The Golden Age of White BurgundyBy Tim Atkin on December 26, 2016
The building was in near darkness when I arrived, with just a solitary light flickering forlornly above the door. The cellar appeared to have finished business for the day. It is famously difficult to get an appointment at Domaine Coche-Dury in Meursault – you have to send a fax, to which you may or may not receive an answer – but I’d been given the thumbs-up after the producer’s British importer interceded on my behalf. So where were the Coches?
I knocked gently, and a minute later, Charline – wife of winemaker Raphaël – showed me down to the cellar. Her reception was polite, if a little frosty. The Coches sometimes appear to be inconvenienced by their status as international wine royalty, receiving visitors on sufferance and always in the evening. In a sense, who can blame them? They only make 4,200 cases a year of some of the most sought-after wines in Burgundy; if they said yes to all the people who wanted to taste from barrel, they wouldn’t have any wine left.
Few people expect to sample in silence – part of the pleasure of visiting small growers in Burgundy is to chat to them about their vineyards and the vicissitudes of the latest vintage – but the cellar chez Coche was in uproar. In a scene vaguely reminiscent of the Stanley Kubrick film, The Shining, the Coches’ small son was riding his tricycle up and down the rows, rattling over the concrete. He wasn’t saying “red rum”, but he was making an ear-splitting racket. For the 30 minutes I spent tasting, he didn’t let up. Nothing was said about it. The Coches do things their way, or not at all.
Such an approach is typical here and illustrates what every Burgundy lover knows: namely, that visiting the region is all about personal relationships. This is not a place of huge corporations or ornate châteaux. More often than not, you are tasting in someone’s home. A grower can receive you as he or she wishes. Or not at all in some cases, especially given the small harvests the region has experienced in most vintages since 2009.
Coche-Dury produces some of Burgundy’s – and the world’s – finest Chardonnay, with a vibrancy and energy rarely found outside this narrow strip of France. It is a prime example of how drinking white Burgundy from the great sites – Corton-Charlemagne and the four Puligny-Montrachet grands crus (Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet and Chevalier-Montrachet) – can be a life-changing experience. These top vineyards tend to produce the most intense white Burgundies of all, which are more than just a glass of wine. Their power combines with finesse and an almost-pixellated detail that is rarely found elsewhere. Along with great white vineyards, there are great white producers. In addition to Coche-Dury, I’d add domaines Comtes Lafon, Leflaive, Roulot, Ramonet and Bonneau du Martray to my list.
The finest white Burgundy is so much more than Chardonnay, though. The range of aromas and flavours is broad – from sea-breeze and oyster-shell-like notes in Chablis, to citrus and gunflint in Puligny-Montrachet, to butter and cashew in Meursault. Styles range from elegant and precise to powerful and mouth-filling, and everything in between. Despite the generalisations about the difference in styles between Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet, the soil in which it’s grown and the way in which it’s made will have a huge impact on a wine’s style: for example, the Meursault wines of domaines Roulot, Pierre Morey, François Mikulski and Arnaud Ente are markedly different.
That the white wines of Burgundy are so exciting right now is partly down to vintage – the current release, 2014, is the best harvest for whites since 2010, with excellent wines produced from Chablis in the north to Pouilly-Fuissé in the south. The 2011, 2012 and 2013 vintages should not be overlooked either, while excitement also lies in the hands of a new generation of younger producers, many of whom have worked overseas. The region is also making better wines thanks to greater understanding of its interaction with oak. More producers are using less new oak, larger barrels – or no oak at all, in some cases.
I would argue that we are living in a golden age for white Burgundy. The concerns about the premature oxidation of white wines in bottle have largely disappeared, thanks to a better understanding of how it was caused, and the best producers are making outstanding wines that will age gracefully for a decade or more. White Burgundy tastes great young, but even better with bottle maturity. There aren’t many whites that mature gracefully, and this is one of the things that makes these wines so special.
Not even the most ardent white-Burgundy lover wants to drink wines of intense power or complexity every day, however. The village and premier cru bottlings from Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet can be great too. And don’t forget that excellent Chardonnay is made in Chablis, the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais as well as in Burgundy’s more famous Côte de Beaune heartland.
You might argue that Burgundy’s reds are more prized than its whites. This is partly because there is more of the latter to go around – about two-thirds of Burgundy production is white. And there are nearly three times as many red grands crus as white, and the reds sell at much higher prices. There is also no other region in the world that makes Pinot Noir to compete at the top end, while this is not the case with Chardonnay, which is less site specific and easier to grow. From Australia to Chile, South Africa to New Zealand, and lots of places in between, Chardonnay does very well. But while the gap between these countries and Burgundy is narrowing, they still have some way to go to reach the pinnacle of Chardonnay in the Côte de Beaune. How anyone can complain of Chardonnay fatigue – the so-called Anything but Chardonnay (ABC) movement – is beyond me.
Sadly, the very finest white Burgundies in the world are made in limited quantities, and with demand outstripping supply, such wines are sold only on allocation to long-term customers. From that perspective, personal relationships are, again, imperative. Of course, if you can’t get on the list, you could always try visiting the region and tasting in person. I can’t promise that all of these domaines will receive you, but it’s worth an email to ask. Or a fax if you want to try your luck at Coche-Dury.
25 Top Domaines
Apart from the handful of producers mentioned above, whose wines are worth collecting and, more to the point, drinking? Based on my extensive tastings of the 2014s, but also of other recent vintages, my top 25 would be as follows:
- From Chablis: Samuel Billaud, Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin, Long-Depaquit, François Raveneau and René & Vincent Dauvissat
- From Côte Chalonnaise: Stéphane Aladame, Claudie Jobard, Vincent Dureuil-Janthial, Bruno Lorenzon Mercurey and François Lumpp
- From Mâconnais: Beauregard, Fuissé, Rontets, J. A. Ferret and Héritiers du Comte Lafon
- From Côte de Beaune: Arnaud Ente, Bernard Moreau, Vougeraie, Jacques Carillon, François Mikulski, Jean-Noël Gagnard, Marc Morey, Olivier Leflaive, Paul Pillot and Etienne Sauzet
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