A journey through France: Chablis

xJoin Hamish Marett-Crosby on a wine and food lovers’ journey around some of the great wine-producing areas of Europe. What more natural place to start than France, where over the months on wine-pages, Hamish will take you through Burgundy, the Rhône, the Loire and beyond.

In this installment Hamish moves on from Alsace, heading southwest to Chablis. He points out that there is more to be found here than vineyards. Indeed there’s as much fun travelling to the vineyards

Chablis: A One Product Town

I like one-product towns. I appreciate that the inhabitants of an area given over entirely to one product must live with an air of permanent uncertainty, lacking a commercial safety net, but going to a town or village – famous the world over only for what it does best – gives off a special resonance. It doesn’t matter if it is dusty and relatively unattractive – Cognac or one of the famous Médoc names – or has a charm totally of its own born out of its architecture and history – St-Emilion or San Gimignano – the product breathes extra life into the streets. All of which brings me neatly to Chablis.

The little town of Chablis sits in a bowl of vinous productivity among the gentle hills of north eastern Burgundy, just down the motorway south east of Paris. Against all odds and, at the fringe of the wine growing area battling with a variety of artifices against unfavourable weather, the vignerons succeed – sometimes just; sometimes brilliantly. For the past 1,000 years or thereabouts, local wine growers have been reaping the benefits of a limestone containing countless compressed prehistoric seashells laid down millions of years ago. The resulting white wine, at times austere and at times mouth-fillingly seductive, makes this town and this town makes the wine.

Chablis has had its troubles caused by the very familiarity – even over-familiarity – with the name. It was, along with Muscadet, the white wine we drank when, in our comparative youth, we woke up one morning and decided we didn’t really like those semi-sweet wines we had enjoyed for so long.

xWe convinced ourselves that we only really liked wine that was bone dry and had plenty of “refreshing” acidity (as we learned to call it, though “mouth puckeringly plaque-removing” might have been more accurate). Too much badly made Chablis and its cheap imitations spoilt the market. Such dimly remembered horrors of our youth have prevented many of us from revisiting.

But now the wheel has turned. Novice dry white wine drinkers are going elsewhere first, choosing from a sea of inexpensive wines. But then, as the production and export figures show, returning to well made Chablis in droves. The wines are becoming increasingly popular and, to many, it’s amazing how good they can be. To prove the point go there yourself; take a day or two avoiding the motorway rush south, and step into a quiet, laid-back region with plenty to explore, good food and, of course, good wine. Not all Chablis is expensive and, surprisingly, not all of it white.

The modern world has been kept on the outskirts of Chablis as the successful growers built their state-of-the-art wineries out of town. The centre retains the feel of times past when its aristocracy, the growers with the best sites on the grand cru and premier cru slopes above the town, created their cellars and the world came there to buy.

xAs a town it looks outwards and overseas, but to wander around the little mediaeval streets, to stroll along the canal by the old lavoir as the slopes of the vineyards appear out of the autumn mists,is to take a step back.You could be forgiven for forgetting the piles of e-mail, the faxes, the international bank drafts pouring in and out of these little buildings from across the wine drinking world.

The town is a delight, as is the gently contoured Department of Yonne, and it is the river of that name – augmented by the later canal system – which gave the raison d’être to the city of Auxerre. Inland water-based trade may now have given way to the behemoth camions that clear all before them, but the river at Auxerre still proves a magnet for the many who see an inland boating holiday as the perfect get-away-from-it-all break. The high gothic cathedral of St-Etienne and the Abbey of St Germain dominate the skyline, overlooking the river bank. They also act as useful landmarks for those who have a sense of direction that can’t cope with an ancient street plan.

But it is not just Auxerre and Chablis, the whole region gives testament to a long history of civilisation. The abbeys are justly famous for anyone with any appreciation of mediaeval architecture. Their solidity and strength give one an awareness of how vital their work was in steering civilisation and culture through very troubled waters. A visit to Pontigny near Auxerre – about an hour’s drive in the general direction of Beaune and Dijon – brings you to the spectacular Abbey of Fontenay, established by the first of the Cistercians. It is a must.

Spiritual and cultural sustenance from times past, impressively delivered within easy reach of Chablis, is matched by a more basic sustenance that is one of the reasons for going to France – food and wine. Cuisine of truly international standard can of course be found, most famously at the Hostellerie Les Clos, but the local dishes with the local wines (not just Chablis) provide an authentic window into the region. Jambon persillé – pressed ham, garlic and parsley – washed down with a Chablis or, if you feel like a change from the chardonnay grape, a Sauvignon de St-Bris, is one excellent way to start a fine dinner – or at lunch time, it can make a meal in itself.The andouillette awaits those with jaded palates. It is a type of sausage made from…. well perhaps not; wine-pages could be read by children. Let’s just say a combination of ingredients that makes a haggis look refined.

xThe overall effect as you cut one open and bits and bobs, which you really pray you don’t actually recognise, tumble out onto your plate is… surprising. But persevere, the taste is excellent, though strong, and, like a good kipper, you are reminded about what you ate for many hours afterwards. For the ubiquitous bread and pâté picque-nicque by the roadside, the local red wine Irancy, made largely from the pinot noir grape, makes an admirable thirst-quenching and tasty quaffer.

The lemming-like rush to the south in the summer impels us to bypass Chablis and the Auxerre region, but be strong. Forego the stress of crowded beaches, swimming pools and sun burn, and take a break. Relax, no one’s going to put a towel out and reserve this little bit of France.