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The church of Sainte-Claire on the Jean-Marc Brocard estate in Prehy.
The church of Sainte-Claire on the Jean-Marc Brocard estate in Prehy. (Paul McGeary/Globe Staff)
 If you go: Chablis, France

Distinct Chablis on a Burgundy tour

Email|Print| Text size + By Paul McGeary
Globe Staff / March 26, 2006

CHABLIS, France -- ''Ah," purred Fergus Read. ''Now that's very nice."

We were finishing the fifth course of dinner at our bed-and-breakfast outside Chablis. Read inhaled and then savored the golden liquid he twirled in his stemmed glass. Our host looked much relieved. Read had dismissed another wine under discussion as ''dishwater."

He was one of the characters we met on a late spring visit to northern Burgundy. A musician, music teacher, and self-professed wine snob, Read was on a wine-tasting and acquisition tour. We were spending the week in Chablis, home of delightful white wines and a perfect base for exploring the region.

When most people think of Burgundy, they think of Dijon or Beaune, the so-called Cote d'Or farther south, home of the heartier red wines, Dijon mustard and boeuf bourguignon.

But my wife, son, and I chose Chablis as our base in part because of its proximity to many places -- Champagne and the Loire Valley are nearby -- and in part because of our preference for white wines. We had found the Manoir des Roches on the Internet, a newly opened ''chambres d'hôte" (rooms in a private residence offered as guest rooms) owned by an expatriate English couple, Jan and Steve Earley.

In the States, Chablis is often a term for a generic and ordinary white wine, but in France, Chablis is a narrowly defined appellation, ranging from delicate ''petit Chablis" to the more robust grades ''premier cru," and ''grand cru." The soil around Chablis is primarily a kind of Jurassic period limestone called Kimmeridgian, after the place in England where it was first identified. The chalky, well-drained soil and abundant sunshine are what give the wine made from Chardonnay grapes its clear, crisp finish and subtle flavors.

The whole area devoted to Chablis vineyards is some 16,000 acres, of which only 450 are suitable to produce grand cru. Of the total production of 6 million gallons of all grades, less than 125,000 gallons are grand cru. In addition, to protect its quality and rarity, production of grand cru is strictly limited to about 500 gallons per acre -- even if the land could support more. Only seven wineries have the correct combination of sun, soil, and exposure to make a grand cru. It was the search for the perfect Chablis that had brought Read, head of the Palmers Green Wine Society in north London, to Chablis.

Indeed, it is wine that brings most people here, to settle or visit. The history of wine in the valley of the Serein River, which bisects Chablis, goes back at least to Roman times. In early autumn, the sweet odor of wine pressing fills the air. The locals call the sweet mist ''le part des anges" (the angel's share).

Chablis caters assiduously to traveling oenophiles. There are 500 or so vineyards located around the small town (population about 2,500), ranging from tiny mom-and-pop operations to large industrial complexes like Jean-Marc Brocard's southwest of town, and all are open for ''dégustations" (wine tastings). You are under no obligation to buy when you taste, but you always do. Steve Earley offered suggestions each day for wineries to explore and which produce we could bring back for dinner -- which we did. The cuisine at the manoir tended toward lighter fare -- chicken and pork rather than beef -- intended to work well with the lighter local wines.

When not dining at the manoir, we would avail ourselves of one of the restaurants in Chablis, including Le Clos with its Michelin star (though the adjoining Le Bistrot des Grands Crus, owned by the same company, serves almost the same menu at somewhat lower prices and a less formal atmosphere).

While wine is the draw, it is certainly not the only reason to visit Chablis. As a base to explore, it has much to offer. It is surrounded by tiny villages, each with its winery, church, market day, and usually a decent restaurant.

We often dined al fresco, stopping at a boulangerie for a baguette and in a village market for cheese and fruit (and of course wine). We would have lunch by the roadside or in a park. The clear skies, warm temperatures, and magnificent vistas made for a delightful respite.

Some convenient day or half-day trips:

Auxerre: The largest city in the Yonne region, Auxerre is an administrative and economic capital. Sprawling along both sides of the Yonne River, it features a medieval market district and the cathedral of St. Etienne.

Avallon: A smaller market town with a restored medieval quarter and beautifully preserved clock tower in the market district. Avallon is the gateway to the Morvan, a regional ''parc naturelle" with deep woods and rolling hills, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, kayaking, fishing and swimming, and 2,500 miles of hiking trails. There are villages and hotels in the park where you can spend the night.

Ancy-le-Franc: The magnificently restored 16th-century chateau in this village was designed by Sebastiano Serlio, the court architect of Francois I. The public rooms and noteworthy paintings are lovingly preserved and the march of French history is preserved in the narrative given by the well-trained guides. Open Tuesday to Sunday, April to November, and the site of classical and chamber concerts year-round.

Noyers sur Serein: A smaller town, it boats a beautifully preserved medieval quarter within the walled city. In many of the half-timbered buildings, medieval sculpture is preserved as adornments to the facade.

Vézelay: About an hour south of Chablis, the basilica of St. Mary Magdalene at Vézelay is the jewel of French Romanesque. The Vézelay route is one of the four leading historical pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, the Spanish shrine to the Apostle James. A Dutch couple in their 60s, Arnold and Coby Monster, stayed one evening at Manoir des Roches before resuming their long walk from Amsterdam to northwest Spain. With its whitewashed walls and barrel vault with mocha-and-white stripes along the ribs, the basilica is a place of serenity and contemplation. While I was there, both monks and nuns chanted noon prayers, their voices piercing the stillness of the nave with songs of praise and contemplation. Bring binoculars to study the sculpture, especially the capitals of the columns. At Vézelay, the sculptural program serves the purpose of stained glass at Gothic cathedrals, conveying biblical stories in a way that could be understood by a nonliterate congregation.

As each day ended, we made our way back to Chablis for dinner with our clutch of bottles in tow to take in a long, late Burgundian sunset from the veranda, the golden liquid in our glasses glinting in the evening sun.

Contact Paul McGeary at mcgeary@globe.com.

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