When I first began learning about wine, it wasn’t by tasting, it was by reading, filling multiple spiral notebooks, memorizing and then the tasting followed. I’m one of those people who like research, and if the research is interesting, I get into it in a big way. I wanted to know what was important to know – what were grape names and what were place names. What were the important wine terms I needed to know. I wanted to be able to make an intelligent comment or two without embarrassing myself. In time, my palate learned along with me. I spent a lot of my years in the industry trying to make wine approachable, and help beginners find a way to shop, and never reach for the the 3 Liter named “Chablis.” What do you have in your wine rack now? White Burgundy or Chardonnay or both? French Burgundies were/are among the most difficult regions and wines to understand. Making them simple is not an easy task. I’ll give it a try below. (The photo below is from one of my trips to the Burgundy region of France.)
The main thing to know is that Chardonnay is the principal White grape of Burgundy. The principal Red grape of Burgundy (Bourgogne) is Pinot Noir but this article focuses on Chardonnay.
Countries and regions around the world growing and bottling Chardonnay grapes are NOT producing White Burgundies. Only grapes grown in Burgundy, France are considered White Burgundies. The wine may be Chardonnay made in-the-style of French White Burgundies. Chardonnay outside of Burgundy can also be made in styles other than that known as the traditional Burgundian style.
ABOUT FRENCH CHARDONNAY Qualifying as French White Burgundies:
This is a huge subject. I’m only touching on it here, offering some of the names to be familiar with, and some pronunciation tips
Among the great French White Burgundies made from the Chardonnay grape are Chablis, Meursault, Montrachet and Pouilly-Fuisse. Chardonnay grapes used for wine, but grown elsewhere in France are not considered White Burgundies: an example, Chardonnay grapes are used for some French sparkling wines and for some true Champagnes (meaning Chardonnay grapes to be used for authentic Champagne are grown in the Champagne (AOC) region of France, and nowhere outside of the Champagne region – i.e. – not in Burgundy).
The Burgundy (Bourgogne) region in Eastern France has a higher number of AOC’s (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) than any other protected area in the country, and the finest wines all come from an AOC. An AOC simply protects the area of a grape’s origin and vineyard. Each area has only certain grapes that can be used. The yield per acre is regulated, which should provide the best and juiciest juice possible with the finest characteristic of the grape ending up in the bottle. Pruning of the vines and alcohol levels are regulated – all of which, in theory, should protect the integrity of Burgundian wine.
Among the appellations you will see on a Burgundy label are in order of heirarchy: Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village and Regional. Burgundy’s AOCs are located in the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, both making up the whole of the Côte d’Or. Read a good discussion of Burgundy here.
A List of White Wine Bourgogne Grand Crus in the Côte de Beaune region (those with an asterisk (*) produce both red and white wines):
Corton from the village of Pernand-Vergelesses*
Corton from the village of Ladoix-Serrigny*
Corton from the village of Aloxe-Corton*
Corton-Charlemagne from the village of Pernand-Vergelesses
Corton-Charlemagne from the village of Ladoix-Serrigny
Corton-Charlegmagne from the village of Aloxe-Corton
Charlemagne from the village of Pernand-Vergelesses
Charlemagne from the village of Aloxe-Corton
Bâtard-Montrachet from the village of Puligny-Montrachet
Bâtard-Montrachet from the village of Chassagne-Montrachet
Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet – from the village of Puligny-Montrachet
Chevalier-Montrachet from the village of Puligny-Montrachet
Criots-Bâtard Montrachet from the village of Chassagne-Montrachet
Montrachet from the village of Chassagne-Montrachet
Montrachet from the village of Puligny-Montrachet
A List of White Bourgogne Grand Crus in the Côte de Nuits region (both also make red wine as noted by the asterisk (*):
Chambertin from the village of Gevrey-Chambertin*
Musigny from the village of Chambolle-Musigny*
White Bourgogne Grand Cru in the Chablis region:
Chablis Grand Cru from the village of Chablis
Using Le Montrachet and Montrachet as examples, there are five Grand Cru (most lauded) vineyards among them, totaling slightly less than 20 acres, eight different owners, producing by law no more than about 3000 case. ‘Montrachet’ is an AOC and a vineyard in the adjoining villages of Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet. The Le Montrachet consists of about 10 acres and is considered the the finest of the finest, the top of the heirarchy with Montrachet in the village of Puligny-Montrachet following.
All Grand Crus in the Montrachet AOC use ‘Montrachet’ in their names. Le Montrachet is usually the most expensive still White wine on the planet. This minute I see five vintages of Domaine Bouchard Le Montrachet available, all at just under $600/.750ml with the most current vintage the 2009 – an excellent vintage, much too early to drink now. If you want a 2009, I suggest you buy it now before the price sets at $800.
The following are a few tips on pronunciation without worrying about accents:
Meursault (mare-so) (mare as in the horse – a female horse) In the US it is generally pronounced mer-so (mer as the mer in mercury). Take your pick.
Montrachet (mowruh-shay) (mow as in what you do to your grass). Yes, we often say Mont-ruh-shay, but even here in the US, in my opinion, leaving the ‘n’ and the ‘t’ out is a good thing.
Pouilly-Fuisse (poo-yee fwee-say) (poo as in Poo Bear, yee rhyming with gee)
Maconnais (mah-co-nay) (mah sounds like mock without the ck)
Cote de Beaune (Coat deh Bone) (coat as in the coat you wear, bone as in the kind you love in your T-bone). In France, Beaune is pronounced ‘Buh-nnn.’ In the US, I suggest using ‘Bone.’ No amused side-glances using ‘Bone.’
Cote de Or (Coat d’Oar) (Oar like the kind you row with) HOWEVER, in France Or is O as in oh, so it is d’o – sounding like dough (dough as in the dough in breadmaking). In the US Coat d’Oar works fine.
Chassagne-Montrachet: (Shuh-sawn-yuh) (mowruh-shay)
Puligny-Montrachet: (Poo-leen-ee) (mowruh-shay)
Grand Cru: (grawn rhymes with prawn) (crew as in a sailing crew)
Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet: (bee-in-venue) (Baa – the sound a sheep makes – tar) (mow-ruh-shay_
Few can afford to drink White Burgundies often if ever, and the climate in the Côte de Beaune is not as consistent as it is in the excellent Chardonnay growing regions in California and Washington State. The result is, excellent Chardonnay can usually be found from some vintages, somewhere in the U.S. Not always so from Burgundy.
Pouilly-Fuisse is an AOC and denotes two villages, Pouilly and Fuisse in the Maconnais sub-region of Burgundy. The Chardonnay grape is the only grape approved for the Mâconnais, a sub-region of Burgundy. The grapes are Chardonnay
Meursault is a sub-region of Burgundy, an AOC in the Côte de Beaune, The Meursault appellation produces Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. White Meursault may contain a small percentage of Pinot Blanc – in other words, there are no restrictions on blending with approved varietals grown within the area.
Many more sub-regions, but I’ll leave the two above as examples.
The shape of a bottle of Burgundy (White or Red) is different from the shape of a bottle of Bordeaux (White or Red) or domestic Cabernet. The photo above shows a Burgundy bottle, identified by it’s low sloped-shoulders, as opposed to a Bordeaux bottle with “high-hip” shoulders. In the U.S. and in most of the world, if Chardonnay grapes or Pinot Noir grapes are prevalent in the bottle, the Burgundy bottle is used. In France you probably will not find the word “Chardonnay” or “Pinot Noir” prominent on the label, but in the U.S. you will see the grape name, but not the word ‘Burgundy.’ With few exceptions around the world (and there are a few) wines in this bottle-shape are dry (i.e. lacking in sweetness).
Best advice for shopper: Find a wine merchant with a wine professional you feel comfortable with. Don’t worry about pronunciations. If you have a price range, give the sales person your ceiling so he/she can help you find the best bottle for what you plan to spend. When buying Chardonnay, tell her/him what you like: big fruit-forward peachy, apricoty, very ripe fruit Chardonnay, that fruit-basket style often seen in domestic Chardonnays or a more austere style, beautifully floral, minerally, yeasty with a buttery toastiness – more in the style of a White Burgundy. If you opt for the more austere style, it doesn’t mean that you have to pay for French White Burgundy. California produces Burgundian styles as well. Neither description is perfect, and neither preference is wrong, but if you say “fruit-forward” the Wine Manager will know the style you prefer. Do you want to taste oak in your Chard, or not? What will you be drinking your Chard with? What do you want in your bottle, White Burgundy or Chardonnay from outside Bourgogne?