WHAT is the best-known wine name in the world? For a long time, it was Chablis. Until wine laws around the world were tightened up towards the end of the 20th century, the name was synonymous with dry white wine. Nowadays, Chablis has to come from vineyards around the town of the same name lying 120 miles south-east of Paris. For centuries, it has considered itself as part of Burgundy.
The vinous history of Chablis owes much to the Church. In 1114, an English monk, Stephen Harding, left the mother house of the Cistercian order at Cîteaux to establish a new monastery at Pontigny, just north of the town of Chablis, and the monastery soon had its own wine domaine, based on vineyards bought from the Benedictines of St Martin of Tours. These wines were soon widely distributed throughout northern Europe.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the Yonne département, which includes Chablis, was the most productive of the four that give the wines of Burgundy. The main reason for this was its proximity to Paris. The wines could be shipped there on barges down the rivers Serein and Yonne.
Although Paris might have contributed to establishing it as a wine region, by the end of the century it had also contributed to its collapse. A succession of poor vintages and the attraction of plentiful jobs in the city, as a result of the industrial revolution, led to a flight of people from the country. And, in 1887, the arrival of the aphid Phylloxera vastatrix destroyed the vineyards.
The renaissance of the vineyards of Chablis did not come until the early 1970s, and then it was truly remarkable. In a little under 40 years, the production has increased tenfold as it has benefited from the increasing demand for white Burgundy, and its proximity to Paris.
Since the creation of the appellation contrôlée laws, the growers have always had the right to describe their wines as Bourgogne; but, at the beginning of this year, the authorities decided not only to withdraw this right from Chablis and certain other vineyards in the north of Burgundy, but also, most treacherously, to grant it to the vineyards of the Beaujolais, where the grape is the despised Gamay and the soils are different from those elsewhere.
The response in Chablis was immediate and fierce. How could 1000 years of history be cast aside? In the face of such wrath, the authorities beat a hasty retreat, and calm was restored.
Almost every wine outlet will have Chablis on sale, much of it coming from the excellent co-operative cellar La Chablisienne. Within the area, there is a hierarchy of wines ranging from Petit Chablis, from fringe vineyards, through Chablis, to Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru. If dry white wine is your delight, you need look no further.