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Affordable White Burgundies
By Ed McCarthy
Sep 6, 2016
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I find it extraordinary that, after collecting wines all of my adult life, I still feel the need to buy more wines.  It’s not that I’m addicted to buying wine, or at least I don’t think it’s that.  I just don’t own enough white wines.  Call it “poor planning” on my part, or the mistaken belief in my youth (that’s under 55 to me) that only fine red wines can age.

Now I know better, and so I seek out white wines to buy.  My taste in white wines primarily favors French and Italian white wines, with notable exceptions such as Greece’s Santorini wines from the Assyrtiko variety.  In other words, I prefer crisp, dry whites from cool climates that have acidity and verve.  In this column, I will concentrate on French white Burgundies.

Any discussion of the world’s great white wine regions must start with white Burgundies from France’s Côte d’Or region.  At this point, some readers are likely thinking, “Oh, sure, but who can afford them?”  I do not have in mind the famous, expensive white Burgundies such as Montrachet or Corton-Charlemagne.  The Burgundy region, just like Bordeaux, does make lesser-known white wines that are affordable and lovely--perhaps not show-stoppers, but fine wines indeed.

When you dine out, I suggest that you choose a restaurant with a carefully chosen wine list.  I was in the Berkshires in Massachusetts last week, and I chose such a restaurant.  I selected the least-expensive white Burgundy on the list for $50, a 2011 Auxey-Duresses; it was delicious, all that I could want in a so-called lesser white Burgundy.

Price-wise, affordable white Burgundies start with the regional appellation, Bourgogne Blanc.  In the hands of a good producer, such as Dominique Lafon, the wines can be excellent.  Bourgogne Blancs start at about $14 in wine shops for Joseph Drouhin’s LaForet, and many of these wines are available in the $20 to $25 range.  They are usually 100 percent Chardonnay (but small amounts of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are permitted).

The lesser-known reasonably-priced Village Burgundy appellations to look for   include wines such as Pernand-Vergelesses, Savigny-lès Beaune, Auxey-Duresses, Monthélie, St.Romain, and St.-Aubin.  All of these villages produce both red and white Burgundies, many of which retail in the $25 to $45 range.

Directly south of the Côte d’Or is the little-known Burgundy region, the Côte Chalonnaise.  Here, three Burgundy appellations stand out:  Mercurey, Rully, and Givry.  Mercurey Blanc, Rully Blanc and Givry Blanc are sturdy white wines that retail for about $25 to $30, the Mercurey usually a bit more expensive than the other two; they are typically not quite so delicate as Côte d’Or whites.  In my mind, the one truly exceptional white wine from this region is not Chardonnay-based; it is Domaine A. et P. DeVillaine’s Bouzeron made from the Aligoté variety; it has a unique, minerally flavor.  What a classy wine!  About $30 to $35.

The Mâcon district is the southernmost part of the Burgundy region. Good-value white wines, such as Mâcon-Villages, retail in the $14 to $18 range.  The best whites from Mâcon are Pouilly-Fuissé and St. Véran.  Pouilly-Fuissé, although usually a well-made wine, is somewhat over-priced in the U.S. ($25 to $50) because it is so well-known.  The less-known St.Véran, priced in the Mâcon-Villages range, is a much better value.  All of these wines are made from Chardonnay.

Perhaps the best value white wines in Burgundy, also made from Chardonnay, come from the Chablis district.  Chablis is more northerly than the rest of Burgundy, and is typically cooler.  Four different appellations exist:
Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru, and Chablis Grand Cru.
Petit Chablis is seldom sold in the U.S. and so I will begin with Chablis (often simply called Chablis AOC).  Chablis AOC wines are generally lighter-bodied than the Premier and Grand Cru Chablis and can be good values (averaging around $25 retail), especially in the cooler vintages, such as 2008, 2010, and 2012.  Most Chablis AOC are at their best within six years of the vintage.  Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis will age considerably longer.

Chablis Premier Cru wines are generally the ones I buy because they compare in quality to the more expensive Grand Cru Chablis wines--perhaps not as full-bodied or intensely flavored--and yet are reasonably priced (from $28 to $45 retail, with a few up to $60).  Chablis Premier Cru wines will age nicely for ten years or more in good vintages.  Of the approximately 40 premier cru vineyards, the six Premier Cru Chablis that we see the most are the following:

--Montée de Tonnere
--Mont de Milieu
--Les Forêts (a.k.a. “La Forest”)

Chablis Grand Cru wines are generally the most full-bodied, longest-lasting Chablis; they can age and improve for 15 years or more, and typically have been aged in oak casks more than other Chablis wines.  Retail prices for Grand Cru Chablis wines start at $55, but can go up to $100 and more.  The seven grand cru vineyards are the following:

--Les Clos
--Les Preuses

La Moutonne is a separate vineyard, which is part of Vaudesir and Les Preuses, and of Grand Cru quality.

The three vineyard Grand Cru wines with the greatest reputations in Chablis are Les Clos, Vaudesir, and Valmur.  Of course, you must consider the vintage, and the producer. (I recommend the best 24 Chablis producers, in my opinion, in Chapter 7 of my co-written book, French Wine for Dummies. The producers are listed in Class One, Class Two, and Class Three categories.)  I personally prefer the crisp, lighter-bodied Chablis wines that have little or no oak ageing, such as those made by the producer, Domaine Louis Michel & Fils.

I own more Chablis than any other white Burgundies because they are dependable and affordable.  But I’m always on the prowl, searching out the lesser-known white Burgundy Village wines, such as Auxey-Duresses and company.