White Burgundy: The Triumph of Terroir

White Burgundy: The Triumph of Terroir

More than any other wine region, Burgundy is all about dirt, about climate and how the people use them. Call it terroir if you want, but the complex and idiosyncratic interaction among these three elements is what makes Burgundy tick.
Why does one vineyard produce wines that taste one way while the neighboring vineyard, literally 10 yards away, produces wines that taste completely different?

Why is one vineyard a premier cru, another a grand cru, and a third a simple village wine? And why, after a sea of red wines all along the Côte d’Or is there suddenly, just a few miles south of Burgundy’s wine capital, Beaune, a precious enclave of white wines?

To answer all these questions, you need to look at the land. And to answer them in relation to white wine, you need to go to the villages of Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet.

For lovers of Chardonnay, this is home; this is sacred ground. And I can tell you that this church is in good hands, as white Burgundy producers have taken advantage of a run of fine vintages—at least three, possibly four, out of the last six—to ratchet up quality. They have, thankfully, grown out of the fashion for overoaking in order to compete with California Chardonnay. Instead they have returned to what they do best: making wines that reflect where they come from, their terroir.

For white wine producers, these three villages have one thing in common, the soil. Most of the Côte d’Or’s soil is of clay, fine for growing world-class Pinot Noir. But in this small spot nestled in the mid-section of the Côte de Beaune (itself a subregion of the Côte d’Or), limestone comes to dominate. Chalk is the best subsoil for Chardonnay, as seen in the Côte des Blancs of Champagne and in Chablis.

Yet, soil composition alone cannot explain the wine produced here. It is the people, the growers and producers, who make the best use of this chalk soil and the climate that goes with it. They act as the link and the catalyst.

It is the end of Day One of Harvest 2006. I am with Daniel Cadot-Lamy of Domaine Lamy-Pillot in Chassagne-Montrachet, ten miles south of Beaune. Outside, the grape pickers are cleaning up. The Chardonnay grapes are still being hand-sorted; the first loads are already macerating in tanks. Cadot-Lamy takes a few minutes to show me, in the best way possible, how variations in the terroir of neighboring vineyards can make big differences in the taste of a wine.

Like so many Burgundian domaines, Lamy-Pillot’s is made up of dozens of tiny parcels; a few rows here, a few there. That means that production of any one wine is limited, sometimes to just a few hundred cases. It also means that every vineyard is owned, row-by-row, by many growers. The 20 acres of the grand cru Le Montrachet, for example, are owned by 31 different proprietors.

We first taste the new juice, its sweetness the dominant character. “2006 has been a difficult year, with a very hot July and a cool August,” says Cadot-Lamy. “But we are harvesting in the sunshine, which is always good.”

Then we go to the tasting room. Sitting with me at a large table littered with bottles, he chooses three premier crus, all 2004. First we taste Les Caillerets. This 26-acre vineyard is just to the west of the village and the domaine owns 1.35 acres. It has little topsoil—maybe eight inches deep. The wine tastes very minerally, very firm and tight.

Next we taste Clos Saint-Jean. This 29-acre parcel is a real clos in the literal sense of the word—it’s surrounded by a wall— and it’s just upslope from the village. The domaine owns a quarter of an acre in this vineyard. Here the topsoil is nearly 20 inches deep before ground rock is reached. The wine is more powerful and fruitier than Les Caillerets, although there is still a mineral element.

The final wine of the trio is Morgeot. This is the largest of the Chassagne-Montrachet premier crus, 143 acres in size, of which Lamy-Pillot owns 0.8 of an acre. It is right on the village boundary, next to Santenay. It can produce both white and red wines from its deep topsoil, well over 30 inches. The wine is very rich, at this stage more California in its wood and richness, without the mineral element in the other two wines.

So in Chassagne-Montrachet, as in Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet, the two other white wine villages of the Côte de Beaune, the depth of the soil makes a crucial difference to the taste of the wine.

Position on the slope is also important, as Gérard Boudot of Domaine Etienne Sauzet explained. He is based in Puligny-Montrachet; his cellar is the first you reach driving in from neighboring Chassagne-Montrachet to the south, past the grand cru vineyards of Le Montrachet and Bâtard-Montrachet. The cellar commands a view of the hill that rises behind the village, with vineyards climbing about three-quarters of the way up, the hill topped by trees. This is the quintessential view along the Côte d’Or—the golden slope—of Burgundy.

We taste with a map of Puligny-Montrachet in front of us. The Sauzet domaine consists of 22 acres in total, with holdings in six premier crus (Les Perrières, Les Folatières, Champ Canet, Les Combettes, La Garenne, Les Referts) and three grand crus (Le Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet). Boudot distinguishes between the village wines—those that just have the appellation Puligny-Montrachet—and wines that have vineyard names, the premier and grand crus.

From Boudot I learn the vital part that slope plays in Burgundy. “The village wines are on deep soil, at the foot of the slope,” he says. “The further up the slope you go, the soil gets thinner, the stones increase. Halfway up the slope are the best vineyards. They have the thin soil, which is good for the minerality of the wine.” At this level on the southeast-facing slope, they also have the best sun exposure, essential in Burgundy’s short summers.

This is the heartland of white Burgundy. Here, Chardonnay grapes yield terroir-driven wines because the wine producers—they never call themselves winemakers—want it so. “I want to give an idea of terroir in my wines,” says Anne-Claude Leflaive of Domaine Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet. “The structure of the soil gives character to the wine.”

Domaine Leflaive makes some of the greatest white wines in the world. The domaine—like an increasing number of top estates in Burgundy (DRC for example, Domaine d’Auvenay, Joseph Drouhin or Domaine des Comtes Lafon)—works on biodynamic principles. Leflaive started in 1990 because, she says, “I was shocked at the realization that with chemicals you are adding a dead element to live plants.” But now she also relishes the fact that with “biodynamism there is nothing artificial between the wine and the soil.”

Of course there is one thing that does come between wine and soil, especially with Chardonnay: wood. Even those producers most wedded to the close link with terroir use wood. But in Burgundy, there has been a reaction against excessive wooding. In the late 1990s Burgundians tried to outdo California, especially at the basic level of Bourgogne Blanc. No more. Terroir rules, and with it comes the vital difference between Burgundy and California or Australia.
Even with their richest wines, Burgundians never lose sight of the balance. There are always the fruit flavors, the acidity, the mineral, the freshness of the wine when it is young. Later, maybe after four years depending on the wine, the secondary aromas and tastes—the nuts, the toast, the roundness—appear. At the top level of grand cru, white Burgundy can age for decades.

While at first sight it might appear that Burgundy is a muddle of unnecessary complexities, in the end, it all makes sense, certainly at the top of the pyramid of appellations, among the premier and grand crus. Both categories, in the hands of the increasing number of good producers, are demonstrably better than village wines. Put the wines of one producer side by side and the difference is in the taste.

Grand crus are also demonstrably better than premiers. The difference lies in the structure of the wines. There is an added layer of complexity, of potential for aging in the grand crus, which is less obvious in the premiers. That goes for the wines of the big négociant houses as well as for the domaines. The scores and notes of the nearly 100 white Burgundies I tasted for this month’s Buying Guide make the point.

When coming to white Burgundy after drinking California or Australian Chardonnay, expect greater subtlety, more complexity, more freshness, generally lower alcohol and, often, acidity. And expect wines that go better with food. This is the best sign of a greatness that is recognizable to any wine drinker. The Chardonnay grape, planted in the soil of Burgundy, subject to Burgundian sun and rain, and nurtured by the people of this region, can still make the best white wines in the world.

Published on December 1, 2006
Topics: Burgundy, WInemaking

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