Close to the Edge: Chablis 2018 & 2019
BY NEAL MARTIN | SEPTEMBER 24, 2020
“The wines of Chablis must not in any way be confused with the White Wines of the Côte d’Or, Mâconnais etc...they are totally different, in a class by themselves.” – In Search of Wine, Charles W. Berry, 1935 (p.46)
Chablis is white Burgundy without the frills, an oasis of vines inhabiting Kimmeridgian limestone surrounded by miles of unspoiled nothingness. The region has always self-isolated from the vast Burgundy hinterland despite commonality in terms of grape variety. Chablis feels comfortable and, dare I say, even grateful for existing as a separate entity; ergo it tends to march to its own tune. Things move more slowly than in the Côte d’Or. Quaintly bucolic and refreshingly simpler by comparison, it has (one or two domaines aside) resisted escalating prices that alienate consumers and disenfranchise a younger generation of fledgling oenophiles. This should not imply that Chablis is also immune to change; producers are innovating while new domaines sprout across a once corporate-dominated landscape.
Living up to its name, the river that runs through Chablis.
Moored at the northern extremity of Burgundy, over an hour’s drive from Beaune, Chablis occupies a liminal latitude where winemaking can exist and thrive as a large-scale monoculture of potentially world-class wines. It is a precarious climatic edge of a cliff, as any embattled winemaker who has suffered late spring frosts, hail or inclement summers and harvests will relate with anguish. Despite this constant threat from the malevolent caprice of Mother Nature, Chablis winemakers always seem...happy.
A lot of water had flowed under the bridge since I was in Chablis two years previously, and I eagerly anticipated a return before the pandemic tore up my carefully laid plans. The organizational body, the BIVB, stepped in and did a sterling job of rounding up over 400 samples and dispatching them to my tasting room, only a case from Servin going AWOL and kindly replaced by the domaine. Unsurprisingly, this shipment did not include a handful of high-profile names. The gaps nagged away, veiling the report with incompleteness, like a film missing a crucial scene. As the pandemic receded in late July, I made an impromptu, brief visit in order to fill these omissions and also test the logistics for future trips en voiture. (You can read all about that in my recent “Beyond Wine” piece.) Visiting the region not only resulted in a more comprehensive report, but also rekindled a personal connection between taster and region. I relished breathing the same air as the vines, discussing the vintages tête-à-tête with winemakers and, new for 2020, jogging through the Grand Crus each morning. It just felt good. It made me...happy.
My first tasting post-lockdown was with Isabelle Raveneau, here looking on imperiously armed with pipette and stemware.
This report focuses on the bottled 2018 vintage that was reviewed in barrel by Antonio Galloni. I prefer not to receive barrel samples of white wines because their turbidity often renders them unreadable. Nevertheless, a number of bottled 2019s were included in the BIVB shipment, and I tasted a few dozen 2019s from barrel from key producers such as Raveneau and Vincent Dauvissat during my trip. This turned out to be important, for the two vintages beg comparison. They might be cut from the same cloth, but one is superior to the other.
The Growing Seasons
Though the 2018 growing season was covered in last year’s report, I am going to drill down a bit further with additional data because it explains some of my appraisals.
After a warm January, February was 2.6°C colder than normal. There was a small risk of frost on May 1 and 2, though fortunately damage was negligible. Although budding was a little later than normal, flowering (mi-floraison) was 11 days earlier than average, on June 2, predicating an early harvest. The summer was warm, June averaging 19.6°C, July 22.8°C and August 21.3°C. It was also particularly dry, with rainfall levels of 24mm, 33mm and 35mm for those same months, between 20% and 60% below average. (Compare these figures with Beaune, which recorded 63mm, 73mm and 32mm.) Another key figure is the sunlight hours, which were all well above normal, not least July with 337 hours, between 35% and 45% more than usual. The end of July and the beginning of August were particularly dry and risked hydric stress – what the French call caniculaire. Thankfully, there were no serious hailstorms, minor localized events on July 3, 15 and 20 inflicting only minimal damage. Because of these conditions, véraison was again early, mi-véraison occurring on August 4, two weeks ahead of the norm. (Winemakers had better start canceling future vacations for later that month.)
It is interesting to analyze the sugar accumulation at this point. Levels were below those of the Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais, but accelerated in the period from around August 16 until August 27, when berries added 2.9g/L per day before leveling off. September was also particularly sunny, with 244 sunlight hours, although temperatures were as expected – a moot point since much of the harvest was conducted at the beginning or even before that month. The year ended up being the warmest on record, even warmer than 2003. Sugar levels were around 190g/L, higher than many vintages that tend to cluster around 180g/L but lower than 2015, which was over 200g/L. Perhaps the headline figure is quantity: 2018 yielded around 1.8 million hectoliters. Many producers exceeded limits imposed by authorities, which Galloni mentioned in last year’s report, obliging excess Village and Premier Crus to be held in reserve or sent to the distillery – in the case of Grand Crus, over 54hL/ha directly to the latter, to the chagrin of many growers.
Now let us turn our attention to the 2019 vintage. The average temperatures from June to August were 19.9°C, 22°C and, crucially, 20.8°C. That last figure is fundamental in understanding the differences in the resulting wines, because even though it is just 0.5°C under the previous year’s figure, it makes a difference when the sun is high in the sky, its power most intense. Those moderate temperatures continued into September, which averaged 16°C – again, around half a degree less than the previous year. It is also important to examine the heat spikes in 2019. There were two spells where temperatures exceeded 35°C, but they were relatively short, between four and six days. However, it was even drier than in 2018, with rainfall figures of 40mm, 20mm and 18mm from June to August. Thankfully, the previous three months (March to May) witnessed normal rainfall, especially March, which was around 20% wetter than normal, thereby accreting underground reserves of moisture to slake the vines’ thirst, those with deeper spatial roots being at an advantage. The summer was also sunnier than normal, with sunlight hours at 271, 331 and 273 hours from June to August, only slightly under the previous year. Overall, average temperatures throughout the year were below those of 2018, albeit with less rainfall, approximately the same as in 2005, 2009 and 2011 and, at 213mm during the vegetative cycle between April and September, around 30% below the 30-year average.
In terms of its effect on the vines, flowering was delayed, mi-floraison arriving on June 18, some 16 days later than in 2018, while mi-véraison was August 19, 15 days later. This gifted the berries a longer hang-time to enhance complexity, though interestingly, the final accumulated sugar levels actually exceed those of 2018, at around 204g/L. Growers decided to wait until they felt that their fruit was phenolically ripe, which is why maturity levels are higher than in 2018. Production was much less than the previous year, at an estimated 1.2 million hectoliters, so the distilleries were less busy.
Given the style of the 2018 and (to a lesser extent) 2019 vintages, allow me to reiterate my philosophical stance toward Chablis, and how it holds sway over my scoring methodology. It is a subject that I have broached in previous articles and one that was recently discussed on “Your Say.”
There are two factors that influence my appreciation of a wine. First, there is a straightforward, banal one: How good do I perceive this wine to be? This question strives toward objectivity while recognizing elements of subjectivity that the critic’s readership will hopefully understand, if not necessarily concur with. The second factor could be described as a moral standpoint that is intertwined with typicité. Essentially, it boils down to this: What does the critic believe a wine should be? What are its parameters? When does an unusual or unorthodox wine transgress into something that is unrecognizable – and does it matter?
Typicité is not the be-all and end-all, but it is a vital element in wine that strives to go beyond merely slaking thirst or causing intoxication. I seek wine whose taste correlates to the place it comes from. Therefore, it stands to reason that I want my Chablis to trigger a neon sign in my cerebral membrane that flashes “Chablis.” I want it to articulate its Kimmeridgian limestone soils via the medium of Chardonnay through the hands of a winemaker directly into my wine glass. This begs the question: What should Chablis taste like?
Well, let me quote P. Morton Shand in the excellent A Book of French Wines, published in 1928. “Chablis is certainly one of the driest and perhaps the palest of white wines,” he wrote. “It has considerable body lurking under a very subtle bouquet, inimitable limpidity and virginal freshness, with a clean taste of chalk spring water.” What a wonderful and evocative description.
To that I might add aromas of green apples such as crunchy Granny Smiths and a touch of gunflint, and maybe steeliness on the palate and more racy acidity than found further south in the Côte d’Or. Chablis should stimulate saliva-inducing salinity that constantly entices you back for another sip. As I have argued before, this school of thought countenances “meanness” in Chablis. It sounds contentious, but it should be uncompromising and even challenging to the imbiber. Chablis should eschew seductiveness and not bow to our natural inclination toward sweetness. Consider that the finest literature is not necessarily the easiest to read, nor the finest art visually the simplest to understand; ipso facto, the greatest wines are not necessarily the easiest to drink. To use a cinematic analogy, the most interesting characters in a film are not necessarily the nicest ones.
If this sounds like bunkum, that’s fine – you are someone whose appreciation of wine correlates to the first factor (does it taste good, yes or no?), and that probably makes life less complicated. But in my capacity as a wine critic and also when drinking wine for pleasure, first I assess quality and then I consider how closely it approximates to the region in question.
The warm, dry summer of 2018 benefited growers in terms of quantity, answering many winemakers’ prayers after the frost, hail and rot-affected vintages of recent years. It produced a raft of what you might call “pretty Chardonnay” instead of “spine-tinglingly brilliant Chablis.” Chablis can be one or the other but rarely accommodates both. In 2018, the growing season dictated that growers make seductive Chardonnay wine in lieu of wine that translates the nuances of its unique terroir, at the expense of the typicité that distinguishes Chablis from any other wine region.
This is the reason why my scores tend to be a notch lower than you might expect. I admittedly take a hard line on this matter and understand that when it comes to drinking and enjoying these wines, the score and attendant appraisal might seem unjustified. But I became more and more convinced that this stance is correct when I compared 2018s with their 2019 counterparts, not least when tasting complete portfolios and directly comparing like-for-like vineyards. Time and again, the 2018s came across as charming and seductive. It was only when I began tasting 2019s that their diminished “Chablis-ness” became abundantly clear. Of course, if we expand our purview to include the feted 2010, 2014 and 2017 vintages, then 2018 begins to look rather generic, even though many wines are delicious to drink in the short to medium term. Winemakers alluded to this shortcoming in conversation. For sure, they were able to produce Chablis that will give pleasure to consumers; however, few entertain profundity or offer intellectual rigor.
Olivier and Alice de Moor, disciples of biodynamie, at their winery in Courgis. Whether that rocks your boat or not, the simple fact is that they produced a range of wonderful 2019s from modest holdings. Who needs a Grand Cru when your wines are as good as theirs? More and more minimal-intervention, low- or non-SO2 natural winemakers are cropping up in Chablis.
Of course I am generalizing, and there are always exceptions to the rule – examples where, due to exceptional terroir or the talents of a winemaker, and more often a combination of both, a 2018 Chablis transcended the limitations of the growing season and produced wine suffused with mineralité, flintiness, tension or nervosité; I will name-check a couple of these later. However, I cannot remember a Chablis report where the word “flint” has been so sparingly used. Instead, there are allusions to tropical fruit, peaches, apricot, passion fruit and so forth, as well as overt floral aromas, sweet and seductive traits of almond and, intermittently, marzipan. These descriptors are more associated with warmer and more Mediterranean-influenced climates. I am not going to deny that I enjoy them; of course I do! Yet they don't whisk me away to those limestone hills of Les Preuses or Montmains or Montée de Tonnerre, to name but three of my favorite climats.
Speaking to Chablis winemakers, they seem to hold the same sentiments as I do. Marc Cameron, winemaker at Domaine Servin, spoke candidly about the two vintages via email. “It’s hard to explain but I have also had people comment that 2018 for some wines has lost its Chablis character. I think even if we had the weather to easily ripen the grapes, sometimes too ripe, the main factor is the large yield. The wines are good, some are even great, but when you get a big yield it is hard for the terroir to really express itself. The idea in Chablis is high-density plantations, no irrigation and short pruning and this pushes the root system deep down in the soil. Normally each vine, when done correctly, produces just enough fruit per vine - this is where the vineyards express their different characters. The 2018 [vintage] was easy: no disease, ripe grapes with big quantities. Some taste like commercial-styled New World wines, insofar as they are technically well made but missing some soul. The lower appellations always benefit from this type of vintage and there are some knockout Petit Chablis and Chablis Village on the market.”
He continued: “Historically, Chablis rarely has two big harvests in a row, and 2019 followed this rule. We lost some buds with the frost, more with the flowering, then the heat. Again, it was a hot vintage, but alcohol levels are generally a little lower in 2019 than in 2018. As I said before: 2018 is rich and 2019 is concentrated. Yields for some vineyards in 2019 were 50% lower than 2018. It may be a little too early to really compare the two vintages but 2019 does seem on the palate a little more balanced. This is to be confirmed in the future.”
Cameron’s observation that “2018 is rich and 2019 is concentrated” concisely sums up those growing seasons and highlights their subtle yet tangible distinction. The richness in the former engendered honeyed textures, exotic fruit profiles and low acidities and tended to erase terroir expression. The following year, well, if we subscribe to the idea that vines are sentient beings, the clever things learned from the previous vintage. In 2019 they managed to harness and redirect that accumulated sugar to create wines that generally convey greater sense of place. I understand that makes me sound like a crackpot. Vines are just plants. They don’t think and learn. However, it is not the first time that I have heard winemakers claim that vines react and adapt to novel climate situations, and I, for one, believe that they learn empirically simply in order to survive.
The 2018 growing season is pockmarked by some of my favorite producers not quite overcoming the imprimatur of the growing season, through no fault of their own. This was thrown into sharp relief by direct comparisons between producers, an exercise made possible by tasting at home. For example, for many years I have been a huge fan of Benoît Droin’s wines (Domaine Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin). Unable to visit the domaine, I tasted samples in the UK and found the 2018s pleasurable, yet with the exception of a fabulous Valmur, they did not thrill to the extent of previous vintages. I strongly suspect that Droin’s 2019s will be much better because he is one of the most talented winemakers in Chablis. Laurent Tribut is another producer that did not quite pass muster. I doubt that is related to Tribut’s retirement but rather a consequence of a particularly hot summer. Tasting with Didier Picq at his winery in Chichée reemphasized the gap between 2018 and 2019, the differences between them incontrovertible. Isabelle Raveneau also opined that there is a marked difference between 2018 and 2019, explaining that the high yields, twice as high as in 2019 chez Raveneau, denuded the wines of the same level of concentration.
This photo of Eleni and Edouard Vocoret in Le Bas de Chapelot sums up the new face of Chablis and the younger generation of winemakers.
A couple of growers transcended the growing season and produced a clutch of outstanding wines that you might misconstrue as heralding the vintage. Certainly, Samuel Billaud conjured from his magic hat a set of magnificent 2018s that, when juxtaposed against their peers, almost exaggerated their intensity and mineralité. I was also impressed by some of the wines from Domaine Roland Lavantureux that seemed to have crisper acidity than others, though I did find a couple of cuvées a little shrill, which seems perverse in such a growing season. Kudos also to Nathalie and Gilles Fèvre, who produced a couple of wonderful Premier Crus, and likewise, the father-and-son team of Christian and Fabian Moreau at Domaine Christian Moreau & Fils.
Do cooler sites have increasing advantages over warmer sites? Again, this is a contentious subject that I tackled in my report two years ago when I suggested that Premier Crus translate the essence of Chablis more than Grand Crus. Logic dictates that in warm growing seasons like 2018 and 2019, cooler Premier Cru sites have the potential to perform better. Generally, I found that a majority of Grand Crus show more concentration and complexity, albeit not to the enormous degree that might justify the price differential. As Marc Cameron suggested, I found much Chablis Village to be worth seeking out, so do not ignore this category, whereas Petit Chablis on Portlandian limestone is less consistent.
Guilhem Goisot of his namesake domaine in St-Bris, pictured in his tasting room. Goisot is always granted derogation to be included in my Chablis report because the wines are consistently wonderful and intellectual and offer amazing value. I strongly advise checking them out if you have not done so already.
Of course, there is the question of whether Chablis should be raised in oak barrels or in stainless steel; is the latter quintessentially more “Chablis” than the former? You could reasonably argue that case, though the two most feted Chablis producers, François Raveneau and Vincent Dauvissat, both raise their wines for two winters in oak, not to mention others such as Laurent Tribut or Gérard Duplessis, to name but two. Isabelle Raveneau commented that barrel aging does tend to impart more roundness to their wines, which she unequivocally said are “Raveneau before Chablis.” In my experience, it is the skill of the winemaker’s utilization of oak during élevage that prevents the oak influence from detracting from the wine’s identity and/or renders it barely perceptible. For that matter, racking my brains, I cannot remember a Raveneau that ever tasted excessively of oak, which acts more like an invisible guiding hand. Some growers have moved toward larger 500-liter barrels or foudres to minimize the impact of wood, mostly to great success; or, in the case of, say, Thomas Pico, used alternative vessels such as cement eggs.
The abundant harvest in 2018 left many growers in a quandry, one that they could never have envisaged after recent seasons ravaged by late spring frosts and rot: too much fruit. This often resulted in perfectly decent fruit being sent to the distillery, and started two more trends. Firstly, some growers, like Patrick Piuze and Eleni and Edouard Vocoret, opted to leave some bunches on the vine to create sweet Chablis, and you will find my reviews in this report. Suffice it to say that although I always abide by the maxim that you don’t know unless you try, I was not really taken by these bottlings, mainly because I found the sweetness did not feel simpatico with the wine; it felt more like an unnecessary add-on. Secondly, there are quite a number of private cuvées knocking about. You might have noticed one in my recent Vinous Table for Noizé. Why not? Expect to see a few secret or experimental bottlings popping up in the next few years.
Chablis remains a financially attractive alternative to much of the Côte de Beaune, though oddly, considering the familiarity of its name (even the strictest teetotaler knows that Chablis is a white wine), there persists a reluctance to venture north, as if the Burgundy-lover forgets that Burgundy does not end at the suburbs of Dijon. When someone suggests bringing a white Burgundy and I proffer a bottle of Chablis, it is perceived as an outré choice, an alternative to the mainstream. “Oh, you bought a Chablis,” comes the response, barely disguising mild surprise. I guess it relates back to the reasons outlined in my introduction. But consider that once upon a time, Chablis Moutonne fetched the same price as Montrachet or Yquem.
What is clear is that year on year, more and more producers are raising their game, so that in 2020 there is ever-expanding choice for the discerning oenophile, more so than ten or even five years ago. This is partly down to increasing knowledge and partly down to a migration of aspiring, principled winemakers who were priced out of the Côte d’Or and chose to hone their craft on more affordable vineyard land. Of course, the blue-chip names still carry a premium, not least Domaine Vincent Dauvissat and François Raveneau, whose demand far outstrips supply. That some importers unscrupulously flip their allocations for monetary gain rather than distributing to domestic customers is disappointing, even if financially understandable, especially in these straitened times. Some importer prices caused me to rub my eyes in disbelief, even if I doubt they have any problem selling them. Consider for a moment that you can easily find Raveneau’s Grand Crus on local restaurant lists for around €120 per bottle. I will leave you to estimate the ex-cellar price and who’s making the most profit.
The ongoing renaissance of Chablis continues to delight this writer, even if I place long odds on the 2018 vintage becoming an all-time classic. Yet such is the improvement in modus operandi that 2018 still manages to offer plenty of delicious wines that are for the most part reasonably priced, including those by the excellent and oft-underrated La Chablisienne cooperative. Younger winemakers, less hidebound by tradition, are seeping into Chablis, and meanwhile, batons are being passed from one generation to the next at incumbent producers. Together they are challenging ideas, whether that is the preponderance of machine-harvesting or minimal intervention during winemaking, so that nowadays more producers use less SO2. These changes give Chablis its lifeblood and will keep it moving forward.
The 2017 vintage and, judging by my initial tastings, also the 2019s, are likely to offer longer-lived Chablis upon which Nature confers greater typicité. In the long term, I must admit to being concerned by the effects of global warming, which is robbing the region of the less heat-intensive summers, longer hang times and, crucially, cool nights that lock in the spine of acidity that lends Chablis its nerve and tension.
As I write this at the end of August, with some domaines having already wrapped up their harvest, it’s clear that what was once considered unusual or unique is fast becoming the norm, risking dissonance between sugar accumulation and phenolic ripeness. Perhaps that will be the biggest challenge for Chablis in the future, though fortunately, not an insurmountable one. Time will tell. The irony is that until EU laws were introduced, countless French and overseas and even sparkling wines misappropriated the name “Chablis” in order to sell their wine to consumers blissfully unaware that it is a region. If you think that is all in the past, consider how many assume Chablis is simply a style of white wine, or that the most widely read online dictionaries still define Chablis as, and I quote, “white Californian wine.” Global warming is stealthily nudging Chablis toward a style that threatens its uniqueness. I hope it can keep its edge, its aloofness and, yes, its meanness... or whatever you want to call it. That’s what makes it so thrilling.
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Postcard from Chablis: The 2018s & 2017s, Antonio Galloni, January 2020
Dauvissat Chablis Les Clos: 1983-2015, Stephen Tanzer, November 2019
Domaine Raveneau Chablis Montée de Tonnerre: 1985-2015, Stephen Tanzer, August 2019
Mirror Image: 2016 & 2017 Chablis, Neal Martin, August 2018