More than any other grape, Chardonnay is responsible for the internationalization of style and taste that has transformed the world of wine over the past fifty years. Winemakers may have focused more intensely on Cabernet Sauvignon, trying to emulate and then to equal the classified growths of Bordeaux, but beginning in the 1970s consumers embraced Chardonnay before taking to any other variety.
Whether coming from California or Australia, and then later from Argentina, Chile, Italy, South Africa, and just about anywhere else this grape can be grown, the Chardonnays they drank were deliberately fashioned in the image of white Burgundies. Not all white Burgundies. More specifically, the international models hailed from the famous vineyards of the Côte d’Or. And the methods employed by winemakers there, specifically full malolactic fermentation and aging on stirred lees in French oak barrels, were adopted worldwide.
As many commentators have observed, the result of this stylistic internationalization has been a bevy of wines that taste very similar. Chardonnay by itself is a fairly neutral-tasting grape variety. It can reflect the vineyard in which it is grown, but it more obviously signals what the winemaker does with it. So the British writer, Oz Clarke, who seems always to have tongue in cheek, wittily notes that Chardonnay “can be subjected to as many different treatments as the face of an aging socialite.”
Those treatments today include not just the time-honored Burgundian ones, but also cold fermentations in squeaky clean cellars, resulting in fresher tasting wines. Whereas the lines of influence originally went from Burgundy to the rest of the wine-growing world, they now run in both directions. Clarke again: “Present a winemaker blind with a line-up of top Chardonnays from around the world, and it is increasingly likely that a Burgundian, an Italian, an Australian and a Californian will all mistake each other’s wines for their own.”
The original French models still do have ardent devotees, people who contend that no other Chardonnays can offer the marriage of power and sublime finesse that are characteristic of the best finest from the communes of Chassagne, Puligny, Meursault, and the like. Nonetheless, the best wines from elsewhere can come mighty close. They also, one has to add, tend to cost significantly less.
Of course there also are plenty of disappointing Chardonnays on the market. They frustrate because, like a bad copy of a famous painting, they are so obviously fraudulent. (If Côte d’Or wines have a rich, buttery quality, these seem to swim in a tub of margarine.) The problem is not limited to New World knock-offs. A good many contemporary Burgundies from renowned crus taste overblown and dishonest as well.
All of this raises a fairly obvious question. With Chardonnay, internationalization brings positive benefits but also frequent disappointments. Is there anywhere in the world where vintners make wines with this grape that taste different and hence exciting and distinctive?
The answer may surprise you, for it’s right next door to the Côte d’Or. This is southern Burgundy, the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais, regions known not long ago for simple, somewhat rustic wines that no one thought were in the same class as the great growths to the north.
Seemingly in a blink of a proverbial eye, all that has changed. Southern Burgundy today is full of energy and excitement. It’s where you can find some of the most exciting Chardonnays anywhere, all at fairly reasonable prices.
Unlike Chablis, which also produces Chardonnay that doesn’t taste much like Chardonnay, southern Burgundy is home to increasingly weighty wines with the same paradoxical mix of heft and lift that characterizes fine Côte d’Or wines. They just have a very different flavor profile, emphasizing fresh flavors even more than rich ones, and elevating non-fruit flavors (that elusive quality known as minerality) to a leading role.
The Chalonnaise and Mâconnais vineyards lie at the southern edge of greater Burgundy, with the latter abutting Beaujolais. In all but the coldest vintages, getting the grapes ripe is not a big problem. Instead, what was missing until lately was complexity. Today’s top wines, however, have it in spades.
What has changed? Not the terroir (though the climate certainly is getting warmer), but rather the grape growing and winemaking--and the seriousness with which the most ambitious producers are approaching their jobs. More and more aim to produce wines that entice you with texture, succulence, and minerality. Whether representing a new generation of long-established families or newcomers from outside the region (including some famous names from farther north in Burgundy), they have come to recognize that southern Burgundy is a land of still largely untapped potential.
The metamorphosis of southern Burgundy white wines has received little fanfare. Few restaurants in the United States offer the best examples, as few consumers think of these as more than simple quaffing wines. But for people who want to drink Chardonnay that tastes of more than Chardonnay, these wines are worth a special search.
Here are seven specific wines to look for. I tasted all of them during a recent trip to France, but they all are available on this side of the Atlantic as well. No matter where you try them, they may well change your mind about both Burgundy and Chardonnay.
Domaine Michel Joillot Rully Blanc Les Thivaux 2012 ($25, Imported by Weygandt Selections): Beautifully concentrated, with layers of enticing minerality in the finish. A stunning bargain. 95
Domaine Cheveau Pouilly-Fuisse Les Trois Terroirs 2015 ($30, Imported by Neal Rosenthal): Youthful and lively, but with wonderful depth and a very long finish. 95
Domaine Guillemot-Michel Vire Clesse Quintaine 2014 ($30, Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils): A warm vintage yielded a fairly fleshy, rich wine, with real depth on the palate. 93
Rijckaert Vire Clesse Les Varcherres Vielles Vignes 2013 ($30, Imported by Massanois Imports): Rich and ripe but still tight, so a good candidate for a few years of cellaring. 93
Domaine Ninot Rully La Barre 2014 ($30, Imported by Bird Rock): Round and warm, with fresh fruit enhanced by spicy secondary notes. 92
Christophe Cordier Saint-Véran Clos de la Côte 2014 ($30, Imported by Domaine Select): Hints of toast or brioche are matched by firm, crisp acidity, giving the wine near perfect balance. 92
Château de Lavernette Pouilly-Fuissé Vers Châne 2014 ($35, Imported by Vintage ’59): Pronounced minerality, with apple and stone fruits playing a decidedly secondary role. 92