Chardonnay is, to my mind, the greatest white wine grape. Its finest expression lies within the dry wines from Burgundy, where the concept of terroir is not just a marketing angle but a fundamental philosophy. Prices have climbed steeply – but so has quality. The tiered AP system ranges from regional wines, through village and premier cru levels, to the finest grand cru. On the way, small plots (climats and lieux-dit) add another layer of individuality.
White Burgundy is produced from the cool, marginal climate of the Yonne region, running roughly north-south down to the up-and-coming Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais. In between lie the famed slopes of the Côte d’Or, where bedrock, weathered soils, aspect, drainage and people all have a key influence on the creation of the world’s finest Chardonnay.
At the base of the Burgundian quality pyramid are regional and village appellations such as Bourgogne, Mâcon, St-Véran and Chablis. These are accessible and offer great value and high quality. APs such as the named Mâcon villages (including Azé, Davayé and Milly-Lamartine), Viré-Clessé, Pouilly-Fuissé and wines from the Côte Chalonnaise (eg, Mercurey, Montagny and Rully) add further complexity.
The Côte d’Or is home to the revered wines of Corton-Charlemagne, and the trinity of Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, all leading up the ‘stairway to heaven’. It is impossible to have a preference here – the wines from nearly all producers are magical.
Meursault was historically seen as richer and Puligny more mineral, but individual site and producer are more important factors. Premier cru wines are worth the extra for their terroir influence, and individual appellations (Le Cailleret, Les Combettes, Les Pucelles…) should all be explored.
At the top of the Burgundy stairway lie the Montrachet grands crus: Bâtard, Chevalier and Le Montrachet. Stunning, powerful wines with great complexity of flavour and ageability, balanced by other-worldly finesse. Although expensive, these are the finest expressions of Chardonnay in the world and won’t disappoint.
Good: Rijckaert F Rouve, Haute Cuvée, Viré-Clessé 2019 – 91 points
Better: Etienne Sauzet, Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Combettes 2018 – 94 points
Best: Olivier Leflaive, Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru 2017 – 97 points