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Jake Bennett-Day, co-founder of Vino Gusto in Bury St Edmunds, on how climate change is affecting the vineyards of Chablis

Anything but Chardonnay, please,” pleads my mother-in-law. Her desperation subsides with a crisp, refreshing glass of Chablis. Despite being in each other’s lives for well over a decade and me being a professional wino for most of that time, I still find myself trying to convince her of the pleasure to be found in unoaked Chardonnay from around the world. Success is unfortunately uncommon. But why is Chablis the exception to the ABC movement that everybody is willing to make?

Tout sonne mieux en français, n'est ce pas? “Chablis”. It’s easy to say and sounds vaguely sexy. And helpfully, there is no mention of Chardonnay on the label. But perhaps more importantly it consistently tastes, great. . . Or at least has done historically. Rather than the luscious, oaky wines of Burgundy’s more southerly regions, Chablis has a reputation for being steely, refreshing and downright drinkable.

Additionally, it for some time has looked a comparative bargain compared with the classic whites of the Côte de Beaune, whilst remaining reassuringly premium within the context of what most people would choose to drink on a Friday night. The Wine Show’s Joe Fattorini wrote a great piece recently around a ‘prominent UK high street retailer’s’ customer analysis which micro segmented a unique category of Friday night Chablis buyers, as the ‘Chablis Shagger’ (which certainly does sound better in French) thanks to additional basket items. It’s a brilliant article and I highly recommend subscribing to Joe’s blog.

Glass of Chablis
Glass of Chablis

I love Chablis. That’s probably not regarded as very trendy within the wine trade, but if sharing a bottle of wine with my mother-in-law devalues my wine pro credibility, that’s a sacrifice I take great pleasure in making (she can keep the Marlborough Savvy-B though). I love it for all of the reasons above, but do fear that styles are starting to morph as a result of changing weather patterns, drinking trends and availability.

I am asked quite frequently by customers: “How much does the year actually matter to winemaking?”. The answer is longwinded, and my poor unsuspecting customer is beginning to wonder if I’m getting a sadistic kick out of being a wine bore. The answer is actually quite simple. A vintage means everything. A vine is, after all, an agricultural product, harvested only once annually. The resulting bottle of wine is a reflection of the climatic conditions and farmer’s decision-making skills, which are variable year on year. It is absolutely true that for industrially made plonk, wineries can choose certain methods and additives to maximise consistency for commercial purposes, and thanks to lax labelling laws on wine bottles we can pretend said additives don’t exist (and still wonder why we have headaches after just the one glass. . .).

Though, for producers who are purposefully trying to make wine that is delicious and non-toxic, vintage variation is a common and natural. They say that brilliant producers make great wine even in the most challenging vintages, though there aren’t many places in the world where vintage variation is more transparent through winemaking, than in Chablis; Relying on just the single, neutral Chardonnay grape variety and its reputation for highlighting the Kimmeridigan limestone and chalk terroir which gives Chablis it’s all-important mineral character. And boy have the Vignerons of Chablis had a tough time over the last decade. Long before the world warming was on the global agenda, Chablis producers have been at the mercy of frosts with devastating, income destroying consequences. This has always been a challenge for the region on the fringes of cool climate viticulture, but recent years have brought a set of new challenges, dictating the availability, style and price of the wines.

The Grand Cru vineyards of Chablis, Burgundy, France
The Grand Cru vineyards of Chablis, Burgundy, France

Warmer winters encourage earlier budding on vines that are then vulnerable to spring frosts which threaten to freeze off a sizeable proportion of the year’s crop. The shift in weather patterns too has increased the frequency at which Chablis expects hail, which causes potentially extensive damage to vineyards. Most vignerons agree that over the last decade, only two vintages have been considered successful in Chablis, with eight suffering badly from low-yields. As a result, we have naturally seen a steep price increase across the board from producers in an effort to minimise their losses.

So how is the style potentially affected, in addition to less available juice? Chablis owes much of its bracing freshness and crisp, zesty style to its cooler climate throughout the ripening season. With the average temperature rising, the last couple of decades have seen alcohol levels increase by approximately 1.5%. As a result, the classic citrussy, crisp fruit character is slowly morphing to become riper and softer – which doesn’t sound unappealing, but it’s certainly not the wine that the Chablis Shagger is expecting to chuck in his basket on a Friday evening.

It’s unclear exactly what lies ahead for the region of Chablis and its wines. What I do know for certain is that Chablis is changing, but is certainly not dead. Despite being less frequent, great vintages do and still will exist. Fortunately, 2022 is just arriving to the market, and it is across the board, mind bogglingly delicious. We have just landed a couple of classic wines from a new producer (to us) at Vino Gusto. Domaine Alexandre is a family business handed down over three generations. Brothers Guy and Olivier preside over the estate today, which comprises 13 prized hectares of vineyards in the heart of Chablis. The vineyards are worked with great care and yields are kept low to produce expressive classic wines, that we love to drink. Remarkably too, they demonstrate great value amongst other producers who are still inflating their prices after the plentiful harvest of 2022.

As a wine buyer and retailer, I’m supposed to be neutral and objective in my taste in wine. In reality, I’m an acid hunter. I want my wines to be energetic, lip-smacking, and fully charged with character and verve. Chablis in it’s classic form delivers that perfectly. Searching for vinous gems that offer a similarly electric drinking experience is my favourite side quest. Wild, lemony, saline Assyrtiko from the Greek island of Santorini certainly ticks most boxes. Alternatively, zesty and bright Albariño from Rias Baixas in North West Spain is an automatic “yes please”. So whilst it’s clear that the classics are changing, I’ll forever continue my crusade to find the new, modern fine wines.

Jake Bennett-Day is co-owner and director of Vino Gusto wine shop, 27 Hatter Street, Bury Saint Edmunds IP33 1NE.

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