Chablis 2009 and 2008

France'’s very warm, dry growing season of 2009 brought an early harvest to Chablis, and has yielded a set of unusually rich, fruit-driven wines that will offer considerable early appeal. Purists will claim, with justification, that this is not a classic crop of cerebral, citrus- and limestone-driven wines from the cool clay-and-chalk soils of this northernmost outpost of Burgundy. But the vintage will offer an excellent introduction to Chablis for those white wine lovers whose idea of a great drinking experience does not involve sucking on a mouthful of cool stones. And at the level of the finest estates, there will be plenty of wines with the ineffable floral and mineral notes that make Chablis distinctive.

Most of the growers I visited at the beginning of June began harvesting in mid-September, typically starting between the 12th and the 16th—extremely early by the standards of this region, which is closer to Paris than it is to Beaune. But the flowering in 2009 had been drawn out by uneven weather, and many vineyards on the periphery of the Chablis region, especially those on north-facing slopes, were even farther behind the grand crus and nearby premier crus from the outset. Even within the same parcels of vines, the ripeness of the fruit could be quite variable, and in the end numerous producers chose to pick some of their top sites in two or three passes. Several growers told me that their vines weren’t close to being ripe in the first week of September, and thus it was too early to contemplate picking.

Grape sugars received a bump from very warm weather during the first third of September, and many growers quickly geared up to harvest out of concern over falling acidity levels in the grapes. These growers are quick to point out that it’s the natural acidity in the grapes that carries the minerality so integral to these wines. But even those who started by September 15 often picked in fits and starts. It was probably a good idea to harvest on the early side in 2009. But I did taste some wines that seemed a bit tart and peppery on the finish, suggesting that the grapes were not fully ripe. Of course, it can be tricky to differentiate between slightly underripe wines and others that finish with some alcoholic bitterness—not to mention wines that were acidified.

The young 2009s are high in natural grape sugars (little or no chaptalization was necessary) and mostly lower than average in acidity. Crop levels were generous: numerous producers admitted that they made the full allowable yields in most, if not all, of their vineyards. Many compare their 2009s to their 2006s or 2005s—or even to their 2002s—for their fruity richness. In that sense, they agree that 2009 produced a relatively user-friendly style of Chablis. In contrast to the 2008s, which often took much longer than usual to finish their malolactic fermentations owing to high levels of malic acidity in the grapes and the very cold winter of 2009, the newer crop of wines finished easily and quickly.

Here are just a few of the capsule descriptions of 2009 provided by the growers I visited in June: “A vintage of pleasure.” “Rich and fat, ripe and clean; the only fault is a lack of acidity.” “Very tender, like the 2006s.” “A pleasant surprise.” Whereas most Chablis producers describe their 2008s and 2007s as classic, mineral-driven wines, the 2009s are more about fruit. But there are plenty of exceptions to this generalization, such as Denis de la Bourdonnaye, the winemaker for Domaine Laroche, and Sébastien Dauvissat, who believe they have made classic, structured 2009s with the potential for a long evolution in bottle.

The Chablis market and current pricing. Chablis has become an exaggerated two-tier market. Most of the top producers I visit regularly continue to sell their wines without much difficulty, even if they are increasingly going to Asia to do it. But at the other extreme, growers who do not bottle their own wine and have always sold their crop (as fruit, must or wine) to négociants are generally in desperate straits, as the market for low-end Chablis has dried up in recent years (led by a plunge in demand in the traditionally Chablis-thirsty U.K. market) and local merchants are short of cash.

In fact, Chablis remains a relative bargain for fans of brisk, mineral-driven chardonnay. More than in recent years, I was struck this June by the number of excellent, and typical, village wines from top Chablis producers that can be found in the retail market for $25 or less. Compared with top chardonnays from the New World, not to mention wines from the Côte de Beaune, these bottles represent unusually good value in highly distinctive chardonnay. Chablis premier crus are pricier than village wines, of course, yet they are frequently equal in quality to their counterparts from the Côte de Beaune at half the price, or less. A classic bottle of Montée de Tonnerre, one of the best premier crus for white wine in Burgundy, is a relative steal for $35. And a good bottle of the grand cru Les Clos, which at its finest combines the best characteristics of Le Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne, is a steal in the $60 to $80 range, where a number of these wines are priced today. (On the whole, I would argue that Les Clos is a safer bet, as far as quality is concerned, than Le Montrachet or Corton-Charlemagne, and this top grand cru of Chablis is routinely much cheaper.)

The 2008s from the bottle. This vintage is as captivating in bottle as it appeared to be last spring in tank or in barrel. The wines have the brisk lemony acidity (often 4.5 to 5 grams per liter) that carries and accentuates their underlying minerality but with an element of sweetness and density that is largely missing in the 2007s. In some cases, this combination of thickness of material and firm acidity will require at least a few years of bottle aging to harmonize. But the strong acidity in many wines is perfectly buffered by density of fruit, so even where the wines have the stuffing to evolve slowly in bottle they are easy to taste today.

An important difference between the 2008s of Chablis and those made on the Côte de Beaune is that the fruit was generally cleaner in Chablis. With less rain and humidity during the summer months, the vineyards of Chablis had much less mildew and rot to deal with. And with the harvest typically a week or so later in Chablis, this region was able to take greater advantage of a drying north wind in September, which concentrated the fruit through evaporation without compromising acidity levels in the grapes.

It must also be noted that the 2007s, especially when made from sites that were not thrown off balance by hail, are often the most classic and soil-driven recent examples of Chablis: pure, taut and austere in the early going, with dominating crushed stone and almost metallic mineral character. Relatively few of these wines lead with their fruit. Even where they have no more acidity than the 2008s, they can seem more tart and bracing because they are leaner. Many growers describe 2007 as “a connoisseur’s vintage,” which is their way of telling you to run and hide if you don’t like wines that can take the enamel off your teeth. The best cru bottlings will need up to a decade to approach maturity, though only time will tell how much they eventually soften and gain in weight.

Chablis and the use of barriques. My tour this year, and my discussions with a number of the region’s more intelligent winemakers, gave me plenty of food for thought on the subject of Chablis and oak. Clearly, the incisive texture and precision of Chablis, and its often delicate high notes of citrus fruits, flowers, powdered stone and wild herbs, can easily be masked or even compromised by the use of barriques during their élevage. Two of the appellation’s greats, Raveneau and Vincent Dauvissat, have always made their wines in barrels, a small percentage of them new, while at the other extreme producers like Domaine Louis Michel, Domaine Billaud-Simon (with a couple of exceptions), Domaine des Chenevières and Domaine Gilbert Picq have always been known for wines made entirely in stainless steel tanks.

But the lines have been blurred in recent years as many producers who previously eschewed oak have begun to experiment with barrels for some of their crus. Today, many of the region’s most talented winemakers pride themselves on their ability to give each cuvée just the amount of oak treatment it needs, even if that ideal exposure to oak varies according to the vintage. Needless to say, oakiness in Chablis is to a large extent subjective, as one taster’s “just spicy enough” may be another’s “lumbering.” When a winemaker tells me in early June that he racked a wine from barrel back into stainless steel in April because it was getting too oaky, does that mean that he got it right or got it wrong? Tasting unfinished wines during the late spring after the harvest is tricky enough under any circumstances, but throw in the oak variable and you can understand the difficulty of predicting how the wine will taste by the time it’s bottled—or, for that matter, by the time it has benefited from seven or eight years in your cellar.

I raise this issue because this year I happened to taste some of the same 2008s in New York that I had just sampled a week earlier in Chablis. Having compared my two sets of notes, it became clear to me that certain wines that were a bit oaky for my taste in Chablis seemed just fine in New York, while wines that successfully hid their oak component in Chablis were often distinctly woody in New York. And this was with finished wines: imagine tasting the 2009s from tank, just a few weeks after their stainless steel and barriques components had been assembled.

Incidentally, Chablis veteran Christian Moreau, whose son Fabien, now the winemaker at this family domain, is a talented taster with the (flex)ability to give each cuvée what he feels is the right amount of oak influence in each vintage, believes that the whole oak-vs.-steel discussion is overblown. “Not too long ago, all Chablis was made in barrels,” he pointed out. “It was only at the very end of the 1960s that stainless steel tanks became available to the producers here. We certainly have a history here of working in oak, so maybe tasters shouldn’t be so obsessed about this variable in Chablis.” But that’s unlikely to end the debate anytime soon, especially as Chablis-making remains a moving target.