The wait is over—I repeat, the wait is over! After two years of selling completely through Defaix’s legendary lineup of 2005s, he is finally, if not begrudgingly, releasing his first tiny wave of 2006s. If you’re a newer subscriber, allow me to reassure you this is no typo: While the overwhelming majority of 1er Cru Chablis producers have long since cast their 2018 bottlings into the market, Daniel-Etienne Defaix is coolly, quietly, debuting his current-release 2006s. If this sounds certifiably insane to you, you’re not wrong—when it comes to Chablis, let alone any white wine, only a few souls exist that are crazy/brave/patient enough to compete with Defaix’s preposterous “watchdog” regimen.
That, in and of itself, is a thrilling enough reason to load up, but we have yet to factor in the elite terroir and illogically low price tag: this comes from “Vaillon” which is, for me, a top-three Premier Cru Chablis vineyard, and it’s delivered to you for $60. Considering the age, prime real estate, and unrivaled value, this is unquestionably among the shrewdest Burgundy investments one could ever hope to make. It’s a Premier Cru bottling that raises the eyebrows of a sommelier who’s tasted tens of thousands of wines because, quite simply, it stands alone and unchallenged. I simply cannot name another wine, anywhere, that checks all these boxes. If you have yet to experience Defaix’s miraculous ability to preserve a vintage’s youthful energy, texture, and profundity for an absurd amount of time, nearly 15 years in today’s case, the entire SommSelect team has some straightforward advice: buy it now!
In an era when Burgundian whites are so often (a) overpriced and (b) engineered for quick release and young drinking, Defaix remains one of the last defenders of long, slow aging in the cellar and genuine value in the bottle. I can’t quite say how the estate stays in business after deferring profits for 14+ years, and then charging such modest prices for such exceptional wines—but I’m not arguing, either. My own experience cellaring Premier Cru Chablis has shown that most drink best between 10-20 years of bottle age. This is typically the point when oxygen has broken the wine down to the perfect balance between refreshing minerality and advanced aromatic complexity. This waiting game, however, can be dangerous, as one never knows if the wine has expired until the bottle is open. Fortunately, Daniel-Etienne Defaix is a master of anticipating each vintage’s eccentricities in this regard. Over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed a variety of Defaix whites from the late-1990s to the present, and almost always, spectacularly, they’ve possessed a beautiful synthesis of youth and maturity.
Defaix’s family has been producing wine in and around this region since the 1500s. Defaix works almost exclusively with Chardonnay and his ample collection of Premier Cru vineyards are farmed entirely by hand and fertilized with natural compost and manure. It’s an ancient and devoutly traditional operation in the vines. It’s also worth mentioning that his ~50-year-old “Vaillon” holdings lie in the heart of the original Premier Cru parcel, before the vineyard was expanded to include other microclimates. Still, I’d say that the most exciting and unique aspect of this property is what happens in the cellar. Over the last handful of centuries, the Defaix family has amassed a sprawling collection of Premier Cru acreage in Chablis—yet very little of the fruit it produces ends up in wine with a Defaix label! With 70+ acres of vines in the region, Daniel-Etienne oversees a ruthless triage (sorting) every harvest that banishes all but the finest, most pristine grapes to the négociant (merchant) market. Only a minuscule amount of peak-quality product remains for fermentation in the Defaix cellar.
Benefitting exclusively from the property’s native airborne yeast culture, Defaix’s wines ferment slowly and naturally—sometimes for as long as a month for alcoholic fermentation, and even two years for natural malolactic fermentation to complete. It’s an unusually patient, hands-off process, but the excitement doesn’t end there: Defaix aged today’s “Vaillon” on its fine lees for upwards of three years, while using an unusual oxygen- and sulfite-free bâtonnage (lees-stirring) process that relied only on the wine’s self-produced CO2 to maintain freshness. While there is ample technique and technology in this second stage of vinification at Defaix, things return to arch-traditionalism for the rest of the voyage. There is no harsh fining or filtering, only several more years of natural settling, clarification, and undisturbed maturing in the family’s bone-chilling underground cellar. When all is said and done, one can generally expect to wait between 12-15 years for the release of Defaix’s top Premier Crus.
Trust me when I say that while the wait is indeed agonizing, the payoff is spectacular. Today’s 2006 “Vaillon” displays all the depth and complexity one expects from 14+ years of aging in Defaix’s frigid cellar while still perfectly preserving the youthful freshness, leesy texture, and mineral power of top 1er Cru Chablis. Unlike so many other older white Burgundies in the market, there is no premature oxidation, no watery finish, and zero cracks in its foundation. As usual, it’s a bonafide masterpiece that will continue evolving for many years to come. In the glass, it reveals star-bright aromatics in the form of crushed yellow apple, pineapple core, salt-preserved Meyer lemon, lime blossoms, quince, crushed almonds, lees, honeysuckle, gardenia, pulverized chalk, seaspray, and bergamot orange zest. It’s beautifully layered palate is medium-bodied and intensely mouthwatering, thanks to surging waves of crushed-stone minerality. What’s really impressive about this delicious 1er Cru is its ability to be simultaneously lean and chiseled yet broad and immensely supple from start to finish—the allure of top white Burgundy! If enjoying now, I strongly urge you to do so in large Burgundy stems after a minimum 30-minute decant—save a glass for the following day, too!