For many winemakers in Chablis the vintage 2016 will be remembered as the worst year in terms of harvest since the 1950s. That said, was it a bad vintage? On the contrary, it may eventually be positive for many. However, it could turn out challenging for us consumers. BKWine Magazine’s Wilhelm Arnör explains why.
In April 2016 when I visited Burgundy everything was fine and dandy. The winter had been good and the growers looked forward with confidence to the new season. But, a high pressure swooped in and on the 27th of April the region was hit by frost. The frost affected mainly the area southeast of the town of Chablis, but also isolated areas west of the River Serein.
In total it affected about 2,200 acres (1,000 hectares), sparing the grand cru area and most of the premier cru. Then came the hail, two times over a two weeks period, which destroyed buds and vines. Some fields lost the whole crop completely and many plants were seriously injured. On May 13, the hail hit the south of Chablis and on the 27th of May it was the turn of the north. In places, the hail was big as ping-pong balls and snowplows were used to clear the roads. As if this were not enough, spring was also rainy and cold well into June. This created problems with mould, which also reduced the harvest.
Here are two illustrations of how dramatic the situation was. First, one producer that is interviewed on television standing in front of a vineyards that the previous day had started to be shimmering in green with young leaves and buds. And now… Nothing!
Here’s a video from another producer in Chablis that ventured out under the hail to see what was happening. And what you see here is not even the worst hailstorm that struck Chablis.
An illustration of how dramatic things can be, due to the weather! And with this the editors hands back over.)
Small harvest in 2016
Hervé Tucki from La Chablisienne summed up the problems in 2016: “In one year we have seen everything that can happen in a grower’s entire life.” La Chablisienne is a large and well-managed wine cooperative. It is the largest single brand in Chablis with about twenty five percent of the region’s total production. Hervé is their “traveling salesman” since more than twenty years. Hervé likes coming to Sweden to hold tastings like this one in February 2017 at the Restaurant Tegelbacken in Stockholm.
For La Chablisienne 2016 has resulted in a production loss of about 55% for both Chablis and Petit Chablis. For premier cru the loss is about 35% and for their grand cru about 15%. The better vineyard locations have been spared.
2016 a bad vintage?
So, is 2016 a bad vintage? No, after the difficult six months the heat came and in late August there were days when the temperature went above 35 degrees C. It was so hot that grapes even burned on the vines. The warm weather persisted until the harvest in mid-September. Although Hervé think it is too early to rate the 2016 vintage, it is clear that the quality is good and that many producers are satisfied with what they managed to produce.
Will prices go up?
For us consumers, we can look forward to another good vintage of Chablis. From 2012 and onwards it is only the 2013 vintage that has been a bit problematic but nevertheless is more than sufficient. So what is challenging? Simply put, it is the price! Prices will certainly go up and here in Sweden we have already seen the effects of the year 2016. For example the wine sold at the Swedish Monopoly, Petit Chablis Vibrant from La Chablisienne, has for many years cost approximately 12 euro (110 SEK). But from March 1, the price is 14,50 euro (135 SEK). That is an increase with twenty percent. It is probably only the beginning of a general price increase. It will be no easy task for La Chablisienne and other producers to raise prices, but it is probably necessary. Other wines we sampled, as Chablis le Finage 2015 and Chablis Vieilles Vignes Les Venerables 2014 has not yet gone up in price and are very affordable for the moment.
Over all in Chablis production is fifty percent lower than a normal year. Many producers such as La Chablisienne have older vintages in stock. By raising the price of older wines, they can partially offset the loss of production in 2016.
Chablis, as the biggest white wine region of Burgundy has been much cheaper than, say, the wines of the Cote de Beaune. With a strong brand to support them, undiminished demand and lower available volumes can certainly make for a general price increase. Over time it can become a shift to a price level which becomes permanent. The wine market in recent years has become much more differentiated with higher prices. For a classic wine area with established pricing it can be an extraordinary year like 2016 to make consumers accept higher price levels. Something that in the long term is positive for producers. For many who were hit by hail the damage on the vines will have long term effect, even for the harvest in 2017.
Favourites from La Chablisienne
Among other good value wines from La Chablisienne I recommend the Chablis 1er Cru La Grande Cuvée 2015. La Chablisienne have grapes from seventeen different premier crus. Only two of these are sold under their own name. With the other fifteen, they make the Grande Cuvée that is elegant, full-bodied with crisp mineral aroma and floral elements. Soft, mature and a bit buttery taste. Good price for approximately 18 euro.
If you want to spend more, you can choose the mature Chablis 1er Cru Mont de Milieu 2008 for 30 euro. Wonderfully spicy, slightly nutty aroma and ripe with elegant classic Chablis-acidity with a long finish.
Alternatively, why not try a grand cru Chablis Les Preuses 2013 with a pronounced nutty aroma full of mineral notes and some exotic fruit. Rich, spicy, elegant, long, slightly buttery taste with lovely acidity. Too young to drink now said Hervé but I thought it was excellent. Approximately 47 euro.
Prices in the article are referred to wines sold in the Swedish Monoply, Systembolaget.
(One more editor’s note: The deficit in harvest volume in Chablis can to some extent be compensated by a little know system called ”volume complementaire individuelle”, or VCI. This means that in “a good year” (good quality and good volume) a producer can be allowed to harvest more than what is normally allowed (e g more than the permitted 58 hl/ha for AOP Chablis). This excess volume should be kept in “stock” and must not be sold. A bad year (low volume), like 2016, the producer can be given permission to sell the VCI he has in stock to compensate for the smaller harvest. A maximum of 25 hl/ha of VCI is permitted. In other words, not an insignificant buffer, in the case when previous harvests have been abundant.)
Wilhelm Arnör writes on wine on BKWine Magazine. Wilhelm has been a dedicated wine enthusiast ever since he founded Vincollegiet, a still active wine tasting association at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, in 1976. His day job is running a company in the IT business in Sweden.
For he who want to taste more Chablis, and see Chablis up close (without hail, hopefully), a wine tour to Chablis, Champagne and Burgundy, the so-called Three Classics with BKWine is a good choice.
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This post is also available in: Swedish