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.
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.
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.