2001 and 2000 Chablis

The best wines of Chablis are so understated, minerally and brisk you'd swear they're not made from chardonnay. As I tasted through Vincent Dauvissat stunning 2000s on the last evening of my short but bracing visit to the Chablis region in early June, I was reminded of dry riesling from Alsace; gruner veltliner from Austria; stony, citric sauvignon. Above all I knew I was tasting something soil-inflected and utterly unique: I felt I was sampling cepage Chablis, a creature as far removed from fruit- and oak-driven New World chardonnay as the greatest wines of the Pomerol plateau are from Languedoc merlot.

It had been several years since I'd been able to carve out the time to visit the Chablis region, located on the extreme northwesterly edge of Burgundy roughly midway between Beaune and Paris, though I'd been enjoying the odd bottle of Chablis on nearly a monthly basis. This year, my tastings would focus on the young 2001s, a year in which a miserable September resulted in rot and underripe fruit for many producers in the region, and the finished 2000s, a vintage that by most accounts ranks as one of the top Chablis successes of the past 20 years. I drove up to Chablis after ten days on the Cote de Beaune with the notion that tasting the 2000s would be my recompense for subjecting myself to the 2001s. As always, the reality of the wines was considerably more complicated than those vintage generalizations would suggest.

The vintages in question. Chablis got the worst of the September weather in 2001; by comparison, the Cote d'Or enjoyed a clement harvest. A chilly, showery September (some growers said that actual rainfall totals were far from catastrophic but that the sky was unrelievedly overcast through most of the month) triggered widespread rot and prevented the fruit in most sites from reaching full ripeness. The ban de vendange was set for October 1, the latest start to the harvest since 1991. Much of the fruit was quickly harvested during the first week of October, despite more rainfall in the middle of the week. Strict elimination of rotten and underripe fruit was a prerequisite to making decent wines. But conscientious growers with vines in the best sites managed to bring in fruit with potential alcohol of 11% or more, and in some instances as much as 12% or even higher.

This is a vintage that has sucked up the sulfur additions, several growers told me, suggesting that there is an essential fragility to the 2001s - no surprise in light of the compromised grape skins. Most producers, even those who genuinely like their '01s, describe the vintage as a fruit-driven style of Chablis for early to mid-term drinking - which by Chablis standards means within 8 to 12 years after the vintage for the premier crus and 10 to 15 for the grand crus. While some growers relish the additional element of gras, or fat, that noble rot can bring, the more destructive grey rot was also widespread. Estates that did not brutally eliminate affected fruit made wines that lack precision of aromas even if they are not obviously tainted by rot.

And, of course, vineyard owners who harvest their vines by machine, which means the overwhelming majority of estates in the region, would have found it particularly difficult to avoid the effects of rot in their wines. With some of the grape skins broken in the course of picking, maceration can actually begin by the time the grapes are brought in, introducing what the French call oxydase, and deepening the color of the wine. Risk-averse winemakers are likely to take a number of measures to clean up their musts and wines, including fining during debourbage, letting the must settle for an extended period in an attempt to begin with the cleanest possible juice, and carrying out a strong cold stabilization. These same growers are likely to use stronger doses of SO2 at various stages of vinification and elevage, not to mention at the bottling. The result is often hard, skinny wines that have been stripped of their texture and soil character. In contrast, those growers who harvest by hand are in a position to keep more of what the vineyard gives them, and can use the lees to fatten their wines and protect them against oxidation.

In contrast to 2001, vintage 2000 comes with a strong reputation: most growers rate it with 1996 and 1990 as the best recent vintages for the Chablis region. I'd rank it behind those two years, but ahead of just about anything else in the '90s. The wines don't quite have the concentration of the '90s or the sheer mineral austerity and steely acid spine of the '96s, but they are ripe, dense and wonderfully balanced. Most growers feel that their 2000s clearly showcase the minerality of their vineyards, even if the ripeness of the fruit gives many wines an early accessibility. Detractors say the vintage just misses on concentration due to the copious crop level. Most growers made the allowable 60 hectoliters per hectare, including the 20% P.L.C., in their village and premier crus and 54 in their grand crus, although a few of the best domains reported somewhat lower crop levels.

If there not a great difference between my scores for 2001s and 2000s at some addresses, it because the 2001s often show very good intensity and refreshing Chablis character at modest ripeness levels while the 2000s seem almost too easygoing. Keep in mind that, as in the Cote d'Or, the name of the estate on the label is a more important indicator of quality than the vineyard name or vintage. Producers such as Raveneau, Vincent Dauvissat and William Fevre, for example, have made 2001s that are simply more classic and more interesting than the best 2000s from most other sources.

The crus of Chablis. The heart of the Chablis appellation is a large block of seven contiguous grand cru vineyards (Blanchot, Les Clos, Valmur, Grenouilles, Vaudesir, Les Preuses and Bougros) that face mostly south and west, overlooking the town of Chablis and the Serein River. The grand crus cover barely 3% of the Chablis appellation total acreage. There are nearly 80 premier crus scattered around the grand crus in every direction, although most of these wines are marketed under about a dozen well-known names. The most commonly seen are La Fourchaume, Montee de Tonnerre and Mont de Milieu on the north bank of the Serein, flanking the grand crus, and Montmains, Vaillons and Cote de Lechet across the river. Grand and premier cru Chablis from the best producers are remarkably long-lived wines, thanks to their generally high acidity levels and strong mineral component. Examples from the best producers in good vintages typically need a decade in bottle to reach maturity, and are capable of developing for 20 or 30 years or more. Premier crus, especially those from classic Kimmeridgian limestone and clay soil rich in tiny fossilized oyster shells, like Montee de Tonnerre, can be almost as ageworthy. My own experience has been that the crus of Chablis are better bets for long-term cellaring than their counterparts from the Cote de Beaune.

The recent past and likely future of Chablis. Among the most important developments in the region in recent years has been a series of quality improvements put in place by the 19 members of the Union des Grands Crus of Chablis. These producers have pledged to make minimal use of chemicals in the vineyards, to prune to a maximum of 75,000 bunches per hectare, to green-harvest if the potential yields are too high, and to harvest their grand crus only by hand. More recently, they have agreed not to release their grand crus bottlings to the market until the second January after the vintage, in part to avoid bottling these wines too early.

But even beyond the mostly major houses that are part of this group, the formerly sleepy Chablis region is on the comeback trail. By 2010, says Bernard Hervet, managing director at William Fevre, the Chablis region will be totally transformed, thanks to a new generation of winemakers obsessed with quality. During the renaissance that began here in the 1950s, the post-war generation had more of an agricultural mentality, said Hervet, with the emphasis on producing a full crop load. The clones planted during the '70s and early '80s were selected largely for resistance to vine disease and productivity. But the current generation, according to Hervet, understands that carefully controlled yields are the key to making concentrated wines that showcase the quality and individuality of the region vineyards.

The current pricing picture. Prices in Chablis, as on the Cote d'Or, have been stable for the last couple of years. Some growers may even cut prices slightly for their 2001s. What most important to wine lovers is that prices for cru bottlings of Chablis are typically 30% to 40% lower than those for wines from the snob villages of Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, making the best Chablis crus terrific value.

My report on the following pages covers cellar visits I made in early June to most of the stars of the appellation (precise scores are provided for finished wines, ranges for wines still in barrel), as well as additional tastings of 2000s, in France as well as in New York, from several other producers.