Chablis’ Tale of Tariffs and Climate Change


With the famous region facing multiple challenges, our US editor gets to the point with Chablis’ Louis Moreau.

By W. Blake Gray | Posted Wednesday, 02-Sep-2020

Chablis is one of the most iconic wines in the world, yet also one of the most underrated because it is understated.

Unlike most white Burgundies, Chablis wines rarely taste of oak. They are ageworthy but in their youth they tend to be lean and fresh because the climate is closer to Champagne than Meursault – and in fact, the village of Chablis itself is closer to the edge of Champagne than to Beaune.

I’ve had great “Burgundian-style” Chardonnays from other countries that compete on equal terms with fine Puligny-Montrachets et al; look no further than the famous Paris Tasting. But nobody can make Chablis-like wines outside of Chablis. It’s not just the climate, with its harsh winters and relatively short growing season; the soil with its layers of limestone, clay and fossilized oyster shells is impossible to replicate.

You might taste notes of sea salt or oyster shells in the wine, along with citrus fruit. Chablis is a sommelier favorite because of its freshness and minerality, not to mention the affordability of its premier cru and grand cru wines compared to the rest of Burgundy. With so many sommeliers sidelined by the pandemic, that made me wonder about how well Chablis is doing.

Louis Moreau is currently chairman of the Chablis Commission of the Bourgogne Wine Board. He is a sixth-generation vigneron with a winery named after him, but he went abroad for his wine education, getting a degree in enology and viticulture from Cal State-Fresno.

This is interesting if you know something about the university. It’s considered much more hands-on than its rival UC Davis, and it’s in one of the hottest winegrowing regions in California, the San Joaquin Valley. You couldn’t ask for a bigger climate difference from Chablis – and Moreau had his winery at home for hands-on work! One benefit from the education is that Moreau speaks excellent English and agreed to an interview about the current state of affairs in the region.

Chablis wines rarely approach 14 percent alcohol, which means they are all subject to the 25 percent tariffs the US slapped last year on lower-alcohol French, German and Spanish wines. That’s the first question.

How have the tariffs in the US affected Chablis wineries?

We are currently losing about one-third of the sales in the US, which is our second-largest market. Number one is still the UK; Japan is number three. The first two are in a difficult position, with Brexit coming up and a recession coming soon. By January of 2021, it’s going to be more difficult. We wish we could have the rules by which to apply for customs [in the UK], but we don’t. It’s going to be difficult if we lose that market also. Difficult times. But Chablis is flexible. We’ve been fortunate with good-quality wines, and the past vintages have not been large in terms of volumes. 2015, 2016 and 2017 are all short vintages. We’re a little short of stock and everything was sold. Nobody is really suffering in Chablis – yet. Nobody is looking to sell. But people are a little bit more cautious now. If 2020 is generous is terms of stock, it could be a little bit more tricky.

What happened when the tariffs were applied?

We had almost an immediate effect. A reduction by 50 percent of orders placed by distributors. Things came back to a normal basis by May. Everybody was hoping for [lower tariffs] by August [but that didn’t happen]. What we’re seeing is a shift in pricing. We used to be selling Chablis Villages, premier cru and grand cru in the US. A Chablis cru used to be at $20-$22. Petit Chablis wasn’t really on the US market. Now we’re seeing more orders for Petit Chablis. And Chablis is more at $25 or above. Everything shifted on the retail price. We’ll see if people will accept it.

How does Petit Chablis compare to Chablis

Petit Chablis is on the outskirts of Chablis. You have the Chablis vineyards, and you have classified vineyards that are Premier Cru and Grand Cru. Petit Chablis is the second tier, the village level within Chablis. I don’t look at it as an entry-level. It’s different on the palate. It’s not going to be as smooth and long and have the depth of a Chablis. It will have a little bit greener fruit. It has really improved in the last 8-10 years.

How has global warming affected Chablis?

I’m not going to lie to you, I think it’s helping us. The problem we had 15 years ago was maturity level. It was much cooler in September 15 years ago. We had a hard time pushing into maturity levels. Now it’s the opposite. We need to know our vineyards really well. Now we need to go a little bit earlier to harvest in order to keep the acidity levels, in order to keep freshness in wines. We’re a little bit afraid of losing the Chablis personality. But global warming is helping us, and the work in the vineyards has made a difference.

Louis Moreau says it is tough to get workers willing to toil in the vineyards.

© Vinbanken
| Louis Moreau says it is tough to get workers willing to toil in the vineyards.

In other regions growers are planting different grape varieties as a hedge against global warming. I know other varieties are allowed in Chablis, but the great majority of vines are Chardonnay. Do you see that changing?

Nobody as a producer is looking at planting Sauvignon or Chenin Blanc or so forth in Chablis. There have been some discussions and we know that the weather’s going to be changing. We know we’ve got to find varieties that are going to be resistant to drought. There is some research right now. But we’re looking at a 10-year span before anything changes. What’s going to change the fastest is with red varieties. For example, Beaujolais, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, instead of Gamay, maybe Syrah. It’s going to be hot. It’s going to be changing. By the time it comes to Chablis, it’s going to take time. Tomorrow, making a sparkling wine, we could make the equivalent of Champagne. But it’s not classified here. There are possibilities. But the essence of Appellation Controlée, it’s got to be something specific. If you open Chablis to something else, is it going to lose that specific personality, and become more of a mass-market wine? Our distribution isn’t massive but it’s mid- to top-market. You have to think first before doing any drastic changes.

Tell me about your time working in California after graduating from Cal State-Fresno. What did you learn?

The first time I worked in Callaway Vineyards, in Temecula. It was eye-opening to see hot weather for Chardonnay. For me it was interesting to be able to work and study in California. It was interesting on the vineyard side for ecological practices. Some vineyards were already looking towards organic or better practices. Reduction in products. In France at the time, you applied [anti-fungal sprays] every 10 days, based on the time of year. In California, they were much more open. They were eager to try alternatives to do better. They were already doing other things compared to us. They were pioneers.

After working in California, what’s it like to be chairman in Chablis in terms of dealing with wineries that have different points of view?

What we’re lacking in Chablis is some flexibility. In the US you could get people together. If there was a project, you could move forward. In France, sometimes it takes years to make a decision just to move an inch. People are set in how they do things. We could do so many things. We are too reserved, with our hand on the brake. But we are learning fast.

What’s the status now of organic and biodynamic viticulture in Chablis?

There are about 12 estates that are officially certified organic. In biodynamics, there are two. Then there are the in-between people who are starting to shift more and more. Some people went from no certification to what we call in France high-environmental-value certification. About 19 to 20 have been officially certified this year. This is the next step toward organic certification. It’s the younger generation, 25 or 30 years old, that are really pushing us in the right direction. The problem is, can we have things certified in Chablis? Is it possible because of our weather? There are different technical problems we need to address before moving 100 percent into that certification.

The one pressure for pests is oidium [powdery mildew]. It tends to be hot in August by the end of the growing season. We leave a little bit more leaves to use as an umbrella for the berries. That leaves a little bit more moisture in the morning. We can have late pressure of oidium coming into the vineyards. We need to be careful. Just to say we’re going to stop spraying in July, things are good … we need to be on top of it so it doesn’t grow and ruin your potential harvest. It’s not windy like the south (of France), where it can take that humidity off.

2016 is a good example. If you didn’t go into the vineyard with extra treatments, the harvest was gone 100 percent. It’s the one vintage everyone will remember. Once you have [oidium] in your vineyard, your harvest is at risk. And the next years, it’s hard to stop it, because it’s going to be present in your vineyard.

Who’s going to do the harvesting for you this year, with workers from other countries restricted in travel?

We use local people. People within 50 km of Chablis, that’s about half the workers who come for harvest. Then we have people who start with Champagne, then go to Chablis, and then go to Beaune. We have that labor, which is still French labor. The last 20 percent is foreign. We have Spanish people and people from Eastern countries. They’re coming.

Companies will come with 40-50 workers. They do the harvest for you. That’s starting to happen in Chablis, because we see the age of the workers. People are getting older and older. It’s harder and harder to get younger people to come work in the vineyards. When we started the lockdown in March, school was out and people were at home. We started way before the harvest. We had a website where we were asking people to come in the vineyard, because we were doing trellising. We’re always looking for people. It was very difficult to find people. The question is, where are they? They’re not going to school. They’re not working. Where are they? This year, the government is saying the university is going to be delayed. It’s hard work, but it’s good work. We’ll see.