Chablis 2008 and 2007

I found plenty of highlights in chardonnay on my recent tour of the Côte de Beaune, but it was Chablis, among the regions of Burgundy, that enjoyed the best of the weather in 2008. In both areas, near-miraculous late-season conditions, most importantly a cool, dry north wind that began in mid-September, helped to ripen and concentrate the fruit after a so-so summer, in most cases without a serious loss of acidity. But as the precipitation totals had actually been a bit below the long-term average in Chablis during June, July and August (not to mention lower than in Beaune), the vineyards in Chablis were in healthier shape when the favorable weather arrived

. The result is a vintage that combines ripe fruit, good density of material, brisk acidity and plenty of Chablis-esque minerality. The typical 2008 offers a sweeter and richer impression than the more austere 2007s; it’s also a reasonably classic style of Chablis, as well as one that will probably be appreciated by a wider audience. Here’s just a sampling of comments from growers on the characteristic style of the vintage:

“The same acidity as ’07 but with better concentration.” “Elegant, precise wines with a great balance of fruit and minerality.” “Combining the richness and power of 2005 and 2006 with the acidity and freshness of 2007.” “More tender and open than 2007, and with more mass appeal.” “Even higher in acidity than 2007, but the wines don’t taste that way because they have more enveloping material.” “The minerality of 2007 with the richness of 2006.” These comments describe a crop of wines that should be of significant interest to Chablis lovers, and that should offer more early satisfaction than the 2007s.

The 2008 growing season and harvest. May was slightly warmer than average and mostly dry until some big storms at the end of the month. The flowering was drawn out during the first half of June by additional rainfall and cooler weather. Following the slightly warmer-than-usual May, average monthly temperatures were extremely close to long-term figures from June through October. Similarly, after the rains of late May, monthly precipitation totals were actually lower than average in June, July, August and September, despite sunshine hours also lower than average during June and August. In short, 2008 provided a good moderate summer for the production of vibrant chardonnay—and without extreme weather events, such as the hailstorms that plagued some sectors in 2007.

One critical variable in 2008 was the timing of vineyard treatments to control mildew, oidium and rot. The best estates throughout Burgundy made labor-intensive passes through the vines in early September to remove the most affected fruit. But these problems, especially botrytis, were less of an issue in Chablis because there was less rain and humidity during the summer. Moreover, Chablis generally benefited from harvesting about a week later than the Cote d’Or, as the fruit concentrated under windy, dry weather while retaining good levels of acidity, especially of the malic persuasion. Many growers report having profited from a sharp rise in grape sugars during the week or so leading up to the harvest, and they noted that potential alcohol levels in early September, before the weather took a turn for the better, had been fairly pitiful.

The early pickers began on around September 25, but others started up to week later, and most reported that by the time of the harvest the vineyards and the grapes were in a healthy condition. Still, the choice of harvesting dates was important, as the concentration of the fruit that came via evaporation did not necessarily translate to fully ripe flavors, but waiting too long risked surmaturité, if not loss of acidity. (Again, these decisions appear to have involved a tougher balancing act in the Côte d’Or in 2008.) Yields were frequently down between 10% and 30% due to the concentrating effect of the north wind (i.e., the grapes lost water), and this has contributed to the density and often chewy mouth feel of the 2008s. Little or no chaptalization was needed at the level of the estates I visited, with many domains reporting potential alcohol levels in the high 12.5% to 13% range for their grand crus. In this sense, I hesitate to call this vintage strictly classic, as the classic wines of an earlier generation were generally made from less sugar-laden grapes.

The making of the ’08s. By many accounts, the alcoholic fermentations were slow and extended, in part because early morning temperatures during the first week of October got down to the mid-30s and the fruit came in unusually cold. These long fermentations may have contributed to the glyceral character of many wines, and some producers reported that their ’08s ultimately finished a bit less dry than their 2007s had. (Many tasters can discern a difference between a white Burgundy with two grams of residual sugar and an example with just one in terms of mouth feel and presentation of the fruit, if not of perceived sweetness.)

Similarly, the malolactic fermentations were later than usual, and some wines had not finished as of the time of my early-June visit, which is unusual for Chablis. Lower-than-normal cellar temperatures due to a cold winter and high levels of malic acidity in the grapes were two explanations for the late malos. Extended malolactic fermentations can be positive for the texture, complexity and ageability of a wine, but an extended gap in time between the end of the alcoholic fermentations and the beginning of the malos can be detrimental to the wines if they are not properly protected. And the potential advantage of late malos can be lost if the wines are bottled too early, before they have had a chance to stabilize. Julien Desplans, the young enologist who works with Jean-Marie Guffens at Verget, told me that Verget did quick malos in 2008 in a warmer cellar to avoid oxidation. “We wanted to avoid the 1996 problem, when long malos with very low levels of sulfur dioxide left the wines too vulnerable to oxidation,” he explained. He also wondered out loud whether later harvesting in 2008 resulted in lower levels of malic acidity, but ultimately more stable acidity.

Of the winemakers I visited, most believe that the 2008s will give considerably more early pleasure than the 2007s but have the acidity, stuffing and balance to age, though some feel that despite their often denser material, the wines may have less aging potential than the 2007s.

The 2007s in bottle. At the level of the producers I visit, 2007 is a classic citrus-and-stone vintage for Chablis, pure and delineated, with accurate terroir character and a tendency toward austerity. Many producers continue to describe these wines as somewhat richer versions of the mineral-driven 2004s. Results were uneven in the areas affected by hail, with some of these wines riper but less classic due to very low crop levels but others a bit dry-edged, exotic or out of balance. The rest of the wines at the best addresses tend to be pure and penetrating. The 2007s generally benefited from longer élevage (as did chardonnay on the Côte d’Or), and the early bottlers mostly claim that their wines were lean and very difficult to taste for their first six months in bottle. Many of these same producers believe their wines are showing more texture and personality today (will these early-bottled wines develop more rapidly than those that got a longer élevage?), but in general this is a vintage that needs some time in bottle. Today, relatively few wines display the more generous mid-palate textures of some 2007s from the Côte d’Or. And, of course, there are plenty of lean and tart ’07s too, often due to too-early harvesting or excessive crop levels.

While the ever-present possibility of premature oxidation makes it difficult for me to recommend long-term aging of the 2007s, a number of producers specifically noted that this is the perfect vintage to forget in your cellar. It’s worth pointing out that premox problems have generally been less pervasive in Chablis than on the Côte de Beaune, owing to factors that include generally higher acidity levels in the grapes, soil chemistry, greater use of sulfur during élevage, less batonnage, and more reductive winemaking in general, relying far more on stainless steel tanks and used casks than on new barriques. But some insiders who have studied the causes of premature oxidation most assiduously believe that incomplete physiological maturity of a vineyard can have a strong correlation with later problems (for example, as with some 2002, for example, which may have been affected by cool, damp weather and a lack of sunshine in August). Many 2008s in Chablis have the edge in ripeness over the 2007s and may also have derived considerable benefit from the significantly later harvest dates.

Chablis and “la crise.” Despite having produced two very good crops of wine in 2008 and 2007, Chablis has been hit hard by the recession. More than ever before, Chablis has become a village of haves and have-nots. The top small growers continue to sell out their wines, as consumers around the world have been gravitating to Chablis in recent years owing to its fresher style of chardonnay—and to the fact that prices here are significantly lower than those for wines from the swankiest villages of the Cote d’Or. But the many small growers who have traditionally sold all or most of their wine to the négociants following the malolactic fermentations are facing a looming disaster. Bulk prices plunged after the 2008 harvest, and most merchants are strapped for cash and are not in a buying mood. The English market, traditionally a major buyer of Chablis, especially at the level of inexpensive village wine, has been especially hard-hit by the recession and a drop in the purchasing power of the British pound. As of the time of my visit to Chablis at the beginning of June, a game of chicken was going on, with négociants waiting for prices to come down further, and growers needing to empty their tanks to make room for the 2009 crop. The ultimate resolution of this standoff may not be pretty.

At the same time, there’s very little in the way of topnotch vineyard land on the market today in Chablis, and it may still take another year or three of economic difficulty for prices to come down in a meaningful way. Many major players from outside the appellation clearly would like to buy premier and grand cru vineyards if they come on the market (Drouhin and Faiveley are just two that come to mind). It’s entirely possible that in the next few years entire estates may change hands.