Getting Back in the Saddle 


Since my trip to Bordeaux in late February, the question on my mind has been when and how I could restart visits abroad. Five months later I ventured back into a new landscape when I drove to Chablis and found aspects that are reassuringly exactly the same and others that are different. 

Everything looks the same. It’s a balmy July afternoon in Chablis, wisps of cloud painted across a clear blue canvas, sun beating down upon vines laden with bunches, and diners enjoying lunches along the picturesque River Serein. The atmosphere is tranquil and unhurried. But of course it is deceptive. Everything has changed. Nothing is the same.

My first post-pandemic trip is to Chablis, primarily to fill important gaps in my forthcoming report. Not every producer is willing to send samples, and exclusion of some of them cannot be countenanced. Back in June, a trip to France was impractical due to 14-day quarantine rules. Once those restrictions were inevitably lifted, I weighed the pros and cons of a last-minute visit before the country shut down for summer vacation. I don’t need to spell out the con: I don’t want to catch the virus. The pros? I could not only address those winery omissions, but also compose a more complete article with one-on-one insights direct from winemakers’ mouths. Chablis is the closest wine region to my home. It is also remote and sparsely populated, and consequently has seen fewer COVID-19 cases than other parts of France (and certainly fewer than the UK). Travel nowadays is about calculating the risk between home and destination, a ratio that will determine whether to dig out the dust-covered suitcase. That is the way it’s going to be for the foreseeable future. Then again, that’s been part of life since we learned to cross the road on our own. 

The sign at Domaine Raveneau.

Another reason why I am going to Chablis is to test the modus operandi. Henceforth, wine writers are going to have to approach things differently and overcome new obstacles. My greatest concern is traveling from A to B. I just don’t fancy being locked inside a metal tube for two hours breathing other passengers’ recycled air, even if they are all wearing masks. Why not obviate the risk by driving? It’s only around a five-hour drive from Calais. Put on some decent music, set the cruise control and soak in the undulating nothingness of northern France as you navigate its blessedly empty autoroutes. Forget calling a taxi at the crack of dawn, loitering in busy airport terminals, stressing over delayed flights, arguing about the hire car and, in my case, driving from Lyon to Beaune at the other end. My car will be my mode of transport for the foreseeable future, though a transcontinental expedition through Africa to visit the Cape might be a bit too much for my Nissan Qashquai. 

The day arrives. I pack a few extras that include a fresh bundle of masks, pocket-sized hand sanitizer, gloves and paracetamol. Shutting the door a little too enthusiastically, my wife tells me not to bother coming back if I have any symptoms. As I depart Guildford, she is probably already relishing her initial husband-free hours. I notice the first changes crossing the Channel. No more stretching your legs in the Eurotunnel carriage; passengers must remain in their vehicles, and the toilets are all closed. My first day back in France since late February coincides with the government decree that face masks are compulsory in all interior settings. I fully support that; wearing a mask is less painful than being intubated. Having lived in Asia I am accustomed to face masks, and from what I observe, so are the people of France. My hotel is Hostellerie des Clos, practically the only one in Chablis. Masks are donned as soon as I enter the reception area, and there is no longer any housekeeping service, so I must make sure I don’t leave my room too messy since I will be sleeping in it.

Eleni and Edouard Vocoret, pictured above Le Bas de Chapelot.

Winery visits evoke relief and joy, ringing the doorbells of growers you have known for years and seeing the familiar smiles. On some occasions I am the first journalist to visit since lockdown. Setting up my laptop in cool vat rooms, listening to perspectives on the 2018 and 2019 growing seasons and discussing various wines are all parts of my job that I have missed. My first post-coronavirus winery visit is to Domaine Raveneau, with Isabelle Raveneau, a perfect way to get back in the swing of things. From there it’s straight across the road to see Vincent Dauvissat, the proximity of Chablis’ great domaines allowing me to stroll from one to another. Perhaps most enjoyable of all is getting back in the vineyard – in my case, inspecting Le Bas de Chapelot with Eleni and Edouard Vocoret. “Hey, vines, I’m back!”

Although I enjoyed tasting at home during lockdown, I relish the sights, sounds, smells and tastes associated with winemaking. They all activate the senses and trigger an emotive response that gets the adrenaline flowing.  

Winemakers have their own etiquette that you have to figure out. For example, at Domaine Goisot in Saint-Bris, they have thoughtfully installed handy outside foot-pedal pumps so that you can squirt disinfectant on your hands with touching anything – clever. Patrick Piuze instinctively shoots out his hand and we shake before realizing our faux pas and apologizing; habits can be hard to break. At Raveneau, Isabelle asks me to discard my wine instead of pouring it back into barrel as usual. 

Back in the groove, here tasting 2018s and 2019s with Didier Picq at his winery in Chichée.

Of course, in the evening, I want to reacquaint myself with Chablis’s restaurants. Implying no disrespect to my wife’s (and now daughters’) excellent culinary skills, I have missed fine dining in recent weeks. On the first evening, I booked a table at Au Fil du Zinc, the fêted restaurant under the new ownership of Mathieu Sagardoytho. As at the hotel, we are greeted at the entrance to make sure we are wearing masks, which can only be taken off after we are seated. Once diners have taken their places, the restaurant reverts to a semblance of normality even if the waiters must keep their faces covered at all times. You also have to remember to put your own mask on when visiting the restroom. Au Fil du Zinc’s idyllic setting is immutable. The wine list is only slightly shortened, and bejeweled with plenty of extremely well-priced Chablis. The cuisine is perhaps less refined; erstwhile Japanese chef Ryo Nagahama, who has returned to his homeland, was always meticulous in the kitchen. But I thoroughly enjoy what might be described as “adventurous French cuisine” with novel combinations such as sardines and green curry, or trout and dates. I’ll be back. The good news is that the restaurant has been fully booked since reopening, and previous owner Fabien Espana should have his new project up and running later in 2020.

The following evening I hired a taxi to reacquaint myself with Le Pot d’Etain in L’Isle-sur-Serein after several years. Dan Keeling, co-owner of Noble Rot restaurant, was joining me because this is definitely not a restaurant where you want to dine alone. Le Pot d’Etain’s renowned wine list with multiple vintages of blue-chip producers is delivered to our socially distanced table with complementary hand sanitizer, which sums up the current state of the world. Drink to your heart’s content, fill your boots... just make sure your hands are COVID-free first. 

Dan Keeling of Noble Rot restaurant posing outside Le Pot d’Etain, masked up like a highwayman and ready to steal gems from the wine list.

Like the previous evening, mask removal once seated frees the conversation and permits indulgent drinking and eating, rituals that I have missed. Again, I ask the waitress how business is. She replies that the restaurant reopened at the beginning of June and business has been steady, though they are on tenterhooks about a second wave. One advantage in France is that eating al fresco is more common thanks to the Continental climate and long evenings. It is an integral part of why tourists flock to French bars and restaurants. Eating in the open air induces another feeling: safety. I still harbor some trepidation about dining in an enclosed space, and I feel much more at ease with the sky above my head. The wines were spectacular, but you will have to wait for a Vinous Table for details. 

As you may have gleaned from numerous Vinous Live interviews, coronavirus has not interrupted vineyard work to a great extent. Wineries are advantaged by their rural locations, and are naturally self-isolating insofar as workers are dispersed across vineyards. Inevitably, harvest will pose more challenges, as teamwork is necessary in the vineyard, at reception when sorting bunches, in the winery, and of course, in housing and feeding tired and hungry pickers who traditionally tend to let their hair down at night. At least in the northern hemisphere they have had time to prepare – something not granted to southern-hemisphere winemakers, who in some cases faced having to leave ripe bunches on the vine.

New outing essentials: a face mask, hand sanitizer and a wine list.

My visit to Chablis was short – essentially dipping my toe back in the water to explore new logistics. How long does it take to drive? How fatigued am I upon arrival? Do I need a wingman to assist with the driving (or, God forbid, if I were to fall ill)? I want to be prepared for any eventuality. Every wine writer, or at least those not resident in the country they cover, is going to experience the giddy rush of returning to the wine region they have invested so much time in and fallen in love with. The pandemic forced a trial separation, and I suspect it will not be the only one. Henceforth we will play a game of cat and mouse, heading for wine regions during windows of calculated safety and staying away when risk increases, at least until a vaccine is available. 

One thing is true. The cycle of nature continues regardless. Vines will inexorably flower and bear fruit. And wine writers will adapt to the new challenges in their own ways. Yes, it will be more difficult, and in the near future there is always going to be an underlying risk, numerous “what if” scenarios continuously playing at the back of our minds. Despite its brevity, my fleeting trip to Chablis, after what for me personally has been an eventful couple of years, renewed my belief that we can inch our way back to a new normal, and that looking back, I will see it as a vital step back into the world I once knew.