In many ways, Chablis is about how you choose to approach it.
1. Starting with the place, geographically, let’s look at possible approaches…
2. Chablis as a politico/geographic Burgundian ‘construct’
And next month, in Chapter 2, as a wine.
1. Approaching the town of Chablis
For the many people who are interested enough to pay a visit here, I expect that a significant number may begin their journey in Beaune. Chablis lies just off the main A6 Autoroute – almost half-way between Beaune and Paris – it’s actually about 150km from Beaune. Jump directly from the Autoroute onto the old Route Nationale, now re-christened the D965, and you will traverse the village of Beines, a village that holds onto the coat-tails of the premier cru Beauroy. The village nestles in many hectares of vines, though around the village itself, the soil seems a little darker than the more clichéd white chalk stones between the rows of vines, stones that reflect the sun.
Exit Beines, towards Chablis – it is only another 5 or 6 kilometers to Chablis – and you will pass a large, picturesque lake, popular with picnickers. This is the Etang de Beines. Picturesque it may be, but it’s actually an artificial lake, built as a source for the water that is sprayed in a fine mist onto the vines when temperatures drop, encasing them in ice, yet improbably protecting them from the ravages of the frost. You are now surrounded by the 80% monoculture of vines that is Chablis – it’s hilly and rather pretty. This is the introduction to your visit to Chablis, but it becomes a little spoilt in the last kilometers…
Now you reach the suburbs of Chablis – it’s easy to tell – you reach a roundabout with a giant sculpture of a hand holding a bunch of grapes. It’s more than a little surreal and seems to me that it would be more at home outside a former palace of Saddam Hussein, or maybe some other dictator of renown. Here also, you could now be anywhere in the world, a world of industrial estate warehouses. My enthusiasm has been a little punctured, though admittedly we move quickly into the old town charm of Chablis.
This is easily the quickest way to Chablis from Beaune, but I think it reinforces the distance between Beaune and its northern neighbour, its brashness an obvious commercial dimension underlines that 150km of physical separation, and with it, the fragility of the supposed ‘Burgundy’ link. When it comes to your first discovery of the place, I prefer another route:
You must still take the A6 Autoroute from Beaune, and of-course, in the direction of Paris. Perhaps ‘desolate’ is too unfair a word, but you are unlikely to see more than fields, forest and agriculture until you exit the A6, but a little earlier than for ‘route 1’, and signposted ‘Nitry’. Admittedly, a number of Châteaux were signposted along the Autoroute – though you will see little more than an occasional turret from your driving seat.
Exit the small village of Nitry and you are clearly in the old domaine of the Romans, except for a single 60° ‘curve’, you have about 6km of bullet-straight Legionaire’s road to the next village, Lichères. You are now halfway from the Autoroute to Chablis, on the D91, but there’s neither sight nor sign of a vine. The first vines appear, with Chablis signposted only about 4km away, on the hillside facing the sun. Just another half-kilometer onwards and vines appear on the other side of the road too, planted above fields of crops.
By this route you enter Chablis with discretion, except, perhaps, for all the ‘Vorcoret Chablis’ buildings – it’s almost a Vorcoret theme-park! Old houses and an old church beckon. Here I’d advise you to park in a side-street and start your exploration of this seemingly quiet, quaint old town, by foot. The venerable church is surrounded by commemorations of generations of Chablis families; Picqs, Billauds, Droins, Duplessis, Moreaus and Dauvissats, and all the houses in this quarter have a modest but old appeal. You won’t see many vines, but you have an impression that’s not unlike the quiet backwaters of Savigny or Saint Aubin. As you explore further, you may find a small river – it’s actually the famous (in Chablis!) Serein – and the houses slowly become more and more distinguished – if not always less shabby. Eventually you will find the a street with florists, restaurants and wine-shops – and finally you have a backdrop of vines – and not just any vines, these are the Grand Crus of Chablis. They are an arresting sight, there’s more than a hint of the hills behind Beaune, but here it is more like a group of mini-Cortons, with their wooded caps – though most of those caps were mainly woodless pasture 100 years ago.
I like this approach to Chablis; it starts modestly, but opens ever-wider, it seems more considered and less rushed – and there are no dictators. Maybe, it is also a preference reflective that I visited too many ‘industrial estates’ in my working years!
2. As a politico/geographic Burgundian ‘construct.’
It is fair to say that the link between Chablis and Côte d’Or has, in large part, a political dimension. Let’s be clear, the 150 km that separates Chablis and Beaune was a journey of many, many days, before the advent of cars, indeed, in the 1800s there was much Chablis-Mousseaux – little surprise, as their nearest neighbours are the Champenoise! Indeed, until the Revolution, Chablis, Chichée, Fontenay, Poinchy Fyé, Maligny, Courgis, Préhy, Beines, Lignorelles, Villy, Chapel, Beru, Viviers, Ligny le Châtel, etcetera, were part of the county of Champagne while Fleys, Chemilly and Milly were part of the Duchy of Burgundy.
Yet, and despite the Chablis locals referring to the Côte d’Or as ‘central Burgundy’, as you immerse yourself in visiting domaines and walking the streets, taking photos, you could be in any village of the Côte d’Or. It really is Burgundian here, Burgundian in a way that I have never yet felt in the Chalonnaise or Mâconnais. The climate, location and soil, and from that, the wines that are made here, are Burgundian. There is a real connection – Chablis and the Côte d’Or, it seems to me, are joined at the hip.