2012 and 2011 Chablis

Cool Chablis continues to be hot in the marketplace.  Prices for vineyard acreage are at all-time highs but there's virtually no quality land on the market these days, even though potential investors inside and outside Chablis are desperately seeking vines.  But although it's exceedingly difficult for small family domains to add to their holdings and increase production, some previously underperforming estates have been revitalized in recent years by generational change.  So, for Chablis lovers willing to do a little legwork, the supply of very good choices continues to grow, in spite of a short crop in 2012.

On my annual late spring tour of the region, conducted at a time when growers were anxiously awaiting a very late 2013 flowering and already resigning themselves to harvesting in October, I tasted the 2012s from tank and barrel and the 2011s from bottle.  While neither year yielded a five-star vintage at the level of 2010, both produced very good wines and some that are outstanding.

The 2012 growing season and harvest.  It is clear that Chablis experienced a far less stressful and extreme growing season than did the Cote de Beaune in 2012.  For starters, while some of the more precocious terroirs were affected to varying degrees by frost in mid-April, including the grand crus and parts of Montee de Tonnerre, the Chablis region largely escaped the serious frost damage seen on the Cote de Beaune in May.  As on the Cote d'Or, the flowering in June was long and irregular owing to cold, rainy weather, with plenty of millerandage and coulure reducing the potential size of the crop.  Still, yields were not generally cut as radically as they were on the Cote d'Or, and sites on the later-flowering rive droite of Chablis were less affected than the left bank.

The Cote de Beaune was hit hard by at least three major hail storms in 2012, with some growers reporting that virtually none of their vineyards were completely unscathed.  These hail events exacerbated the problem of irregular ripening, as damage to the foliage slowed down photosynthesis in the vines; the unshaded grapes could also be burned by the August sun.  But Chablis largely ducked serious hail events in 2012, although a storm at the beginning of June affected yields in some of the grand crus, including Les Clos.

There was also considerably less rainfall in Chablis in August than on the Cote de Beaune, which was a beneficial development, since constant mildew and rot pressures had required regular vineyard treatments in June and July.  Many growers in Chablis told me that the hot, dry August saved the vintage, but a few pointed out that those who pulled leaves hoping to speed up the ripening process could have gotten burned by the hot sun.  In some vineyards, the virtual drought conditions that dominated from early August through September 10 even resulted in a blockage of maturity, pushing back the start of the harvest in these sites.  Irregular ripeness made the harvest a bit of an adventure, and the most conscientious growers took their time to pick with precision.  Naturally, early pickers generally retained better acidity, while late harvesters got more texture in their wines but often at the risk of an element of heaviness.

On the Cote de Beaune, some growers brought in a good percentage of their crop during the week of September 17, before rain fell on the 21st.  A minority of growers began picking even earlier.  In Chablis, there was some rain on the 17th and substantial precipitation on the 23rd and 24th, but very few growers started harvesting before the 24th.  Some of this pre-harvest precipitation was helpful for adding juice to the small grapes, and many winemakers noted that even the second rains could be constructive, as they resulted in rounder wines without undue loss of acidity.

As on the Cote de Beaune, many dense, glyceral wines were made in Chablis in 2012.  While yields were not generally as freakishly low as they were on the Cote d'Or, they were down from  2011 levels, and very few growers reached the full, "permitted" yields.

The wines in 2012.  Most growers reported very good sugar levels, with only modest chaptalization needed, if any.  Yields were quite variable by site but were often much lower than usual.  Acid levels in the grapes were average or better, and mostly higher than those of 2011, with pHs generally quite healthy.  Some growers whom I visited in early June describe the vintage as on the rich or even opulent side yet with good freshness.  Others find their 2012s to be classic in style, with sound acidity serving to leaven the sweetness and richness of the wines.  The young 2012s are typically not as minerally or austere as the 2010s, nor are they likely to require as much bottle aging to give pleasure.  Some producers expect to have it both ways:  they believe that their wines will showcase fruit in their youth but will age gracefully to reveal more saline minerality.

Vincent Dauvissat, never one to overhype a vintage, called 2012 "a vintage of drinkability and charm."  Domaine Laroche winemaker Gregory Viennois described the 2012s as "more classic than the 2011s, a product of a cold maturity--a bit like the 2002s in that sense.  But the wines are not vegetal or austere."  Domaine Fevre's Didier Seguier pointed out that "we've never seen such acidity with such a tiny yield."  That combination, he went on, has resulted in "vins de grande garde."

Some winemakers were careful about enriching their wines on their lees because they didn't trust the quality of the grape skins; others found the wines rich enough already.  But those who left their wines longer on their lees, in some cases due to later malolactic fermentations, maintained that the wines had taken on more shape and structure.

On the whole, the 2012s offer very good grape sugars allied with sound acidity and low pHs.  Still, there's a glyceral quality to many wines that some tasters may view as atypical.  Some wines verge on ponderous, although I found a lower percentage of these in Chablis than I did on the Cote de Beaune.  Of course, chardonnay can sometimes be too concentrated, knocked off balance by weather events, and this was an issue in 2012 (in contrast, pinot noir is more likely to benefit from very low crop levels).

The 2011s in bottle.  I'm of two minds on the 2011s.  On the one hand, this is a reasonably classic Chablis vintage, with the better wines demonstrating clean, high-pitched aromas of citrus and stone fruits, flowers, minerals and peppery fresh herbs.  On the other hand, full yields prevented many producers from bottling wines with the intensity, acidity and grip of the best classic years.  And even within the same cellar, there are clear successes next to wines that fall short.

"It was an early-harvest vintage with the characteristics of a later year," noted Domaine Long-Depaquit estate manager Matthieu Mangenot.  As a rule, the wines possess average acidity and ripeness and moderate flesh. They're nicely balanced and elegant.  Some are very well made but lack intensity.  But it's worth noting that many wines made at significantly higher yields than those of 2012 do not taste dilute because they are fresh and balanced at a relatively low level of alcohol.

It was consistently fascinating to taste the 2011 and 2012 vintages side by side at each of my cellar visits in early June.  In many instances I scored the same cru bottling from the two vintages very close to each other in spite of the fact that they were quite different in style.  There's a suavity to the best 2011s that will make them extremely easy to drink.  (For a detailed description of the 2011 growing season and the harvest, please refer to my earlier coverage of this vintage in Issue 163.)

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.