Where Art Thou Chablis? - Chablis 2021 & 2022


Not 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.

Looking down towards Fils du Zinc restaurant in central Chablis, flowers in bloom.

Time 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…

Which represents true Chablis? What is the fate of Chablis if hot, dry seasons like 2022 portend the future?

The 2021 Growing Season

For the sake of convenience, allow me to replicate my summary for the 2021 season composed for last year’s report.

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.

Even 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.

The 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

With respect to the 2022 growing season, well, you know how it goes…

It was hot.

The 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.

The 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 straightforward.

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

I 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 Wines

Reading 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 purists.

Vintages 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.

Conversely, 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.

Generally, 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.

I will 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.

Final Thoughts

Returning 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.

After 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?

Quite 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.

You 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?

Despite 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.

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