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Wine: Dry, white, delightful

13 March 2020


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.

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