To the east of the A6 Autoroute du Soleil that runs from Paris to Lyon, there lies a district which shares with Bordelais, the Côtes du Rhone and the Côte d'Or, some of the most celebrated wines in France. This district is Chablis, the northern gateway to Burgundy, in the département of Yonne.
I strongly recommend Chablis to anyone driving south along the A6 this autumn who comes over all thirsty and peckish around about Auxerre. Just hang a left and, within 12km, you will find yourself in the quiet medieval stone village of Chablis. It is celebrated not only for its wine but also for being the point of departure for La Route des Grands Crus. The wine-lovers' road of pilgrimage wends south-east through the Côte d'Or towards Beaune, passing through some of the greatest wine-producing areas in the world.
Wine is not the only charm of this part of France. Chablis – the district, not just the village – offers a prodigality of tastes and sensuous pleasures that is balanced by an equally powerful spiritual element, folded and preserved within a circle of protective hills. The cuisine is, as Michelin would say, worth a detour. The northern Burgundian table is a rustic one that runs to pommes de terre and beef, andouillettes (grilled tripe sausage), jambon au Chablis (ham with tarragon and shallots), gougères pâte à choux (savoury puff pastries stuffed with Gruyère), escargots and powerful Epoisses cheese.
While epicures know all about the food and wines of this part of France and regard the soil here as sacred, there are many other types of pilgrimage and journeys of discovery to be made hereabouts, depending on whether you prefer inspiring architecture, beautiful rolling countryside, far-flung views, a glimpse of an ancient agrarian way of life or simply spiritual uplift. In particular, the monasteries, cathedrals and basilicas of northern Burgundy are among the best-preserved examples of ecclesiastical architecture in Europe, albeit practically ignored by the majority of visitors who regard this region as little more than a pit-stop on the stampede south.
Purists would argue that Chablis is a village, not a district or a region. Technically speaking, they are correct. Thanks, however, to the talents of wine producers such as Laroche and Raveneau, Chablis has become synonymous worldwide with fine white wine. Having once supplied Paris with most of its daily wine needs, Chablis now supplies much of the rest of the world too.
As its reputation has spread, so too has the acreage under vine. Today, Le Chablisien covers a swathe of countryside that includes such delectable villages as Poinchy, Milly and Chichée – which looks like a Vaudeville act.
Chablis itself seems like an amalgam of Gormenghast (the dark closed crumbling stone castle of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy) and Clochemerle (Gabriel Chevallier's imaginary village in Beaujolais on which he based a satire on provincial feuds and rivalries triggered by plans to erect a pissoir). Welcome to a medieval mini-anthology of doorways, arches, bell towers and ecclesiastical buildings, grazed and scored by generations of oversized lorries which have squeezed through the streets.
Chablis outgrew its fortified walls in the 15th century. But instead of capitalising upon its growth and striving to become a town like Beaune, its rival to the south, it remained a humble village dedicated to wine. It is set at the foot of a hill on whose slopes its seven Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis's crown jewels, are planted – le point culminant de Chablis.
Don't be fooled by appearances. Though Chablis may look rudimentary, it isn't. There is no such thing as a (financially) poor Chablis producer, as the number of banks and brightly appointed shops testify. The pâtisserie is the giveaway. Provincial French patisseries are the medium by which the French give vent to the bourgeois streak that lurks within even the most committed paysan, and the patisserie in Chablis takes the animal-themed biscuit. While mud-spattered tractors bounced past outside, I took in geometrically correct pyramids of hand-made chocolates, macaroons and noisettes.
Who on Earth buys these exquisite confections, I wondered. I mean, does M Le Fermier clomp home after a hard day's toil in the vineyards, sit down, pull off his boots and call out to Madame, "Oi! Where are me ganaches aux pralines?"
Ever since 1850 the Laroche family has been among the leading wine producers in Chablis. They own the best hotel here: Hotel Laroche, which Michel Laroche converted from an 18th-century mill astride the Serein River. It wraps traditional and contemporary elements. On the ground floor, a restaurant and wine bar overlook the river. On the first floor, five bare-brick rooms and two suites have been done in contemporary style, while a spacious eccentrically decorated sitting room built into the rafters of the mill looks out towards the Grands Crus vineyards on their hillside.
The headquarters of Laroche are located next door in L'Obédiencerie, the oldest building in Chablis – a labyrinth of stone passageways, terraces and hidden staircases where 9th-century monks produced and matured the first Chablis wines. Among the treasures tucked away in L'Obédiencerie are the relics of Saint Martin, patron saint of Chablis. I was struck by a 13th-century wine press made from oak trunks. "The trees from those trunks were planted in the time of Charlemagne," said Mme Laroche breezily as she showed me around. "We still use it once a year to show clients and journalists how the monks made wine in the Middle Ages."
Your average "village" Chablis wine is an austere, light, dry and clean drink with a nervous liveliness. At the Premier Cru and Grand Cru levels, the wines become richer, flintier and steelier, with an elusive green-fruit-and-mineral flavour whip-lashed by an acid vitality. The mineral note, most distinct in mature Chablis, comes from Kimmeridgian limestone soil. Eons ago, this part of France was the seabed. Embedded in the soil are millions of fossilised oyster shells. These are what make Chablis go so well with seafood, and by extension makes it such a hit with the Japanese.
"Wine is all that we do here," said Mme Laroche over a drink at the Chablis Bar. This is a very simple drinking fixture located in the exact centre of the village, from where you can watch all traffic passing by. "We Chablisiens are an unpretentious people. Take Jean-Marie Raveneau," she nodded towards a plain stone building some distance down the street, where this notable producer is based. "He has never set foot outside Chablis. He spends all his days on his tractor. He has no idea that his wines go for 10 times in New York what he sells them for at his cellar door.
"Then there was M Long-Depaquit," she went on. "Excellent wine maker. He drank four magnums of Chablis each day. He didn't do badly by it. He died in 1975, aged 80."
I set out on a tour d'horizon of the surrounding countryside, whizzing past dark screens of forests and silent, identical ancient villages clinging to the slopes. The general scenery looks like a daub by Vincent van Gogh, across which someone has dragged a comb while the paint was still wet to indicate rows of neatly groomed vineyards. If you look closely at the vineyards, you will see men pruning, clipping and training. "Les tâcherons," Mme Laroche had told me. "La tâche means 'the task' or 'job'. They are les hommes à l'ombre. In the 1970s they came from Morocco with their families, which is why there is a kebab shop in Chablis." Mme Laroche suggested the place was dégueulasse (disgusting), darkly confiding to me its liberal use of the deep freeze, but conceded that she had never actually eaten there.
Gluttons, gourmands and architecture fans owe a great debt of gratitude to the church – and especially to the medieval monks, who surveyed and planned the Burgundian landscape, refined its products and gave momentum and credibility to its local traditions. Were I to be reincarnated, I want to come back as a medieval monk. They certainly knew how to enjoy themselves. Applied to Burgundy, the term "monastic" is the opposite of what it means anywhere else. Wine, food, architecture, scenery... they understood the finer things of life.
The monks of Pontigny Abbey, 10km north of Chablis, planted the first Chardonnay vineyards from which present-day Chardonnay descends. Pontigny is one of the four great daughters of Cîteaux Abbey, a full-size cathedral built seemingly in fields. As you approach the abbey, it appears to rise as if from earthen roots. Three Archbishops of Canterbury have "sought refuge" here, including Thomas à Becket. I received quite a shock when I stepped inside. The place is almost completely bare. A vista of plain white chalk walls opened up before me, lit from clear glass windows. It's as if the monks never got round to calling in the decorators. The simplicity is touching, the modesty is in character, but the scale is mind-boggling.
I continued on my way, briefly stopping off at Noyers, 15km south-east of Chablis, to wind down the car window and peer through fine persistent drizzle at this half-timbered village of quaint ateliers and art galleries that collectively represents the intellectual soul of this area. I pressed on south and entered the Côte d'Or département, a region of pastures and forests rolled out over sweeping hills inhabited by Charolet cattle.
I arrived at the 12th-century Abbaye de Fontenay, one of the oldest and most complete Cistercian abbeys in Europe. Anyone who saw the film Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Gérard Depardieu, will recognise it. Fontenay is of an intactness that in Britain might be deemed vulgar. It's all immaculate: a Romanesque church, cloisters, dormitory, council rooms, infirmary, bakery, forge, dovecote and the usual fountains rendered in the pale chalky stone of Burgundy. The only things missing are the monks. After they moved out in 1790, Fontenay changed hands several times and for much of the 19th century it served as a paper mill that the Montgolfier family (yes, the ones who invented the hot-air balloon) ran. Today, it is privately owned but open to the public. The tweeded owner nodded to me as I strolled the manicured grounds.
Plunging deeper into the Côte d'Or, and heading south-west, I reached Epoisses. This village is celebrated for its very potent red-orange cheese, Napoleon's favourite which he ate with Chambertin wine, and which Brillat-Savarin, the gourmet, crowned the "king of all cheese". If Epoisses cheese were invented today, it should probably be declared illegal on several health and safety grounds. As it is, the notorious pungency of Epoisses has reputedly earned it a travel ban from French public transport.
Once again, the Cistercian monks, with their unerring knack for the finer things of life, got there first and pioneered production in the 16th century. They then passed on the recipe to local farmers. By the time of the Second World War, production was dwindling. But in 1956 Robert and Simone Berthaut, whose olfactory organs must be built of titanium, decided to revive local cheese-making tradition. Today their family has the virtual monopoly. Their son Jean Berthaut is now the biggest cheese in town.
Crossing the A6 autoroute and striking west, I soon reached my final destination: the hilltop village of Vézelay (la colline eternelle, the eternal hill). Vézelay is the Mont St-Michel of Burgundy. It is a large rock in a sea of vineyards, on which teeters the magnificent Gothic structure of the 9th-century basilica of Ste-Magdalene – the largest Romanesque church in France. Ste-Magdalene is to Holy Grail conspiracy theorists what the Route des Grand Crus is to wine lovers: a spiritual destination at the end of a road of pilgrimage.
From the 11th century, the church housed what were claimed to be the relics of St Mary Magdalene, until Calvinists burnt them in the 16th century. In front of the basilica in 1146, Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade; 44 years later, Richard the Lionheart met Philip II Augustus here to launch the Third Crusade.
Today, Vézeley is more launched against than launching, as the number of visitors, hotels and restaurants in the adjoining town suggest. I was told that the best place to stay and eat is L'Esperance in St-Père-sous-Vézelay, 1km away, where Marc Meneau, its owner, is leading his own one-man crusade on behalf of flavour and taste. Unfortunately, L'Esperance was closed for lunch when I turned up. I'll be back.
Northern Burgundy is not a cool part of France except in the meteorological sense, nor is it glamorous. It offers, however, many of the most fortifying aspects of French life: food, wine, picturesque scenery, a time-honoured way of life and enough culture to keep you amused, without it drawing crowds.
One friend likens Burgundy to an invisible club. "You never just become a lover of Burgundy, you have to get introduced,' he said. "But once introduced, you will always want to return."
Travel essentials: Chablis
The nearest train station to Chablis are Auxerre and Tonnerre, both accessible by rail from London via Paris in around five hours, including a change of stations.
Hotel Laroche, 18 rue des Moulins, Chablis (00 33 3 86 42 47 30; larochehotel.fr). Doubles start at €100. The hotel closes for midwinter, 22 December-4 February.
Eating & drinking there
L'Esperance, Route de Vézelay, St-Père-sous-Vézelay (00 33 3 86 33 39 10; marc-meneau-esperance.com). Closed for lunch on Monday-Wednesday, and from mid-January to the beginning of March.
Chablis Tourist Office: 00 33 3 86 42 87 70; chablis.net
Yonne Tourism: 00 33 3 86 72 92 00; tourisme-yonne.com