Pinot may be the historic grape of Burgundy but Chardonnay is the modern calling card of the region. It’s by far the most planted grape in the region and it also is its calling card, especially in foreign markets. Chardonnay represents 70% of the wine production in the region.
Chardonnay is a versatile grape in the way that it can thrive under diverse climates, soils and weather conditions but, before all, because it lends itself very well to a variety of wine-making techniques and styles. In fact, the grape itself is pretty neutral; it gets character from the soils, climates and work of the winemaker. This dependence on growing conditions makes it well suited to Burgundy and its thousand terroirs.
In some ways, Chardonnay is the anti-Pinot Noir, it’s pretty easy to grow and it doesn’t need the constant care and attention Pinot craves. The fact that the variety can grow under a wide range of climates doesn’t hurt, and neither does the multitude of clones of the grapes that can be used to emphasize certain traits. Basically, Chardonnay can take whatever form the terroir and winemaker combine to give it.
To make things a little simpler, let me just give you the two extreme styles of Chardonnay you can find in Burgundy
– The bone-dry, mineral wines from Chablis, in the northern part of the region are a good example of a “less is more” approach to wine-making. In their purest expression, these wines have no oak in them, no barrel fermentation, no frills, just Chardonnay. A common description of these wines is “flinty” which gives an idea of the mineral character they can have. Chablis usually are very clear in color, with high acidity. Some higher end Chablis Grand Crus are different, they have been oaked and are rounder, but the basic Chablis fits the previous description.
– The rounder, fatter wines of the Cote de Beaune that usually grow in oak barrels and undertake a secondary fermentation process, usually by leaving residual yeast called lees in contact with the wine (“sur lies” in French). These techniques result in richer flavors such as butter, honey or hazelnut (or even Marzipan). There are eight Grand Crus vineyards in the Cote de Beaune that make white wines. The famous Grand Crus are the Montrachets: Batard-Montrachet, Bienvenues-Batard-Montrachet, Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, Criots-Batard-Montrachet, and the Cortons : Corton and Corton-Charlemagne
A look at the prices for one of these eight vineyards can make me cry like a baby. I had a Corton-Charlemagne 4 years ago and I still think about it sometimes. Sometimes I wish I had run away with it to live our love in a quiet place, far from the world,…
Em, anyway ! Now that you have the two ends of the scale, you can populate it with everything in between. Depending on the terroir and the wine-making approach you can end up with a variety of outcomes for your Chardonnays, everything between bone-dry and extremely round and full.