'The lilies' is what the name means: Les Lys. Wild, tough and tiny, they must have been; this is no place for nodding blooms, freighted with scent and pollen. It's an open, stony vineyard lying at the top of the hill, under the woods, above the great sweep of Vaillons vineyards over to the right. The little town of Chablis has settled itself like a nesting lark in the valley below. Beyond it lies the sweep of grand cru land stitched into a line of undulating hills. I take students up to Les Lys every year, together with one of the William Fèvre team, to spy out the vines across the valley, to gaze up to the broad sky above, to scrutinise the limey pebbles beneath our feet. To know, for a moment, where we are. To gulp down the scene.
It was chilly this year: rain on the north wind, the vines struggling to unfurl, flowering a distant prospect despite the fact that we were there in late spring. This has often been a cruel vineyard, savaged by frosts, taunted by gaunt summers. Chablis grapes ripen haltingly, and come limping home in a famished state, their sugars in bare rags, their shoeless feet cut by stones. Global warming may spin the dial a little, but has yet to erase this innate austerity. I hope it never does. It's the quality we treasure most in Chablis wine.
We relished the rain on the wind, the way our fingers numbed on our notebooks. We were soon famished, as only the cold can be: a perfect state in which to push open the door to one of my favourite restaurants: Au Fil du Zinc in the middle of old Chablis. It's built over the little river Serein itself, which tumbles and hurries off to the Seine and to Paris beneath you as you eat. And drink: the wine of the hillsides which this very river and its lacework tributaries have made over the past 20,000 years or so. Largely chilly, often icy years hereabouts. More cold, more hunger; more Chablis.
This year we chose some lovely wines (Dauvissat's 2015 La Forest, Raveneau's 2013 Montée de Tonnerre, the 2015 La Cerise Sur Le Coteau: a gentle pinot from Stéphanie Colinot in Irancy) and asked Fabien Espana and his Franco-Japanese chef Ryo Nagahama to make us something to go with them. They surprised us: a broth with egg and foie gras and cut radish, then duck breasts for the main course with a dark jus, a couple of braised spring onions, pungent white baby turnips. The wines chased and harried and clattered the food down. We could smell water in the glass, the smell of water on stones; the wines' acids were long and sinewy and white, like poultry tendons. Behind us, through the window, the river wove its own quick tendons into a braid; and when we eventually walked out into the rue des Moulins, a street which once would have groaned with slow-turning mossy wheels, we were warm, and replete, and knew the place a little better.