Chablis 2013 and 2012

With several large outside players desperately seeking top vineyards in Chablis, if not entire domains, and very little cru land available for sale at any price, producers in the region are enjoying a period of great demand for their grapes and wines.  If only Mother Nature would cooperate!

Following a short crop in 2012 due largely to coulure and millerandage during a long, irregular flowering, the 2013 growing season featured the latest flowering in two decades and finished with a harvest that was hazardous to the mental health of growers.  While yields varied widely, for most of the estates I visited in early June they were even lower than those of the previous vintage and in some cases significantly lower (millerandage often cut yields in village parcels dramatically)--this despite the fact that the Chablis region was essentially untouched by hail, unlike the Côte de Beaune.

In, fact, I made my annual tour of the best Chablis addresses fearing the worst from the young 2013s.  In this extremely late growing season, the earliest harvesters did not begin picking until September 24 or 26 and a majority waited until the beginning of October to start.  By then, conditions were deteriorating and it was a race between ripeness and rot.  The later harvesters assured me that the fruit simply wasn't ripe enough in late September.  But the seeds of rot had been planted by then, and substantial rainfall on the weekend of October 5/6 triggered a very rapid deterioration of the fruit that remained on the vines.  So while estates in Chablis enjoyed even better harvest conditions in 2012 than did growers on the Côte de Beaune, in the tricky 2013 season they had an even narrower window for picking.  Growers on the Côte de Beaune tended to start harvesting a few days earlier and had even lower crop levels.

This was an especially tricky year for négociants based outside the region:  as they generally spend less time in the vineyards during the summer, they can have a much tougher time making nimble harvest decisions.  For example, Julien Desplans told me Verget picked October 11 through 14, although they sold off their Côte de Lechet that came in with 13.8% potential alcohol on October 13.  Bernard Hervet, CEO/superconsultant at Faiveley, told me that his firm picked too late in 2013 and lost volume as a result.

The growing season and harvest of 2013.  The growing season began abjectly and very late, as the first five months of the year brought higher-than-normal rainfall and fewer sunshine hours.  May was particularly miserable:  chilly and overcast, with more than double the normal rainfall.  There was already evidence of some oidium and mildew on the leaves in some spots by the end of May (the latter did not afflict the grapes until mid-July).  The flowering was the latest in two decades, beginning around June 20 and lasting through mid-July.  The mi-floraison for chardonnay in the Yonne was officially June 30, or 16 days later than the 20-year-avarege.  Very variable weather during June led to coulure (poor set, or shatter) and millerandage (shot berries, or "hens and chicks").

July was then sunny and very warm, with especially hot temperatures during the second half of the month retarding the veraison.  August continued very warm, though temperatures moderated toward the end of the month before spiking up again at the beginning of September.  There were regular rain showers during this period.  The weather turned cooler and more humid from September 7 through 23, with more showers, and this period brought both maturation of grape sugars and the possibility of some dilution.

Although malic acidity levels in the grapes had declined during hot periods in August and early September, the cooler weather in mid-September served to preserve the acidity that remained.  But botrytis was spreading too.

The period during which most of the harvest occurred--September 26 through October 7--was actually warmer than average, but with showery spells, the most important of which was a rainy weekend beginning on the evening of Friday, October 4.  Almost to a man, producers told me that the fruit that remained on the vines through that weekend deteriorated quickly over the next day or two.  Still, there were plenty of producers with fruit still hanging, and some of the producers I visited harvested until the middle of October.

Clearly,  2013 was grower's year owing to the importance of strategies for pruning, de-leafing, harvesting and sorting.

The winemaking and the wines.  The spun-out flowering, oidium during summer, rot and underripe grapes all necessitated serious sorting at harvest-time.  As there often wasn't a lot of juice in the grapes, potential alcohol levels were fairly healthy and most growers chaptalized only lightly, if at all.  Acidity levels were generally average; some of the growers I visited admitted to acidifying certain cuvees, and one told me that some of his colleagues blocked at least a portion of their malolactic fermentations.  I expected to find flaccid or even tired wines, but in fact 2013 is looking like a fairly classic if lighter Chablis vintage, with fresh aromatics; plenty of citrus, floral and mineral character; gentle soil typicity; moderate structure and considerable early appeal. 

It's true that many 2013s show modest depth and ripeness, and some come across as skinny, with slightly bitter-edged citrus flavors and pungent notes of white pepper and herbs.  These wines do not appear to possess the depth for aging more than four or five years.  On the other hand, these relatively light wines may strike some old-timers as more typical Chablis than the richer, deeper 2012s, even if they won't last as long.  After all, it wasn't many years ago that the climate conditions of 2013--and the October harvest--were standard for the Chablis region.  But the most concentrated 2013s made from clean fruit can be excellent.

Most growers I tasted with in early June maintain that there's little sign of surmaturité in their 2013s.  But later pickers often made richer and sometimes more exotic wines, with added personality from a bit of noble rot.  By then, said some growers, the grapes were practically falling off the vines. Of course, these wines could also be lower in acidity.

Many winemakers were reluctant to keep their lees as they did not trust the quality of the grape skins.  This partly explains the tenderness of some of the wines and their likely shorter aging curves.  Some growers plan to bottle the wines a bit earlier than usual.  The challenge in 2013 was to get as much ripeness as possible with as little rot as possible.  But the choice always involved a compromise.

The 2012s in bottle.  The 2012s have turned out very well.  While most growers put these wines in a quality class with the 2010s and 2008s, the new vintage tends to be fleshier and more open-knit in its youth.  They will please long-time Chablis collectors and neophytes alike.  By Chablis standards, quality is remarkably consistent, but when it comes to laying these wines down, it's the best balanced and most concentrated wines that will enjoy a slow and graceful evolution in bottle.

Several of the growers I visited in early June consider the vintage to be great.  They cite the low crop levels, healthy fruit and moderate alcohol levels.  The wines are elegant, silky and filled in, often hiding their backbone and grip in the early going.  Of course, as with the 2012s from the Côte de Beaune, many of these wines are a bit folded in on themselves today and are dominated by their structures.

It's a vintage that accurately conveys terroir character.  If, as some argue, the wines are not as minerally and taut as the 2010s, the fruit was even cleaner.  "The 2012s are round and ripe but are still wines for purists," said Didier Seguier of William Fèvre.  "They have great fruit, freshness and concentration," was Benoit Droin's assessment;  "they will drink early and late."  Bernard Raveneau pronounced them "classy and taut."  Even wines that began fleshy and inviting tended to show their firm citrus and stone underpinning with extended aeration.

The overwhelming majority of the wines in this report were tasted in the cellars of Chablis during the first week of June.  I tasted some additional bottled wines in New York in recent weeks.