2017 Chablis – An Enigma…

Update 20.6.2019(31.1.2019)billn

Why an enigma?

Well, 2017 was a very precocious year – partly for that reason was so much of the potential volume lost to frost – but it wasn’t just a precocious vintage, it was a hot vintage too – a year of sunshine – and one of the earliest harvests on record. If you did not know that, you would not guess so from tasting the wines: Yes they are fully ripe, but they are overwhelmingly in the citrus spectrum of fruit – more yellow than green, and more lemon than agrume – rarer are the pineapple-shaded wines or those with exotic fruit. More importantly we have fresh wines, wines of energy, of minerality, of salinity and yes, tension too – the characteristics of a cooler, very classic vintage.

There is one thing that is missing from the 2017s; call it rigour, or call it austerity, but nary a wine has it – also not the Petit Chablis. This already makes the wines very attractive – but have no fear, they have concentration and balance too – so you may keep them if you wish.

So, to the point:

  • 2017 like 2016 and 2015 is another delicious vintage in Chablis. But it’s not just a delicious vintage, it is classic too, deserving to be in the company of vintages such as 2014 and 2012.
  • Differing from 2016, the wines of 2017 are, generally, very classic Chablis with freshness, poise, clarity and tension – they are as concentrated as most 2016s – occasionally more-so – again due to the frost cutting the yields.
  • Given the easy charms of 2017, one might think it less cellar-worthy than vintages such as 2012 or 2014, but it is concentrated and perfectly balanced – you can easily forget them in your cellar for 10-20 years, should you wish, if the wine is properly protected from oxygen.
  • It is a vintage with a citrus-fruit profile, mostly lemon-yellow with certain producers having fresher wines and others a riper profile. This you can note from the individual domaine reports.
  • Given the total absence of austerity in this vintage the Petit Chablis wines are completely ‘accessible’ as are, frankly, all the levels of wine.
  • Fresh wines where the fruit protects you from the acidity – lots of minerality.
  • Many wines suggest the ‘seashore’ in their aromatics – their flavours too – a vintage of excellent salinity to dovetail with the citrus and minerals.
  • Much as I loved the ‘non-standard’ or rather ‘non-classic’ 2016s – often more-so than the 2015s – 2017 for current drinking trumps both.
  • It is a ‘Preuses Vintage:’ I’ve never seen such flamboyance from this cru – it punches way above its normal level – at this stage – giving just about every Les Clos a run for its money!
  • In the 1er crus, it is a ‘Montmains Vintage!’ I chose it because it was often outstanding – like the Preuses I’ve never previously seen such consistently over-achieving wines here.
  • More and more domaines are turning towards DIAM seals – anecdotally 60% of Chablis is now sealed with DIAM, which can only be a good thing in terms of the potential longevity of the wines – but they need to get their collective acts together in terms of their sulfur regimes. Many of those DIAM-sealed bottles had tight aromas, maybe a suggestion of reduction too – it doesn’t have to be that way. On the positive side this effect lasts not much more than 6 months from bottling – so provided that you are not drinking your 2017s before the middle of summer 2019, you should be okay.
  • Lest you forget, it’s another small volume vintage for the Petit Chablis, the right-bank 1er crus and the grand crus – the volume of Chablis villages is a little better than in 2016 and with the large volumes harvested in 2018, the bulk price for villages Chablis has softened a little – though that has little effect on domaine pricing.

So there is never a single personality in a given vintage, what are the style types of 2017?

  1. A majority of wines are fresher versions of 2015 – round and yellow-fruited – but with more citrus and drive than the 2015s.
  2. Earlier pickers have wines that much more resemble 2014 than 2015 – leaner and more direct – again without austerity or rigour.
  3. A few have pure lime fruit that could come only from 2008(!)

    I would say the rough proportions are 70-20-10 in the order listed above.

The ‘cognoscenti’ may still prefer their 2014s and 2012s, but not by a lot – 2017s in shape and fruit and energy, seem exactly like a perfect 2010 served today – note that the 2010s, unlike 2017, were quite austere when young.

As many as a third of domaines bottled some 2017s (and some even 2018s!) early due to low volumes, that said it is a vintage with no hard edges, no rigour or austerity – though there was some austerity that was noted early on in the elevage. 2017 is a vintage that can be enjoyed very young, but it’s also a vintage with great tension, and it shows the difference between parcels really well. There’s purity yet with ripe fruit and fine acidity. The ripe fruit is possibly the only indication of a warm vintage, yet it is overwhelmingly a fruit from the citrus spectrum – essentially it’s a vintage where we see more of the parcels and less of the weather.

Because everyone loves lists:
Of-course the relative position of respective domaines in their elevage has an effect on how brilliantly – or not – their wines show, but in 2017, from 62 domaines visited and 525 wines tasted, here are my top dozen domaines*, and a magnificent (7) selection of the greatest wines too:

Domaine Samuel BillaudLaroche, Chablis Blanchots Reserve de l’Obediance
Domaine Billaud-SimonJulien Brocard, Chablis Les Preuses
Domaines Jean-Marc & Julien BrocardNathalie et Gilles Fevre, Chablis Les Preuses
Domaine Jean DauvissatBillaud-Simon, Chablis Les Preuses
Domaine Vincent DauvissatChablisienne, Château Grenouilles
Domaine Jean-Paul & Benoit DroinChablisienne, Chablis 1er Grand Cuvée
Domaine Louis MichelPinson, Chablis 1er Montmains
Domaine Nathalie & Gilles Fevre
Domaine William Fevre
Domaine Roland Lavantureux
Domaine Louis Michel
Domaine François Raveneau

*NB: This is a longer and rather more classic list of domaines than last year for the 2016s, except that I also wanted to include Domaine Thomas Ventoura in this list, unfortunately for him that would have been an unlucky 13 domaines, so purely alphabetically, he lucked out – but he’s worth it!

And wines to drink now?
Of-course if you have 2008-2010 in your cellar, then the 08s and 09s are largely ready and you can wait a little longer for the 2010s but they already taste great. The 11s have (~70%) never been my favourite because so many have an accent of asparagus – which can be linked to pyrazines – but if you have good ones, then it’s no shame to start drinking them. And from the 2012-2017 vintages that I’ve reviewed in Burgundy Report, I’m drinking the 2013s and 2015s with great joy, certain 2012s taste great too though I’m largely waiting for those – the same with 2014. You may already have noted that I can’t keep my hand off the already bottled 2017s! Enjoy if you have any or all of those!

A little 2017 Background

*VCI of the previous year claimed to fill crop deficits – more info here. Figures courtesy the BIVB, Chablis.

The December to February period was one of the driest since 1945, but from March there was plenty of rain. It was hard to prune and to train the vines after the mix of frost and hail that was endured in 2016. One winemaker explained that “We barbecued in March as it was so warm, but at Easter the cold returned and even worse it rained just before the frost hit with -8°C the frost drying the leaves and buds leaving them like tobacco.

It was a long period of frost – 8-12 days depending on the placement of the vines – some parts received the ‘standard’ Spring frost where just the bottoms of the hillsides attract the cold, but others a ‘Winter frost’ where even the tops of the hills had to endure prolonged sub-zero temperatures.

Later pruners limited some of the damage and geography made large differences; in 2016 it was the south and east of the vignoble that was more hit, in 2017 it was more the west and the north-west – people were caught out too, for example the plateau of Lignorelles almost never frosts – but it did in 2017! Badly hit were Villy, Lignorelles, Maligny, La Chapelle de Vaupelteigne, Beines, but a little less in Beines, at least vs 2016. There was much damage on the right bank – worse than in 2016 for the 1ers and grand crus – there is less wine here in 2017 than in 2016, but conversely there is more villages Chablis. So overall a little more volume in 2017 than 2016, but it was highly variable in terms of where was hit – it was more of the lower appellation vines that came through with the least damage.

The flowering went well, except that in many areas there were fewer flowers – the frost had been easy to see, but the effect of the cold in the days that followed was less easy to follow until flowering – it’s called filage – half of the usual amount of flowers, so, of-course, half the number of grapes! The effect of ‘compensation‘ is often discussed, and seen, in vintages that follow frosted vintages, and it was seen in some younger vines that avoided the effects of the 2017 frosts.

Some of August was not that warm “I lit my fire in the house one day,” explained one vigneron – but the end of August was hot again, enough that some producers considered starting their harvest in August – though most waited into September. Still, it was a very early vintage, 3-5 days later than 2018, though some domaines chose the same starting-dates in both vintages. There was a little rain around the weekend of 11 September, the grapes harvested before and after had a different balance – and some had to wait as they were relying on some second generation grapes to boost their yields. It’s important to have healthy grapes, but the timing choice definitely affected the style of the wines in 2017. Overall it was quite a dry year – 600mm of rain when there’s normally 700-900mm.

There was a sting in the tail for many producers – they had clean, ripe, good-looking grapes at harvest, but there really wasn’t a lot of juice – even with some strong pressing. A double hit!

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