As the first Chablis 2019s are released, we talk to top producers in the region – including Samuel Billaud, Matthieu Mangenot from Domaine Long-Depaquit and Olivier Bailly from Domaine Billaud-Simon – about the vintage
The growing season in 2019, as is becoming the norm these days, started with a warm February and March, leading to an early budbreak at the beginning of April. An early budbreak leads to a nail-biting spring for the vignerons, where the window for frost damage is only extended. Fortunately, there were only a couple of occasions where temperatures dropped to dangerous levels, with most Chablis producers today well equipped either with smudge pots, electrical heating wires or water sprays to offset the frost damage.
At Long-Depaquit they lost just 5%, which was not a concern. Samuel Billaud notes that the frost was much more dangerous on the lower slopes of Chablis where damage was higher than the 1er Cru and Grand Cru sites which were largely undamaged. For Olivier Bailly, winemaker at Domaine Billaud Simon, it was not simply the direct damage of the frosts (particularly on the night of 14th April) but the resultant stress on the vine following the outbreak that saw yields further affected. However, the real issue in regard to yields, came down to flowering rather than frost, with a windy, rainy, wet period during May which meant yields were notably affected. This period led to a lot of heterogeneity in the bunches and also noticeable millerandage (which results in very small berries): this does not affect quality but markedly lowers yield.
Unlike 2018, therefore, 2019 is a low-crop vintage with producers’ yields ranging from 20 to 40% below normal. Despite the poor flowering, the rest of the growing season was straightforward, with very little rain and plenty of sunshine, which meant excellent sanitary conditions in the vineyard with no rot at all and very little sorting required at picking. There were two short heatwaves, one at the end of June and another at the end of July, which did cause sunburn damage to exposed grapes but other than that, no sorting was required.
Regarding temperatures and rainfall, it was similar to 2018 with average rainfalls down 50% on average. Temperatures were also a full 2.2 degrees above average during the growing season, which is quite extraordinary. When comparing the similar effects of drought and sunshine in the 2018 vintage, vignerons talked about how the high yields helped dilute the intensity of the sun. With half the crop, how did the grapes survive in 2019? Was this to be a low-acid vintage with abnormal tropical fruit tones like 2015 or 2003?
Matthieu Mangenot, winemaker at Domaine Long-Depaquit, describes how something quite unusual happened. In the later part of the growing season, the grapes concentrated – with water in the berries evaporating from the skins. This increased sugar levels and therefore alcohol (typically to 13.4 to 13.8%, which is high for Chablis, but it concentrated the acid levels too. Despite the drought and heat, the acid levels sit close to great vintages such as 2008, 2014 and 2018, with a pH of 3.25 to 3.3 after malolactic fermentation. Olivier Bailly at Domaine Billaud Simon had even higher acidity levels (between 3.10 - 3.25 pH), stating, “It is the magic of Chablis to find Chardonnay retaining such acidity, despite the warm weather”.
The result is, as Mangenot told us, “undoubtedly a ripe, concentrated, powerful vintage, but with a freshness too, at the same time retaining real Chablis mineral typicity. It is a hot, warm vintage but it does not really behave like that in the glass.” The fruit ripeness is similar to ’15 – but there are no excess aromatics of over-ripeness or yellowness in the wine that is typical of the low-acid vintages like ’05 and ’06. The acid profile is much more like ’17, and very much still retaining a sense of place, avoiding the tropical fruit aromas of 2015. Samuel Billaud describes 2019 as “highly concentrated Chablis with sun-kissed aromatics – it is concentrated, with balanced structure and excellent minerality. It is a ‘gourmand’ [moreish] vintage, yet with tense, structural minerality.”
Our own impressions is there is no doubt a concentration and aromatic pungency to the wines, yet the nose retains the Chablis-esque chalky minerality and savoury dried-straw tone, as well as lifted floral aromatics. There is noticeable power, weight and warmth to the palate even on the Premiers Crus, with the top examples retaining mouth-watering acidity despite this opulence and concentration. They really have a wonderful combination of intensity and power, while retaining mineral typicity. Producers such as Samuel Billaud still has a majority of his 2019s undergoing élevage, with the Grands Crus left another six months in tank before being bottled. Despite them being babies the wines are already showing a lot of promise. Billaud compares his 2019s to the 2016s in terms of riper aromatics, but with much more concentration and minerality. It also has similarities to the 2017 vintage when it comes to structure and minerality, he says.
For Mangenot, the power and concentration allied with vibrant acidity and minerality makes this vintage hard to compare, “It doesn’t really taste like any other,” he says, “but for Chablis-lovers, it makes it a fascinating vintage to discover.”
Look out for the first 2019s from Chablis being released over the coming weeks