Life on the Margin: Chablis 2019/2020 


I am savoring an al fresco lunch in the heart of Chablis by the Sirein River, which is covered with water lilies and overlooked by flower boxes of multicolored pansies. There are few cars; I hear the occasional chugging din of a vineyard tractor, but otherwise, it’s disarmingly quiet. Chablis is basking in a spell of warm weather. There’s not a puff of cloud in the sky. Admiring the beauty and peacefulness of my surroundings, I wonder why so few people make the journey up from Beaune or down from Paris. But then again, I’m glad they don’t.

Looking down the Sirein River in the heart of Chablis.

Chablis might well be my favorite wine region to visit, and right now it’s at what you might term “peak idyllic.” Its isolation from the Côte d’Or by the vast nothingness of the French countryside means that Chablis is left alone. The town has always been a little shabby around the edges; some buildings are overdue for renovation and a fresh lick of paint, but this just adds to the bucolic charm. That’s not to say that there aren’t changes afoot. One of the region’s finest restaurants, Au Fil du Zinc, is located in Chablis and has a brilliant new chef who’s killing it in the kitchen. Not far away, a once-empty building has sprung to life as chichi wine bar Chablis Wine Not, the new venture from Zinc’s former owner, Fabien Espana. Plus, there’s the new Maufoux just up the road. All of the aforementioned establishments boast wine lists that would embarrass most Beaune restaurants. Speaking of which, this place reminds me of Beaune in the late 1990s: rural, parochial, with a light seasoning of wine-loving tourists. How long will this last?

Finishing my lunch, I have a quick espresso to refuel and some water to rinse my mouth, then set off for my next visit. The veil of tranquillity and the cloudless blue sky disguise a region coming to terms with a tumultuous growing season in which spring frosts decimated vast swaths of vine and mildew is a constant and growing threat. Every day demands long, arduous hours in the vines. Winemakers and vineyard laborers are visibly exhausted, even though they can hope for a minuscule crop at best. We will see what the 2021 vintage will bring, but for now, my focus is on 2019 and 2020. What do they have to offer to readers who have followed Chablis for years, or consumers who are looking for affordable alternatives to the Côte d’Or? 

This new wine bar is another magnet, drawing people to Chablis. Fantastic wine list inside.

The Growing Seasons

I summarized the 2019 growing season last year, and I reproduce that summary here since it pertains to many of the wines included in this year’s report.

The average temperatures from June to August in 2019 were 19.9°C, 22°C and, crucially, 20.8°C. That last figure is fundamental to understanding the differences in the resulting wines, because even though it is just 0.5°C below 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 witnessed normal or higher rainfall, especially March, which was around 20% wetter than normal, accreting underground reserves 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 in June, July and August, respectively, 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, or 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 distilleries were less busy. 

In 2020, budding was slightly earlier than average due to the warmer winter, arriving almost two weeks in advance. This “ahead of schedule” growth cycle lasted through flowering and véraison, auguring for early picking. Flowering went well, with just localized outbreaks of oïdium. The average temperatures from June to August were 17.5°C, 20.9°C and 21.5°, so cooler in June and July but slightly warmer in August. Gregory Viennois at Domaine Laroche described it as “three or four waves of heat.” These hot spells helped increase sugar levels from August 13 and brought a decrease in malic acid over the first fortnight of that month, though Viennois observed that the vines did not become too stressed. It had been slightly wetter in May and June, which was vital because July saw just 13mm of rain. Was it going to be another long, dry summer? No; in August there was 62mm of precipitation. Both June and August were also less sunny than usual, though July compensated with 333 hours of sunshine, around the same as in 2019. 

How The Wines Were Tasted

I should emphasize that most of the wines in this report were tasted peer-group blind. I spent five mornings at the offices of the BIVB, tasting samples grouped by status and vineyard. This is always a fascinating and insightful exercise, revealing which producers performed well, since their portfolios are often dispersed across different flights. Of course, the samples from producers that I visited could not be tasted blind.

Benoît Droin, up the ladder in his vat room in Chablis. He is not averse to using machines to harvest, and the quality of his wines speaks for itself.

The Wines

In a nutshell, I have more confidence in the 2019 Chablis than the 2018s, since the 2019s responded better to the summer heat. In fact, they throw the 2018s into sharp relief, demonstrating more tension and terroir expression, and greater freshness and complexity, a view shared in exchanges with winemakers such as Benoît Droin. The slightly cooler August was crucial, enabling vineyard managers to keep a steady hand on ripeness levels. Chablis is sensitive to heat spikes, but in 2019 there were only very brief periods of intense heat and the fruit maintained sufficient acidity. Another factor underpinning the success of 2019 was that extra rainfall in March, replenishing underground reserves that sustained the vines through the dry summer and warded off stress.

Chablis is seeing more winemakers introduce manual picking during harvest, albeit incrementally. The region traditionally used machine-harvesters because it was dominated by cooperatives for whom the bottom line is vital and who find it more challenging to recruit pickers compared to a smaller winery with fewer rows to manage. Though ideologically one favors hand-picked fruit, that’s of little use if you hand-pick too early or too late. This is why many continue to use machine-harvesters, not only because it enables them to pick efficiently and at the right time, but also because the machines are more technologically advanced than they were a few years ago. The fact is, some of the best Chablis are not picked by hand. Some younger winemakers see machine-harvesting as anathema, yet interestingly, when they taste the quality of those wines, they naturally start questioning the advantage of picking by hand. It’s an issue I encountered a couple of times, and one that Chablis will tussle with for the next few years. Many producers employ both, machine-harvesting their less coveted vineyards and hand-picking their Premier or Grand Crus.

Thomas Pico of Domaine Pattes-Loup.

During my tasting of over 500 Chablis wines, I found that not everyone profited from the growing season. It is easy to make a rather dull and occasionally insipid Chardonnay rather than a good Chablis. Occasionally, I suspected that producers cropped too high, resulting in wines that were not faulty, but were distinctly ordinary. I found more problems with use of SO2, including examples where it was mishandled, occluding aromatics or causing fixed reduction. The blind tastings where cuvées were randomly dispersed over different flights revealed those Chablis producers who need to rethink how they are using sulfur, as the problem occurs across their range.

On a more positive note, I did enjoy the Petit Chablis more than I expected. It is always looked down upon because of its name and because the vines are grown not on Kimmeridgian limestone but on Portlandian. That is not enough reason to dismiss them entirely, and in 2019, there are some cases where I actually preferred the Petit Chablis to its Chablis-Village counterpart. Factor in their cost, and these can be very attractive.

There is no producer hierarchy in Chablis, though ask anyone and the two they mention will be Domaine Vincent Dauvissat and Raveneau, and with good reason. But unlike a few years ago, when their superiority was beyond dispute, there are now several other names that provide welcome competition, giving Chablis lovers more choice.

If you like the steelier, more austere style, go for Domaine Gilbert Picq or Burgfest multiple “gold medalists” Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin. For a slightly richer style, try Samuel Billaud or Christian Moreau. If you prefer the more non-interventionist, textured style of Chablis, look for Domaine Pattes-Loup or Alice et Olivier de Moor and perhaps Gérard Duplessis. My tasting also revealed some less well-known names that knocked the ball out of the park. I was mightily impressed by the three bottles from Domaine Agnès et Didier Dauvissat. Yes, another Dauvissat to confuse you; however, you will have no regrets once you taste Florent Dauvissat’s wines. Dropping into my BIVB tasting to introduce himself, he told me that his parents always took a sustainable approach in the vineyard, and he has built on those principles, employing late pruning and de-budding, and limiting the use of sprays, with the aim of producing “pure and precise wines while maintaining freshness and balance.”  Dauvissat’s 2019 Chablis Beauroy is exceptional, and his Chablis-Village flirts with Premier Cru quality. Likewise, though this year I could only obtain the 2019 Chablis-Village from Julien Baillard, it so far surpassed my high expectations that I poured it for a friend, who was convinced it was a Montée de Tonnerre or a Mont de Milieu.

Samuel Billaud of Domaine Samuel Billaud.

Final Thoughts

Chablis is a region that is waking up to the possibilities not just of wine but of associated industries such as oeno-tourism. This hitherto soporific small town has become one of the best places to visit in Burgundy. At the same time, there are issues to contend with, not least the impact of global warming, and specifically the wild swings in temperature that see devastating frosts and heat waves take it in turns to give winemakers sleepless nights. Chablis has always accepted that it lies in a marginal climate; that is the foundation of a world-class wine. But that’s no use if it means you cannot make a living every other year. Under those blue skies, the life of a Chablis winemaker is one lived on tenterhooks, but despite this, there is no doubt that the region possesses the talent to persevere.

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