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Monastery vineyards

03 May 2013

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IT IS difficult to underestimate the influence that monastic orders have had on our drinking habits: the Benedictines, with Buckfast Tonic Wine, known as "electric soup" by its many Glaswegian devotees; the Carthusians, with the Chartreuse liqueurs; and the Cistercians with those of Chablis.

The Abbey of Pontigny was the second daughter-house of the original foundation at Cîteaux, and, within four years of its establishment in 1114, they had purchased some vineyards from the Benedictine monks of Tours. These were to form the nucleus of their wine estates, managed by their lay brothers, based at Petit Pontigny, where today are found the offices of the local wine promotional board.

The monks owned these vineyards for more than 600 years, until they were confiscated at the time of the French Revolution. The then Abbot, Jean Depaquit, presumably renounced his vows; for, together with his brother Simon, he bought the best of the vineyards. The resultant wines can still be bought under the Domaine Long-Depaquit label.

It has often been said that Chablis has long been the most abused wine-name in the world: flagons of pink Chablis have been sold in the United States (true Chablis is always white), and I remember a New Zealand wine sold as "Chablisse: the wine that makes the frogs jump".

Despite its worldwide reputation, the vineyards of Chablis are compact, and the town has only about 3000 inhabitants. The vineyards lie on the hillsides on both banks of the river Serein and the valleys that lead off it. They have a strict hierarchy. On the plateaux on the top of the hills lie the vines that produce Petit Chablis. The soils here are Portlandian; on the slopes the older soils, called Kimmeridgian (after Kimmeridge, in Dorset), produce Chablis and Chablis Premier Cru; while on the east bank of the river, in one block, lie the seven Grand Cru vineyards.

This is primarily a region of small growers, and much of the wine is sold under the labels of the big Burgundian wine-houses. About a quarter of the total production, however, is in the hands of the local co-operative cellar, La Chablisienne. Its wines enjoy a high reputation. I can recommend from it the Waitrose Esprit de Chablis 1er cru 2010 (£15.99), and, at Majestic Wines, the Petit Chablis 2011 (£9.99).

There can be few wines with as broad a distribution as Chablis, and here are some producers to look out for: William Fèvre (Waitrose, 1er cru Vaillons 2011, £20.99; Majestic Wines, Chablis La Maladière 2011, £12.99 when two bottles bought); Seguinot-Bordet (Majestic, 1er cru Fourchaume, £17.99 when two bottles bought); Louis Moreau (Marks & Spencer, Chablis 2010, £10); Droin, Garnier & Fils, Alain Geoffroy, and Pommier.

Of the recent vintages, 2011 gives very agreeable wines; 2010 produced classic wines; and 2009 was a very hot year, with atypical wines, often with unexpected richness. The 2012 vintage was very small, but there are great expectations of the quality.

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