Burgundy vs. Chardonnay: And the Winner Is…

You can drink a fine white Burgundy all through a meal and never once think of Chardonnay. You can relish it sensuously, enjoying its balance and elegance, its minerality and polish. Or you can think about it analytically, deciding for yourself what exactly it is that distinguishes a Meursault from a Montrachet. And you can do those things without once referring to the grape variety from which a white Burgundy is vinified – and that is, emphatically, a good thing. As more than one Burgundian vigneron has been reported to say, “If you can taste Chardonnay, I’m doing something wrong.”

This special, localized truth was reinforced for me recently at a tasting of Drouhin’s newly released 2008 white wines. Wine after wine tasted just wonderful – clean, complex, with differing but equally intriguing mineral inflections and not a trace of wood.

Sweethearts on Parade

The whole range of Drouhin’s 2008 Chablis especially stood out for the intense purity of their individual characters. Each tasted definitively and unmistakably Chablis, yet each differed significantly from the next as I tasted up the ladder of classifications – simple Chablis, Chablis Reserve, Chablis Premier Cru, then Premier Cru Montmains and Premier Cru Sécher,  and finally the Grands Crus – Bougros, Les Clos, Vaudésir,  the latter an especially elegant harmony of classic Chablis earth notes.

Laurent Drouhin

Laurent Drouhin, the representative in the US of the family behind the wines, described the 2008 vintage in Chablis as “simply phenomenal, in a class by itself. The wines are clear and precise – chalky, flinty, mineral, completely harmonious. The same is true for the rest of the white Burgundies, especially those of the Cote de Beaune. Purity and precision are their hallmarks.”

My tasting notes corroborate Laurent’s evaluation of the other whites just as strongly as they do for Chablis. More than any other recent vintage, 2008 has clearly etched the distinctions of village from village. Meursault’s leanness and the quality of its minerality stood out sharply from the rounder, slightly fruitier Chassagne Montrachet, which differed in turn from the greater depth and darker intonation of Puligny Montrachet. You know you’re dealing with a fine vintage when even the village wines are that precise – so the higher levels, such as the single-vineyard Puligny Montrachet Folatières, or Drouhin’s always excellent Clos des Mouches, tasted just plain wonderful, round and firm and complicatedly mineral, and above all elegant. The total palatal impact always brought me back to the vineyards, to where these wines came from, and not to the grape they were made from.

We are deep into subjective territory here, of course. I’m not trying to imply that Drouhin is the only winemaker who got 2008 right in Burgundy – far from it, in fact: it’s a great white wine vintage, and many producers have done very well by it. But I tasted the Drouhin wines just recently, so they’re fresh in my mind, and representative for me of some of the best of Burgundy.

Moreover, I’ve been a fan of Drouhin’s for years. The house is consistently underrated in discussions of Burgundy – I think because the family’s palates run to elegance and balance, not to blockbusters. They make wines that live long and mature gracefully. They never jump in your face, so they don’t take the big prizes. But the Drouhins make wines that, year in and year out, I enjoy drinking, wines that make me murmur, as I empty the last of the bottle, “That was a really fine wine.” 

I can’t ask more of wine than that. And that is an experience I rarely have with Chardonnay, no matter where it comes from (outside of Burgundy) or how expertly it’s made. Let me overstate a little to make my point clear. For my palate, most Chardonnay is vulgar – too obvious, too one-dimensional, too blowsy. It requires too little of the winemaker, and even less of the winedrinker. Stick a chardonnay vine into the earth almost anywhere on this planet except Burgundy, and it will give you Chardonnay. For me, it’s as close as wine comes to Sprite.

OK, I can hear the howls of outrage from San Francisco to Canberra to Johannesburg – but I’ll stick to my point. I can only taste with my own mouth, so it does no good at all to tell me that Chardonnay is the most popular white wine in the world, that most of wine-drinking humanity loves it. Besides, I’m snob enough to find plenty of cause for suspicion in that: Most of the world loves soft drinks and dotes on fast food. I think it’s about time someone stood up for a little wine snobbery. As the author of one of the earliest demystifying wine books (Mastering Wine, 1985, won the first Clicquot prize) and as a longtime practitioner of the craft of trying to make wine accessible to anyone who wanted to try it, I think I have impeccable credentials  for – and maybe even a hard-earned right to – a little judicious snobbery.

And judicious snobbery is exactly what I’m talking about: the recognition that some things in this very relativistic world are better than other things. Yes, ultimately it still remains subjective – most things are – but even the subjective can be analyzed and argued, reasoned about and explained. Which is what I’m trying to do here. So anyone who wants to is free to disagree with me – but to deserve any attention, they better have more to say than “everybody likes Chardonnay.”

One Response to “Burgundy vs. Chardonnay: And the Winner Is…”

  1. Wine – where do you start? » Blog Archive » Chardonnay wine usurped crown Says:

    […] Burgundy vs. Chardonnay: And the Winner Is… « Tom's Wine Line […]

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