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Chablis is the most northerly still-wine region in France, and produces arguably the world's best Chardonnay, as Chris Losh discovers on his tour in a Mercedes R 320 CDI SE
There's a story that's widely told in the wine trade about a customer who asks a young, enthusiastic merchant for a bottle of Chablis and is directed instead towards a New World Chardonnay. 'But I don't like Chardonnay,' he sniffs. 'I want a Chablis.'
Even though all Chablis is 100 per cent made from Chardonnay, the customer's statement is not actually as ridiculous as it might seem because of this wine's distinctive personality. It is perfectly possible to dislike Chardonnay, yet like Chablis - and vice versa.
This apparent contradiction isn't the only paradox concerning Chablis. It's a place that only makes 3.5 million bottles a year, yet it is known all over the world; a place with a highly individual style, yet whose name has been hijacked outside Europe to denote almost any dry white wine, made from, frankly, anything. And, while it's officially part of Burgundy, at 170km from the capital, it's as close to Paris as it is to Puligny-Montrachet.
It is the most northerly of all of France's vineyards for still wine, just about on the limit of where you can get Chardonnay grapes to ripen fully with any regularity, and represents the last vestiges of what used to be a vast vineyard area 150km-200km south of Paris providing wine for the bars and dining tables of the capital.
Being this far north might be nerve-wracking for the growers, but it does have its advantages if you've got the keys to a brand-new R-Class Mercedes-Benz and a Eurotunnel ticket in your pocket. You can 'do' Chablis in not much more than half a day.
Thanks to the sat-nav system, I got there travelling along delightfully uncluttered roads via Troyes and Chaource. Setting the cruise control at a sedate 125km per hour (a wise idea as the police here are tough on extreme speeding, particularly when it comes to foreigners in flash cars), I settled back to enjoy the drive.
Calais to Chablis is less than five hours, none of it stressful and little of it, frankly, memorable. The A26 traverses, roughly, the line of the old Western Front, which on a more relaxed visit would have provided some worthwhile stopoffs. As it was, I steamed straight through, sitting in what amounted to a comfortable armchair that just happened to be moving at 85mph.
As you turn off the autoroute at Troyes and take the smaller roads towards Chaource, the scenery starts to change. The countryside becomes more undulating, woods speckle the horizon and lines of cows watch with disinterest as you drive past. South of Paris we might be, but the feel is very definitely northern France - quiet, fertile and green, with mile after mile of fields, crops and cattle.
Before long, you hit patches of vines, the first since the southern edges of Champagne and, by the time you reach the town of Chablis, they're everywhere: in valleys, on slopes of every orientation, even poking out between woodland on the tops of hills. Cruising in towards the small, cream-coloured town, surrounded on all sides by vines, you can't help but think this is how all wine-growing regions ought to be.
Not that it's quite so pastorally romantic for its growers. This, after all, is a long way north to be growing grapes, especially without the moderating influence of the sea, and frost can be a huge problem. Fifty years ago, indeed, the region was dying on its feet. A string of violent springtime frosts had repeatedly trashed the grape crop, and impoverished growers abandoned the vineyards in their droves.
Visit the vineyards today and there is an unmistakeable air of optimism about the place. You still see 'smudge pots' (small metal contraptions aimed at keeping the frost at bay), but wealthier growers have gone further and drape their vines with electrical wires that heat up, thereby keeping away the ice and frost. Luck with the weather in recent years, combined with such modern technology, has clearly helped the region get back on its feet.
Chablis' chilly northerliness may have contributed to its problems in the past, but, conversely, it's also the region's big advantage. In an average summer, the temperature rarely gets much above 30°C and often tops out in the high-20s. As a result, grapes ripen slowly and retain a high natural acidity. The result is a pale, pure wine with what the French call nervosité - a kind of inner tension that's a million miles removed from the average £6 bottle of Chardonnay you'll find on a supermarket shelf.
Admittedly, cheap Chablis or Petit Chablis, particularly if it's over-cropped, can be at the thin end of the wine spectrum - something vaguely fresh and neutral with a whiff of apples. But move into the Grand and Premier Cru level and you start to find wines of real character, with depth, complexity and an ability to age. Good cru Chablis can age quite happily for 10 or 20 years. If young Chablis is as tense and taut as a Puerto Rican knife-fighter, then with age it turns into something of a Sean Connery: richer, rounder and softer, with less overt spikiness; mellow but still with an edge deep down.
There isn't, traditionally, a lot of oak in Chablis, which is perhaps one of the reasons why it's possible to like it but dislike what most people these days think of as Chardonnay. Admittedly, some producers went rather overboard with oak in the 1990s, but the amounts are lessening again, and the trend is definitely towards letting the wine's minerally, almost metallic character sing out from the glass, rather than making it easier to drink by softening it with wood flavours.
'It's always the same,' says Michel Laroche, probably the most famous Chablis producer (pictured with the Mercedes, left). 'You start with no wood, then you experiment and use too much, then you go back. We are definitely using less than 10 years ago.'
Laroche, incidentally, has pioneered the use of screwcaps for Chablis. While some producers use them for their cheaper wines, he has made a defiant statement of intent by using it for his most expensive. It makes sense: the lack of oxidation means the young wines retain their edgy purity, and the older ones don't oxidise as they age.
Provided you don't go between December and March, when it's freezing cold, there are any number of reasons why Chablis is a good place to visit for a long weekend. It's not too far away, for one thing, and, once you're there, everything is ridiculously close together. In fact, since so many négociants (producers who buy wine or grapes and blend them, as opposed to owning all their own vineyards) have cellars in the town, you can enjoy an entertaining day's tasting without even getting in the car. (And, given the current zeal of the French police for drink-driving convictions, this isn't a bad thing if you tend to view the spit-bucket as decorative rather than practical.)
Having said that, many of Chablis' better small producers have their wineries out of the town. The easiest way to choose which to visit (and there are 400 producers in the region) is to pick from the 15 growers who are members of the Union des Grands Crus (www.grandscruschablis.com).
Members of the Union must own at least some vineyards in the best (Grand Cru) sites, as well as subscribe to a series of principles designed to improve quality. The advantage of visiting these winemakers is that, as well as the basic Chablis and Petit Chablis, they will certainly be able to show you some Grand and Premier Cru wines that are really good and probably exceptionally cheap.
It takes something for a wine journalist, who has a cellar bulging with free samples, to get his plastic out. But, after tasting the wines from Gérard Tremblay, 18 bottles found their way into the capacious boot of the Mercedes-Benz alongside several cases of Laroche already purchased. My advice is to take a car with plenty of storage space and make sure your credit card is below its limit - you'll pay for your trip on the wine savings alone.
The town of Chablis, with its jumble of pale medieval houses, has a definite charm and it's worth allowing plenty of time for epicurean indulgence. There are many restaurants and, although only one
of them boasts a Michelin star, the rest are good, honest French eateries. Such is the quality of ingredients here - great snails, cheese, poulet de Bresse and Charolais beef - that even average
food tends to be highly palatable.
But the town is really about wine. Part of its attraction is that you can stand in the main square, look through the narrow streets out onto the slopes of the Grand Cru vineyards that march up the hill on the other side of the river Serein, and feel as though you understand the place. Unlike Burgundy and Bordeaux, Chablis isn't terribly complicated.
If you really want to get to the heart of the wine, and you don't mind a little dust on your car, you should take the chalky white roads up into the vineyards. Wander in among the vines and pick up a stone at random. It'll be bright white and full of oyster shells - fossils that go back 150 million years.
The locals claim that this limestone-rich soil is one of the reasons for Chablis' minerally taste. Certainly it's tough stuff: too hard to hew for building. The cream-coloured houses in Chablis are made from stone quarried in nearby Auxerre - the same raw material that was shipped down the River Yonne to build Notre Dame in Paris.
In fact, the intractability of the region's rock is an apt metaphor for the place itself. Chablis wines can be stubborn and uncompromising, yet are capable of great beauty. And as the region is just a few hours away, there's no reason not to visit. Just make sure your car has a big boot.
The Chablis wine classification system is simple – certainly compared to the rest of Burgundy.
The simplest, lightest wines, usually from wind-beaten vineyards on the top of hills. Light, inoffensive, and usually boring.
The ‘other’ basic Chablis. Still fairly light in flavour. Comes from mostly north-facing vineyards, further from the town. Can be good.
From south-east facing slopes on both sides of the river. The slope means more sun exposure and, therefore,
more ripeness. The wines from the 16 premiers crus can be excellent for the money.
From a block of vineyards directly north-east of the town. On steep southwest facing slopes, with high, rocky limestone
content, the vines get the most of the strong afternoon sun and are therefore riper and more characterful. The seven names to remember here are: Les Clos, Blanchots, Bougros, Vaudésir, Valmur, Preuses and Grenouilles.
Hostellerie des Clos
Rue Jules-Rathier, Chablis, 89800
Tel: (00) 33 3 86 42 10 63
Hotel five minutes from the town's cellars with Michelin-starred restaurant and well-stocked bar.
Le Vieux Moulin, 18 Rue des Moulins, Chablis, 89800,
Tel: (00) 33 3 86 42 47 30
Opening in spring 2007. Fabulous location in an old mill in the centre of Chablis. Seven rooms (five doubles, two suites). expect something modern and characterful.
La Côte saint Jacques
14, Faubourg de Paris, BP 197, Joigny, 89304
Tel: (00) 33 3 86 62 09 70
Between auxerre and Sens, half an hour northwest of Chablis with 23 rooms, sauna, tennis, pool. high-quality restaurant.
Domaine du Roncemay
Tel: (00) 33 3 86 73 50 50,
Half an hour west of auxerre, 45 minutes from Chablis. attractive country-house hotel with 18-hole golf course, pool, tennis, gym, parks.
Le Parc des Maréchaux
6 Avenue Foch, Auxerre, 89000
Tel: (00) 33 3 86 51 43 77
Recently refurbished. Pretty garden and pool near old-town auxerre, 15 minutes west of Chablis.
Hostellerie des Clos
Rue Jules-Rathier, Chablis, 89800
Tel: (00) 33 3 86 42 10 63
Chablis' only Michelin-starred restaurant combines haphazard decor with good local food and a terrific Chablis-filled wine list.
Laroche Wine Bar
Le Vieux Moulin, 18 Rue des Moulins, Chablis, 89800.
Tel: (00) 33 3 86 42 47 30
Relaxed surroundings and food that varies from simple and hearty to surprisingly imaginative. The most modern place in Chablis (see picture, below left).
Quai de la République, Auxerre, 89000
Tel: (00) 33 3 86 51 68 88
Michelin-starred. Probably the best restaurant in auxerre. Brilliant for truffles in season.
Domaines de Roncemay
Tel: (00) 33 3 86 73 50 50
Half an hour west of auxerre. Two-Michelinstarred chef Marc Meneau presides over a high-quality menu.
Eurotunnel can be contacted on 0870 535 3535 or www.eurotunnel.com.
Engine: 6 cylinder, 2987cc
0-62MPH: 8.7 seconds
Top speed: 134 mph
On the road price: £41,470
Chris Losh's verdict: Somewhere between an estate and an SUV, this car offers practicality without the ponderousness. It ate up the miles through France effortlessly and comfortably, doing everything but steer itself, and it absorbed luggage like a tardis. For such a big car, it can shift, too, and manages to offer interior space without handling like a bus. If you need a long-distance vehicle, this is it.
Top Gear's Andy Wilman's verdict: The R-Class goes further than any of its rivals in combining the attributes of a family people-carrier with those of a luxury saloon. It's quiet, refined, offers a fantastic ride and four-wheel drive makes for sure-footed driving. The diesel engine in the R 320 is without question the one to go for. To get the maximum boot space and leg room, my advice would be to pay the extra £1,500 for the long wheelbase model.