It’s something of a paradox that, despite the continual criticism of chardonnay, any list of the finest white wines in the world invariably includes at least one great Burgundian chardonnay.
Although the superstars are justifiably expensive, a good way to understand why wines from the area are so highly regarded is to seek out versions that one of the region’s négociants (Louis Jadot and Louis Latour, for example) produce under the name of the village. These bottles often cost less than £20.
All tend to reflect the basic white Burgundy style of soft, well-balanced (often lemon-based) acidity and real freshness, along with oak-derived influences of butter and vanilla. Given the region’s 400 or so soil types and chardonnay’s sensitivity to terroir, each village then adds a signature all of its own to these foundation characteristics.
To illustrate the differences the signature characteristics introduce, consider two villages with boundaries a mere 2km apart. The firmly textured 2010 Pernand Vergelesses Louis Jadot (£17.99, Majestic) has robust touches of banana while the much lighter 2009 Beaune Blanc Louis Latour (£22.99, Peckhams) centres around crisp and sharp flavours of grapefruit and lemon. The different vintages do not explain the variations nor tell us why the first works best with food while the Beaune is great on its own.
In the lower Côte de Beaune we encounter 2010 Louis Jadot Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru (£29.99, Waitrose). This has orange, soft apple and kiwi fruit flavours and a concluding flourish of minerality. Around Mâcon, 2010 Pouilly Vinzelles En Paradis Louis Latour (£14.50, www.slurp.co.uk) preserves the hallmark freshness but adds layers of greengage and crunchy green apple and a long, buttery finish.
So white Burgundy’s success comes from freshness, subtlety and the capacity to add diverse flavours to basic components like vanilla. When the New World does something similar, it too creates terrific wines – such as the elegant 2011 Howard Park Flint Rock Chardonnay (around £15, www.bibendum-wine.co.uk), from Western Australia. Here, low yields and cool fermentation combine to create a wine with peach and melon flavours that are expertly balanced by lemon or lime influences and a clean, nutty finish.
However, chardonnay’s versatility (growing at latitudes from 30° to 50° north or south) means not all its wines are like that. Areas like San Francisco are almost 10° nearer the equator than Beaune, and their chardonnay is riper with less fresh acidity. When ripeness increases alcohol levels, reduces subtleties and comes with heavy oaking, critics turn up their noses.
Possibly as a reaction, wines like 2011 Scrubby Rise Unwooded Chardonnay Wirra Wirra (£8.33, www.charterhouse wine.co.uk), from McLaren Vale, have eliminated oak. The result is vibrant, orange peel zestiness that works well with fish. Meanwhile, 2007 Villa Maria Taylor’s Pass Vineyard Chardonnay (£16.89, www. nzhouseofwine.co.uk) has managed the effect of oak and developed vanilla touches surprisingly similar to the Chassagne Montrachet.
Even in California, some chardonnay producers only ferment and age half of the wine in wood. The 2010 Wente Morning Fog Chardonnay (around £11, www.vintagemarque.com) has been treated this way, and its attractive lime and green olive flavours are enhanced, not dominated, by its toasty butteriness.
All these wines demonstrate why it is folly to throw the chardonnay baby out with the bathwater.
2011 Taste the Difference Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc France,12 per cent.
This French sauvignon rivals New Zealand on quality and value. It has all the usual flowery liveliness but backs it with lemon, peach and a tangerine-centred bedrock rather than gooseberry. £5.99 (down from £8 .99 until 14 August), Sainsbury’s
2009 Cigarra Tinto Lisboa, Portugal, 13 per cent
This excellent and full-bodied blend uses touriga nacional and three other local grapes to create a throwback to the idiosyncratic Oddbins of old. It is has a smooth texture and intensity of flavour that combines bramble and plum with a spicy nutmeg finish. £6, Oddbins
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