Winemaker Christian Moreau on Life in Chablis

Christian Moreau didn’t grow up wanting to make wine, despite being the fifth generation of a winemaking family in Chablis. “When I was 17, I didn’t want to go to school or work in the vineyard or the cellar,” he explains. “I had a cousin who was logging in a small village in Canada, out in the middle of nowhere. They had a big pulp mill.” After purchasing a one-way ticket, Christian spent more than a decade working as a logger in Canada. “I had my own big logging truck and I was making good money,” he remembers. “My wife is Canadian and my kids were born in Canada. I didn’t want to go back to France. But my father and sister wanted me to come home and the family wine business was getting bigger.” 

Jean Moreau et Fils was founded in Chablis in 1814 by Jean Joseph Moreau. In 1974, the Moreau family sold a 50% stake in their company to the Canadian firm Hiram Walker, transferring the remaining shares in 1985. It was then sold on to another company. But the Moreau family signed a contract to provide grapes for the new owners. In 1970, Christian returned home to Chablis and set about learning to make wine and take over the business for his father. “I was born in Chablis but I knew absolutely nothing about wine,” Christian says. “I spent five years in the vineyards just to learn.” Working with his father had its challenges. “My dad was a great man, but stubborn like me,” he says. “I had to shut up and listen to the boss. But honestly, it was very interesting because I was learning things from the beginning. To make a good quality wine you must have good grapes and good sanitary conditions. That’s at least 70% of the quality of a wine.”
In 2001, Christian Moreau founded his eponymous winery, with the first vintage made by his son Fabien in 2002.

In 1996, Christian decided to invoke a clause of the contract that allowed him, with five years’ notice, to take back ownership of the family name and vineyards. In 2001 he founded his own winery, Domaine Christian Moreau, with the first vintage made by Christian’s son Fabien in 2002. “In 1996 my father passed away,” Christian explains. “My cousin and I decided to regain control of the vineyards because we both had sons coming back to France.” The family currently owns 12 hectares of vineyards that include vines in some of the most coveted vineyards in Chablis: Les Clos, Blanchot, Valmur and Vaudésir grand crus, the premier cru Vaillons plus the family’s monopole Les Clos des Hospices, a parcel within Les Clos purchased by the family in 1904 from the Chablis Hospice. 

“My son Fabien is the new boss,” he says with a smile. Neither of Fabien’s brothers wanted to run the domaine but Fabien decided to become a winemaker early on. After obtaining his National Degree in Oenology in Dijon and a Masters in Business Administration at the E.N.I.T.A in Bordeaux, he traveled to New Zealand for a year to study winemaking. “In 2001 when Fabien came back, I gave him the key to the domaine. We get along very well together. He’s the winemaker and I look after the customers. But I’m close by and here to help.” 

Fabien has instituted changes in the vineyards, most notably discontinuing the use of herbicides and pesticides and becoming organically certified in 2013, no easy task in the marginal climate of Chablis. Christian has no doubts about his son’s new approach. “Fabien is doing better,” he says. “I used way more treatments in the past. In Chablis there are about half a dozen producers who are really certified. We are moving more toward this with the new generation.” The pride in his son is palpable, and Christian notes how involved Fabien is with all aspects in the vineyard and the winery.
This freedom will be crucial for the domaine as Chablis moves into a future of climate change.

“He is always trying new things,” he says. “Fabien’s doing more experimenting. He’s also listening to other people. We do a lot of blind tastings at the domaine and it’s nice to have someone from outside the domaine, someone knowledgeable of Chablis, to taste with us. There’s always something to learn from other people.” Christian is pleased with the increasing quality of the domaine’s wines. “I think we are making better wine,” he says. “When you work with a big company, you have to bottle earlier. Now, there’s no rush. It’s the winemaker who decides when to bottle. We have more choice as a family domaine. The only person behind us is the banker. The rest we can decide.” 

This freedom will be crucial for the domaine as Chablis moves into a future of climate change. Christian has noticed changes from the early 1970s to today. “There is definitely a change,” he says, noting that harvest is a full two weeks earlier than it was in the 1980s. “We’ve always had problems with frost in Chablis, but now it’s hail. We are moving toward extreme weather. In 2016, parts of Chablis were completely destroyed by a hail storm. Some parcels we didn’t even harvest—there was nothing left.” The domaine is experimenting with ways to combat the frost like using blankets to cover the vines, and winemakers in Chablis are fatalists by necessity. “What can you do?” Christian says pointedly. But while the domaine’s old vines (some are 40-60 years old) and organic farming help keep quality up, Christian worries about quantity. “The cellar is nearly empty,” he states. “For two years in a row production has been down up to 80% in some of the vineyards. Supply is going to be a big problem, especially if everyone in California wants to drink Chablis.”
“The quality overall in Chablis has gone up in the last five years,” says Christian Moreau. “The vines are getting older. You get more concentration. I think that’s a major factor for quality.”

Despite the challenges vintners in Chablis face, Christian is optimistic about the future and the rising quality of Chablis wines and he believes in the unique terroir of the area. What is it about Chablis, I ask, that sets it apart? “It’s terroir,” he says simply. “What we have in front of us. If you walk in Chablis and Beaune, you will see the difference. The soils are completely different. And we have a different climate. It’s cooler in Chablis, even when there are hot spells. Chablis is purity, acidity, clean flavors, saltiness and elegance.”  

“The quality overall in Chablis has gone up in the last five years,” he says. “The vines are getting older. You get more concentration. I think that’s a major factor for quality.” Christian assures me that quality is key for the future of Chablis. “There is a lot of competition in the world,” he explains. “We are not the only ones making Chardonnay, and we’re not the only ones making Chardonnay in a cool climate. It’s everywhere. We can’t sit back and say, Chablis is the best. We must keep improving and looking for quality. That is the challenge.” 

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