Calling a white Burgundy like Clos de Mouches a first-rate chardonnay is like saying a Maserati is a fine piston-engine car. Indeed, it says nothing.
Chardonnay is, with cabernet sauvignon, the most widely recognized grape varietal in the world (with more than 400,000 acres planted, with the largest acreage in California). It is also a grape whose basic flavor is pretty dull.
It is primarily the soil of a region, or terroir, that gives chardonnay its distinctive flavor. Add to that different styles of vinification and enormous variance in the amount of time the wine sleeps in an oak barrel (the actual origin of the oak, age and size of the barrel matter, too), and you find that a chardonnay from New Zealand tastes little like a chardonnay from South Africa or Moldavia.
Winemakers easily can obtain a high yield from the varietal, and the wine can develop a fairly high degree of alcohol for a white wine. And therein lies the problem with modern chardonnay: Far too many examples are mass produced, overripe, high in alcohol, and taste like caramelized wood, absorbed from barrels that have been “toasted” with fire.
While ever mindful of new technology, Burgundian wine producers also trust hundreds of years of experience in determining which vineyards and what moment in autumn a harvest will yield the best grapes and, after further assessment, just how much time their wines should spend in barrel.
I shall never forget the great lesson I learned long ago walking with a Burgundian winemaker up a section of what is called the Cote d’Or (golden slope), tasting grapes as we ascended.
At the edge of the hill the grapes were tangy and acidic, but as we walked mere yards upwards, where the angle of the sun provided more heat and light, the grapes grew sweeter.
The grapes higher up would provide more fruitiness, more sugar, more body and higher alcohol.
Back at the winery I tasted the wine from three or four barrels of the illustrious white Burgundy called Corton- Charlemagne. All the wines were from the same vineyard and harvest, yet each barrel’s wine tasted different -- all distinctly Burgundian in flavor but different enough so that blending later on would be necessary to achieve a balance.
Even then, with bottle aging, the wine taste can vary from bottle to bottle. Getting a producer’s style consistent is the job of the winemaker, who in Burgundy is often overseen by the negociants (merchants) who may or may not own parts of the same vineyard.
For this reason Burgundy lovers either search endlessly for wines that please their palates most, or, what is much easier, come to depend on certain producers with longstanding reputations for consistent excellence.
Names like Bouchard Pere & Fils, Louis Jadot, Domaine Leroy, and Joseph Drouhin are also readily available in the global market and produce a wide range of good wines, from the most illustrious and expensive to the wines labeled simply “white Burgundy,” made from grapes throughout the region.
A tasting of a bottle of Drouhin’s Clos de Mouches 2010 ($120) with steamed lobster and drawn butter reminded me of that stroll up the Cote d’Or. Here was chardonnay at its highest expression, in a wine that exemplifies the Burgundy winemaking tradition at its finest.
The summer weather for the 2010 vintage was rainy and cool, resulting in small grape berries and a reduced crop. The berries ripened fully in September, concentrating the sugars and juices. Frederic Drouhin, chief executive officer of the company founded in 1880, says “because the vintage has less alcohol than the 2009, the wines are more refined, offer great purity and freshness.”
This coalescence of factors has made for a white Burgundy whose fruit is impeccably balanced with just enough acid to keep it bright and with only a rounded hint of oak in the finish.
Burgundy fans might argue that a few more years in the bottle will only improve wines of this caliber. But drinking it that night gave me such supreme joy in rediscovering the true personality and essence of the chardonnay grape in Burgundy, that I plan to drink Drouhin’s Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot ($113.75) and Puligny-Montrachet Folatieres ($102) within the next few months.
Chardonnays in the rest of the world may try to imitate the grand Burgundy style, though its terroir and that sunlight on the slopes are key to its uniqueness.
If the best white Burgundies -- there are a lot of insipid ones -- are the gold standard and are priced accordingly, I think it better for the rest of the world to make chardonnay in their own styles and try to make it better and better.
(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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