2004 and 2003 Chablis

Following the freakishly hot summer of 2003, Chablis experienced a much more normal growing season in 2004—including a moderately dismal summer rescued by a near-perfect September and early October. As a result, Chablis has produced more chiseled, minerally wines that will come as a relief to long-time fans of these cerebral, elegant and distinctive chardonnays. The Achilles heel of the 2004 vintage is the huge crop level, which prevented much fruit from achieving more than moderate ripeness. But to true Chablis lovers, adequate ripeness will be preferable to the extreme conditions of 2003.

Following the tiny frost- and drought-reduced 2003 harvest, the vines were ready to snap back with a vengeance in 2004. In fact, weather during the flowering was ideal, and the stage was set for a huge crop. While the most conscientious growers took a variety of measures to limit yields, most were still shocked by the ultimate size of the crop and admitted to making the maximum allowable yields from most of their vineyards.

Besides high yields, oidium (powdery mildew) was also an issue in some vineyards in 2004. A rainy April set the stage for an early and particularly nasty outbreak of oidium, a fungal disease that affects the vine's leaves and fruit. The paucity of summer sunshine only exacerbated this condition. The problem with powdery mildew is that by the time growers see the cobweb-like growths on their vines, it's extremely difficult to eliminate the problem. It was necessary to spray early and at regular intervals in 2004 to avoid outbreaks of oidium, the spores of which can spread quickly on the wind. Oidium can prevent the berries from reaching full size and can introduce off, mushroomy or downright dank flavors in wines made from affected fruit. In 2004, the incidence of oidium was greatest on the left bank of the Serein, particularly in and around the premier cru Vaillons. Several growers told me that one major vineyard owner in Vaillons failed to treat his vines, and that the spores quickly spread through the Vaillons valley. Some vineyards here were so affected that the fruit was not even picked.

Oidium aside, growers were glum at the end of August, because their vines were carrying huge crop loads and the fruit was nowhere near ripe. But then the weather took a dramatic turn for the better, and remained mostly warm and sunny through the first week of October. Ripening occurred largely in September, and cool nights enabled the grapes to retain good levels of acidity, both malic and tartaric. The official start to the harvest was September 27, and most estates began picking that week, with virtually all of the rest beginning the following week. Grape sugars were normally healthy, and few growers reported doing more than moderate chaptalization of their musts. Still, the wines were rather unpleasant to taste early on because the levels of green-appley malic acidity were so high.

Many estates did a longer débourbage, or settling of the must, than usual because they were not thrilled with the quality of the lees. But those who began with cleaner-than-normal juice risked having long and difficult alcoholic fermentations, as the musts contained lower yeast populations. The malolactic fermentations also mostly took place later than usual, owing to the high levels of malic acidity and low pHs. However, my fears that I would run into numerous wines that had not yet finished their malos by the beginning of June proved to be unfounded.

Not surprisingly, the 2004s were radically transformed through the conversion of the harder malic acidity into the milder lactic acid. That is, after the malos the wines were far suppler, and ultimate acidity levels are in the healthy moderate range. While the 2004s have retained the aromatic freshness of wines that began with high acidity, they are rarely austere or hard. So you can think of 2004 as a reasonably user-friendly vintage for the true Chablis lover. It's generally a vintage of moderate richness and mid-palate intensity, which suggests that the wines will be for mid-term aging: the premier crus to be enjoyed within 8 to 12 years after the harvest and the grand crus within 10 to 15. Except for wines with a hard edge of tartaric acidity, which never quite goes away, relatively few 2004s will be unapproachable in their youth. A potential fly in the ointment is the possibility of oidium in some wines. But a high percentage of the young wines I tasted in early June showed purity of flavor; fresh mineral, citrus and floral notes; moderate alcohol levels; and the elegance and precision that makes Chablis unique in the world of chardonnay. Many of them show the healthy pale green colors of Chablis vintages with fresh natural acidity.

One final note: during my quick tour of the Chablis region, growers were talking about the just-published special 2004 vintage issue of the magazine Bourgogne Aujourd'hui, in which the 2004 vintage in Chablis rated 11 out of 20, compared to 15 for 2003 and 18 for 2004. Although there are no doubt a few Chablis producers who prefer some of their 2003 cuvées to their 2004s, virtually all the growers I visited prefer the 2004s for their minerality, typicity and vibrancy. A few pointed out that 2004 is a perfect example of a vintage that has been gaining significantly with élevage, and that tastings during the winter after the harvest, while always too early to make accurate assessments, were especially absurd in the case of the 2004s. And of course, many of the top producers refuse to ship off samples of their unfinished wines to large group tastings anyway. One grower ventured the opinion that the magazine's early take on the vintage was influenced by information from a local wine broker who saw more than his share of diluted wines from this vintage. Clearly, Chablis from the less quality-conscious 50% to 70% of the region's producers is weak in 2004. But these are not the producers that I visit, nor the ones whose wines you should consider buying.

The 2003s in the bottle. As in the Côte d'Or, the 2003s in bottle are a bit less extreme than they seemed to be last spring. (At the level of the top estates, Chablis may have fared somewhat better than the Côte d'Or, as the harvest was a bit later in Chablis, and few growers were forced to bring in fruit before the worst of the heat began to subside during the last days of August.) Many wines that received a longer élevage and were bottled later appear to have regained some of their underlying minerality and shed some of their more bizarre aromas. While most 2003s will always be characterized more by their vintage than by their site character—and will be enjoyed as good chardonnay rather than as typical Chablis—there are plenty of exceptions. The best wines are extremely rich and concentrated, owing mostly to very low crop levels, but also possess adequate acidity, often through judicious acidification, and avoid the worst extremes of overripeness and sunburn. A relative handful of the best 2003s may well surprise with their longevity, but I would still drink most premier crus within six or seven years and grand crus within ten.