2007 and 2006 Chablis

First things first: the miserable summer of 2007 was much harder on red grapes in Bordeaux than it was on chardonnay in Burgundy. Chardonnay does not need serious heat and wall-to-wall sunshine to ripen well—on the contrary. Lovers of brisk, mineral-driven white Burgundies have more to fear from global warming and plunging acidity levels in the grapes than they do from the kinds of weather issues that routinely plagued Burgundy—particularly Chablis—a generation ago: spring frosts, extremely late flowering resulting in October harvests, and cold, rainy weather at the end of the season. Yes, the summer of 2007 was a mostly depressing affair, but owing to a freakishly early flowering in late May that had been made possible by record-breaking sunshine and warmth in April, the grapes were in advance from the outset. Ripening came slowly during the dreary July and August months, but the return of very good weather at the beginning of September eventually enabled fruit in well-situated vineyards to achieve good if not exceptional levels of ripeness. A lack of grape sugars was not generally an issue in 2007. On the contrary, sugar levels were quite healthy by historic Chablis standards, and many of the producers I visited during the last days of May told me they did little or no chaptalization.

The largest threat to wine quality in 2007 was several hail events between late April and late July that struck the premier cru vineyards of Montée de Tonnerre and Mont de Milieu especially hard (owners here routinely reported ultimate crop levels down by 40% or 50%) but also affected a wide swath of vineyards stretching from Préhy south of the village of Chablis through Chichée, Fleys and Béru to the southeast and east of town. (The especially damaging hailstorm of June 24 also touched part of the grand cru Blanchot.) A majority of growers with vineyards hit by hail had no choice but to pick these parcels late, as the ripening process was compromised by damage to the vines’ foliage. But others were forced to pick their hail-affected fruit at the beginning of the harvest, either because the more fragile grape skins were already showing signs of rot, or because the remaining crop loads were so low that ripening of the fruit was more advanced. Others said the hailed-on fruit developed tougher skins and was very slow to ripen. A number of the growers I visited told me they picked their hail-affected fruit early (say, between September 6 and 10), then shut down their harvesters for three or four days to allow their other vineyards to achieve better ripeness.

Another potential difficulty in 2007 was the fairly sizable crop loads in areas unaffected by hail. Damp, rainy weather in August had left fruit in more humid, less well-drained sites vulnerable to rot, and many growers harvested too early (it was legal to pick in Chablis as early as September 1), before their fruit was ripe enough, out of fear that their grapes were beginning to deteriorate. But nearly all the top producers I visited agreed that the later one could pick in 2007, the better, as the grape sugars concentrated through evaporation of water, in many cases without significant loss of acidity.

Bad boy Jean-Marie Guffens, who has bottled large quantities of Chablis in some recent vintages, bought virtually no fruit in 2007 for his Verget wines, as he had serious doubts about the quality of material—owing to hail, high crop levels, and the predilection for early harvesting shown by his regular suppliers. (The only wine he made was a bit of Les Clos, with grapes purchased from Domaine Christian Moreau, as he was happy with the quality of the fruit and the harvesting strategy there.) While Guffens believes that his 2007s from the Côte d’Or and the Mâconnais will be “pleasant and minerally wines, like the 2004s,” he’s a bit less confident about Chablis—or at least about those wines made from fruit harvested too early. “These wines have very high levels of malic acidity, and not much tartaric,” he explained. “Malic acidity is relatively unstable, and when the fresh fruit goes away, the wines may go lactic, camembert-like, and oxidize quickly. It was really a much better idea to harvest later in 2007, just as the best strategy in 2006 was to pick early.”

Most growers describe 2007 as le vrais Chablis: dry, with sound acidity, fresh fruit and apparent minerality—a good vintage with solid aging potential. Wherever I went, I asked producers to compare their 2007s to the minerally, precise 2004s, another vintage characterized by a mediocre summer and saved by near-ideal September weather. (Note that I am talking about wines from the more conscientious grape-growers and winemakers in the region: there are in contrast plenty of overcropped 2004s that are thin, screechy and dilute, and others that are not squeaky-clean.) Many growers agreed that the two vintages show more similarities than differences. A majority expressed the opinion that 2007 is a bit richer and suppler, or a bit fruitier, owing to crop levels that, while healthy, were not as extreme as those of 2004.

Yes, there are lean, hard, green 2007s from Chablis, but these are normally wines made from risk-averse early harvesters working with high-yielding vines that didn’t ripen their fruit properly. (There are also some blurry or even exotic wines made from fruit picked too late or affected by rot.) But there are also plenty of penetrating, mineral-driven, balanced wines carrying moderate alcohols in the 12.5 to 12.8% range that are concentrated, ripe and built to age. The successful wines of the vintage are a far cry from the austere Chablis of yesteryear, but in many cases they are firmer, fresher and more citric and minerally than the fleshier and often more exotic 2006s. This should be good news for the long-time Chablis lover, who can’t find this style of thirst-quenching chardonnay anywhere else.

Tasting 2007 and 2006 side by side. Comparing these two vintages was a fascinating and revealing exercise. At many cellars I preferred the 2007s for their freshness and energy. (In fact, a few growers presented their 2006s first, as did a number of growers I visited in May on the Côte de Beaune, because they were afraid these wines would come across as ponderous after the younger vintage.) The best 2007s have lovely citrus, floral and mineral aromas, sound acidity and a firm core of material. The ‘06s, by comparison, are often richer and riper, but show fleshier textures and more exotic aromas and flavors (soft citrus fruits, exotic spices, honey) that I don’t normally look for in Chablis. In other cellars, though, the 2006s are more concentrated and classic, especially when the fruit was harvested early. Use my notes to find the style of Chablis you prefer; certainly these two vintages will provide something for every taste.

As a general rule, those who brought in fruit in 2007 with 11 to 12 degrees of potential alcohol chaptalized between a half-degree and a degree, while fruit with 12.5% natural alcohol was often left alone. More than one winemaker noted that the sugar fermentations were very efficient—that grapes that appeared to have potential alcohol levels of 12.5% often finished their fermentations with 12.8%. At a majority of the addresses I visited the fermentations finished with relatively low levels of residual sugar (typically between 1 and 1.5 grams per liter), which accentuates the Chablis-ness of the wines and their steely minerality. In a majority of cellars, the 2006s were more likely to have finished with between 1.5 and 2 grams of sugar—and sometimes a bit higher—a factor contributing to the opulent impression shown by so many of these wines.

The 2006s are fleshy wines that often show considerable immediate appeal. As the grape skins were deepening in color under warm and humid conditions at the moment of the harvest, just a few days of waiting often resulted in softer and more exotic wines. Some of the best producers brought in some of their grand cru fruit before the ban de vendange on Saturday, September 16. One noteworthy early picker, William Fèvre, started on Wednesday, the 13th, and this set of wines displays fresh and enticing green-tinged colors not normally found in the 2006s from other cellars. That cool green cast, a characteristic of chardonnay from this cooler, northerly region, was considerably more widespread in 2007.