2002 and 2001 Chablis

After having missed Chablis for several years running, I went back in early June for the second consecutive year to taste the highly touted 2002s, at the end of my annual tour of the best white wine addresses of the Cote de Beaune. With some Chablis insiders describing 2002 as stronger than 2000 - also a very successful vintage for these wines - I had to taste for myself.Two thousand two was a year that favored Europe's northerly growing regions (Champagne, the Loire Valley, Chablis, the Cote d'Or, Germany) over those farther south (most of Spain, the Rhone Valley and Mediterranean France, northern Italy). Not only did the north, atypically, enjoy more summer sunshine than the south, it also avoided the worst excesses of a couple of early September storm systems. Vines in these normally later-harvesting growing areas were far more likely to have been able to capitalize on the clement weather and the drying north wind that took hold during the last two-thirds of September. Chablis, which typically starts picking a week later than the Cote de Beaune, took particular advantage of favorable late-September conditions. If the 2002 vintage on the Cote de Beaune rates a solid four stars out of five, Chablis 2002 is four stars-plus. And it should go without saying that in any four-star vintage for white Burgundy, the top producers are capable of making five-star wines. (My extensive annual coverage of white wines from the Cote de Beaune will appear in Issue 110.)

An early look at 2002. At all the Chablis addresses I visited in early June, I asked winemakers to compare their young 2002s to the 2000s. While their opinions vary on the styles of these two vintages, a majority appear to prefer the newest crop of wines. Certainly 2002 had one clear advantage over 2000: grapes were smaller, thanks to the concentrating effect of dry winds in the weeks prior to the harvest, and overall yields were lower than those of 2000, often by 20% or more. Most important, the grapes were healthy. While only a few Chablis producers harvest all their fruit by hand (several other estates pick only their grand crus manually), even machine-harvesters were able to begin with sound raw materials. (Picking by machine during harvests plagued by rain and rot can be disastrous because the fragile skins of the grapes can more easily be broken and maceration can actually begin by the time the grapes are brought in. Growers often need to take a number of measures to clean up their musts and wines, such as carrying out a longer, stronger cold settling [débourbage], sometimes including a fining, to eliminate all but the finest lees; using stronger doses of SO2 at various stages of vinification and élevage; and conducting harsh fining and filtration prior to bottling. All these steps risk stripping the wines of their texture and soil character.)

The 2002s show glorious fruit and captivating freshness. More frequently than on past visits to the Chablis region, I found early aromas of white pepper and fresh herbs, and a dusty, tactile minerality that called to mind Austria's better gruner veltliner bottlings. The wines' stony character, their citrus and floral notes, and their lively acids make them unusually thirst-quenching. While it is possible that numerous 2002s will shut down in the year or so following their bottling, I did not get the impression that many of these wines would go through extended dumb phases. But, from the better producers at least, even those wines that are accessible from the start appear to have the density and balance to age well - which means that the premier crus should provide satisfying drinking for at least 8 to 12 years, with the grand crus capable of evolving in bottle for 10 to 15 years. Many wines produced from low crop levels will be even longer-lived. At the risk of repeating myself, the best Chablis bottlings are so pure and so minerally that you can forget you're drinking chardonnay.

The finished 2001s. As I wrote a year ago, 2001 featured fairly miserable harvest conditions: a very cool, overcast September with intermittent rain. Grape sugars were generally low if not pitiful, and many growers chaptalized their wines heavily. Worse still, rot was rampant. While there was a measure of noble rot, small amounts of which can add personality and fat to white wines, there was also plenty of destructive rot, which can result in rapid oxidation of the must or introduce moldy aromas or intrusive dryness to the wines. Many 2001s are thin and tart, while others show more texture, even opulence, but are compromised by blurry or even unclean aromas that derive from imperfect skins and unhealthy lees. The 2001s frequently lack precision and show atypically dark colors, often various shades of gold. They were especially hard to taste following the paler and often green-tinged young 2002s, which typically show purer, higher-pitched aromas of brisk citrus fruits, flowers and powdered stone. Some 2001s, however, have turned out better than I expected, and their makers must be commended for their superior work in the vineyards, their strict selection at the harvest, and their careful winemaking and elevage. The most successful 2001s are better than they have any right to be.

All of the wines covered on the following pages were tasted in Chablis in early June. The sole exception is the set of Verget wines. Jean-Marie Guffens now vinifies and ages his negociant Chablis at a new facility in Chablis, but I tasted his unfinished 2002s and bottled 2001s with Guffens in Sologny in the Maconnais, along with the rest of the Verget wines, a couple days before I drove up to Chablis. (As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines, ranges for wines still in barrel).