Americans have grown to love the warm sunniness of New World Chardonnays. But the grape performs best in the chill, chalky soils of its native land.

There is a steep, white chalk ridge above the sleepy town of Chablis. The ridge runs along the banks of the River Yonne—the town is on one side, the ridge on the other. All the way up the slope is a superb amphitheater of vineyards, the grands crus of Chablis. This is, for many wine lovers, the heartland of Chardonnay, where the vine finds its purest, if not its finest, expression. Like so many classic sites around Europe, the area was first planted by the monks during the Middle Ages, and has been under vine ever since.

More than 150 miles south of Chablis are the famous slopes of the Côte de Beaune, which are almost completely covered by vineyards. Pommard and Volnay are mostly Pinot Noir territory. But where the soil changes from marl to chalk, the grapes change from Pinot Noir to Chardonnay. This is where you’ll find the famed villages of Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault. They’re legendary for the same reason that their northern neighbor, Chablis, is: for their Chardonnay-based Burgundies.

The Côte de Beaune’s vineyards climb up the slopes behind the villages and spread out below them, into the Sâone Valley, but never too close to the flat plain—spring frosts are so common in Burgundy that vineyards that are planted on the plain are more susceptible to frost damage. At the top of hills, vines give way to trees, a sign of how important
microclimates are in this area of long, cold winters and short, hot summers.

It is from these sites (and from the hilltop vineyard of Corton-Charlemagne, which is just north of Beaune and the rolling hills of Saint-Aubin) that Chardonnay has spread to the rest of the world. The grape, whose name is so easy to pronounce, has virtually become a brand. Its soft, low aromas, sometimes boosted by the flavor of wood, have become almost synonymous with easy-to-drink white wine.

Chardonnay, the Old-School Way
White Burgundy remains defiantly different from Chardonnay—that is, Chardonnay as it’s known in America. Apart from Bourgogne Blanc, which is sometimes marked “Chardonnay” on the label, no white Burgundy carries any indication that it is made from Chardonnay grapes. People who have grown up on Chardonnay are often astonished that the grape that is so widely grown in California is the same grape from which white Burgundy is made.

But there is a profound stylistic difference that sets white Burgundy apart from other Chardonnays. For Bernard Repolt, director of Maison Chanson Père et Fils, one of the oldest Burgundy négociants, “white Burgundy is all about acidity, finesse and elegance. There should be a minerality to the taste from the chalk soil, giving white Burgundy a sense of place.”

For Louis-Fabrice Latour of Maison Louis Latour, “the biggest difference between white Burgundy and other Chardonnays is the natural acidity. Either you choose acidity and balance as in white Burgundy, or you go for commercial, fruity, easy-to-drink wines from the rest of the Chardonnay world.”

Véronique Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin is as familiar with the Chardonnays of Oregon as she is with white Burgundies. She finds that the difference is one of ageability: “Oregon wines,” she says, “come ’round sooner and don’t age for as long as white Burgundy.” Like Repolt and Latour, she believes that natural acidity is what gives Burgundian Chardonnay an edge.

These native Burgundians may be biased toward their own wines, certainly. But no one disputes the essential difference between white Burgundy and Chardonnays from other vineyard regions: White Burgundy comes from a cool climate where the soil is particularly suited to the vine. It is more about acidity and aromas than the “fatness” of the wine. Great white Burgundy, whether it is from Chablis or from Puligny-Montrachet, has incomparable complexity.

Traditional, Yet Innovative
The sense of tradition that comes from the ancient Burgundy vineyards
hasn’t precluded a series of stylistic changes in white Burgundy over the past 20 years. Much of this innovation has to do with the way Burgundians have reacted to the challenge of New World Chardonnays.

Wood has been one of the main weapons with which the Burgundians have waged war on their competition in the Americas and Australia. They saw how popular California’s heavily oaked Chardonnays were, and tried to mimic them in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In many of these vintages, white Burgundy producers who should have known better made wines in which the wood completely dominated the fruit.

The realization that Burgundy, with its cooler climate, could not produce Chardonnay with enough alcohol to compete with these New World offerings came at just the moment that California also decided to go easy on the toast. Complexity became the watchword for great white Burgundy, along with a purity of fruit that comes from modern, clean winemaking techniques.

Today’s great white Burgundies seem to have a hit a point midway between tradition and innovation. There is ripe fruit and a judicious use of wood, along with the hallmark acidity and balance.

Forward with Biodynamic Fruit

The quality of the fruit that is now coming from the best Burgundy producers is impressive. This has been helped by a continuing move to more organic techniques of farming. Some of the top players, such as Anne-Claude Leflaive of Domaine Leflaive, arguably the greatest white Burgundy producer, are now biodynamic, implying an adherence to homeopathic principles. Others, like Jean-Charles Le Bault of Domaine Bonneau du Martray, don’t go quite as far, but certainly agree with the idea of minimal chemical intervention in the vineyard and winery. He believes that “we should be respectful of the soil, that we should work with chemicals as little as possible.”

Some of this switchover to organic growing is a reaction against the parents of the current generation of Burgundy winemakers. In the 1970s, the huge demand for Burgundy fueled intensive cultivation and the use of fertilizers to boost yields. These practices weakened one of the hallmarks of white Burgundy—acidity in the grapes. This is a problem that is only now being sorted out.

One thing hasn’t changed, though: Great white Burgundy is still as scarce as ever. The region produces around 67 million gallons of wine a year, and only a third of this is white. Two-thirds of that comes from Chablis to the north and the Mâconnais to the south, leaving just over 7 million bottles from the most prestigious appellations of the Côte d’Or to go around the world.

To make matters worse in terms of scarcity, Burgundy’s appellation system divides by village and then by vineyard. This means that at the very top of the quality tree, a grand cru vineyard such as tiny Le Montrachet (which produces fewer than 50,000 bottles a year) is divided among a number of producers.

At this rarified level, white Burgundy is as expensive as first-growth Bordeaux or California cult wines. But Burgundy can still be a good value. Wines from the Chablis premier cru vineyards remain reasonably priced—and the bonus is that they’re getting better. The wines of Montagny, in the central Côte Chalonnaise, are also worth seeking out.

It is in the Mâconnais, further south, that the greatest improvements in white Burgundy have come about. It’s now a pleasure to drink most white Mâcon wine. While Pouilly-Fuissé has become outrageously expensive in relation to its quality, such appellations as Saint-Véran, Viré-Clessé or Pouilly-Vinzelles provide excellent value.

When you’re drinking these good-value white Burgundies, don’t expect to find the same, easygoing, slightly sweet Chardonnay that you’d expect from much of California or Australia—these Burgundies are still challenging. They may not have the distinct differences of terroir found in the greater growths of the Côte d’Or, where a small lane dividing two vineyards can mark firm changes of taste, but they still have terroir and a sense of place. In that respect, as in many others, Burgundy remains unique.

To read this article in its entirety, pick up the November 2001 issue of Wine Enthusiast at your local newsstand.

Published on November 1, 2001