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Q&A: Chablis Commission president Paul Espitalié

Chablis Commission president (and managing director of Simmonet Febvre) Paul Espitalié speaks to db about his expectations for the 2022 vintage, how the region is fighting back against frost, and whether Brexit has damaged the UK market for wine from the region.

Credit: BIVB / Sebastien BOULARD

What are your expectations for the 2022 vintage?
After the ‘21 vintage, which was a little bit complicated for us due to frost, the ‘22 is, in fact, a very, very good vintage, even if we did have some frost in April as the buds were starting to pop up. During the summer, which was very hot, there was a drought, but we were lucky to have some rain in mid-August, and the vines were able to use this water to grow a good volume and quality of grapes.

We have a really nice balance, because we do have a lot of fruit, because it was quite sunny and the Chardonnay was ripe, but still a lot of freshness. We are very lucky in Chablis that we have a terroir which always gives freshness and minerality, even in very hot years, so we keep these grapefruit and lemon flavours, and this typical saltiness and minerality at the end.

How damaging have spring frosts been in recent years?
The effect of the frost in ‘21 was very bad because the buds had grown quite a lot and there were a few leaves. With the ‘22 vintage, the buds were still in cotton wool, so it wasn’t as bad, but we are now always afraid of a frost because it is becoming a regular problem in Chablis due to climate change. The vines usually start very early now, we noticed that we are one or two weeks in advance compared to what we used to have in Chablis. We harvest much earlier too, for the ‘22 vintage we were ready on the first day of September – we used to pick usually pick grapes in Chablis after 15 September. We still have a nice Chablis style, but with more ripeness that perhaps makes Chablis easy to drink: very fruity and well-balanced.

What methods are being employed to fight frosts?
I think there are several solutions. Grape variety will have an effect – we can choose clones of Chardonnay or other grapes that won’t grow as quickly as the Chardonnay we have today. To prevent very bad spring frosts we can use heating wires in the vine, which can be a good solution because it is an automatic system that only switches on when there is a frost, so it’s very precise and it heats exactly when you need it to. We still use sprinkling on the vines a lot, which is quite an old system but it still works very well. The problem is that you need water to do that! We do have some artificial lakes to keep water during the winter, and it does work very well in fact.

The old solution we used to have a long time ago was burning fuel. You don’t find this anymore in Chablis, but you do still find candles, which is very pretty to see during the night – but it’s hard work to keep 400 candles per hectare alight. Even if we use candles made with organic fuel, there is still some pollution, and it can be very expensive too. The other solution that we are starting to see now are big propellers that mix the cold air below the vine with the hotter air above.

Does climate change pose a threat to Chablis’ long-term future as a winemaking region?
Yes, because it really is a threat to us. The vines we have today were selected for a cooler climate. Even if the balance is perfect today, perhaps in 20-years-time, the Chardonnay will ripen too quickly and we will have less acidity and more alcohol. For us a good balance is around 12% ABV, and in the past years we have had some hot vintages, like ‘18, and some Chablis was at 13% or even 14%, so this will dramatically change the style of the wine. What we are trying to do now is to think about selecting other types of Chardonnay, because the selection we did 30-years-ago was for early-ripening grapes because the climate was cooler. Now we must find Chardonnay that matures later.

How important has sustainability become in recent years?
There has been a real evolution in Chablis over the past three, four years. Today about 17% of the vineyards are organic, which is about three times the area that was organic a few years ago. I think that a lot of young producers in the region are changing the way they produce grapes – though there is some customer demand for it, it’s really because of the will of these producers.

Of course, then there’s the plan in Burgundy to reach carbon neutrality by 2045, which is quite ambitious. So we are working on this project, thinking about using lighter bottles to reduce emissions. We must think differently. During Covid there was a real change to how we worked, we found it was possible to sell wine all over the world through Zoom tastings. It’s not the same as being in front of someone, but it can work too, and I think people are much more cautious about over-travelling and heavier packaging. If you ship a container using a slip sheet, you can fill the same container with 20% more bottles. So it’s things like that, altogether, that can allow us to meet that target in a few years.

Can you see cardboard bottles becoming popular in Chablis as a means of reducing the emissions from producing and shipping packaging?
We have had a lot of debates about this. I must admit, I think glass bottles are a good solution today. In France, we recycle about 85% of the glass we use, so it’s a very good way to avoid waste. We are also thinking about reusing bottles, which is not a perfect solution, because you need a lot of water to clean them, but it can be a solution. We discussed cans, but the majority of people in Chablis weren’t ready for it, but we do use quite a lot of bag-in-box, which reduces the weight. I have heard about cardboard bottles, but we’re not ready for this today.

Does competition from other emerging wine regions, such as England, for example, pose a threat to Chablis?
In Chablis we have a very special terroir with Kimmeridgian limestone, which gives the taste of Chablis. We are not really worried about the fact that Chablis will still be Chablis in the future, even if we must evolve. But for Burgundy wines in general and Chablis in particular, it is the terroir that gives taste to the wine. So maybe in England we will find some good terroir also, because Kimmeridge comes from England! Chablis remains a small vineyard, less than 1% of French wine is produced there, and we have a specific taste.

In 2021, the US overtook the UK as the most valuable international market for Chablis. Has Brexit altered perceptions of the UK market?
For the first time ever, at the end of ‘21, the US became the first market for Chablis in value. The most recent figures for this year show that Britain is now once again in front of the US, in volume and value. About 10-years-ago, we sold 10 million bottles of Chablis to the UK, whereas today we are closer to four million bottles. So, we were very dependent on the British market for Chablis, but now we sell it to other markets around the world.

Of course, we were afraid of a Brexit. We noticed that sales were very high just before Brexit, because everybody was a bit worried and wanted to have wine. But, after Brexit, sales are still quite high. I think the main effect was the problem with the quantity of Chablis: we lost nearly one million bottles on the UK market because of the lack of wine – we had a very small crop. Customs is not a real problem for us, because we are used to exporting to other countries around the world like the US. We noticed that globally for Chablis, even if we sold less wine in ‘22, we sold much more Premier Cru and Grand Cru, a 25% increase, whereas there was a 33% drop in sales of Petit Chablis and Chablis. The UK market is evolving and becoming more premium.

What other developments are due in the region next year?
On 1 April 2023, the Cité des Climats et vins de Bourgogne is going to open in Chablis [there will also be sites in Beaune and Mâcon]. Before, we didn’t have a place for tourists, there was nowhere to explain all about Chablis, but this project, with BIVB [the Bourgogne Wine Board], will share our region with visitors.

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