Burgundy is the spiritual home of Chardonnay. Not only did the region realise and raise the quality and reputation of this noble grape, it also quasi patented the method used to create these dry, full bodied and, in most cases, oaked white wines.
Today, the vast majority of Chardonnays made around the world are barrel fermented and/or oak aged (in varying types and sizes of oak barrels) – and this came about years ago by the analysing and copying what became loosely termed as the “Burgundy method”. Because Chardonnay is naturally one of the richest and most full-bodied white grapes/wines in the world its ability to absorb the flavours and textures of oak should come as no surprise (please see picture of Chardonnay fermenting away!).
In addition, the white Burgundy style has evolved over the years to reflect the classic cuisine of the region and France in general, such as elegant fish dishes with richly buttered sauces. But there are some Chardonnay wines in the world which are unoaked, which is the paradox of our tour around Burgundy, as in the renowned district of Chablis most Chardonnays are unoaked, or only very lightly.
Is detached from the main body of Burgundy to the north west of Dijon and is by far the coolest region. It makes only white wine, and these are simply the coolest, finest (in the sense of delicacy) and refreshing of all Chardonnays anywhere in the world – almost like an unplugged, acoustic version of the bigger and oakier styles. Most Chablis is made without oak – certainly, the vast majority of Village level and most Premier Crus. Producers of the (top) Grand Crus often include a measured amount but even here it is always in the background of the wine.
Chablis also possesses an individual chalky and (Kimmeridge) clay soil (fossilised seashells – please see picture) which imparts (in the best examples) a delicate mineral note. The cool climate also helps in making these wines crisp and refreshing with green apple, citric and white stone fruit notes. But such is the nature of the climate and risk of late frosts that vineyard owners must take significant precautions as captured in this spectacular photograph taken on a potentially frosty night in Chablis.
If you are not a fan of the bigger, richer, oakier styles of Chardonnay, then Chablis is undoubtedly the style for you. They also work brilliantly with anything shellfish and sushi – and green asparagus! Try the excellent Domaine de l’Enclos Chablis – an up and coming family owned estate which encapsulates the refined Village style.
And for a real treat try this fine Grand Cru Chablis from Chablis Domaine specialist Laroche. A wine which you can also buy to keep for special occasions.
As you journey south east from Chablis to Dijon and into the man body of the Côte d’Or you enter the almost exclusively red Burgundy region of the Côte de Nuits. Travel south and you quite quickly (it really is that small an area) reach the old Roman town of Beaune – the commercial heart of the Côte. This town gives its name to the southern half called, not unsurprisingly, Côte de Beaune.
As you reach the outskirts of Beaune and look right you see the dramatic Corton hill – a large expanse of both black and white grape vineyards, with the woods at the top referred to as the “Toupée” by the locals. On the west side of the hill is the famous Grand Cru white vineyard area of Corton-Charlemagne. Produced in small quantities, top examples from here are simply some of the most majestic white wines in all of Burgundy. They might not have the “magic” word “Montrachet” involved but they challenge those wines head on in terms of intensity and power, with a steely edge to them, as against the creamier examples in the Côte de Beaune. They are also some of the longest lived of all white Burgundies.
Wine Trust are offering an indulgent example from Vallet-Frères and from the richer 2015 vintage. I would hardly use the word “bargain”, and a treat of course, but compared to the prices for Grand Crus from Côte de Beaune they make for an affordable indulgence for the committed Burgundy drinker.
Côte de Beaune
Montrachet – the most famous, and expensive, vineyard of all white Burgundy
Heading south from Beaune the first three great communes (including Beaune, then Pommard and Volnay) are almost exclusively red wine areas. Once you arrive at Meursault you reach the gold standard terrain of what are broadly considered to be the finest of all white Burgundy and the greatest expression of Chardonnay on the planet. At the heart of this area is the revered Grand Cru vineyard of Le Montrachet – which is so famous that both the villages of Puligny and Chassagne have it annexed to their names. The paradox is that the actual vineyard itself is remarkably plain looking – very discrete – whilst its near Grand Cru neighbour Chevalier-Montrachet appears far more regal. Meursault, which is next door to Puligny, bizarrely has no Grand Crus (its star single Premier Cru vineyards are called Perrières and Genevrières), but makes wine in exactly the same way and often to the same level as the other two revered villages.
All three adopt the winemaking practice outlined at the beginning of the blog – to produce rich and creamy styles, with measured oak and above all the most amazing balance, texture, and concentration. If there is common fruit flavour it is stone fruits, but the best examples have nuances and layers which can be remarkable. Some generalities maybe; Meursaults are rich and textural with a creamy, more-ish character, Pulignys maybe the most refined, elegant and floral, and Chassagnes sort of halfway between Meursault and Puligny. Above all, they are simply the standard bearers for Chardonnay which all other producers aspire to emulate.
Of course, production is limited and world demand insatiable, so prices are always “firm” and in some cases expensive. But if you are a true lover of this grape and style then you really do need to find the opportunity and occasion to try more affordable examples. Wine Trust have a fine selection – highlights include – and all from small, specialist Domaines and single vineyards from within each commune:
Chalonnaise & Mâconnais
Head further south and you come to a large and important area with two sub regions – the Chalonnaise & Mâconnais. Apart from being home to some of France’s finest restaurants these areas are commercially particularly important as they can deliver (arguably along with Chablis) the finest value for money white Burgundies. If you like the style of the Côte de Beaune, but understandably cannot afford to regularly buy these wines, then this might be the area for you.
With sweeping, panoramic vineyards these are very touristic areas in their own right. Most styles are quite “Beaune” like with a fine, creamy texture, bright stone fruits and quite often more delicately oaked. They are also accessible to drink almost from the moment they are made (whilst the top Côte de Beaune require some time in bottle to settle down and open up).
There are four main areas of importance in the Chalonnaise – all making very good white Burgundy (three also make red). These are Givry, Mercurey, Montagny (which can only make white) and Rully. Head a little further south and around the town of Mâcon there are many sub regions making similar styles to the Chalonnaise appellations. Areas of interest include St. Véran, Viré Clessé, Loché and Vinzelles. But the star sub region in this area is generally regarded as being Pouilly Fuissé. Good examples from here can truly approach the quality, style, and weight of a good Côte de Beaune.
Wine Trust have a fine example from the excellent Château de Chaintre which captures all the vibrancy, richness, yet elegance of a top Pouilly Fuissé
White Burgundy and Food
Apart possibly from a crisp, young village Chablis all white Burgundy is designed to go with food. And, no surprise, as they Burgundy gets richer and more oaky the better it can partner richer dishes. Traditionally these sorts of wines worked perfectly with white fish and/or a butter or hollandaise sauce. In general, all Burgundy works well with nearly all fish dishes. Chablis is especially good with shellfish and sushi for example. Good Burgundy also compliments a vast array of vegetarian dishes from a plate of mixed crudités (particularly Chablis again) to char grilled and buttered root veg, squashes and pulses. Finally, a nice twist is how well more mature example of white Burgundy will work surprisingly well with mature, nutty white cheeses – such as Comté, Ossau and Cheddars.
Keeping White Burgundy
In the old days, many white Burgundy were frankly kept too long – and disappointed. Clearly finer examples, from top vineyards, and better years (and in last 6-8 years there have been many) will keep well – by that up to 10 years if stored well. For most Chablis (bar Grand and top Premier Crus) and Chalonnaise and Mâconnais wines these are best enjoyed young and over the next 5 years. The older white Burgundy becomes the drier and nuttier they also become, so you do need to like this style too.
There are many fine examples of Chardonnay from around the world (a subject matter for another blog I think), but at its best I don’t quite think Burgundy can be bettered as the supreme example of the finest expression of Chardonnay on the planet.