An introduction to Chablis and its vineyards

It was cold, crisp January day in 1999, the most perfect winter’s day with a clear blue sky and bright sunlight, in short one of those days that are almost too good to be true.Chablis was en fête, hosting the St. Vincent Tournante, for the first time since 1976. St. Vincent is the patron saint of wine growers and every year his feast day is celebrated in a different Burgundian village.

xThe morning began with a fortifying glass of Chablis accompanied by a copious baguette. This is not my usual breakfast, even in Chablis, but on that particular morning, it seemed entirely appropriate. We watched the procession, headed by the Piliers Chablisiens, resplendent in their green and gold robes, followed by the wine brotherhood of every principal Burgundian village, each carrying their own statue of St. Vincent.

The town was a sea of paper flowers and a riot of unexpected colour for every wine grower’s wife, sister, daughter and cousin had been making them since the fête of the previous year. Some of the decorations were quite extravagant and lavish. I identified two fat phylloxera lice in a tree, which, with its bare branches, bore a certain resemblance to a giant vine. In the square in front of the town hall a bottle of Chablis balanced on a globe, was spewing out wine in the form of cream paper flowers. The crowds milled, enjoying the atmosphere and the wine flowed.

Setting the Chablis scene

Chablis is the most northern region of Burgundy. It is commonly called La Porte d’Or de la Bourgogne and has been linked both historically and commercially with Burgundy for centuries. Yet in many respects Chablis is a very isolated, independent and individual vineyard area, more appropriately called by another less frequently used epithet l’Ile Vineuse. In fact Chablis is geographically closer to the vineyards of Champagne than to those of the Côte d’Or, but the contact between the two areas is negligible. It is the négociants of Beaune who continue to play an important role in the commerce of Chablis.

Chablis history

On an early visit to Chablis, back in 1981, Michel Poitout, Jean Durup’s chef de cave told me that one hundred years earlier, before the phylloxera crisis, there had been 40,000 hectares of vines in the Yonne. In 1981 there were barely 3,000, of which Chablis accounted for a little more than half. The latest available figures, for the year 2004, state a total of 5,672 hectares, of which Chablis represents 4,618. So historical curiosity begs the question: what happened?

It was fascinating to discover that the department of the Yonne had been a prolific producer of vins de comptoirs for the cafés of Paris and that its vineyards had included Clos de la Chainette, which is reduced to a small plot in the suburbs of Auxerre, and once famous names such as Epineuil, Vézelay and La Côte St Jacques, which are now enjoying something of a revival in their fortunes. Chablis itself survived the ravages of phylloxera, as well as two world wars. But only just. The adherence of its wine growers to the Chardonnay grape distinguished Chablis from the other white wines of the area, but hard climatic vicissitudes, with years of devastating frost, were such to deter even the most optimistic and stubborn vigneron.

In the mid-1950s the vineyards were so empty of vines that in the hard winter of 1956 people skied down the slopes of Les Clos, on what is now the source of one of Chablis’ most distinguished wines and some of its most valuable land.

Why I love Chablis

xWine writers are often asked that perplexing question: what is your favourite wine? My usual quip by way of reply is: the wine in my glass at the moment. But if I am forced to make a more serious and considered answer, it has to be Chablis. I have been visiting Chablis and drinking Chablis regularly for well over twenty years and I do not think that I shall ever tire of the wine. It defies description. There are many Chablis as there are wine growers.

The Chardonnay grape grown on limestone and clay soil, the defining kimmeridgian, makes wines with flavour, complexity and depth. Young Chablis is pale straw-coloured with a hint of green; it has dryness and bite, with a firm backbone of acidity, but should never be harsh or tart. As it ages, it develops the characteristic gout de pierre à fusil, the mineral flavours of stony gunflint, which is the traditional description of mature Chablis. Chardonnay produces so many fine wines in so many parts of the world, but for my tastebuds, Chablis remains unique, and quite unlike a Chardonnay from anywhere else in the world.

the Chablis hierarchy

Chablis is not just one wine. Within the appellation there are four categories, in ascending order, Petit Chablis, Chablis, premier cru and grand cru. The premiers crus now comprise 79 named vineyards, some of which appear on a label much more frequently than others, and then there are the seven grands crus, as well as the anomaly of La Moutonne. The historical heart of the appellation is focused upon the town of Chablis and a couple of the nearest villages, Milly and Poinchy, but the vineyards of Chablis covers twenty communes over a relatively compact area. However, within that small area there are numerous small differences in terroir, aspect and microclimate, all of which contribute to the infinite subtleties of the flavour in the wines. Then of course there is the human element; each wine grower gives something of themselves to their wine, which makes it different from their neighbour’s Chablis.

xYou can best appreciate the topography of Chablis from the viewpoint above the slopes of the grands crus. You have the finest vineyards of the appellation literally at your feet; the gradients are steep, but the slopes are not even; the aspect is generally south west, but parts of the slope face east or even north. The only building is the so-called Château de Grenouilles, a small farmhouse, used by the Chablisienne, the local wine cooperative. At the bottom of the slope flows the gentle river Serein. The church tower of the parish church, the Collégiale de St. Martin, stands out above the russet-coloured roofs.

A visit to Chablis

Like most small towns in France, Chablis has sprawled, with modern wine cellars and a light industrial area on its outskirts. Across the valley are the slopes of the premiers crus, the long hillside of the Côte de Léchet above the village of Milly, and Vaillons and Montmains immediately behind the town, with other premiers crus, Fourchaume and Montée de Tonnerre forming a natural continuation of the grands crus.

The surrounding countryside is gentle and undulating; this is not dramatic scenery but restful and best appreciated on foot, when you can see the contours of the vineyards. One crisp April day when there were fears of frost, and flakes of snow in the wind, with heaters at the ready in the vineyards, we set off out the town, along the Vallée de Vauvilien, and up through the vineyard of Mont de Milieu, heading towards the village of Fleys. Our route then took us past the steep slopes of Vaucoupin and then down to the outskirts of Chichée to follow the valley of the Serein back into Chablis. As well as vineyards, there are fields of corn and cherry trees. Cowslips, which seem to have long disappeared from the English countryside, grow in abundance in the hedgerows and along the roadsides in April, with fields of yellow rape making a violent splash on the landscape in May. On the hilltops above the vineyards are woods of oak, juniper and pine.

Over the last twenty years the town of Chablis has gently become more prosperous. These days it exudes an air of quiet confidence. The centre of the town was bombarded in 1940 and rebuilt with in the conventional post-war style of urban France. There are a growing number of small wine shops dedicated to a single wine grower, Jean-Marc Brocard, Domaine Laroche, Daniel Defaix, to name but a few. I measure the rise in Chablis’s fortunes by the menu in the main café, of which I have been an erratic but at times frequent customer. It offers warming hot chocolate on cold winter days, to restore circulation to your toes between visits to cold cellars.