Chablis 2011 and 2010

Barely a generation ago, the Chablis region in the northern reaches of Burgundy was lucky to get its fruit ripe one year out of two.  Call it global warming or simply climate change, but Chablis has been on a hot streak in recent years, to the point where old-time fans of these wines are waxing nostalgic about the flinty, steely, high-acid vintages of the '70s and '80s.  I have relatively very few painfully austere new Chablis bottlings to tell you about this year.  But the 2011 vintage I sampled in Chablis at the beginning of June offers the advantage of ripe fruit at moderate alcohol levels, and the finished 2010s should please virtually all modern-day Chablis lovers.

An up-and-down ride in 2011.  As on the Cote d'Or, freakishly warm weather in March, April and May, including significantly more sunshine hours than usual, led to a very early flowering in Chablis.  According to the Burgundy Wine Board (BIVB), the middle of the flowering for chardonnay in the Yonne departement was May 24, nearly three weeks earlier than average. Under favorable conditions, the stage was set for a very large crop.  A decline in temperatures, showers and even a bit of hail at the end of May slowed down the flowering in normally cooler spots.  On the whole, though, growers anticipated an extremely early harvest.  But the summer turned complicated.

There was some hydric stress in June, and a brutally hot day on the 26th (not to mention some hail a few days later), but sunshine hours were average.  July and the first half of August featured frequent rainy spells and cooler-than-average temperatures.  According to Bernard Raveneau, significant rain events in August, especially on the 26th, raised ultimate pHs and resulted in some dilution of the grapes.  After some minor rainfall during the first week of September, the rest of the month enjoyed mostly beautiful, warm weather and only sporadic precipitation.

However, as on the Cote de Beaune, few growers were able to take advantage of the beautiful weather during the second half of the month because the harvest was virtually finished by then--this in a region that a generation ago routinely started harvesting during the first half of October.  By most accounts, owing to the very early flowering, the vegetative cycle of the vines was coming to an end by the beginning of September, and the vines were beginning to lose their leaves.  Domaine William Fevre, always among the first estates to harvest, began on August 31, which winemaker Didier Seguier noted was already 105 days after the flowering, or several days longer than the norm.  Further sugar accumulation in the grapes, he added, was mostly by concentration (i.e., loss of water in the grapes), rather than "true" ripening of the fruit, and acidity levels were falling.  Growers who had the beginnings of mildew or rot also needed to harvest quickly.  Many others picked quickly for fear of losing the brisk acidity that is the key to the freshness of Chablis, and still others brought in their fruit because they did not want grape sugars to rise too high due to evaporation of water.

But some waited for more complete phenolic maturity and claimed that they gained more than they lost through their patience.  For example, Michel Laroche of Domaine Laroche told me that his grapes were still herbal and vegetal at the beginning of September and that it was necessary to wait for better skin ripeness--and this after a leaf-pulling was carried out in July in the estate's cooler vineyards.  Other producers noted that the leaves of some of their younger plants were affected by mildew during the humid periods of summer, which could have put a brake on the ripening process owing to the loss of foliage.

Yields in 2011 were generous, with even some of the region's most conscientious estates admitting to making the allowed maximum.  Grape sugars were lower than in some recent vintages, typically from the low 11s to mid-12s.  Acidity levels were average, generally a bit lower than those in 2010 but sometimes virtually identical.  More than one grower noted that acidity levels in 2011 were affected by warm nights in late August but that pH levels in the wines somehow remained healthy.

Most growers showed a light hand with the chaptalization, as they didn't think the structure of the wines would support high alcohol, with the result that there are many, many wines in the 12.2% to 13% range that offer wonderful concentration and complexity without heat.  Alcoholic fermentations generally were fast, owing in part to warm ambient temperatures during the period following the harvest, and the malos also went very quickly, in many cases finishing before Christmas, if not sooner than that.

Where the 2011s fall short, they generally lack tension and grip--or personality.  They don't have the precision of aromas and flavors, or the structure, of more classic years.  But the better 2011s are nicely balanced wines that offer a copacetic combination of fruit, minerals and soil character, and they will provide much early pleasure.  Top wines from the elite producers of Chablis are more concentrated and convincing, often showing more tension, and more freshness of fruit, than those producers' 2009s.

The 2010s in bottle.  The growing season of 2010 was also a tricky one, but the vintage has turned out splendidly.  With the potential crop level reduced dramatically by a poor flowering, the wines are concentrated and ripe, with good average acidity levels.  In fact, some 2010s are a bit too ripe, probably from late harvesting; these bottlings show hints of noble rot or surmaturite, and miss out on the energy and grip of the vintage's better examples.  But the most successful 2010s are spectactular:  intensely flavored, minerally, dense with extract and complex, with more texture than young Chablis normally shows.  They have great charm, and would appear to be built for at least 10 to 15 years of development in bottle.  Relatively few wines are locked up tight today. 

Some growers consider 2010 to be one of their greatest vintages ever.  They point out that the wines are more concentrated than the 2008s because the concentration came from real phenolic ripeness rather than wind and water evaporation.  But if the 2010s are denser, they are also less strict, more filled in.  Other producers find the 2008s to be a bit more classic and minerally--and sometimes denser than their 2010s.  As much as I love the 2010s, I'm still a great fan of the '08s.  Certainly, for Chablis lovers, both are vintages to buy aggressively.  And it's worth noting that for the moment at least, the 2010s are generally are more fun to drink than any of the three previous vintages.

As in past years, the overwhelming majority of the wines in this article were tasted in Chablis during my annual visit at the beginning of June.  Since then, I have tasted a handful of additional wines in New York.