1950s Archive

Chablis Revisited

Originally Published October 1959

Chablis, famous the world over for its wine, is a rather cold and dreary little town—triste is the French word—even, and perhaps even especially, in late April and early May, when the whole surrounding countryside looks lush and green and the hedgerows are while with hawthorn blossoms. May, in most of France, is a festive month, with holidays crowding the calendar—May Day, V.E. Day, Ascension Day, the Day of Joan of Arc, Whitsunday. It is the season of village fetes and Sunday football games; of the first outings of the year; of lovers and fishermen and First Communions; of apple-blossoms. wisteria, and lily of the valley; of asparagus and field salad and the first wild strawberries, tiny and fragrant, up from Provence.

To Chablis, May, or at least the first half of May, brings few if any of these seasonal delights. It is the time of year when old men sleep badly and even the young men worry; when women get up at dawn to look at the thermometer outside the window; when the weather report by radio becomes by far the most important news of all; when a suggestion of wind out of the north is almost as frightening as a threat of war.

For, by the end of April, the rolling vineyards of Chablis, seen from a distance, show a hint of green: The first timid leaves are like small green candle flames on the low brown candelabra of the vines. They can be extinguished by frost in a matter of minutes, and this is a sentence of death with no appeal. The year 1945 produced a holocaust; 1957 was almost as bad; frost strikes and brings a measure of disaster to a few winegrowers almost every year and no one can predict its vagaries or its probable path. Until the fifteenth (some say the twentieth) of May, this sword of Damocles hangs over Chablis, and, by the time the danger has passed, the good people of Chablis are too unutterably weary and—even if the news is good—too relieved to enjoy the pleasures of their spring.

Happily, the spring of 1959 produced no real disaster, only a little superficial damage, and the prospects for the 1959 vintage—a month away as I write these lines—are excellent.

These winegrowers of northern Burgundy are a hardy and stubborn race, not easily discouraged, set in their ways. The total vineyard acreage of Burgundy, nevertheless, has declined by over fifty per cent since 1870, even in the face of an increased world-wide demand and higher prices. Most of the abandoned vineyards lie in northern Burgundy, a good many of them near Chablis.

So, if you would see Chablis in a more cheerful mood, pick your year and come in September, at vintage time. The cold little town can be almost warm; if not gay, it is certainly not cheerless; the food is good at the Hôtel de l'Etoile, fully deserving of Michelin's star; visitors are welcome everywhere.

Badly damaged in 1940, in the war, the center of the little village has been rebuilt, but, to tell the truth, it offers few attractions for anyone but a wine enthusiast: a rather picturesque old gateway; some attractive views along the reedy, slow-flowing river, the Serein; small cellars (for there are no large or impressive ones); small vineyards, tended, in this cold northern climate, with infinite, painstaking care.

The town is just over a hundred miles southeast of Pan's; it has a population of one thousand six hundred and fifty-five; it is about five hundred feet above sea level. Its little river, the Serein, empties into the Yonne and thence into the Seine—thus the water of Chablis, like a good part of its wine, goes north to Paris. Except for the wine, there are a thousand villages in France more worthy of one's attention.

Nor, in fact, is there as much wine as one might imagine—including the best and the worst, some seventy-five thousand cases a year entitled to the name, plus less than half as much again of lesser stuff called “Petit Chablis,” mostly drunk up en carafe. How then explain its celebrity? The truth is that, at its best (by no means very often), it has a character both unique and quite astonishingly good.

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