Preparing for our first visit to Chablis, we’d been told by many in the wine industry that there is a shared mindset amongst wine makers and growers in the region that is so intrinsically focused on terroir, it borders on obsession. The result of that devotion is a long history of producing among the very best wines in the world.
Domaine Laroche stands both as an esteemed institution in Chablis, as well as a custodian of tradition in the world of Chardonnay. Though the winery itself was ‘only’ established in the mid 19th century, winemaking at the ‘Obédiencerie’ (the church where the wine was originally produced) has a history dating back 1,000 years. The name Laroche has become synonymous with wines that reflect a pure expression of Chablis terroir.
Understanding the historical context and the evolution of the Laroche estate sets the stage for appreciating the depth and character found in each bottle. Domaine Laroche’s story begins in 1850 when Jean Victor Laroche purchased a plot of land in Chablis. 5 generations later, Laroche is one of the largest producers there with close to 100 hectares of vineyards largely spanning the region’s Grand and Premier Crus.
Visiting the winery itself was fascinating thanks in large part to Domaine Laroche Wine Advisor Régis Salagnac, who walked us through its hallowed halls of history. We met him at the tasting room off the main street and, following introductions, he led us around the corner to the Church of St. Martin. There are 3 churches in Chablis that service the town’s population of 4,000. Built in the 13th century, St. Martin isn’t the oldest of the 3, but it’s the largest and one of the first Gothic churches built in the world. It’s here, Régis tells us, where Laroche’s story truly begins.
Many of the monks from the Loire Valley settled in Chablis to protect the relics of St. Martin from the Norman invasions. These relics were hidden for a decade in what is Laroche’s wine cellar today. When the monks first settled in Chablis there were no vineyards. They needed wine for communion, celebrations, and such, so they began to plant vines and produce wine. Régis reveals that they know Chardonnay was produced in Chablis since at least the 12th century.
The first known mention of the Obédiencerie for winegrowing was in 1128 and the first known mention of its press was in 1216.
That press is remarkably well-preserved and still used annually for a one-off event. It takes about 90 minutes to complete one press, but we can only imagine what a profound experience it must offer to those that are lucky enough to be invited to participate!
“The first Chablis wines were vinified right here, inside our cellar,” says Régis, adding that Laroche continues to vinify their wines in the same cellars, though it’s changed a lot over time.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that they continue to age their wines in oak which is somewhat rare these days with more wineries in Chablis opting for stainless steel tanks. Depending on the vintage, oak ageing at Laroche can take anywhere from 7-14 months.
“Harvesting to bottling, we need minimum 14 months. People using only steel tanks can start to bottle after 6 months…it’s a long process [for us]. To produce some good wine, we need to be patient.”
Even more unusual is that a winery so steeped in tradition has chosen to use screw caps for all their wines. They’ve done so for over a decade as they experienced quality control issues with natural corks resulting in too high a percentage of their wines being oxidized particularly between 2005-2012. According to Régis, this wasn’t an issue limited to Laroche, and he estimates that as a result, approximately 40% of all wines in Chablis are now bottled using screw caps.
Laroche produces 27 different wines from 19 separate and unique plots. Régis tells us that each one of those separate plots is assigned a specific member from the winemaking team who is completely responsible for managing it.
The winemaking philosophy at Laroche led by Gregory Viennois, is one of low intervention, natural fermentation, and minimizing environmental impact. In an era where sustainability is paramount, the team has been embracing environmentally friendly practices from organic farming techniques to biodiversity initiatives since long before it was expected.
The unique Kimmeridgian soils, rich in fossilized oyster shells, impart such a distinctive minerality to the wines that despite just a single grape variety being grown, each chardonnay they produce is unmistakably different. Régis believes that different soil yeasts play a big role in the taste difference between plots.
The winemaking team at Domaine Laroche combines traditional methods with modern technology to craft wines that are both timeless and contemporary. Their portfolio is a mosaic of iconic Chablis wines, ranging from crisp and steely Chablis to the more opulent Grand Cru expressions.
Régis bristles at the term ‘winemakers’. “We don’t ‘make wine’. We are not a factory. Each year we start the harvest, we know we will produce some wine, but the type of wine we never know. Every year is so different, and we just need to do our job depending on what nature gives to us.”
Domaine Laroche’s wines have garnered ample international acclaim, helping place Chablis on the world stage while positioning the estate as a benchmark for excellence in the region.
After our visit to Domaine Laroche, it became evident that this Chablis icon isn’t just a winery; it’s a guardian of tradition, a steward of the land, and a pioneer in crafting wines that capture the very spirit of Chablis. Through history, terroir, sustainability, winemaking expertise, and its wines, Domaine Laroche is a must-stop for Chablis enthusiasts seeking a deeper understanding of this captivating wine region.
2022 Domaine Laroche Petit Chablis
Raised in 100% stainless steel, this is the archetypical Petit: medium body, bracing acidity, with refreshing notes of grapefruit, green apple and hints of citrus zest. Refreshing aperitif-style of wine.
2022 Domaine Laroche Chablis St. Martin
The Chablis classification is for most wineries their biggest production and in many ways, what their reputation is based on. This St. Martin is a big step up from the Petit Chablis. A little bit of oak aging creates a bit more texture and roundness in this wine. The mineral aspects, which really carry much of the Chablis signature are very present. Apple and citrus flavours get support from notes of tart dried fruits. This is not just very refreshing showing good complexity as well.
2021 Domaine Laroche Les Beauroys Premier Cru
This was another big step up the quality scale. Les Beauroys is on the “Left Bank” of the Serein River which gives more north aspects to vineyards there. The result are wines with less power, more elegance a very intense minerality. The mouthfeel is much fuller than the first 2 wines and we even picked up just a touch of creaminess. Flavours of lime and green apple dominate the palate. The body is medium and the acidity medium+ which results in a very pleasant, finessed mouthfeel.
2021 Domaine Laroche Mont de Milieu
Our tasting now took us across the river to one of the top Right Bank Premier Crus: Mont de Milieu. With its broad southeast exposure the grapes here fully ripen and can create wines of power and intensity. The green apple and lime flavours were evident in this wine as well, but delivered in a firmer style. The finish was long and showed added complexity from the hints of white peach.
2021 Domaine Laroche Les Blanchots Grand Cru
For us, this was the wine of the trip. A stunning Grand Cru, this is the type of wine that gives the region its vaunted reputation.
Blanchots sits on a relatively steep sidehill next to Les Clos. These can be wonderfully long-lived white wines. This was everything you could want from this region. Super intense flavours showing apple, lots of mineral, a bit of stone fruit and even a hint of smoke on the long finish. Very complex, this shifted and took on different nuances with each sip. Despite the power, everything was in perfect balance. It had a lightness to it while at the same time a great intensity. An intellectual and thought provoking Chablis that is only going to get better with time in a cold cellar.
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