Archive for the ‘Chablis’ Category

The recent publication of Wines and Vineyards of Burgundy (ArteVino, 2018) achieves a new high in the internationalization of wine, as well as being a serious accomplishment in wine criticism: It’s a fine English translation of a truly interesting Italian book about some wonderful French wine.

This attractive, informative volume by Camillo Favaro and Giampaolo Gravina was translated and edited by Burton Anderson in collaboration with Joanie Bonfiglio. Anderson also contributed a preface. The book has handsome photos by Maurizio Gjivovich, as well as a suite of clear and useful maps.

Italians have a different take on French wine than most Anglophone winos, a fact that made this book very interesting to me as a cultural or cross-cultural document. An inferiority complex about French wines used to color almost all my conversations with Italians about foreign wines, leading to the most preposterous overcompensations – for example, a young winemaker in Venezia-Giulia, many years ago, who had never travelled farther than Venice but who solemnly assured me that his indifferent white wine was as good as Chablis, which he had never tasted.

Fortunately, such episodes are now a thing of the rapidly receding past, and Italian winemakers these days are a lot more sophisticated. Most are much travelled, not just to their markets but also to their international colleagues and competitors. For many, that means what amounts to a pilgrimage to Burgundy, with which they often feel a deep affinity.

Most Italians even remotely professionally connected with wine – especially Piedmontese – are thinking about Burgundy when they talk about French wine. (The big exception to that gross generalization is Tuscany, where the ties to Bordeaux hold strong.)  Favaro and Gravina are typical in their passion for Burgundy, though far above average in the extent of their enthusiasm and their qualifications for writing about it.

Camillo Favaro (left, above) runs both his family winery in the Piedmont and ArteVinoStudio, an agency devoted to creative communication and design work for wineries.

Giampaolo Gravina (right) is a professor of philosophy who has also had a long career as a wine journalist, most notably as one of the editors of L’Espresso’s annual Vini d’Italia.

Both have written books on wine, separately and in collaboration: This present work is an expansion and updating of their earlier Vini e Terre di Borgogna.

Wines and Vineyards of Burgundy has little to say about the large négociant firms. Its focus is on the smaller, largely family-owned domaines – some 200 of them. The authors know their business: Just as one example, their presentation of the Chablis of Dauvissat makes a point of praising the firm’s Petit Chablis, a lovely and often overlooked wine whose “aromatics and articulation are much superior to the appellation’s standards.”

They are similarly well informed about all the domaines they feature. I was impressed, for instance, with their discussion of the soil differences and consequent differing styles of Chambolle-Musigny, a wine that is one of my favorites and a Burgundy area I thought I knew well: I learned some new things in reading through this section – as I did also in reading about Nuits-Saint-Georges, another of my favorites.

I think that Favaro and Gravina are spot-on in their characterization of the producers they discuss: The better I know the wines in question, the more I agree with. For instance, their description of Henri Gouges’s 2015s: “despite their typical internal density, our tastings have brought to light a general fusion of fleshiness with surprisingly accessible, delicious juice.”  Absolutely right, for my palate.

The two writers often manage to convey a lot of information in a direct, no-words-wasted manner. To loop back to Chablis, they very concisely describe the near austerity of Dauvissat’s cellar regime (“fermentations in used barrels, no battonage, decantation and tartrate precipitation due to natural cold, no new barrels for the élevages”) before summarizing succinctly and gracefully the character of Dauvissat’s wines – to wit: “wines of rare transparency and expressive purity, but always vibrant and sincere, never lacking tension, and capable of aging very well while expressing with nonchalance extreme precision and stylistic self-awareness.”

Nonchalance may be a bit over the top, but by and large I wish I’d said that. The writing throughout is of that high level, beautifully conveyed by the translators. Wines and Vineyards of Burgundy was for me a very enjoyable, very informative, and very personal excursion to Burgundy, and I think it will be so for any lover of Burgundy’s wines.

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2016 snuck in on little cat’s feet in my neighborhood, shrouded by soft mist and a rising fog from the Hudson that, along with some pain pills for my outraged hip, had me asleep well before the canonical New Year’s Eve moment of rooting and tooting. This holiday season has been an ambivalent one for me, with unanticipated post-operative pain vying with the unnaturally warm weather to keep most thoughts of seasonally appropriate celebration at a distance. Plus – a side effect of my medications – my appetite and capacity have fallen to next to nothing. So there have been no big, year-end whoop-di-dos here, though Diane and I have managed a few low-key relishings of our survival and mutual company – probably the best way of all to mark the holidays in any event.

For you, o faithful reader, the consequence of all that is that there will be no connected narrative to hold this post together – just a series of musings, prompted by a few of the bottles with which we measured the end of 2015. Milestones, of a vinous and vital sort.


champagneAndre Clouet Champagne Brut Rose Numero 5 nv. This year, this lovely bubbly has become my go-to Champagne for serving to guests who drink Champagne and not labels. It has body, it has elegance, it has compatibility with all sorts of canapés and more substantial dishes, and most of all it has the kind of palate-caressing flavor that makes you stop mid-sip and just enjoy. I am usually a fan of rosé Champagne primarily as a dinner companion, but I like this one everywhere. Something about the complexity of its flavor, the paradoxical lightness and weight of its body, reminds me each time I drink it of the excitement I used to feel decades ago when I first seriously began exploring Champagne and discovering, with some naïve amazement, the variety of its pleasures beyond just bubbles. Snows of yesteryear, eh?  A very appropriate sensation for the end of one year and the start of another.


villa bucciVilla Bucci Verdicchio riserva 2006. No point beating around the bush here: This is flat-out a great white wine and a textbook example of how white wines can age. I am constantly amazed that Verdicchio hasn’t really caught on in this country. It is an excellent grape variety, and the best examples from its homeland, Italy’s Adriatic-facing Appenine slopes in the Marche, show not only the variety’s intriguing flavors but also the land’s distinctive minerality. This bottle partnered brilliantly with Diane’s sea scallops Nantais to create one of the best wine and food matches of our holiday season. Ampelio Bucci, the genial and devoted caretaker of his family’s ancestral properties, consistently produces what is always one of the best (very often, the best) Verdicchio of them all. His wines have been constantly reliable over years and years, always big, elegant, and distinctive. One of the New Year’s resolutions that I know I’m going to keep is that our home will never be without some.


ormes de pezChateau Les Ormes de Pez 1989. What memories this wine evokes!  This was one of the first small chateaux I tasted back when I first began learning there was more to Bordeaux than shippers’ Medocs and out-of-my-financial-league premiers crus. Les Ormes de Pez was and remains a classic, even though only a cru bourgeois. Every time I drink it, it reminds me why I love St. Estephe. It has all the elegance and balance that the great wines of Bordeaux specialize in, and on top of that the lovely little rasp of the (to my mind and palate) utterly distinctive St. Estephe terroir. I still don’t understand why no St. Estephe wine was ever named a premier cru. What are Cos d’Estournel and Montrose – chopped liver? They cost, of course, many times what Les Ormes de Pez does, which is still a bargain in current releases. We used to buy the ‘66 for $3 a bottle; now that’s around $100 if you can find it – and if I could find it, I’d happily pay the fee. $100 is cheap these days for Bordeaux. Pity what’s happened to Bordeaux prices.


brunelloBarbi Brunello Riserva 1977. This part of this post, alas, is a funeral service. This bottle was dead, deeply, profoundly dead, though remembered with great fondness. The bottle had been recorked at the winery several decades ago, but it couldn’t survive in my less-than optimal storage. Or perhaps it had just reached the end of its natural span. It’s always hard to tell with a wine of this age.

This was the last bottle of a case of Barbi 1977 Riserva that I received somewhere back in the mid-to-late ‘80s as part of my winning the Barbi Prize for journalism about Brunello di Montalcino. It was a great honor and a grand occasion: Francesca Colombini Cinelli herself, the grande dame of Montalcino winemaking, travelled to New York to make the presentation. 

barbi prize 1

The wines drank wonderfully for years, with all the paradoxical muscle and grace, smoothness and asperity of classic Brunello. I guess I kept this one just a bit too long. They will all be remembered – and missed.


Les ClosI had a similar experience a few days earlier with a 2002 Moreau Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, a wine that by all rights should have been splendid. But no: this bottle was as oxidized as a wine can get. A lesson to me for 2016: Drink my older wines while they and I both survive.


Let me finish up this hail-and-farewell with two producers whose wines will be around for a long time to come, Vallana and Produttori di Barbaresco. Both are Piedmont producers who have long been important in their zones and increasingly so on the American market. Both are some of the finest bargains in the entire wine field, offering top-flight examples of their denominations at what are very affordable prices.

spannaFirst up: we drank a Vallana Spanna 2011, a mostly Nebbiolo wine from the northern Piedmont, still in its youth. Back when Vallana made its first entry in the US market, in the 1960s and 70s, its Spannas were famous for their ageability, and many 10- to 20-year-old bottles were available. Such is not the case now, but the wine still shows all the capacity to age that it ever had. And if palatal memory doesn’t deceive me, the Vallana fruit, as cultivated by the Vallana grandchildren, Francis and Marina, now is even more ample and more refined, with a mouth-flooding juiciness that makes the wines supremely drinkable at any age. This particular bottle of Spanna was the last I had on hand, but my top New Year’s resolution is to fix that ASAP.

barbarescoFinally, a bottle of Produttori di Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Montestefano 1999 rounded off our holidays – in a literal sense, since it was the wine that we drank with a New Year’s Day dinner. By now, everybody who knows Piedmont wine should know that the Produttori di Barbaresco consistently offers the unquestioned best value in the Alba zone. Its many cooperating growers between them control huge swathes of Barbaresco’s best vineyards and crus, and under the direction of Aldo Vaca, as knowledgable and understated a winemaker as any in Piedmont, the results are always worth drinking – in difficult years, sound and durable, in great years, off-the-charts wonderful.

Most wine journalists would agree with that assessment, just as most wine journalists have a kind of mental reservation that limits the praise they confer – maybe because it’s a co-op, and there is all the glamor of the single grower/artisan as opposed to the supposed “industrial” operation of a co-op. Let me start 2016 by saying that’s nonsense: The individual growers of Produttori di Barbaresco, and the winemaking skills of Aldo Vaca, between them make wines that stand on a par with any from the Barbaresco zone. These are simply great wines at great prices. My intention is to get more of them.

And so we turn the page from 2015 to 2016 – a look back, and a peek forward. Good luck and good wine to all of us! I have a feeling we’re going to need both.

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One of the predictable pleasures of wine, paradoxically enough, is that you can count on the unexpected. There we were, two weeks ago, in a lodge in the middle of the Honduran rainforest, expecting a week of cold beer punctuated by an occasional Margarita and, if we were lucky, a glass of Argentinean Chardonnay – when we found ourselves staring at a modest but quite serious and varied wine list: bottles from France, Spain, and Italy, as well as North and South America. O frabjous day! Calloo! Callay! Saved again!

Dining Room at Pico Bonito Lodge

Dining Room at Pico Bonito Lodge

A closer look deflated our joy substantially. The vintages shown were ominous: 2006 Faiveley AOC Chablis and 2007 Faiveley Beaujolais Villages. A little long in the tooth, both of them – and in that climate? A vision of dead wines, sun-baked and long gone, replaced the previous picture of cooling nectars reviving a pair of parched wino birdwatchers. But, what the hell, it was the best offer we were going to get in the middle of the jungle, so we tried ‘em.

Faivelely chablisThey were wonderful. Somehow or other, they’d been stored perfectly, and both were in fine condition. The Chablis showed just the slightest edge of oxidation, a little bit of the goût anglais that I don’t mind at all in a white Burgundy any more than I do in a Champagne, but otherwise a nice, medium-bodied, minerally white wine that went excellently with the fresh fish and chicken we had ordered. Nothing complex, nothing subtle, but an enjoyable dinner wine, and very refreshing in that Honduran heat and humidity.

faiveley beaujolaisThe next night the Beaujolais provided a similar experience. Despite its seven years of age, it was still juicy and fresh. Light-bodied for a red wine, to be sure, with no depth or complexity, but a simple, good-tasting – Gamay is just a lovable grape – and thoroughly enjoyable dinner wine, just like our basic Chablis. 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 95 degrees of humidity don’t want complex, deep, big wines: They want purity and simplicity and ease, and that’s what these two wines provided.

Accordingly, I hereby nominate simple Chablis and basic Beaujolais or Beaujolais Villages as members 3 and 4 of CCAW – my Cheerful Confraternity of Amiable Wines.

You can spend a bundle of money on Chablis if you’re so minded. Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis easily run to three figures, and they are usually worth it for the intensity of their minerality (that famous Kimmeridgean limestone on which they grow). That and their complexity, their great ability to age and deepen, all place them within the select group of the world’s greatest white wines.

chablis map

But even though it’s not in that league, basic Chablis – simple Appellation Controlee Chablis – grown in the wider zone that surrounds the restricted Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards, is no negligible wine. It has a small amount of that characteristic minerality, and, as our bottle in Honduras showed, it even shares a bit of the ability to age well. Most important, it’s enjoyable with many sorts of food, where it will reward attention if you want to pay it or quietly partner with your dinner if you don’t. And it doesn’t cost a fortune: Many are available – from small growers or from Burgundian negociants like Faiveley – at around $20. These days, that ain’t bad for an ideal warm-weather white wine.

Certainly, Beaujolais is the red wine equivalent of that: an ideal inexpensive warm-weather drink, light to medium-bodied, with charming fruit, low tannins, and a bracing acidity that allows it to match with foods of all sorts. (In the Beaujolais, they drink it even with fish.)


As with Chablis, you can spend a lot more on single-vineyard wines from the named Beaujolais crus (Brouilly, Fleurie, Morgon, etc.). I don’t mean to belittle those: In fact, I love ‘em – but the two broader zones that surround those crus, Beaujolais Villages and the even larger Beaujolais, produce an ocean of delightful wines, all made with the same Gamay grape and all designed for easy drinking. That, I find, is especially true in summer: Beaujolais is very hard to beat as a hot-weather red wine. And its price is equally hard to beat: I’ve seen several on sale for as little $12, and rarely do they exceed $20.

Just one caveat:  I am emphatically excluding from my praise any and all Beaujolais Nouveau. I’ve never understood the fad for this wine, which arrives every November after harvest accompanied by hoopla and balloons: It always tastes sickly sweet to me, like liquid cotton candy (and with some of the same palate-coating character). I know some people like it (a lot, apparently), but I’m not one of them. So I hereby blackball Beaujolais Nouveau from CCAW, while warmly (pun intended) welcoming Chablis and Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages to membership.

Earlier inductees into the CCAW are described here (Chianti) and here (Muscadet).


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Old White Wines

Last week Diane and I cooked up a big lobster. They have been less expensive than usual this summer, and a simple boiled lobster with drawn butter sounded very attractive for a summer evening’s dinner. So in honor of the rare-for-us crustacean, I pulled out an old Chablis Grand Cru – 2001 Les Clos, the smallest of the Grands Crus zones, from Voceret.

I got quite worried when I poured it. It was very deeply golden, looking considerably older than its eleven years. And the first taste was worrisome too: The wine didn’t show much of anything – it was simply blah. I know my storage isn’t the best (by a wide margin), and I began to fear I had kept this wine too long for the conditions. But there was a chance it just didn’t much like the Irish smoked salmon we’d chosen for a first course, so I suspended judgment until we could taste the wine with the lobster it was intended for.

Maybe you can guess the outcome of this story. By the time the lobster was cooked, drained, cracked open, served, and tasted, the wine had changed. Alongside the lobster, it immediately tasted better than it had with the salmon, then – as it sat and opened – it got better and better, richer and richer, showing more and more of the classic Chablis minerality and an enjoyable edgy Chardonnay character. Not buttery – the lobster’s dressing took care of that – but the sharper, more white-fruit character of Chardonnay, which is too often submerged in young wines or heavily barriqued wines. The wine was at its intriguing best as we finished it, making me wish I had treated it as I would a ten- or eleven-year-old red wine, and pulled its cork an hour or two beforehand.

By that point – too late to profit by it, of course – I remembered that I had had similar experiences before with older white wines, both from France and from Italy. That is, on several occasions over the past few years, I had come across wines deeply golden with age, some of them even initially smelling oxidized to such an extent that some of the tasters I was with didn’t bother to try them. Just like my Chablis, several of these wines simply got better and better as they opened, until, after an hour or two, they had transformed themselves into classic mature examples of their type.

My friend and colleague Charles Scicolone confirms my experience. He was part of several of these tasting groups, so we shared some of the “aha!” moments, and he has had similar experiences on his own – so I know I’m neither delusional nor making a silk purse out of sow’s ear of a wine. The fact is that some seemingly moribund older white wines aren’t dead, catatonic, or even sleeping: They’re just closed, and need time to breathe and open.

Obviously, most white wines aren’t capable of this kind of long aging: They’re built for consumption within at most five years of bottling, in many cases even less than that. But the right grapes in the right hands in the right places can yield wines that will age and mature into the same sort of depth and complexity that we usually associate exclusively with red wines.

I’ve had remarkably enjoyable older bottles of many kinds. From France, Premier and Grand Cru Chablis and Burgundy; Alsace Riesling and especially Pinot Gris; Chateauneuf blanc and Hermitage blanc.

From Italy, I’ve had wonderful older bottles of an array of great wines: Jermann’s Vintage Tunina and Capo Martino; Mastroberardino’s Fiano di Avellino; Villa Bucci Riserva from Le Marche; Valentino’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo; Frescobaldi’s Pomino bianco; Antinori’s Cervaro della Sala are just some of them.

I’m very curious about other people’s perhaps parallel experiences. If you have opened any bottles of white wine, initially thought them gone, and then discovered later on that they were quite fine, I’d like to hear about it – especially if you made any notes about the amount of time it took for your wine to come around. Tell me what sorts of white wine you have enjoyed as antiques, and whether you think they survived because of the quality of the vintage, the treatment in the cellar, or the character of the grapes. Most wines of any color are drunk too young, and whites are not often deliberately given long cellaring, so there’s a lot to be learned here, and I’d like to start amassing some accurate information for my own use and to share with any interested parties.

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‘Tis the season to be tasting! Wine importers are showing their latest arrivals, and there have been some splendid wines being splashed into glasses all over town. Several of these have been fine enough to make me deeply regret that the need for mere survival forces me to spit – but not to do so might be fun for a while and cirrhosis forever, so I have dutifully expectorated some good juice over the past few weeks. But enough repining: Here are some of the wines that impressed me most.

You’ve probably heard a good deal of hype already about how fantastic a vintage 2010 is for white Burgundy. Well, my experience so far confirms that it isn’t just hype: this vintage is for real. Not across the board, of course, but over enough of the appellations (those I’ve so far been able to taste) to make it no more than honest description to say that 2010 is shaping up as one of the best vintages for Burgundy white wine for a long time.

Burgundy as a wine zone has benefitted immensely over the past decade from climate change. Burgundian growers have been regularly achieving the kind of ripeness, and the attendant aromatics and flavors, that in the past were a once-in-ten-years occurrence, if that much. So 2010 really does deserve some bells and whistles.

Christian Moreau

The northernmost of the Burgundian appellations, Chablis, qualifies as one of its brightest stars. I’m a pushover for honest Chablis, with little or no oak intervening between the grapes and my palate – so for me the whole line of Christian Moreau wines that I tasted at a recent Frederick Wildman event were pure enjoyment. Moreau vinifies all its Chablis in stainless steel and uses minimal oak – very little of it new oak – on its most precious crus. Its 2010 wines all showed classic Chablis flint-and-stones mingled with the most austere of Chardonnay scents. On the palate, the wines followed through in similar style, with varying degrees of intensity, from the very nice, basic AOC Chablis through the impressive Premier Cru Vaillon up to a battery of truly grand crus – Vaudésir, Blanchot, Valmur, Les Clos – culminating in the very rare, only-made-in-the-best-vintages Clos des Hospices dans Les Clos.

All these grands crus, although drinking quite pleasurably already, belong to the class of Chablis that cry to be cellared: They are structured to mature and flesh out in what promises to be appropriately grand style. Were I a few years younger, I would try to put a case of these beauties away for a very long time.

I felt much the same way about the whites from the estate of Oliver Leflaive. Its delightful 2010 Bourgogne Blanc Les Sétilles makes the kind of base line that one can only wish all Burgundian houses achieved – and the wines ascended from there. The “simple” village wines – Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet – each showed the supposedly typical, but not always achieved, characteristics of each commune. If you’re just in the process of inducting yourself into the wonders of Burgundy, 2010 presents you with a good opportunity to taste these villages side by side to learn their distinctions. (What these are is a very complicated subject that needs a blog or two or three by itself. I don’t mean to be dismissive, but I honestly can’t explain it all here. I suggest you take a look at Clive Coates’s Côte d’Or: A Celebration of the Great Wines of Burgundy for all the details.)

The three premiers crus I tasted – Meursault Poruzots, Chassagne-Montrachet Clos St.-Marc, and Puligny-Montrachet Champ Gain – were all splendid, with both the Poruzots and Champ Gain displaying their terroir with great distinctiveness and clarity. The Grand Cru Bâtard-Montrachet, although already a big and graceful wine, clearly needs time; in only a few years, it will be wonderful; in 20 years, probably off the charts. Bâtard-Montrachet has for decades now been my archetypal Lobster Thermidor wine, the older the better.

Most of the red wines I’ve been tasting have been from older vintages than those whites, in some cases even re-releases of vintages that have been available for a while. Which is fine for the Brunellos and Barolos that impressed me at Winebow’s presentation: Additional age does them – and the consumer – a real favor. Both appellations benefit from, and in the best vintages demand, as much aging as you can be persuaded to give them. Fortunately for the producers of both, recent harvests seem to have set up an almost regular pattern of alternating, classic, highly structured vintages that require time to come round with softer, more accessible ones that can be enjoyed much younger – an ideal situation, in fact, for both the growers and the consumers: You get to drink your wine and have it too.

Among Brunellos, 2005 and 2007 are the more welcoming vintages, with many of Sangiovese’s youthful asperities covered by delightful, wild cherry fruit and an enlivening acidity: Salicutti provided excellent examples of both vintages. San Polo’s were equally good, but in a different style, showing more structure and less forwardness, but still with great fruit and balance and easy drinkability. Both houses made beautiful 2004s, with precisely calibrated combinations of fruit and earth tones and the kind of structures, with especially ripe tannins, that will keep these wines evolving beautifully for at least a decade yet. These are really classic Brunellos, the kind of wines the appellation’s high repute is based on.

Roberto Voerzio

Last, but hardly least in my estimation, my great passion: Barolo, from one of the ablest producers, Roberto Voerzio. I still wish Voerzio would use a little less new oak than he does, but for the most part he handles it very well. Only occasionally does it intrude on the Nebbiolo flavors that constitute the whole point of Barolo, and then only to a degree that I believe will subside with time in the bottle.

What comes through most in these wines is not wood but terroir. Voerzio has great vineyard sites – Brunate, Cerequio, La Serra, Rocche dell’ Annunziata – and he handles them very well indeed. I tasted the 2005 La Serra and Cerequio and the 2007 La Serra and Brunate: these all reflected the character of those two vintages in being remarkably welcoming for such young Barolos. This results not from cellar manipulation but from the character of the harvest, combined with all the changes in growing techniques that Piemonte has been adapting over the past 20 years.

The ’06 Cerequio and Brunate were different in character. They are more classic style Barolos – generously structured wines that will take time to come round and then should last at an impressive level for decades. The 2006 and 2001 Rocche dell’Annunziata wines were flat-out gorgeous, the ’06 promising great longevity and the ’01 – with ’04 and ’06, a top-tier Barolo vintage – already showing the beginnings of the classic earth-and-mushrooms nose, even though it is a wine still evolving. Cellar this beauty by all means.

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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.”

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This time of year activates my contrarian impulses. While everybody else is radiating good cheer, I sink into a “bah-humbug!” mood – damning Santa, snarling at children, barking at puppies, and warning my friends to stay away until mid-January. Slush, sniffles, and omnipresent retail: That’s too much of what Christmas means to me.

So naturally, since almost every other wine column at this festive time of year is touting the glories of big red wines, I feel the need of a great white. It may be the shark-like echoes that appeal – but more likely it’s simply that full-bodied, complex white wines make ideal companions to turkeys, hams, big pork and veal roasts, pheasants, and guinea hens.

I’ll never underestimate a big red wine – I love ‘em, and usually the more the merrier. But there’s a whole long winter before us to enjoy red wines. And summer wasn’t the time for big white wines; light and cooling was the order of the day a few months back. So this is my moment for digging into my wallet and splurging on some first-rate whites.

A really fine white plays a different game than a big red. To exaggerate, it’s the difference between American football (red) and soccer (white): Both are complex, both display power and grace, but they do so in very different ways. Take, for instance, a well-known white like Chablis – not the simple AOC Chablis, but at least a premier cru from Montée de Tonnère or Les Vaillons, if not one of the grands crus. Don’t serve it with oysters for a change (though few wines marry as well with oysters in any style), but alongside a noble veal roast or a lovely, moist, sweet-fleshed fresh ham. Dishes like those will show the body and fruit and depth of Chablis, not just its refreshing minerality.

This amplification effect is even more marked in the great whites from the Burgundian Côte d’Or. If you’ve fallen into the habit of drinking any old Chardonnay and have forgotten about fine white Burgundy – well, you’ve lost sight of what that grape can do. As my friend Charles likes to say, there is Chardonnay, and there is Burgundy, and never the twain shall meet (or at least they haven’t yet).

I’m less impressed by the wines of Meursault than many other wine critics (that contrarian streak again), but there are many other Burgundy appellations to choose from: Monrachet and all its villages, especially Chassagne; the great Cortons; and the Drouhin monopole, Beaune Clos des Mouches, which for my palate, deserves to stand with the finest Burgundy can offer. 

There are many excellent Burgundian négociants who are reliable sources of white Burgundies: Bouchard, Jadot, and Latour are among the best-known and most widely distributed. I happen to have a soft spot for the less-publicized house of Drouhin. For decades it has been one of our most reliable suppliers of fine Burgundies. In a highly confusing, highly competitive market, its consistently high quality has often been taken for granted, and I think the family – it is still a family-owned and family-run enterprise – doesn’t always get the credit it deserves for the altitude of its accomplishment and the moderation of its pricing.

Burgundies like these offer the kinds of suave complexity that transforms a dinner into a feast – and they don’t require sophisticated cookery or complicated recipes to do their magic. Sure, Corton Charlemagne and lobster thermidor are a marriage made in heaven – but it will be just as wonderful with veal or pheasant or even a good, flavorful chicken.

This kind of food/wine chemistry is not true just of Chardonnay-based wines. By and large, Americans haven’t yet caught on to the pleasures of Riesling, a grape many experts regard as at least equal, if not superior, to Chardonnay. The bracing, steel-spined Rieslings of Alsace and the more delicate, floral, dry Rieslings of Germany will do wonders for simply prepared fowl and white meats. Just make sure the bird or meat you start with is top quality, and the wine will take care of the rest.

Other Alsaces: For greater spice and zest, choose Gewürztraminer or especially Pinot Gris. The latter is the body-building big brother of the adolescent-skinny Pinot Grigio and offers a taste adventure of completely different dimensions from that light-bodied, essentially cocktail wine.  Hugel and Trimbach are among the most reliable and widely distributed producers.

Farther off the beaten track, try the barely known white wines of the Rhone – not the simple Côtes du Rhone blancs, but those of Chateauneuf du Pape and Hermitage. They can be costly, but they are almost always worth it.

 Good sources for all these wines? The two I deal with most frequently are The Burgundy Wine Company and Chambers Street Wines.

I’m going to give myself a holiday break so I can enjoy some of the wines I write about. My next post will appear on or about January 15, 2010.  And to show that I’m not a total Grinch, here’s a seasonal serenade to enjoy.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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