A Conversation About White Burgundy: White Wines of the Côte de Beaune
by Chad Arnold and Mark Middlebrook
[MM] (drinking) Uh, sounds good, where should we start?
[CA] Well, I remember a quote from a book I read some time ago. Let me share it with you. I think it will set the discussion - and eventually, our glasses - in motion!
Something about Burgundy excites spirituality. Where Napa Valley restores hope that beauty has a future in the modern era and Bordeaux simply makes one want to live, it is after savoring a fine Burgundy that even the most skeptical are willing to concede a higher power.
[MM] Was that from Matt Kramer's book?[CA] Indeed. Your memory is congruent with your consumption.... The paraphrase above is from the elegant beginning to Matt Kramer's brilliant book Making Sense of Burgundy.
[MM] Hey, Chad - I admire Kramer's book as much as you do, but spare me the spiritualist folderol! If gods there be, then let him/her/it/they drink what they like. We wine-loving humanists need concede only that land, vines, and people combine in this little swatch of France to make two of the truly great wines on earth: red and white Burgundy.
[CA] Hey, it's not my spiritual "fold-your-own"! I was just pointing out how, for many of us, Burgundy is at the apex of wine wonderfulness. Burgundy, both the whites and the reds, are arguably the wines that most clearly embody a particular plot of land. So before we talk about the wines, let's quickly look at the region of Burgundy: The region is as complex as the wines it births!
[MM] You're right - Burgundy is complex - so on with the show!
Where is Burgundy?
[CA] Generally speaking, the region of Burgundy follows the Saône river north from Lyon through the hilly vineyards of Beaujolais and on through the Mâconnais to Tournus, where it parts ways with the river and veers east into the Côte Chalonnaise. It then continues northeast, roughly paralleling the wiggly river, and into the glorious heart of Burgundy: The Côte d'Or. We may divide this "slope of gold" into the Côte de Beaune and The Côte de Nuits. It is in this 30 by one-half mile ridge that we find the very best Burgundies. Continuing northeast we come to the last great Burgundy region: Chablis.
[MM] Nice little geography lesson, Chad. My only quibble is that you're perpetuating a misconception about the name of that storied slope. Although "Côte d'Or" does indeed translate literally as "slope of gold", the name is really a contraction of "Côte d'Orient", or "slope facing east". Still, given the prices of some of the wines, there's some poetic truth in calling it the "slope of gold"! Quibbles aside, how about one of my expertly drawn maps to help folks get the picture? Now stop snickering, Chad!
[CA] I'm not snickering at you, I'm snickering with you!
(Mark draws a pair of maps.)
Which grapes make up most wines from Burgundy?
[CA] Nothing difficult here: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Although other grapes, like Gamay and Aligoté, are used in Burgundy, we will deal here with wines that are exclusively Chardonnay for the whites and Pinot Noir for the reds. In some cases, the Burgundians blend Gamay with Pinot Noir to produce inexpensive, everyday wines called passe-tout-grains.
[MM] One of the great things about Burgundy is that it's wine from single varietals (with the relatively uncommon exceptions that you mention). There's a beautiful purity - at least in the best wines - that you don't get in wines blended from several varietals. That purity is an especially clear "lens" for terroir - the specific soil, exposure, and mesoclimate of the vineyard comes through the wine in a particularly clear way.
[CA] I agree with your image of the lens and that there is in fact a unique quality that comes from a wine made with a single varietal. I must, however, add to your generalization of "blended wines". There are many spectacular blended wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Bordeaux, for example, that have terroir, because terroir includes culture, and I would argue, are to some extent necessitated by culture -
[MM] Okay, let's stay focused....
[CA] Oh, alright...pass the halibut over here, will ya'?
What should I eat with white Burgundy?
[MM] White Burgundies of all types go well with fish, pork, and chicken. The richer whites from the Côte de Beaune are divine with richer fish, such as salmon, scallops, lobster, and crab. In addition, anything with a butter or white sauce will play off the wine beautifully. If you're doing the cheese thing, aim for richer cow's milk cheeses, such as Brillat-Savarin. And as I've learned from you, Chad, white Burgundy is a great way to transition from Champagne to red wine during an extended, multi-course dinner.
[CA] It is surprising how versatile the white wines from Burgundy are! There are so many microclimates that the amazing Chardonnay grape can achieve a nearly unlimited range of weight, acidity, and complexity. There are also hundreds of fine producers, making the options even more bountiful. It is exciting! I agree with you about the fish opportunities - wonderful accompaniments to Chardonnays from the Côte de Beaune! If you are having an older wine or a particularly rare or fine wine, I say have it by itself! Wine is food after all....
The Burgundy bull's eye
How do I begin to understand Burgundy?
[CA] Good question. Thinking & drinking. First, think of an archery target. Think of the concentric circles getting smaller and point values getting larger as you go toward the center. The outermost circle of the target represents the wines simply called Bourgogne (blanc or rouge), in which the fruit can come from anywhere in the Burgundy region. Bourgogne accounts for 56% of all the wine in Burgundy. But how will I recognize one of these wines in a retail store? Another fine question. Following each level of quality there will be a "Shelf example."
[MM] Here's a Bourgogne Blanc (white Burgundy) that we sell a lot of, because it's cheap ($8.99), light, crisp, and easy to like. It's made by Lamblin & Fils, a producer who happens to be in the Chablis region of Burgundy. As you explain, the Chardonnay grapes could come from anywhere in Burgundy, but in this case, they happen to come from around Chablis.
Shelf Example: 2001 Lamblin Bourgogne Blanc
[CA] Next come the Appellation Communale wines, where the fruit must come from the specific place-name (called a "commune" in France) on the label. (A vineyard name is permitted, but the letters must be significantly smaller than the name of the commune.) The Appellation Communale wines, which account for 30% of the wines of Burgundy, correspond to the second concentric circle on the archery target - they come from smaller geographical areas and are worth more, both in cost and quality.
[MM] Wine geeks sometimes call these "A.C. wines" in order to indicate that they're more specific than ordinary regional Bourgogne but not as specific as Premier Cru wines from specific vineyards. By the way, in Europe, a commune is not a place where hippies hang out and name their kids after flowers. It's the smallest local political division, usually comprising a town and the surrounding countryside, and bears the name of the town. Here's an A.C. white Burgundy from the commune of Meursault.
Shelf Example: 1996 Chapelle Meursault
[CA] The next level of quality comes with the Premiers Crus, which use the name of their commune followed by the name of their vineyard. The Premiers Crus account for only 11% of all Burgundy. They correspond to the third concentric circle on the target - a tightly defined set of areas and similarly elevated cost and quality.
[MM] Now we're getting specific! Burgundy is all about the pyramid of specificity - from region to commune to individual vineyard. The terroir of each vineyard is capable of producing a wine that tastes unique, and chasing that uniqueness is part of what makes drinking and learning about Burgundy so rewarding. Here's aPremier Cru white Burgundy from Les Charmes vineyard, located in the commune of Meursault. (It's worth mentioning here that almost every Burgundy vineyard is divided among lots of owners. Thus, one easily could run into a Meursault Les Charmes from a different producer than the one shown here.)
Shelf Example: 1998 Boillot Meursault, Les Charmes
[CA] Exactly right Mark, there are a lot of wines from Les Charmes vineyard, which is of particular interest for someone who wants to do a more advanced white Burgundy tasting - one that includes Meursault Les Charmes bottlings from different producers. This type of tasting can be very educational (and somewhat expensive), but one will ultimately come away with a sense of the vineyard itself.
[CA] However, there are exceptions to the seeming rule that a vineyard name on the label means a Premier Cru wine in the bottle. For example a wine labeled Meursault Desirée is not a Premier Cru vineyard but is a particularly good vineyard.
[MM] Fortunately, the punctilious French labeling laws come to the rescue here. A Premier Cru wine always will say "Premier Cru" somewhere on the label. But your observation is a valuable one - Premier Cru is a general indication of higher quality, but not all Premier Cru wines are better than all A.C. wines. One still needs to know something about the producer and vineyard in order to make an educated guess about the quality in the bottle.
[CA] The next level in quality is truly a leap to the top shelf: the Grands Crus. These vineyards nearly always represent the very highest quality wine available in Burgundy - the bull's eye in the target. There are 30 Grand Cru vineyards. Each has its own appellation. The Grands Crus account for a mere 3% of all wines from Burgundy.
[MM] Grand Cru wines are freaking expensive (usually $75 and up) and almost always require considerable bottle aging before they're ready to drink. But boy can they can be amazing - and of course at that price, they ought to be! (As wine writer Stephen Tanzer has said, "for that amount of money, I expect a wine to give me an orgasm and wash my car.") Anyway, here's a Grand Cru white Burgundy from the vineyard Le Montrachet. This vineyard straddles the Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet communes, which lie directly south of Meursault.
Shelf Example: 2000 Lafon Le Montrachet
What other indications might tell me about the quality of the wine?
[CA] Great question. I always look for the best producers and the finest vintages. And the price. The price almost always goes up according to the quality of the producer, vintage, and vineyard site.
[MM] Of these factors, I think that producer is most important. Certainly vintage is significant, especially if you intend to age the wine for a long time. But the "best" vintages" aren't always the best wines for current drinking. In addition, good producers usually make good wine in less than ideal vintages. And at this point, we should remind readers that we at Paul Marcus Wines pride ourselves on helping our customers make sense of the various producers, vintages, and appellations.
[CA] Great point! It is true that there are great wines made in most vintages, usually by the best producers, producers who know their vineyards and who are willing to cut away some of the early fruit to ensure the remaining fruit gets ripe. It is also worth mentioning, as you indicated, that the Paul Marcus Wines staff drink these wines and have come to know the producers we represent! As evidenced tonight!
Some Côte de Beaune appellations
[CA] Let's look at a few of the wonderful Appellations Contrôlées in the Côte de Beaune:
[CA] Chassagne-Montrachet: There are a total of 864 acres of vineyard in Chassagne-Montrachet. Of this, 836 are commune-level and Premier Cru. The remaining 28 acres are Grand Cru. The Grand Cru vineyards are split between Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet. The hyphen adds to the confusion. It was added as a marketing device (with great success) to sell all the wines from Chassagne and Puligny as an extension of the very great single vineyard of Le Montrachet. Chassagne-Montrachet wines of all levels should have richness and a noticeable mineral component from the clayey-chalky soils.
[CA] Puligny-Montrachet: There are a total of 606 acres of vineyard in Puligny-Montrachet. Of this number there are roughly 248 acres of Premiers Crus (14 different vineyards) and 77 acres of Grands Crus (4 different vineyards); the remaining vines are commune-level. The wines from Puligny-Montrachet taste similar to those from the adjacent Chassagne-Montrachet, but the best Puligny wines show a bit more elegance and breed.
[MM] Meursault: This appellation’s relatively large 1,079 acres of vineyards lie just north of Puligny-Montrachet and just south of Volnay. The wines from Meursault are a little richer and softer than those from neighboring Puligny-Montrachet, which makes Meursault a great "bridge wine" for people who are used to drinking richer California Chardonnays and want to try white Burgundy. Meursault's 89 named vineyards include no Grands Crus, but Les Charmes,Les Genevrières, and Les Perrières are the vineyards that come closest to Grand Cru quality.
[MM] St.-Aubin: "Aubin", in my Americanized pronunciation, rhymes with "oh man" - as in, "oh man, are these good wines and good values!" The 585-acre appellation sits in a side valley that extends westward from Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet. St.-Aubin is a more modest appellation than the others listed here - meaning that the wines are a little lighter and a little less complex. But from the right producer, the wines have a graceful balance of lively acidity and vibrant fruitiness, and they're often cheaper than other Côte de Beaune wines of comparable quality. I've especially enjoyed wines from the two Premiers Crus vineyards that abut Puligny-Montrachet: En Remilly and les Murgers des Dents de Chien ("big rocks shaped like dog's teeth" - a mouth-watering vineyard name if ever there was one).
Drinking white Burgundy
[CA] Chad & Mark spend hours tasting some new releases from Château de Puligny-Montrachet.
[MM] One fine day in May, our good friend Nicholas Griffin from Beaune Imports brought by a bunch of newly-minted 2001 white Burgundies from the Domaine du Château de Puligny-Montrachet. This producer has made very good wines for many years, which we've happily sold for many years. In 2001, however, things changed. Winemaker Etienne de Montille, from one of the best producers in all of Burgundy, Domaine Hubert de Montille, has taken over in the vineyard and in the cellar. The changes include a transition to biodynamic farming, fermenting with local, indigenous yeasts, and unfiltered bottling of the wines. The results of these changes are spectacularly delicious wines that more accurately reflect their terroir.
A few weeks later, Nicholas generously dropped off more bottles of these wonderful wines so that Chad and I could taste through them at our leisure and write them up for this newsletter. Amidst halibut, sea bass, mango, and several cheeses, we polished off the better part of six bottles over six hours. Yes, the wines were that good. Following are our favorites.
Our tasting notes: 2001 Château de Puligny-Montrachet whites.
Bourgogne Blanc 'Clos du Château' ($19):
[CA] 1st note: If this is the lowest level of fruit in the Côte then Whoa! Build a moat because I'll drink it all.
2nd note: Pale straw. Pears picked from a tree in full sun. Fresh mango notes with mineral punctuation and slight hints of sun-dried raspberries. The finest Bourgogne blanc I have tasted in years!
[MM] Citrus and pear aromas set the stage for a beguiling "acidity trajectory" on the palate - the wine enters mellow, rises in pitch, and then falls away gently and gradually. This is amazingly classy Bourgogne blanc.
St.-Aubin En Remilly ($35):
[CA] 1st note: A truly great bottling from this vineyard.
2nd note: Minerals mixed with river-washed stones. The summer hay color belies the richness of the middle palate and the long and complex finish.
3rd note: ...the long and complex finish. Details: Because it will get better in 2-5 years and is a great value, it is a perfect wine for the cellar.
[MM] Stony minerals and crisp apples on the nose. Great finesse and follow-through on the palate - soave fruit wrapped around a brilliant core of minerality. The wine fattens up nicely after it's been opened a couple of hours - don't drink it too quickly!
[CA] 1st note: Wow! This "AC" wine has some serious "DC".
2nd note: Lightly toasted, buttered sourdough notes provide a great foundation for the sliced ripe pear on the mid palate. A dollop of crème fresh and blood orange accentuate the complexity, range, and depth of this wine. Tangerine notes ring around a single smooth stone garnish and the mineral chords that will give this wine longevity.
3rd note: Before going out on a wire a tightrope walker would do well to taste this wine. It would give her a helpful and delicious idea of balance. Details: This is the best wine for current drinking, along with Bourgogne blanc, but will age well for 5-15 years. Really.
[MM] Great, galloping minerality. So much topography here - peaks and valleys, alpine vistas above timberline. This wine walks the tightrope between fruit and minerality. (Which one of us said that first, Chad?). It's perfectly balanced right now. I want to drink it right now. Oh, I am drinking it right now. Lucky me!
Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Chalumeaux ($50):
[CA] 1st note: Whirls & worlds of richness and chalk laced with hazelnut, un-toasted pine nuts, and fresh white corn. A Meyer lemon garnish suggests the terrific acidity and structure that keeps the wine suspended.
2nd note: It is, above all else, the mining the vines did and the layers of soil and sub-soil they met along the way that give this wine its unique class. A truly great wine!
3rd note: This Chardonnay is the BMW 7-series of wines: it has incredible luxury and comfort while still driving like a racecar. Details: Absolutely drinkable now. But you could wait a few years for this (unless you just can't help it. I understand.) Will age with grace and dignity for 15 years.
[MM] Undeniable Premier Cru breed - almost unbearably high-toned. Thirteen extra overtones. This is a young wine. If the A.C. Puligny-Montrachet walks the tightrope between fruit and minerality, then this wine dances it. If, like Chad and me, you're an intrepid explorer, drink it now. But set aside at least one bottle for a decade or so. Great wine.
For those who want more [PS from CA and MM] If we haven't answered all your questions about Burgundy, then check out our first article on Burgundy in the November 2002 Paul Marcus Wines newsletter. It covers some of the same ground as our dialogue here, but with an emphasis on red Burgundy.
Better yet, come visit the store and ask any of us to tell you more about Burgundy and more about the wines from Burgundy that we're jazzed about right now. Everyone who works at Paul Marcus Wines is a Burgundy lover, and we're always happy to share our knowledge and enthusiasm.