IMBIBE: Bitter Harvest

By on November 29, 2016

2016 is shaping up to be a bust year for French Chablis.

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – French Chablis is a very distinctive wine and one that is growing in popularity with American wine drinkers. But if you’re a Chablis lover like me, you’d better start stocking your wine cellar. This year’s grape harvest in Chablis is nothing short of a disaster.

So, what is Chablis? It’s both a place and a wine. The most northern subregion of Burgundy, Chablis is located far north of the more famous Côte d’Or, which is approximately 60 miles to the south. Champagne is actually closer; about 20 miles from Chablis. The wine produced in Chablis is Chardonnay, which is grown in vineyards that resemble rolling ocean waves. It’s stunningly beautiful scenery. And Chablis wine is stunningly beautiful, too. Although, maybe not for every palate.

Even though it’s made from 100 percent Chardonnay grapes, Chablis is much more austere, crisp and acidic than its White Burgundy southern sister. Unlike Bourgogne Blanc, Chablis has little or no oak and vanilla flavors, since it’s typically fermented in stainless steel or neutral wood casks. To some, that makes Chablis less appealing than bigger, oaky Chardonnays.

I love the minerality of Chablis. The French sometimes describe the unique flavor of good Chablis as “gunflint:” gout de pierre à fusil. A really nice Premier or Grand Cru Chablis often has those mineral gunflint notes along with sweet honeyed flavors. It’s the terroir—the unique soil—that gives Chablis its special appeal. The soil in Chablis, which some 150 million years ago was a sea that evaporated, is comprised mostly of limestone and fossils, sea shells, oysters and such. That’s what gives Chablis wine its distinctive briny taste. Some wine writers compare the taste of Chablis to licking wet rocks or slate (something I’ve yet to try).

Sadly, the 2016 Chablis harvest is pretty pathetic. The lucky growers will have a harvest about one-third the normal size this year. The unlucky ones will lose 90 percent or more of their crops. Some winemakers, like Christophe Ferrari, won’t harvest a single grape from his 9-acre plot.

It’s weather that’s causing such distress in Chablis these days. In late April, an unexpected, winter-like frost that last three nights destroyed many of the promising grape buds in Chablis. On top of that, many of the 750 winemakers’ vineyards were hit in May by a savage hail storm with howling winds. In the space of a few minutes, entire vineyards were ruined; grapevines turned into nothing but barren twigs. The flooding that accompanied the springtime hail and frost didn’t help.

In a story reported by Public Radio International, Frederic Gueguen, president of the Chablis Winegrowers Association, said: “I went inside the house and in a few seconds, I saw my vineyard going from a green leafy state with long twigs, to nothing, zero, with a thick layer of hail on the ground. I told myself it would never end, it was hitting so hard. The ground was white as in winter. It was very violent; you get hit in the face with this, you have tears in your eyes, and you feel lost.”

To add insult to injury, following the floods in Chablis, a killer fungus destroyed much of what was left of the 2016 harvest. And, Chablis winemakers say that harvests are occurring earlier every year—some blame this on climate change—and freak storms are happening with alarming frequency.

In something sounding like science fiction or the Cold War Reagan-era Star Wars initiative, 40 “anti-hail” cannons will be set up next year in Chablis, the idea being that the cannons will shoot silver iodide into storm clouds with the hope of turning hail into rain instead. It’s a sign of just how desperate things have gotten in Chablis. PJH

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