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Enfin! French wine tourism moves into the 21st century

Enfin! French wine tourism moves into the 21st century

A few weeks ago I was invited to try out the menu at the Hotel du Vieux Moulin, Domaine Laroche’s wine bar and restaurant in a converted water mill in Chablis. What they didn’t mention was that they’d just opened a cutting edge boutique hotel.

You have to have been to Chablis to appreciate quite what a revolution this is. Althought there are other places to eat stylishly, hotels tend to be ancient and timbered, picture-book pretty but largely unchanged for the past 20 years, if not considerably longer.

Chez Laroche, by contrast, the views over the grand cru vineyard of Les Clos may be classic but everything else is starkly minimalist. Our suite had no less than two Philippe Stark-equipped bathrooms (one with a bath, one with a shower), some very fancy lighting and a outdoor deck overlooking the vines. Upstairs the shared residents lounge and breakfast room had a selection of furnishings straight from the pages of Hip Hotels, And an honesty bar from which you can pick your selection of Chablis by the bottle or glass.

Michel Laroche, of course is one of those well-travelled forward-looking French winemakers who has seen a fair few hip hotels in his time. As well as operations in the Languedoc and Chile he owns the L’Avenir vineyard in South Africa from whose sophisticated wine tourism business it looks as if he’s picked up some useful tips. Over a tasting in his state of the art tasting room on the ground floor he explained that the operation, which is supervised by his wife Gwenael, was deliberately casual. “The idea is to offer simple, healthy food and relaxed service.

In the wine bar and restaurant every dish is paired with a matching wine - there are 24 wines available by the glass. Like the hotel, the food is contemporary with only a nod in the direction of tradition in the form of the town’s seemingly favourite dish, andouillette and chips.

Laroche had unfortunately sabotaged our desire to experiment by insisting we took the remains of the 2005 1er Cru Les Vaudevey and the 2002 Réserve de L’Obédience we had tasted with him to the table so I can’t report on how the terrine de lapin (rabbit terrine) went with the Rosé de la Chevalière or the lotte rôtie (roast monkfish) with Laroche’s Chilean Pinot Noir, Vina Punto but was struck, as I always am on visits to Chablis, by just how versatile this classic wine is.

The intensely pure Les Vaudevey (which is, incidentally, bottled in screwcap) went equally well with its recommended match of a cassolette of escargots (snails) and and a warm salad of skate and potatoes while the complex Réserve de L’Obédience, Laroche’s top of the range Chablis, was able to shine in the company of a simply pan-fried sander and steamed chicken breast with herbs, crushed potatoes and watercress. (The only disappointing pairing was the Réserve with a feuilletté of warm St Marcellin, a minefield for any wine.)

Laroche has ambitious plans to extend the food and wine pairing experience further by introducing Chablis flights including a Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis with four different plates so that you can compare, mix and match. They have also just introduced an ‘Oenotourisme’ programme for clients who want to learn more about wine - 75€ for a half day’s introduction to tasting or 150€ for a full day, including a special menu in the restaurant, paired with different wines.

Prices in the restaurant are remarkably reasonable if you drink the better bottles on the list, which of course Laroche is keen that you should. Wines are sold at 10 euros mark-up over retail. Obviously this is partly in response to the stiff competition from other domaines in the town but he obviously sees both the restaurant and the hotel as an important showcase for his company and his wines.

Two caveats if you’re planning to go. The parking area is hard to find and only accessed through a very narrow stone arch (get instructions from the front desk). And despite the five star hotel rooms, don’t expect five star hotel service. These are more like the luxury serviced apartments you find attached to New World wineries. But none the worse for that, especially in Chablis.

Hotel du Vieux Moulin is at 18 rue des Moulins, 89800 Chablis. Tel: 33 03 86 42 84 44. Email: vieuxmoulin@larochewines.com

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