A reflection on white Burgundy

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been breaking my head about what I can write on Burgundy. All the years that I have been drinking Burgundian wines in a less structured manner, as well as a four-day visit do not exactly entitle me to an informed opinion. At the same time a first visit allowed me to confirm or reject thoughts and assumptions that had been turning in my head for a while. What has become clearer now is that it would take years to really get what makes Burgundy so special in the eyes of many winelovers. There may be some discussion with regards to the true distinctiveness of 100 square meters of grand and premier cru, especially when also taking price into account, but it is a lot more difficult to deny the variety and complexity that the region in its entirety, as small as it may be, has to offer.

I think that chardonnay is a familiar starting place for many a winelover when they want to discover something new yet familiar, as it is such a versatile grape variety. I always have the impression that the flack it is getting overseas (the Anything But Chardonnay cliché) is not that present in Europe, maybe because our primary reference for chardonnay is still Burgundy. Of course, there is nothing wrong with New World chardonnay but based on what finds its way to Belgium, there does seem to be a tendency to work on opulence, ’gras’ and oak. Maybe that’s just the preference of the importers though! Burgundian white is often considered a benchmark and I would not be one to argue on this. I still remember the first premium chardonnay I tasted, a Meursault Narvaux 2004 from Mestre-Michelot in 2008 (tasting note -’++, long finish’ looks like I’ve grown a bit more longwinded since then!). It seemed ridiculously expensive at the time and I would still think twice on laying down more than 30 euros for one bottle, but after tasting countless of chardonnay-based wines, French or not, I do feel that I start to understand what makes them so unique.

What kind of grape is chardonnay then? On the nose it is a relatively neutral variety making it extremely difficult to identify its aromas, wherever the country of origin or the producer. The majority of average wines can be described as a little bit fruity but not too much, vanilla, often too strong if a winemaker went in overdrive with new oak, butter or roasted notes. Acidity is always an issue in my opinion. there is a reason why chardonnay is often poised against sauvignon blanc in sommelier courses as it is a textbook example of what exactly acidity does with a wine. I like vibrant wines with clear acidity (see the palate disclosure) so I am often a bit too strict when judging chardonnay but when done right, striking the exact balance between acidity and gras, it is one of the world’s greatest wines.

I do think that Burgundy is one of the sole regions in the world where chardonnay gets a chance to escape the neutrality, the averageness that haunts it in the rest of the world. Of course, the hunt for quality can be as frustrating as in any other region, but even at less premium prices it would be difficult to deny the individual characteristics of every sub-region. Stony minerality in Chablis. A different, subtler minerality in the Corton region starting to show a more open fruitiness. Majestic wines, buttery touches and the world-famous ’gras’ around Montrachet and Meursault, often considered the epitome of white Burgundy. All this diversity, and I haven’t even gotten a good grasp on what the Cote Chalonnaise and Cote Maconnaise are capable of.

The individuality chardonnay derives from the different terroirs is both a blessing and a curse in the sense that  it is not easy to get why one wine is so different from an other, on quality as well as price. I do tend to prefer wines either from the Montrachet region, as these truly are some of the greatest wines possible, alas with a hefty price tag, and the Macon. The latter may have a blasé reputation for some, but it can offer amazing wines at affordable prices. A quick check in the cellar as well as on the purchases made during the weekend serve as confirmation. If you consider that I paid the same price for one box of Meursault as I did for two boxes of Pouilly-Fuissé, it hopefully becomes clear that this is the place to be for affordable Burgundian wines that do offer a lot of excitement.

So, as far as chardonnay is concerned, Burgundy really is one of my favourite regions but what about pinot noir? The grape variety credited with some of the greatest, certainly most expensive wines in the world, the one variety that can lead to the most complex and nuanced wines out there is an iffy grape, and so is my opinion on it. Stay tuned for my upcoming reflection on the ins and outs of pinot noir!

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