Roundabouts: Chablis 2020/2021
BY NEAL MARTIN | SEPTEMBER 15, 2022
in Chablis are inured to whatever Mother Nature throws at them each year.
Located at the notional latitudinal limit for “viticulture worth writing about”,
winemakers and vines alike know the risks that lie ahead. That limit must have
surely crept northwards in recent years, nudged along by global warming. Some Chablis
aficionados shake their sticks and argue that the region has forsaken its
steeliness and mineral drive, what I sometimes think of as Chablis’ aloof persona.
Whereas most Côte de Beaune’s whites seek to appease the imbiber, Chablis snootily
says: “Take it, or leave it.” This uncompromising nature appeals to some, and it
is undoubtedly off-putting to others. Me? I am not averse to it. Just at the
moment when Chablis was coming to terms with the hot summers and resulting
style of wines, in sashays a season like 2021, a curveball that confronted
winemakers with every conceivable challenge, while simultaneously presenting an
opportunity to recreate the Chablis of old and a style presumed extinguished in
our new climate. It’s all swings and roundabouts.
The Sirein River.
usual, upon arriving in Chablis, I was immediately smitten by its tranquil
atmosphere and prettiness. The Serein river glides through the town, bluebottles
skimming between lilies and motionless fish letting the current flow by. The town
center is low-key and rustic with a smattering of cafés, boulangeries and charcuteries
selling the famous AAA andouillettes (still no vegan option incidentally) and producers’
tasting rooms hoping to tempt tourists, not that they exactly descend on
Chablis by the coachload. As I mentioned in past reports, the town is slowly
being spruced up. It remains a wonderful gustatory destination courtesy of the
Au Fil du Zinc, Trois Bourgeons and Bistro Maufoux restaurants, all top-notch
and boasting wine lists that shame many in Beaune. Apart from the cuisine, it
also serves as a neat way to see the real prices of François Raveneau and
Vincent Dauvissat’s wines. More on that later. Construction continues on the
Cité des Cimats & Vin that will stand opposite the BIVB building. It will
be interesting to see whether this will serve as a magnet for more to visit
Chablis. Remarkably few Burgundy-lovers make the 90-minute drive from Beaune,
and on second thoughts, maybe the selfish side of me would like it to stay that
year’s Chablis report examines the 2020 and 2021 seasons - vintages with little
in common. Spending several days in the region at the end of June, I conducted
a wide-ranging blind tasting at the offices of the BIVB, samples corralled
according to status and climat. The wines that were tasted blind,
approximately half in this report, are indicated as such at the end of
respective notes. As usual, this was augmented by numerous tastings with
producers that included a couple of maiden visits to the likes of Château de
Béru and Domaine Pinson.
de Béru and Gaëlle
Ribé, pictured outside their splendid historic château on my inaugural visit to
Château de Béru.
The Growing Seasons
me to reproduce my summary of the 2020 growing season from last year’s
report with just a couple of amendments…
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 Chablis experienced 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. As you would expect, it was another early
picking with many setting off into the vineyard at the end of August, Fabien
Moreau mentioning that they picked just a day later than in 2003. Volumes were
reasonably good with many producers seeing between 45hL/ha and 55hL/ha.
growing season is no different from practically everywhere else in France – a
series of hurdles that had to be surmounted. Just when you thought you had
leapt the final one, another reared into view. January was wet and February
unusually warm with an average temperature of 5.9° Celsius. That was as good as
it would get. Thereafter, temperatures languished below normal, not least in
April and May when it averaged 8.9° Celsius and 12.2° Celsius respectively. The
mass of polar air that descended between 6 and 9 April wrought widespread
damage to nascent buds. In such situations, Chablis proves to be a region that is
awfully exposed with no mitigating sea or estuary. The silver lining is that
the frost affected Petit Chablis and Chablis more than the Premier and Grand
Crus, notwithstanding that growers placed their wax candles in those more
precious vineyards to give at least some protection. The result is that despite
the season, yields in the Grand Crus are not catastrophic, whereas some lost
100% of their Petit Chablis.
with a brief respite in June, July and August were chillier than normal, the
latter just 18.5° Celsius. At least its monoculture of Chardonnay meant that
growers did not have to fret about obtaining maturity in their later-ripening
Pinots and could strive for the acidity that Chablis purists thought they’d
never see again. In terms of precipitation, it was wet throughout the season
with the exception of August. May and June stand out as particularly soggy with
131mm and 65mm respectively, the latter 50% more than the level recorded in the
Côte d’Or. September, also, saw the highest rainfall of any Burgundy region
with 95mm compared to 50mm down in Dijon. So it goes without saying that rot
was a constant threat, mandating 24/7 vigilance in the vineyard, seeking dry
windows to spray and protect the vines, if there was a window at all.
Raveneau is almost as awkward as Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier in front of a camera.
I know how she feels.
Raveneau summed it up well. The 2021 season saw various events chip away
potential yields. Producers were perhaps getting accustomed to picking in
August and during exchanges, many felt relieved to be harvesting from
mid-September in 2021, partly because bunches were afforded longer hang times and
could develop greater complexity. Most of the top growers crop manually, or at
least certainly their Premier and Grand Crus. A few lamented the increasing
difficulty recruiting skilled hands at that time of the year. Chablis is a
relatively isolated small, soporific town and pickers, particularly students, seem
more lured by the Côte d’Or, whilst Mâconnais and Beaujolais’s proximity to
Lyon helps attract workers in those areas.
some Chablis growers might bite the bullet and revert to machine-harvesting? During
an interesting brief exchange with Benoît Droin, whose excellent wines are
entirely harvested by machine, he explained the obvious advantage insofar that
it enables him to collect grapes at precisely the right time, quickly and
efficiently. Just turn the ignition on and off you go. Droin told me that
modern machine-harvesters are less brutal, more accurate in terms of prizing
bunch from vine, to the point where it is difficult to tell which rows have
been tackled by machine and which by hand. To others, picking by machine
remains an anathema, a shortcut for less qualitative-driven producers, not
least because the spirit of harvest-time derives from the human contribution.
tastings this year focused mainly on 2020, which are just bottled and a
majority being released onto markets, plus a swathe of 2021s, either bottled
submissions to my blind tasting or unfinished in producers’ cellars.
Unsurprisingly, given the two distinctly differing growing seasons, each has
their own characteristics. I am a big fan of the 2020 season in Chablis. In
some ways it was a textbook vintage, more consistent than recent years, with
just the right amount of warmth, though without the heat spikes that rendered
some of the 2018s a little flabby and exotic. As always, many differences
derive from viticultural practices and decisions made during vinification, not
least some misguided decisions concerning sulphur levels that can sometimes
“subjugate” the wine underneath. (As an aside, blind tasting is so illuminating
in this respect since wines are jumbled up. It’s only after examining the crib
sheet that certain clusters of a particular grower show who performed better
than others.) It is a growing season where Chablis’ leading exponents shone.
Overall, the 2020s attain that liminal point between satisfying ripeness and
that terseness, steeliness or the mineralité that underlie its
had been four years since I visited Domaine Laurent Tribut. His daughter and
Vincent Dauvissat’s niece, Solange Tribut, is now at the helm and continuing
her father’s work. Laurent came out of retirement to pose for a photograph
outside the winery.
and twenty-one is a different kettle of fish. It is far less consistent than
the previous vintage. But dismiss it at your own loss. Despite all the
travails, it is a fascinating vintage full of ups and downs…but the “ups” can
be outstanding, perhaps catnip to those seeking Chablis wines that hark back to
a time when growers struggled to reach full ripeness instead of avoiding
over-ripeness. You could argue that the shortfall in warmth and sunlight meant
that canopies could distribute energy to a lower number of clusters, thereby
making it easier to achieve. Furthermore, as suggested by Isabelle Raveneau,
the heavy rain just took the “sting” out of the high levels of acidity, so that
the best wines exhibit tension but not shrillness. Benoît Droin reports around
4-5g/L of malic acid, which he feels is ideal to create what he called,
“classic Chablis.” With chaptalization at their disposal to fill out their
wines if necessary, most between half and one degree alcohol, it gave
winemakers the opportunity to craft Chablis with steeliness, linearity and
salinity. In a sense, they distinguish themselves from their Chardonnay
counterparts up in the Côte de Beaune.
Billaud – one of the finest winemakers in Chablis at the moment.
2021, producers such as Samuel Billaud, Christian Moreau, Eleni & Edouard
Vocoret, Raveneau, Droin, Tribut and Dauvissat all showed that whatever fruit did
make it to the harvest finish line could be vinified into quite wonderful
Chablis wines. There is a case to be made that the season suited winemakers
that eschew wood contact in the winery, the likes of Didier Picq for example,
or you might argue that a bit of oak imparts a little more weight and roundness
to otherwise quite sharp and linear wines. It depends on the grower.
are two downsides. The
first is that some vineyards struggled more than others, for example,
Les Vaillons. Raveneau felt that Butteaux also suffered, though the handful
that I encountered showed well, including theirs! Perhaps my perspective is
skewed by my limited pool of top growers? It will become more apparent next year
when I will taste a greater number of finished wines. Some 2021s were diluted
and felt disconcertingly under-ripe, Chablis poleaxed by the troublesome
growing season. Moving away from the region’s top-flyers, the portfolios become
inconsistent so choose wisely. The second is quantity. Whilst yields in
some of the Grand Crus and Premier Crus are surprisingly reasonable, overall,
volumes were severely impacted. Thankfully, it sounds like the current harvest
of 2022s will at least replenish reserves, though after the hot summer, the
style will surely be nothing like 2021.
Didier Picq forgot our appointment, but thankfully remembered on a hastily rescheduled meeting on my final morning.
continues to offer a slew of affordable alternatives to Côte de Beaune whites.
I am always dismayed to see the excessive mark-ups on bottles from Raveneau and
Vincent Dauvissat, to the point where it might be more economical to hop on a
plane to Chablis and pick a few bottles
off restaurant lists. Neither producer toils in the vineyard throughout the
year to be the most expensive in the region, rather, they strive to be the
best. Beyond those estimable growers, the region now offers plenty of elite
winemakers crafting better wines than ever. I am sure that in coming years we
will see more younger vignerons establishing themselves in Chablis, and that
can only be a positive trend. Fortunately, Two-thousand and twenty-two should see
good volumes once again…I look forward to tasting them when I return next year.
© 2022, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.