AN INSPIRED RIDE THROUGH CHABLIS

CHABLIS, France – This town tastes good.

Sounds good, too, rolling along the tongue like its namesake product, the golden elixir: shah-BLEE. Or, as my friend, Stefano “Frugal” Furgal, pronounces it, “shaaahhh-blee. Because, “That’s the feeling this wine gives me – an extended, ‘Ah!’ ”

He is saying, “Ah!” a lot today since the hospitable folks at Domaine Laroche are having a tasting of their wines known across the planet. The Laroche clan, headed now by Michel Laroche, goes back five generations as vineyard owners in this small, choice neighborhood. However, the local tradition of growing Chardonnay grapes, from which the genuine Chablis is made, traces into the dim past, to the ninth century and a band of Benedictine monks on the run.

“Ah! Bless those monks,” says “Frugal,” on hearing the story of the fleeing brethren. Escaping marauding Vikings who’d landed on the French coast, they moved farther inland from Tours in 887, resettling here, about 110 miles southeast of Paris, with their most prized possessions: relics of St. Martin and a knowledge of wine-making.

Raising his glass of Les Clos (a Grand Cru selected as White Wine of the Year for 1999 by Wine Spectator magazine), he toasts, “Here’s to those beneficent, barrel-filling Benedictines, and their sweet, successful retreat to Burgundy!” Then, “Ah!”

Bombed by German planes in 1940, Chablis lost many of its oldest buildings. But – “Ah! Thank God!” – the bombardiers missed targets of greatest significance: the compact vineyards just outside of this rural town of about 2,000 inhabitants; and the rustic wine press, a sturdy wooden antique nearly eight centuries old.

“That would have been devastating to the villagers’ morale, to see their cherished vines, and the revered press left over from the monks, blown to kingdom come,” says Brendan Moore, a wine specialist showing us around. “Their hatred for the Germans would never have subsided. Homes destroyed? They could get over that. But losing their vines . . . think of Valencia minus its orange groves . . . Maine missing its potatoes.”

The principal vineyards, a patchwork of moderate, even tiny, claims, cover only 250 acres. They climb a lovely hillside that is crowned by a forest.

“Ah! What a sight,” says Furgal with a sigh. “Drink it in: Phalanxes of vines upright on their poles. Countless grapes marching toward grateful palates on every continent.”

His wife, Anne, says, “Honey, you should write a song called ‘Onward Crystal-bound Soldiers.’ ”

Moore says, “The acreage is quite fragmented. About 300 families own plots from which the finest – the Grand Cru – comes. The Laroches have sizable holdings on that slope, but his Les Clos comes from a three-acre slice.

“Unique, priceless soil that has been millions of years in the composition since it was submerged by sea. Kimmeridgian limestone from the Jurassic Period is Chablis’s distinctive ingredient, formed by fossilized seashells. You’ll see wines labeled ‘Chablis’ from other regions, but this is the true stuff.”

The day had begun on a cruising barge called L’Art de Vivre, meandering along the River Yonne until the skipper, Leigh Wooten, pulled it over to the bank where a van met those passengers wishing to visit Chablis. Soon enough a spire seen above a stand of trees was identified as the tip of St. Martin’s Church in Chablis.

“An inspiring spire,” said Furgal, knowing that the tasting would happen but a few steps from St. Martin’s, named for Pope Martin IV, a native of the vicinity. Prominently a church door is festooned with horseshoes, a tribute to one of Martin’s horses, said to have carried him out of a dangerous situation.

“Maybe that’s why we consider horseshoes good luck,” said Muriel Coover, another of the group.

“It’s as good a story as any,” nodded her daughter-in-law, Mary Coover.

Moore wanted us to see the aged oaken press, housed in a ninth-century stone building called L’Obediencerie. Remaining operable, it is used once a year for a ceremonial squeezing of grapes the way the Benedictines did it in centuries past. Monk-power was the essence of the squeeze. Ten of them marching in a circle, pushing a horizontal wheel with handholds, turned a screw that brought two huge beams together, crushing the grapes between them, the juice flowing into oak barrels. It’s all done electrically now, and the barrels are steel.

“Those guys really earned their wine,” says Furgal, holding his tasting glass, containing another Grand Cru, Les Blanchots.  “Ah!”

Back to the barge we go, to be dropped off at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne with bicycles from the deck. “A nice ride along the river bank,” says Captain Wooten, “to work up an appetite for lunch. Only about five miles, and we’ll be there to pick you up.”

Villeneuve is a tidy village of waterfront gardens, a triple-arched stone bridge, rows of plane trees, and a 13th-century Gothic church, Notre Dame. The sexton, Pierre Delzangles, genially indicates the church’s prized paintings and sculpture.  Riding out through the city gate, we wave to a woman feeding ducks.

Soon we’re doing the ducking. The path had looked fine until it enters a wood that becomes a tangle of brambles and low-hanging branches. Rocks, roots, and ruts make the skinny trail an obstacle course too close to the river’s edge.

“We may go swimming whether we want to or not,” yips Sherrill Harris, scratching herself frantically. “I’ve got ants in my pants and flies in my eyes.”

Fallen trees present a scramble to get over them, by carrying the bikes, as does some barbed wire.

“I’ve been stabbed more times than Caesar,” moans Furgal, touching a tender, bloodied ear. “I may look like van Gogh.”

Eventually the thicket liberates us, and we see the boat.

“Captain, that was the ride of the damned,” my friend Aurelio says to the good-natured Wooten.

“Oh, sorry. I guess the road crew hasn’t cleared out that sector since the devastating storm of December ’99. But, here, here’s a remedy not too shabby – Chablis,” he says with a smile, pouring the golden restorative for the surviving bikies.

“We live to ride again,” Furgal sips. “Ah, Chaaahhhblis!”

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