Swings and Roundabouts: Chablis 2020/2021


Winemakers 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.

As 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 way.

This 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.

Athénaïs de Béru and Gaëlle Ribé, pictured outside their splendid historic château on my inaugural visit to Château de Béru.

The Growing Seasons

Allow me to reproduce my summary of the 2020 growing season from last year’s report with just a couple of amendments…

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 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.

The 2021 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.

Even 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.

Isabelle Raveneau is almost as awkward as Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier in front of a camera. I know how she feels.

Isabelle 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.

Perhaps 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.

The Wines

My 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 reputation.

It 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.

Two-thousand 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.  

Samuel Billaud – one of the finest winemakers in Chablis at the moment.

In 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.

There 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.

Final Thoughts

Chablis 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. 

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