“The tasting room of Laroche is tucked away opposite the abbey of Saint Martin de Tours in a former monastery known as the Obediencerie. Laroche’s premier and grand crus are aged within its thick medieval walls, though the magnificent 18th century wine press is for tourists only. Jean-Victor Laroche founded the company in 1850, though it was his son Michel that made them one of the most significant growers/negociants in Chablis. They have set their sights further afield in South France, Chile and South Africa, something unusual in these parochial parts, but the mainstay of the business remains their 90 hectares in Chablis that include 21 hectares of premier cru and 6 hectares of grand cru. Head winemaker Gregory Viennois was born in Burgundy and studied under Nadine Gublin (Jacques Prieur) and Jean-Pierre Smet (Domaine de l’Arlot) until 2001, when he moved to Bordeaux where he worked as an assistant winemaker at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte. From 2005, he worked with Michel Chapoutier for Ferraton Pere & Fils until 2011, when he joined Laroche. He kindly answered some questions that I asked him by e-mail. First, I asked about the vineyards that are owned and contracted to Laroche and how they are tended.
“‘Our domaine is made of a mosaic of plots in the most beautiful climats of the appellation. We are very lucky. We do not use any conventional pesticide, herbicide or anti-botrytis treatment. Our core task is to develop the microbiological life in soils, limit the compaction of soils and also limit treatments, in the vineyard as well as in the winery, water and fuel. Our philosophy is based on organic principles, I mean a sustainable viticulture, but we do not search for any certification.
“‘The pruning system is the double Guyot of Chablis, which allows us to use all the surface of the canopy and spread all the bunches in order to keep good aeration. Since 2011, we have been deeply involved in selection massale from our old vines or Fourchaumes and Blanchots. These are 70+ year-old vines. This is crucial for us to ensure the longevity of our vineyard and our plantations in the future.
“‘We practice bud removal every year and we manage both the canopy and green harvest in each plot separately, taking the specific vintage conditions into account. There is no rule for any of them, no systematic approach. We look for the balance between the canopy and the crop. We limit the compact areas of leaves and bunches but we try to keep a cool microclimate around the grapes as well to keep the natural high acidity and avoid weight.’
“With such multifarious parcels spread around the region, the harvest must be a logistical challenge. I was intrigued to know how Laroche approaches that crucial time.
“‘We taste the grapes up to twice a day during the ripening season. Ripening kinetics vary according to plots, from a Premier Cru to another. We harvest the Premier and Grand Cru by hand. For Chablis, we harvest some plots by hand only. We analyze grapes and taste them. The characteristics that count to decide the picking date vary according to the terroirs.
“‘Take Vaudevey. It is a slow-ripening terroir. We must wait for the acidity to lose its biting character, but serious acidity is also something typical of this terroir, as well as citrus aromas (lemon). The right balance should be found. Skins are very important, and we choose them carefully. We look for skins that are ripe enough to release dry extract easily and good quality phenolic compounds that are also anti-oxidant remedy. I will be back to this later.
“‘Then, the minerality of Vaudevey must reveal in cool ripeness style, with notes of salt, iodine and chalk. For Fourchaumes, we look for high-density juice, without weight and with skins with a strong tannic character from thick skins of old vines. The finish is often influenced by phenolics. For Vaillons, we are very careful to avoid over ripeness. This is a fast ripening site and wines may be flabby, weighty and even exotic in the aromas. We try to keep the freshness and the minerality that gives notes of flint, gunpowder and sleek structure on the palate.’
“Moving on to the vinification, Gregory kindly furnished me with details about his approach in the winery
“‘When we decide the picking date, we take the balance in the berries into account, in order to do malolactic fermentation. We exceptionally stop them. When wines have made malolactic fermentation, they have a better microbiological stability and we can limit the addition of sulfur dioxide during aging. We use natural yeasts mainly, in order for wines to ferment slowly and steadily. We like clear fruit definition, so if fermentation struggles to start, we add some yeasts. Pressing is a crucial step in our process. Grapes are sorted and pressed in whole bunch. There is no real skin-contact as pressing cycles do not last for more than 2 hours and a half. There is no extraction of aromatic compounds. Therefore, as we want to reveal the full potential of our grapes and get the best compounds of skins, we press at a low pressure (never beyond 1, 2 bar) but we do some rotation as pressure increases. It stimulates pressing but keeps it under control.’
“‘Juice has high turbidity, and thus are protected from oxidation by a number of anti-oxidative compounds that skins contain naturally. There is no, or very little, phenolic compounds in pulp. As for a red wine during fermentation, extraction requires careful handling but I consider a great white wine should have a good texture on the palate, a structure as well as good acidity. The main difference between old vines from selection massale and younger vines, is the berry composition. Old vines produce small berries with thick skins (real grapes for winemaking). Other grapes are more prone to disease, as they are larger in size and have thinner skin, therefore more pulp and juice. You just have to taste the berries and chew the skins of our old vines of Fourchaumes to evaluate their tannic structure.’
“‘We do not add enzymes to keep the best compounds at settling. We keep the bourbes to feed the yeasts naturally and also build the minerality of the wine during aging. The compounds that are released in the wine help the wine to structure and show more minerality, the kind of natural minerality that comes from the soil. It also protects the wine against oxidation and settles it without requiring more sulfur dioxide. The blending of wines aged in barrels and tanks takes place in June and wines are aged in stainless steel tanks for several months to help wine to stabilize. Aging is crucial for white wine. If you run after time to bottle before summer (the year after vintage), wines may be less stable and evolve more quickly in bottle.”