Lost amongst the Grand Cru in Chablis

It was the monks of Pontigny Abbey who realised that the soil and microclimate of the rolling hills that surround the village of Chablis were perfect for growing chardonnay grapes. They planted vines here in the 9th century, from which the current vineyards are descended. What the monks didn’t realise, was that this part of France was once a vast ocean. Proof of this are the millions of fossilised shells beneath the soil, creating ideal growing conditions for some of the most sought after grapes on earth.

The wines fall into four appellations: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru. All are made from 100% chardonnay grapes, and while Petit Chablis and Chablis are good wines, the Premier Cru and Grand Cru are some of the finest to be bottled in France. There are only 100 hectares of Chablis Grand Cru and they are all located just on the edge of the village. Cars whizz along the D965 towards Auxerre only a few metres from the billion dollar business planted next to the road.

Grand Cru trail, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru trail, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

The weather had been a bit hit-and-miss in Chablis, but finally grey cloud gave way to blue sky and it was possible to take a walk through the vineyards. There is a signposted route through the Grands Grus created by the Union de Grands Crus de Chablis. It takes you on small roads and dirt tracks over the hillside across the seven recognised Grands Crus areas: Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Preuses, Blanchots, Les Clos, Valmur and Bougros. Periodically, I’d come across an information board telling me where I was.

Five of these areas came into existence in 1919, two additional areas were selected in 1938. This was the same year a government decree defined the surface area of Chablis Grands Crus at 100 hectares – only 2% of all Chablis vineyards. When you realise this, tasting and even walking through the Grands Crus takes on special meaning. Although, not as special as the sweeping vistas you get over the village and valley below.

As I slogged uphill, occasionally passing a solitary figure tending to their vines, I had no idea of the views that were unfolding behind me. Only when I turned around did the true glory of the area come into focus. In front of me were row upon row of bright green chardonnay vines, the village of Chablis was illuminated in sunlight, and behind the village there seemed to be an endless patchwork of green and gold: vineyards and wheat side by side. It was beautiful.

This area, at the northern most tip of Burgundy, has a highly variable climate. The unpredictable rainfall and sunshine means the quality and quantity of grapes can’t be taken for granted. Severe frosts have led to the loss of entire crops. It’s said, that “the history of Chablis is lined with disastrous vintages”. In years gone by growers used to combat frosts by placing heaters between the vines. Today they are sprayed with water which, counterintuitively, protects the grapes from the worst of the cold.

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Church in vineyards near Chablis, Burgundy, France

Church in vineyards near Chablis, Burgundy, France

Vineyards near Chablis, Burgundy, France

Vineyards near Chablis, Burgundy, France

Burgundy countryside near Chablis, France

Burgundy countryside near Chablis, France

I walked for a couple of hours before making my way back to the village. Soon we were back in the car and heading out into the Burgundian countryside. We set off as the rain began falling, creating an ominous contrast between the forbidding sky and the bright greens and yellows of the landscape. We drove past vineyards which featured in our tasting the previous day, and through picturesque villages, before heading to Auxerre, our final destination in Burgundy.

Chablis, a village at the centre of the wine world

Leaving medieval Noyers-sur-Serein behind, we followed the Serein River through lovely Burgundian countryside to one of France’s most renowned villages, Chablis. The chances are, people would visit Chablis even if it wasn’t world famous for the quality of its wines. The medieval stone-built village, set amongst rolling hills on the banks of the Serein, is a lovely place. It has plenty of ancient buildings, including the 13th century church of Saint-Martin.

Wine tasting, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Wine tasting, Chablis, Burgundy, France

The truth is though, people come here because Chablis sits amidst some of the most prestigious vineyards on earth, and lends its name to a wine that is drunk with both gusto and reverence around the world. As a result, the village is dominated by wine-related tourism. Even if you wanted to, it’s hard not to find yourself lured into various cellars for tastings. My excuse is that the weather wasn’t very good, forcing us to seek alternative, indoor activities, or risk getting wet.

On an impulse, we decided to stay in Chablis rather than press on to Auxerre. It was raining and, as we wandered around looking for a hotel, we came across the Hôtel du Vieux Moulin, a lovely hotel in a converted 18th century watermill. It certainly isn’t the cheapest option in Chablis, but it must certainly be one of the best. It also happens to be owned by a respected wine producer, Domaine Laroche, makers of ten premieres crus and four grands crus, amongst others.

We wandered off into the village centre in search of wine enlightenment. Chablis is home to fewer than 3,000 people and is not difficult to walk around in an hour, we strolled through some of the narrow lanes near the hotel, visited the church of Saint-Martin, and found ourselves on the main street quite quickly. The village was quiet, but when we arrived at the Laroche wine shop to do some tasting, there was a group of twenty Canadians sniffing, swirling and sipping.

We took a seat and waited for the group to finish and leave. Then we had the place to ourselves. Over the next half hour we were treated to a couple of Chablis cuvees, three premieres crus and two grands crus, with a blow-by-blow account of where they came from, the terroir the vines grew in, and the method of production. It was fascinating to see the map of where each bottle had originated, and to realise we’d driven past some of them on our way to Chablis. Needless to say, we left with a few bottles.

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

The rain had finally stopped and the sun was just breaking through as we left the wine shop and clanked our way back down the main street. After dropping the bottles off at the hotel we set off to explore a bit more of the village, and walk off the earlier tasting. Chablis is a pretty place, although there are few things to do other than wine tasting and wine buying. We hung out at a little bar on the main square, before realising that if we didn’t go for food soon everywhere would probably be closed.

The Hôtel du Vieux Moulin has a highly rated restaurant attached to it, but it was closed. Luckily, it has a sister restaurant next door to the Laroche wine shop, Les Trois Bourgeons. To say the food was good would be to do a disservice to the Japanese chefs who serve up miraculous French bistro food, paired with excellent Chablis wines. We were seated at the kitchen and watched fascinated as our food was prepared. It was the perfect end to a day in the heart of Chablis wine country.

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France