempers the effects of harsh winds and cold spring temperatures that occur frequently. Renaud's 15 hectares include well placed sites in premier crus Paradis, Les Mazelots, Vaupessiot and Palotte. His grandfather planted the Mazelots vines in 1935.

“The monks of the Abbey Saint-Germain-d'Auxerre began working this terroir in the 9th century and recognized its unique qualities,” Renaud says while walking the vines above the village. “In fact, the name of the nearby town of Vincelottes on the Yonne River means wine cellars in Latin.”

During his youth, Renaud worked with his grandfather and father in the vineyards before formally studying oenology. After returning home full-time, he began a gradual conversion to biologique organic cultivation. It was an ambitious, labor intensive change entailing significant risk considering Irancy's cold, often damp environment.

But the move improved the quality of the wines and burnished the Renaud family's winemaking reputation both in France and internationally. The domaine eventually obtained organic certification after David took full responsibility for the domaine in 2005.

No chemical fertilizers, herbicides or fungicides touch the vines which are trained simple Guyot style. Renaud's rocky vineyards teem with vitality and life, and he and his small team continue to live out the winegrowing métier with meticulous vineyard work throughout the year. The delicious wines in the glass testify to the success of their hard work.

Try the 2014 David Renaud, Irancy, France (Available online nationally at around $26). Pure red fruit aromas and earthy notes lead to fresh, juicy flavors with plenty acidity and elegant tannins. Highly recommended.

Dave DeSimone writes about wine for the Tribune-Review. Reach him at tribliving@tribweb.com.

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