Thou Chablis? - Chablis 2021 & 2022
BY NEAL MARTIN | SEPTEMBER 19, 2023
much happens in Chablis. A cat crossing the road is front-page news. That’s why
I love it. Chablis, not the cat. It’s an oasis of tranquillity. A bijou picture
postcard town dotted with dog-eared, timeworn buildings, artisan patisseries
and boulangeries, an idyllic river lined by Hockney-colored flowers and a
couple of restaurants worth driving a long way for.
down towards Fils du Zinc restaurant in central Chablis, flowers in bloom.
moves at its own pace in Chablis and its featureless environs, and I use that
word featureless positively. Yet, there are hints of change in the air,
notably the new Cité du Vin opposite the BIVB offices for tourists. Looks
lovely. On the other hand, not entirely unexpectedly, it was empty when I
popped in. The adjoining café I tried to order an espresso in was devoid of all
forms of life. Out in the vineyards, little has changed, though look more
carefully, and there are innovations such as some Grand Crus fitted with
electrical wires to protect them against frost. Expensive but effective. Chablis
has not witnessed an influx of outside investment like the Côte d’Or, even if
William Fèvre can now call Lafite-Rothschild a roommate. Chablis may appear
unchanging, but this is not the case meteorologically, with two significantly
different growing seasons in 2021 and 2022. Here’s the question…
represents true Chablis? What is the fate of Chablis if hot, dry seasons like
2022 portend the future?
The 2021 Growing Season
sake of convenience, allow me to replicate my summary for the 2021 season
composed for last
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 leaped
the final hurdle, 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 average, not least
in April and May, when they 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 extreme situations, Chablis
is awfully exposed to neither nearby sea nor estuary to mitigate freezing
temperatures. The Serein River might have a tiny effect, but you need a large
mass of water to alter temperatures. The bottom line is that even though
Chablis is a region long accustomed to fighting frost, in 2021, these
conditions were even worse than in the Côte d’Or. The only silver lining is
that frost affected Petit Chablis and Chablis more than the Premier and Grand
Crus, notwithstanding that growers could place wax candles in more precious
vineyards to afford them 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.
Visitors to the region can climb up through the Grand Crus. A scenic spot overlooking Les Clos indicates what you can see across the panorama.
with a brief respite in June, July and August were chillier than usual, 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 of rain, 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. 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.
2021 season saw various events chip away at potential yields. Producers were
perhaps getting accustomed to picking in August. 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 of recruiting skilled hands at that
time of the year. Chablis is a relatively isolated, small, soporific town.
Pickers, particularly students, seem more lured by the Côte d’Or, while
Mâconnais and Beaujolais benefit from a proximity to Lyon that helps then attract
workers. Unlike in 2022, keeping the incoming fruit cool was less imperative.
Still, one challenge, as recalled by winemaker Gaëlle Ribé at Château de Béru,
was filling vats due to smaller quantities; hence, in some cases, like at
Domaine Picq, standalone cuvées were combined. Likewise, the regular rotation
of new and used barrels was thrown off kilter. Either producers had to use more
new wood, sell some off like at Domaine Christian Moreau, or try to keep barrels
fresh and use them in 2023.
Bottles lined up chez William Fèvre just outside their tasting room.
The 2022 Growing Season
respect to the 2022 growing season, well, you know how it goes…
omens were in February, averaging 6.1° Celsius, around 40% warmer than usual,
not quite as much as the Mâconnais in the south but warmer than the Côte d’Or.
April was slightly cooler at 10.7° Celsius, and, indeed, there was minor frost
damage at the top of the incline. Eleni and Edouard Vocoret were acutely
affected, losing half their normal yield. But the heat stormed back in May when
temperatures averaged 17.1° Celsius, around 20% hotter than normal. June and
July were balmy, though it should be noted that August was not quite as hot as
other regions in Burgundy, 21.9° Celsius on average compared to 23.1° Celsius
in Beaune. Data shows that 2022 had the warmest average temperatures since the
beginning of the 20th century, including 2020 and 2003. The number
of days exceeding 25° Celsius were greater than in 2020: 91 compared to 74,
though there were far fewer days above 30° Celsius compared to the Mâconnais.
Naturally, it was dry throughout the year except for June, which saw 109mm of
rain due to storms. Yet that figure plunges to 14mm and 21mm in July and August,
boosted by brief showers on August 15 that Patrick Piuze says gave the vines a
bit of a pick-me-up. July was extremely sunny with 359 insolation hours, around
50% more than usual. September was actually quite wet, although, by this time,
much of the fruit had been harvested.
impact on the vegetative cycle of the vines is unsurprising. Everything was around
two weeks earlier than the 1994-2021 average from June onwards. Interestingly,
data shows that sugar levels were lower than in 2015 and 2019, roughly the same
as in 2020, with slightly lower maturity indices. Harvest began in some
properties in the last week of August and others around September 3. Picking
efficiently was paramount as sugar levels were rising rapidly, and the
continuing warm temperatures meant that producers had to ensure their incoming
fruit was kept cool, lest they risk spoilage. Another factor, pointed out by
Olivier de Moor, is that the warmth ostensibly caramelized the humus content in
the soils and reduced the nitrogen content. This has a knock-on effect as it
can inhibit alcoholic fermentation. So, although I often heard the word “easy”
spoken by winemakers when describing the 2022 season, it was not
Winemaker Gaëlle Ribé at Château de Béru showing me around their brand new, impressive cuverie. Their vineyards are run biodynamically.
How the Tastings Were Done
visited Chablis a little later this year due to the opening of the Cité du Vin
opposite the BIVB offices where I conduct my blind tastings. The silver lining
was that more wines that undergo a single-winter élevage had been bottled by
this time. As usual, in this report, I tasted around half the wines blind and
half visiting producers around the region. I include nearby Irancy and
Saint-Bris instead of parsing them out for a standalone report as I have done
in previous years; ergo, you will find tasting notes for Gabin et Félix Richoux
and Goisot, despite their stylistic differences and that they are different
appellations. I managed to see most major growers. Only Thomas Pico was away when
I turned up at Domaine Pattes-Loup. However, his assistant kindly poured me
three recent vintages, which, in any case, undergo lengthy barrel maturation.
Most winemakers showed their 2021s in bottles or 2022s in vat and apropos
Raveneau and Droin, both vintages.
the growing seasons summaries above, readers would naturally conclude that
2021s hark back to so-called “traditional Chablis” with those almost forgotten
tropes of cold stony aromas, like walking through a moss-covered meadow on a
spring morning or aromas associated with the sea and the palate “mean”, steely,
tensile, malic with almost jarring acidity. Likewise, the much warmer 2022
growing season contains a raft of Chablis exhibiting exotic, tropical aromas,
palates that are fatter, laden with that same tropical fruit, lower in acidity
and less mineral-driven, perhaps more consumer-friendly but anathema to Chablis
are often perceived as black and white. In truth, when you taste almost 500
wines from each vintage, the reality is much more complicated. The 2021 vintage
is a hotch-potch of style and quality. The succession of travails, the
triple-whammy of mildew, oïdium and botrytis defeated even Chablis' most
capable, hard-working producers. At their worst, the 2021s can be raw and
unripe with unpleasant pyrazines, sometimes diluted by that season’s rain, not
least the September downpours. No wonder few growers have embraced
organic/biodynamic viticulture in this region.
Winemaker Guillaume Michel at Domaine Louis Michel, one of several that share electric wires that partially traverse their Grand Cru to protect against frost.
some winemakers suffered sleepless nights during 2021 but, in hindsight, admire
its wines. Truth is that this challenging season gifted Chablis lovers with
some unexpected humdingers. To repeat my own advice from last year’s Vinous
report: Dismiss 2021 outright at your peril. Bizarrely, there are some 2021s
that, when tasted blind, you would swear were born in a far warmer season like
2019, 2020 or 2022. That must be due to yield being chipped away to such low
levels that the shortfall of warmth and sunlight was concentrated on a pitiful
amount of fruit, engendering wine with unexpected exotic traits. They are not
concentrated wines per se. They don’t possess weight or density. But these
tropical elements glint in the sunlight and render them very attractive. Plus,
alcohol levels are generally lower, often around 12.3% to 12.8%, which is
always handy if you have work the following morning.
it is true that the 2022s are more tropical in style, but do not take that for
granted. Clever use of canopy management, shading bunches from direct sunlight
combined with early picking, means there was the potential to create Chablis representing
the best of both worlds: seductive tropical hints without compromising the
steeliness and nervosité that define Chablis. Perusing my tasting notes,
I concur with the more candid vignerons who favor 2020 over 2022, though there
isn’t a huge difference. I refer readers back to the data in my vintage
summary…simply put, if you thought 2020 was hot, 2022 was hotter, even though
Benoît Droin makes a valid point that whereas 2020 saw a heat spike that burnt
some bunches, 2022 was more like a simmering heat. Sure, vines can adapt to the
“new normal” and produce natural acidity levels unthinkable in the past, but
there’s a limit to what is possible. What you often find are delicious,
wonderful wines that you might tag as “great Chardonnay” instead of a “great
Chablis”; in other words, that heat just burned away that fragile trait of
typicity. One virtue of the 2022 vintage is that despite dryness reducing the
level of juice inside berries, the year sees a return to proper yields, between
50hL/ha and 60hL/ha, refilling cellars that were lying empty after 2021.
briefly mention Irancy. I have to say that yet again, the wines from Domaine
Richoux, previously Thierry and now renamed after his sons, Gabin and Félix,
are in a league of their own. Their meticulous viticulture and careful, long aging
in barrel render Pinot Noirs of exceptional quality with the propensity to age
up to two decades. Other wines from Irancy suffered during the warm season of
2022, the amphitheater concentrating the heat that made many wines feel
volatile and unbalanced.
Gabin Richoux showing me through their latest releases at the Domaine in Irancy.
to the question posed in my introduction, what is the definition of Chablis in
2023? When we uncork a bottle, what can we expect? Among all marginal wine regions,
it can be argued that Chablis’ northerly latitude means that it has always been
closest to the edge. Consequently, it only needs a minor climatic change to
leave its mark on the wines indelibly.
2022, is it time to hold a memorial? Should a sarcophagus lay in the center of
the town with the inscription: Here lies the Chablis we once knew?
possibly. There is no question that stylistically, Chablis has been tattooed with
tropical traits that have become the norm since, I would argue, the 2015
vintage, when the frequency of hot, dry summers became indisputable. That word
I used…tattooed…is apposite. The sensory experience of drinking Chablis is that
though its exotic traits are clearly perceptible, the person or in this case,
the wine, is still the same. Those Kimmeridgian soils ain’t goin’ anywhere. They
are immutable and give Chablis the counterbalancing acidic spine that maintains
freshness. Hey, some might even prefer the less “mean ‘n green” style of
Chablis “1.0”. Others might argue that Chablis should never be seductive. Leave
that for the Côte d’Or or the New World. Chablis should be steely, Zen-like,
aloof and uncompromising, and what global warming jeopardizes.
could argue that those seeking what might be dubbed “Trad Chab” should seek
winemakers known for that steely style, pick early and eschew oak. Didier Picq,
for example, and though they do employ some wood, winemakers like Benoît Droin
or Samuel Billaud. However, on reflection, I feel that old school, austere
Chablis derives from the combination of growing season and vineyard,
particularly the latter. Winemakers can maintain leaf cover to shade bunches,
which risks rot, pick earlier and throw out all their oak barrels. But at the
end of the day, that steeliness originates from its northerly latitude and a
climate that leaves Chardonnay at a liminal point between under-ripeness and
ripeness. Perhaps that liminal point is no more?
the extremities of 2021 and 2022, both vintages have plenty to offer. Though Chablis
may appear unchanging on the surface, it remains a clear prism through which
terroir is articulated in wine. As such, depending on the modus operandi of the
vagaries of the land, difference in altitude and especially orientation,
coupled with winemakers’ modus operandi, Chablis plays host to more diversity than
you might presuppose. Those respective seasons do mold the wines and make sure
that neither is a consistent vintage across the board. But given how
comparatively reasonable prices have remained, even Raveneau and Dauvissat
ex-Domaine, then there are rich pickings to be found.
© 2023, 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.
You Might Also Enjoy
Swings and Roundabouts: Chablis 2020/2021, Neal Martin, September 2022
Chablis’ Satellites: Irancy & Saint-Bris, Neal Martin, November 2021
Life on the Margin: Chablis 2019/2020, Neal Martin, October 2021