2006 and 2005 Chablis

While global warming and associated climate changes represent a serious threat to already-warm growing regions like inland sections of California and much of the southern rim of Europe, marginal areas in which vines historically struggled to ripen their fruit appear for the moment to be benefiting. Take Chablis, for example. Barely two decades ago, growers here routinely harvested well into October and were lucky if they ripened their fruit one year out of two in any but their best sites. Now, spring comes earlier, summers are hotter and drier, and the harvest takes place weeks earlier, under warmer conditions. But be careful what you wish for: today, hard-core fans of this bracing, elegant, mineral-driven wine, which has more in common with sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley than it does with most chardonnays from the New World, are starting to worry that today’s Chablis is too ripe. And the techniques that growers had previously devised for getting their fruit riper earlier may now be exacerbating the effects of global warming.

According to Denis de la Bourdonnaye, winemaker at Domaine Laroche, the climate in Chablis has changed dramatically since the 1980s. “For every degree Centigrade that the average temperature during the growing season climbs, that’s the equivalent of being 150 kilometers further south.” The average temperature in Chablis, noted Bourdonnaye, is nearly 1.5 degrees higher than it was 20 years ago, “which means that we’re making wines here today under conditions similar to what the Mâconnais had two decades ago. Previously we used to crave sunny, warm weather,” Bourdonnaye adds, “but today we need to protect our fruit against sunlight.”

Just look at what the last few vintages have brought. Two thousand three featured the earliest harvest ever in Chablis, with the official start (the ban de vendange) on August 25. For most estates, 2005 was the second-earliest start ever recorded, and 2006 was also a precocious harvest. Based on the freakishly early flowering of 2007 due to an extended period of very warm weather during the last three weeks of April and much of May, this year’s harvest was expected to begin during the first week of September, or earlier than any year except 2003. The crisp, classic, and exhilaratingly “typical” 2004 style—a white wine vintage that has also attracted purists in the Côte d’Or—seems more and more like a fleeting memory.

In my tour of the Chablis region’s top addresses in early June, the growers were thrilled that their wines were enjoying strong demand in the international marketplace (vineyard plantings here have actually increased in recent years—an anomaly in France, where growers are more likely to be paid to pull up their vines due to oversupply of wine). But they also admitted to nagging concerns over climate change and are aware that they must avoid making generic ripe chardonnay, which some growers described as “southern” in style, or even Côte d’Or-like. What can they do to counteract the effects of warmer growing seasons? Said one grower: “The date of the harvest is critical. We need to pick earlier to avoid getting exotic notes in our wines. And when we pick early, the vines are still working, and they have something in reserve for the next growing season.” Another producer noted that leaving more foliage on the vines gives the grapes better protection from the sun. Other growers mentioned that organic viticulture helps to retain acidity, and one or two even said that higher vine yields offer the potential to slow the ripening process and push back harvest dates. Laroche’s Bourdonnaye has blocked a portion of the malolactic fermentation in every vintage since 2000 with the exception of 2004, à la Jacques Lardière at Jadot. Twenty years ago, this would have been beyond heresy in Chablis.

The 2006 growing season and harvest. Chablis clearly was a favored appellation in 2006, weather-wise, unless you believe that the year was simply too ripe for the region. For the first time ever, the ban de vendange was earlier in Chablis (September 16) than it was for chardonnay on the Côte d’Or (September 18). Chablis, it seems, was a bit less likely to suffer a blockage of maturity from the heat of July, and during France’s miserable August the rain patterns were also favorable to Chablis. According to Didier Seguier, winemaker at William Fèvre, there were about 80 millimeters of rain in Chablis but 150 in Chassagne-Montrachet, and there were also fewer storms in Chablis in June and July. When the first third of September turned hot again, there was less rot pressure in Chablis than on the Côte d’Or. Both areas received significant rainfall on Friday, September 15, but the harvest officially began the next day in Chablis, and most estates were able to pick all of their best fruit by the end of the following week, before rot became widespread, acidity levels fell sharply, and more rains arrived on the 22nd. A number of top estates that believed their fruit was already ripe enough, and were concerned about preserving freshness in their wines, picked early with special dispensation from the wine police. For example, William Fèvre began on September 13, Raveneau and Droin on September 14. But others, like Denis Pommier and Jean-Loup Michel, waited until as late as September 20. By most accounts, grape sugars were typically in the high 12% to 13% range, and acidity at least slightly below average.