Not all chardonnay is created equal. Within the world of this iconic grape variety, there are two essential styles: the classic California style and the French or Burgundian style. If you find yourself with an aversion to the California style, read on because there are chardonnay options to suit your palate as well.
The French style, commonly referred to as white Burgundy, is stylistically a world apart from chardonnays from anywhere else. Burgundy is the famous region that is home to chardonnay – in Europe, wines are referred to by the region from which they come. This is ultimately the reason European wines can be mysterious to American consumers. One must know the regions and the grape varieties permitted to grow there.
White Burgundy, or chardonnay, is a unique wine because of the region’s weather, soil and the vineyards’ relationship with the sun. The soil in Burgundy is predominately limestone, which is low in organic matter and ideal for making structured wines of high minerality. This is coupled with a continental climate that is relatively cool and makes for grapes high in malic acid. Warmer climates such as California produce grapes with considerably lower malic acid, which makes for richer, softer wines.
Burgundy is in eastern France and is a mere mile wide by 100 miles long, running northeast to southwest, with the district of Chablis in the cooler northern end and the Macon in the southwestern end. The distinctiveness of the region lies in the fact that there is a gentle slope facing east, known as the Cote D’or, or the Golden Slope, which is where the great vineyards are planted. These east- and southeast-facing vineyards benefit from first morning sun.
The wines of the northern district of Chablis are the most crisp and acidic wines of Burgundy. These wines have tension because of their bracing acidities and high minerality. As a result, they have excellent aging capability. Further south, one enters where the zenith of chardonnay can be found. The wines from Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet are arguably the greatest chardonnays on Earth. There, the wines offer a ripeness built with a vibrant acidic profile along with good mineral backbone. The wines are typically barrel-aged but generally for no longer than a year and are not over-oaked. Most producers there believe that if you detect oak, they used too much. These wines offer notes of honeysuckle, butterscotch, flower blossoms and lemon zest.
For the budget-oriented consumer, the wines from the Macon district have great value. This region is the furthest south, and the wines are considerably softer and are typically unoaked. A good rule of thumb is not to serve these wines too cold, as the bouquet and flavors will be locked up. Ideal temperatures are in the 50s. Perhaps pull that bottle out of the refrigerator 45 minutes prior to serving.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at email@example.com.