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Wine Growers
Chablis vigneron Daniel-Etienne Defaix at Domaine du Vieux Château

Daniel-Etienne Defaix

Chablis is the most famous white wine in the world. Daniel-Etienne Defaix intends to keep it that way as he develops his own style of ‘oenotourism’

Many of the top restaurants around the world offer the Premier and Grand Crus from Defaix’s Domaine du Vieux Château. The slopes surrounding the River Serein at Chablis provide the right soil and climatic conditions for the superb white wine that the region is famous for. The vines themselves are nurtured through the seasons ‘a fine wine starts with the vine’ says Daniel-Etienne, ‘in our case these have an average age of 38 years, and great care has to be taken throughout the process.’ Spring time in particular is a hazardous time in this area as the frost can harm the new buds and a dramatic system of spraying water has been developed over the years for frost protection.

Eight centuries ago, the monks from the Abbey of Pontigny realized the potential of the area and planted vines. One of the first vineyards was Le Lys, an area of marne limestone-clay with lots of little oyster fossils dating back to the Jurassic period, called ‘Kimmeridgien’.

In 1978 Daniel-Etienne Defaix was an eighteen year old student studying winemaking, when this famous vineyard, Le Lys, came on the market. He comes from a long line of vignerons, fourteen generations no less, and this vineyard was next to his father’s land. It was too good an opportunity to miss, so he looked for a way to buy it.

But this was no silver spoon operation. The young Defaix had fixed ideas of production which were not in step with the thinking at the time. He was made to go it alone – he had to get a mortgage from the bank, employed three men during the week, and worked in the vineyard himself every weekend throughout his study years. ‘For seven years,’ he says, ‘I didn’t know whether that dream would give me any bread on my table. It was very hard. I always thanked my father for making me understand the importance of work.’

In 1978 the wine growers in Chablis were selling as much wine as they could produce: it was young wine and they made a lot of money. The young Defaix decided to take another tack and produce wine slowly following the traditional methods of his grandfather. He is in the ‘unoaked’ camp of Chablis producers, fermenting his grapes in temperature-controlled stainless steel cuves. The wines remain on their lees in tanks for at least 18 months before being bottled and released.

Daniel-Etienne is a perfectionist, and admits that it is a costly business to produce fine wine. ‘Taking the preciously tended grapes, the production, vinification and ageing are all subject to great care and attention, and this is the key to the success.’ However, his philosophy has paid off and the best restaurants around the world offer his Premier Crus: Les Lys, Vaillon and Côte de Léchet ,and Grand Crus: Grenouilles or Blanchot. Experts describe the wines as having ‘a marvellous purity of fruit that is the very essence of first-class Chablis.’

Opening new horizons

Based in the tiny hamlet of Milly, just outside Chablis, the Domaine du Vieux Château consists of 25 hectares of Chardonnay grapes in the oldest appellations.

‘In the early days, I had the wine, but no-one to sell it to. As a young winegrower, I went to the University of London and gave the students wine tastings. After this, I got an excellent network of wine merchants throughout the UK.’ Exports to USA, Japan, Belgium, Italy and Germany followed’. There’s still no sitting back. Defaix has recently been offering tastings in Shanghai and is very upbeat about the reception from the young Chinese who drink champagne and wine in the nightclubs rather than the spirits, the fashion amongst their western counterparts.

Chablis, a centre for oenotourism

La Cuisine au Vin

Daniel-Etienne’s activities all radiate out from the stem of the vine, which he equates with the pillars in Romanesque architecture, another of his passions. Having seen the potential some years back of a shop in the centre of the town where tastings could take place, he has gone on to open a restaurant, La Cuisine au Vin in the 11th century cellar. This has proved to be some feat of building restoration but the result is impressive.

Regional specialities are served taking old family recipes, from escargots to andouillettes. He is even producing his own label mustard using his wine, and mustard seeds grown in the area, again processed in the traditional way. This is artisan mustard – hot, smooth and highly recommended.

And after you have tasted the wine, if you don’t want to drive, Daniel-Etienne has thought of that too - you can stay at his tourist hotel, Le Lys, down the road. He describes it all as a ‘millefeuille’, all the layers are building up to make a whole.