Chablis 2010 and 2009

Two thousand ten was a difficult, up-and-down growing season for Chablis that in the end yielded wines to be enjoyed by purists and dilettantes alike.  The better wines are intensely flavored, minerally and high-pitched, with the saline density and firm acidity that puts Chablis in a league of its own.  At the same time, the wines rarely present the almost metallic minerality of the most classic cooler years, which newcomers to these wines often find hard to swallow.  On the contrary, grape sugars were healthy in 2010, and the vintage displays lovely purity of Chablis fruit and plenty of textural appeal.  And of course, Chablis continues to be a relative value compared to the white wines from the Cote d'Or.

The 2010 growing season and harvest.  The late spring was followed by a difficult flowering.  (Winter frost had damaged some vines in Vaillons).  The normally earlier sites on the right bank of the Serein, especially the grand crus, were particularly affected by cool, rainy weather during the flowering.  Most  estates reported losing 20% to 40% of their potential crop in parcels that went through inclement weather at the flowering or were affected by the winter frost.  Yields were cut by coulure and millerandage, and the stage was set for heterogeneous ripening as the flowering was dragged out over three weeks.

Late June through late July brought mostly warm weather, but with a few rainstorms (and hail in some spots).  A large storm in mid-August had the potential to trigger rot in vulnerable vineyards, and some rain in early September was also a factor.  The weather improved markedly in the middle of the month but very little harvesting was done until September 20, and even then many estates picked slowly, waiting for acidity levels to fall.  There were also problems with late oidium, but because this malady began with the vines' leaves and did not reach the grapes quickly, damage was kept to a minimum.  Still, growers who did a last treatment of their vines in late summer were at an advantage.

A sweet spot for harvesting was September 20 through 23, assuming that fruit was sufficiently ripe by then.  In fact, very little fruit was picked before the 20th, and most of the growers I visit each year were more likely to have begun on the 22nd or 23rd.  Grapes that had not been affected by rot were concentrated, and potential yields were low, due in large part to a high skin-to-juice ratio.  Some growers believe that these early pickings yielded minerally, salty wines with firm acidity.  One noted that "it was the sound acidity that brought the minerality."

Substantial rain fell on the night of September 23 and the following day.  Showery conditions continued through the 30th, but the 26th, 27th and 28th were essentially very cool and cloudy rather than wet.  The growers are split on the effects of this rainy period.  Some say that the wines made from late-picked fruit are fruitier and more enjoyable, as by then there was more juice in the grapes.  They say that a bit more hang time enabled the grapes to "lose their green side."  While they admit to an element of dilution, and a loss of potential alcohol, they told me that there was only a modest loss of acidity and that the ultimate wines are more approachable and better balanced.  Of course, rot was generally farther along by the 26th or 27th, so careful elimination of affected fruit was critical at harvest-time. 

Laurent Tribut told me he preferred the pre-rain picks, as they produced more invigorating wines.  Vincent Dauvissat expressed the opinion that the wines made from early-picked fruit were clean, tight, classic and very concentrated, with strong acidity, high alcohol and a bit of noble rot.  After the rain, yields were higher, acidity levels fell, and there was more juice in the grapes.  Even so, a large number of 2010 wines were made from grapes picked before and after the rainy period.  Some growers admitted that rot was spreading quickly, so they moved up their harvest dates by as much as a week to get their fruit off the vines, even if it had not reached ideal ripeness.

The 2010s are easier to taste and enjoy in the early going than were the 2007s and especially the 2008s.  They display a lovely combination of fresh, aromatic fruit and minerality, as well as some of the saline, tactile character of the best 2010s from the Cote d'Or.  While many wines really must be kept for four or five years and should age well, an equal number will be approachable almost from day one, even if they have the structure to evolve gracefully in bottle.  Although alcohol levels are generally healthy, and chaptalization was mostly light, the wines are vibrant, high-pitched and nicely delineated.  There's plenty of rich material to buffer the wines' solid acidity, with the result that many wines feel less acidic than the 2008s and 2007s.  As I've noted, the vintage should appeal to long-time Chablis lovers and to neophytes alike.

Most growers agree that the 2010s are "easier" than the 2008s; the earlier year is a superb Chablis vintage that combines density, ripeness, strong acidity, solid minerality and clear soil character.  But a majority of growers consider the 2008s to be more concentrated than the 2010s, and most also view the 2008s as more vivid.  (Many 2008s are quite taut today and in an awkward stage.)  Two thousand seven is also a strongly mineral style but these wines tend toward austerity:  they do not normally have the stuffing or ripeness of fruit of the 2008s even if they boast terrific purity.  Bernard Raveneau considers 2008 to be much richer than 2010 but with similar acidity.  Jean-Pierre Grossot thought his 2010s were similar to his 1998s: in the earlier vintage, he told me, "a bit of botrytis gave the wines early charm without affecting their aromas."

The 2009s in bottle.  This is a tricky vintage to get a handle on today.  In theory, 2009 was a very warm growing season that produced rich, fruit-driven wines that are as much about chardonnay as they are about Chablis.  Many wines are opulent but a bit heavy; they lack the clarity and cut that make Chablis such a refreshing and elegant drink.  A few growers compared their 2009s to their 2006s:  the wines, they say, generally lack density of structure and could be more concentrated.  But there are some more serious and ageworthy mineral-driven 2009s that seem quite closed today; these wines are more about menthol, licorice and wet stone than about primary fruit.  Some of these will no doubt provide pleasant surprises down the road, while others may never truly harmonize. 

Although a number of growers I visited in early June describe 2009 as an easy, warm vintage for the mass market, I found myself looking for a bit more fruit in many of these wines.  But as in the Cote d'Or, there are some wonderfully rich, sufficiently fresh and even minerally 2009s that are very impressive indeed, and a number of wines that truly transcend the vintage.

I tasted the overwhelming majority of the wines in this article in Chablis during my annual early-June visit.  Since then, I've sampled a handful of additional 2009s in New York.