2003 and 2002 Chablis

In light of the fact that winemakers in France are normally forbidden to chaptalize and acidify the same wine, it ought to be illegal for a growing season to feature both a killer frost and a brutal heat wave. But that's what happened to Chablis in 2003, and the result, not surprisingly, is a distinctly bipolar set of wines that are sometimes Chablis-like if unusually rich but are more often atypically exotic for the appellation. (The same description applies for the white wines of the Côte d'Or, which I will cover in detail in the next issue.) As a rule, the 2003s are less minerally and taut than usual, and some of them are downright weird. Still, many of the growers I tasted with at the beginning of June are putting the best possible face on this vintage, hoping that these softer examples of Chablis will attract a new set of fans around the world. Long-time Chablis lovers, on the other hand, will want to proceed with caution.

A succession of cold nights in early April brought temperatures down as low as 20 degrees on one or more nights (various growers named the 4th, 8th, 11th and 12th as the most destructive for their vines). Low-lying village parcels were hit especially hard, but the frost was severe enough to affect vines well up onto the hillsides. Many Chablis vineyard owners use various systems to protect their vines against frost (such as smudge pots or water dispersal), and naturally they are more willing to go to this added expense to protect their particularly valuable grand cru parcels. Within the premier crus, they are more likely to protect the lower portions of their vineyards, as the coldest air tends to settle here and frost higher up the hill is extremely rare. In the particularly severe frost of April of 2003, however, many estates reported losses in the unprotected portions of their premier crus. From the outset, the crop level in 2003 would be down significantly from the recent average.

But if the frost set the stage for a reduced crop, it was the record heat of the 2003 summer that established the style of the wines. The growing season was consistently hot from early June until late August, with the first half of August, as elsewhere in France, especially brutal. By some accounts, Chablis was virtually the hottest spot in France during the peak of the heat wave (in French, la canicule), and afternoon temperatures here exceeded 100 degrees on 12 consecutive days. (This kind of sustained heat is far more extreme for Northern France than it is for France's Mediterranean rim, where vines are accustomed to relentless sunshine and very dry conditions.) The ripening of grapes in many spots was stunted by the burning sunshine, and south- and southwest-facing grapes unprotected by leaves were often literally grilled by the sun. Young vines with shallow roots unable to reach water were especially hard-hit.

As in the Côte d'Or, this was the earliest harvest in over a century, although picking dates varied significantly. Not surprisingly, both early and later harvesters attempted to justify the strategies they chose. The early pickers (such as William Fèvre, Christian Moreau Père et Fils and Jean-Paul & Benoit Droin) maintained that the vines' leaves were falling, the vegetative cycle was essentially at an end, and that there was nothing to be gained by waiting. With acidity levels already dangerously low, they did not want to risk further loss of freshness. Those who waited until the first week of September, or even later (such as Domaines Servin, Billaud-Simon and Jean-Marc Brocard), did so because they did not believe the fruit was sufficiently ripe before that. They also believe that they benefited significantly from a succession of small rainfalls at the end of August and beginning of September, which they say "unblocked" the maturing process. This moisture, they maintain, resulted in greater ripeness of flavor and a bit more juice in the grapes, which they say brought about a better balance in their wines, without a significant further loss in acidity. One small but not insignificant advantage that Chablis enjoyed over the Côte d'Or is that the ban de vendange in Chablis was August 25th, at which point the extreme heat was just beginning to moderate. Thus even the earliest pickers in Chablis began just after the worst of the heat, while the first harvesters on the Côte d'Or risked bringing in very warm grapes and having fast, violent fermentations. Those who started in September enjoyed a further decline in afternoon temperatures.

I will offer extensive coverage in Issue 116 of white wines from the Côte d'Or and will have a lot more to say then about some of the strange wines I found there in 2003. Chablis shows many of the same characteristics, although my feeling early on is that the better Chablis producers enjoyed a somewhat higher success rate than their colleagues in Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. This is generally a vintage low in acidity, and most winemakers routinely added tartaric acidity to their musts to ensure healthier fermentations. Some have made, or will make, additional acid adjustments, while others have blocked a portion of the malolactic fermentations to further preserve freshness. Most growers reported that the grape skins were in excellent health and that the lees were clean. Still, most Chablis producers do an extended cold settling of their musts; they generally retain only the finest lees and rarely do as much stirring of the lees as growers on the Côte d'Or do. More than one winemaker I visited told me that 2003 was not a year for batonnage, as the wines were already sufficiently rich. Lees stirring, they argued, would have resulted in even heavier wines. Some growers, especially on the Côte d'Or, made more extensive use of the lees. I regret to say that due to scheduling difficulties and a holiday weekend in France, I was not able to taste the Verget 2003 wines this year with Jean-Marie Guffens (I was able to see a full range of the Verget 2002s from Chablis and the Côte d'Or, however). But it should be noted that Guffens was one of a minority of winemakers who believed that stirring the lees was essential to making 2003s with more complexity and flavor interest; I will have to tell you later on whether he succeeded.

While many 2003 Chablis are atypically rich, only the best of them show the brisk citrus character, floral lift and incisive minerality of the classic years. Too many wines have blurry flavors or are dominated by unusual notes of lichee, licorice or banana. Many wines are broad, even thick, in the mouth without real corresponding complexity or depth of flavor. These are all various manifestations of extreme heat, of low natural acidity, of burned grape skins, of a compromised ripening process. (You will read about many similar wines in my upcoming coverage of chardonnay from the Côte d'Or.) On the other hand, the most successful wines, despite their low acidity, are stuffed with material. The optimists compare the 2003 vintage to previous superripe years like 1976, 1959 or even 1947. They believe that although the wines may now appear to be best suited for early drinking, they may well enjoy an interesting evolution in bottle and surprise with their longevity.

A word on the finished 2002s. This is a terrific Chablis vintage well worth buying and laying down. The better premier crus should probably be enjoyed between 2006 and 2012 or so, with the grand crus at their peaks between 2008 and 2015. (The best wines kept in cold cellars may be considerably longer lived.) Although a minority of producers I visited wonder whether their 2002s are as classically minerally as their 2000s, most consider the newer vintage to be excellent to outstanding. The 2002s are classic Chablis, made from ripe, healthy grapes with sound acid levels. At the level of the top wines, these are as complex and as ageworthy as the best examples from the Côte d'Or, and they're generally more refreshing, not to mention 30% to 50% less expensive. The top bottlings are worth a search of the marketplace.