2005 and 2004 Chablis

Cool, minerally Chablis remains the world's hottest version of chardonnay at the moment, at least among readers of this publication. The region's producers have had luck as well as talent the past few years. In 2004, the better estates made sharply delineated and exhilaratingly soil-driven wines thanks to highly favorable conditions in September and the first week of October, when most of the harvest took place. They followed up 2004 by making fleshier and riper wines in 2005 that will have broad appeal. In 2005, the Chablis region experienced a bit more rain in August and early September than did the Cote d'Or. While this resulted in a measure of dilution in some spots (vine yields were generally lower than average), it relieved drought stress, and many of the young 2005s show somewhat less obvious alcohol and babyfat than the large-scaled whites from the Cote de Beaune. Yes, some Chablis bottlings demonstrate the slightly blurry and exotic character shown by some of France's white wines in 2005, but others offer surprising Chablis typicity in a larger-than-normal frame.

Chablis's luck appears to have held once again in 2006. Despite the same rot pressures faced by many other areas of France due to a cold and damp August, there will likely be plenty of very good to excellent Chablis once again, as this region ripened its fruit early and many growers were able to bring in their top parcels before rot spread and more rains fell in late September. For the first time in recorded history, the harvest in Chablis began before that for chardonnay on the Cote de Beaune, a function of crop loads and weather patterns during the summer.

The 2005 growing season and the wines. The 2005 flowering was delayed by a week of cool, breezy weather at the beginning of June and was then uneven and drawn out, with significant coulure [when the flowers do not pollinate or when the tiny berries quickly fall off the vine] and millerandage [uneven development of the berries] setting the stage for a smallish crop. Most of the summer was then dry and warm, but without the temperature extremes (and hot nights) witnessed in 2003. The result was smaller, thick-skinned berries and a further reduction in ultimate vine yields. But while most of France had a dry August, Chablis had some rainy spells (85 millimeters for the month, according to one estate I visited). In particular, some rain in the middle of the month and again at the end provided the conditions for the spread of botrytis, but favorable weather during the first half of September helped to contain rot pressures.

The official start to the harvest was September 17. Most growers agree that the fruit prior to that date was not completely ripe. But by around the 17th, the fruit was gaining rapidly in sugar, and rain that day caused most estates to wait a couple more days to start picking. Growers who harvested toward the end of the month reported more surmaturite (as well as grape sugars of 14% or even higher) and have made more glyceral and often more exotic wines, with aromas tending toward honey and apricot more than to classic citrus peel, dusty stone, minerals and acacia flower. In general, earlier picking was better-assuming the fruit was ripe, of course. But borderline overripeness was more of an issue than rot. William Fevre began on the day of the ban with a huge team of pickers (as this house did again in 2006), and winemaker Didier Seguier is convinced that picking early and quickly was the only way to avoid getting fruit with golden skins and botrytis, as well as to retain healthy levels of natural acidity. (In fact, the Fevre '05s largely show the inviting green tinge that I associate with classic minerally Chablis.) Vincent Dauvissat noted that temperatures were too warm during the 2005 harvest but said that the rot was mostly of the noble variety and that acid levels remained sound.

The 2005s are generally concentrated, rich wines with high alcohol, average acidity and plenty of baby fat. Some fermentations proceeded in fits and starts and lasted much longer than usual. As in the Cote d'Or, the underlying minerality of the 2005s is widely masked by sheer ripeness. But I suspect that, as with the best wines of the Cote d'Or, the minerality is there. Although the best wines will need at least a few years to assume their adult shape, most of the 2005s offer considerable early appeal and seem best suited for mid-term aging (i.e., drink the premier crus between 2010 and 2016 and the grand crus from 2012 through 2020). Obviously, the best wines of the vintage, well-stored, will go on longer. As for comparisons to past vintages: Some growers describe the young 2005s as fruitier, fatter versions of 2002, a bit less minerally in style. Some describe them as too fruity. Others compare 2005 to the ripe, supple 1992s or to the dense 1985s.

The 2004s in the bottle. This cooler year, which featured a huge crop load and a miserable August, produced more typical, minerally Chablis. Sure, there are overcropped, underripe wines that can be screechy with acidity, thin or downright dilute. But the best wines offer lovely purity, elegance and aromatic character. They are classic wines that are must-haves for all winos whose idea of a good time is to chew on a mouthful of wet stones (count this rock-hound as a member of that group). Sugar levels were generally average to good, and the best wines, though less fleshy and rich than the '05s, have no shortage of density. And though they are minerally and precise, and possess firm acidity, they are rarely too hard to try in their youth. Like 2005, this should be a vintage for mid-term drinking.

The overwhelming majority of the following wines were tasted in September in Chablis, many of them shortly after they were bottled. I often find that wines sampled within a week or two of bottling are pure, aromatically expressive and relatively easy to taste, and then begin to shut down a few weeks later. But, clearly, some of the samples I tasted were showing the effects of the bottling. It is thus entirely possible that some wines that I have rated with a (+?) will eventually merit higher scores.