French Chablis is a very distinctive wine, and one that is growing in popularity among American winos. But if you're a fan like me, you'd better start stocking your 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 60 miles north of the more famous Côte d'Or. The wine produced in Chablis is chardonnay, which is grown in vineyards that resemble rolling ocean waves. It's stunningly beautiful scenery. And its wine is stunningly beautiful, too. But 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, it has little or no oak and vanilla flavors, since it's typically fermented in stainless steel or neutral wood casks. To some, that makes it less appealing than bigger, oaky chardonnays.
One of my favorite aspects of this wine is the minerality. The French sometimes describe the unique flavor as "gunflint": gout de pierre à fusil. Nice Premier or Grand Cru varieties often have those mineral gunflint notes along with sweet honeyed flavors. It's the terroir—the unique soil—that gives it its special appeal. The soil in Chablis, which some 150 million years ago was a sea that evaporated, is composed mostly of limestone and fossils, sea shells, oysters and such, which gives it a distinctive briny taste. Some wine writers compare the taste to licking wet rocks or slate (something I've yet to try).
Sadly, the 2016 Chablis harvest is pretty pathetic. The lucky growers will harvest about a third of 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 the weather that's causing such distress these days. In late April, an unexpected, winter-like frost that lasted three nights destroyed many of the promising grape buds. 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 to 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, the floods were followed by a killer fungus that destroyed much of what was left. And, the local winemakers say 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 this region.