Now that the heat of August is here, many of us are choosing a glass of chilled white wine to sip when it’s time to relax or sit down to enjoy a summer meal. The choices are almost endless with all of the delicious white wines available, made with a wide variety of grapes from every corner of the wine producing world.
So, what will it be?
I’m going to make this easy … my recommendation is Chardonnay. That’s right, Chardonnay. I know, I’m the one who’s always preaching that you should breakout and try something different, but please stay with me.
Chardonnay is probably the world’s most famous white wine grape, and it is one of the most widely planted, as well. Chardonnay’s popularity with winemakers is due to the fact that it produces relatively high yields, it will grow in all kinds of soils and climates and, with little effort, can be made into wines of good quality across the board.
This, however, is also its curse. The market is flooded with so many Chardonnays that a few years back there was even a movement called ABC (Anything But Chardonnay).
We’ve all had a few glasses of Chardonnay over the years, and the Chardonnay that most of us here in the U.S. drink comes from California. I’m sure that you have some favorites and some that you thought were just O.K.; it’s no wonder that Chardonnay is the most popular white wine in America. They’re easy, and overall, they’re pretty good — but maybe a bit boring.
Where am I going with this? I’m going to take you back to where it all began, to where some of the best and most highly-regarded examples of Chardonnay are grown and produced. That place is the Burgundy region, in mid-eastern France, and the wine is White Burgundy.
About White Burgundy
The Burgundy wine region has the distinction of producing some of the world’s finest, and most expensive, wines. White Burgundy, with a few exceptions, is produced from 100% Chardonnay. It has been grown here since the 12th century, so you can see why winemakers the world over hold up the Chardonnay wines of Burgundy as the benchmark.
There are four different quality levels in Burgundy, so as they go up in level, they go up in price.
- Bourgogne Blanc: Wine made with grapes from the entire region
- Village: Wine from a specific village that is labeled with the village name
- Premier Cru: Wine from a specific vineyard that has been designated Premier Cru
- Grand Cru: Wine from a specific vineyard that has been designated Grand Cru
In addition, as a general rule, as the wines go up in quality level, they also go up in the amount of oak used in production. However, unlike California, where it seems like some winemakers use oak to flavor the wines, winemakers in Burgundy use it to balance their wines.
Not all White Burgundy wines are aged in oak. The wines from the different subregions of Burgundy each have their own styles, methods of production and flavor profiles. Here is where the fun begins.
We will start with the northernmost subregion, Chablis. It is physically separated from the rest of Burgundy by about 30 miles. Here, the vines are planted in Kimmeridgian soil, which contains chalk, limestone and clay. Chablis almost always has the tartest, crispest profile of all of the White Burgundies. Many producers are using stainless steel to make their wines. Chablis also contains several Grand Cru vineyards and here, the producers will oak their wines to create a richer style.
To the southeast of Chablis is Côte d’Or which is considered to be the world’s finest growing area for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The Côte de Beaune section of Côte d’Or is home to some of the most expensive vineyard land in the world. The famous wines from the Grand Cru vineyards of Le Montrachet, Batard Montrachet, Bienvenue Batard Montrachet, Chevalier Montrachet and Crios Batard Montrachet and the village level and Premier Cru vineyards of Chassagne-Montrachet, Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet all come from Côte de Beaune. Expect to pay in the $20s and $30s for village level wines, in the $40s and $50s for Premier Cru, and $100 and up for Grand Cru.
Next, we come to the vineyards of Côte Chalonnaise. Pinot Noir is grown in about two thirds of this area, with Chardonnay, Gamay and Aligoté making up the rest. The soils here are similar to those in Côte d’Or, based on limestone, sand and clay, and winemakers are using oak to add body and structure to their wines. Premier Cru bottles from Rully and Montagny offer more reasonably priced alternatives to expensive Côte d’Or wines.
At the southern end of Burgundy is Mâconnais, known primarily for white wines, with most being Chardonnay. It is much warmer here than the rest of Burgundy, so the wines are the most fruit-driven and plump of all the White Burgundies. If you’ve been drinking California Chard, this is a great place to start. The wines are approachable and affordable.
Look for bottles labeled Mâcon-Villages or Mâcon followed by a village name for some gentle, fruit wines with some personality. Mâconnais is also home to the appellation considered to be the best in the region, Pouilly-Fuissé. The best wines here are medium-bodied with aromas and flavors of flowers, apples and a hint of nuttiness.
A Few to Try
2014 Joseph Drouhin, Mâcon-Villages. Floral and fruity on the nose, with hints of hazelnut and limestone minerality; flavors of lemon and apple, with hints of vanilla leading to a smooth, crisp and mineral finish. Satisfying on its own and great with roasted chicken, pork loin and fish dishes. Priced in the upper teens.
2014 Stephanie & Vincent Michelet, Chablis. Aromas of citrus, stone fruit and white flowers. Chalky minerality with elegant citrus flavors and a crisp finish. Perfect as an aperitif and with fresh oysters. Priced in the mid $20s.
2014 J.M. Broillot, Montagny 1er Cru. Aromas of peach and pineapple tropical fruit with touches of oak and mineral. Medium-bodied, with a core of citrus and stone fruit flavors with a firm minerality that continues through the finish. Priced in the mid $30s.
I have just scratched the surface of what there is to know and what you will discover in the Chardonnays of Burgundy. Talk to your favorite wine specialist for more recommendations — and you might just become all about the Chardonnay. Cheers.
Sam Audia is a former advertising and marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry. He is a wine specialist at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits, in Annapolis; and holds a Certification Diploma from the Sommelier Society of America, and Intermediate and Advanced Certificates from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. He can be reached at [email protected].