A Primer on White Burgundy

December 23, 2020

"What can you tell me about chardonnay?" asked my WSET tutor years ago. "ABC – anything but chardonnay" I replied, to which everyone in the small room nodded.

Chardonnay has probably one of the worst reputations in the wine world. It stems from the 1990s, when oak staves and oak chips were being used in abundance in mass-produced chardonnays. The techniques – where oak was inserted inside stainless steel vats of wine – attempted to recreate the effect of long term ageing in oak. The result, however, was rarely nuanced and produced unbalanced wines.

Today, that reputation is an unfair one.

Chardonnay is the most planted white wine grape in the world. It is rare in that it can grow in all types of climates – from the icy cold winters of England, through to warm climates of Australia and California. Chardonnay can be used to make both still and sparkling wines, and even a rare dessert wine in the form of French Vin de Paille. It is one of the three grapes permitted in Champagne. And it is the only grape in the Champagne Blanc de Blancs – literally meaning white from whites. In short, it is hugely versatile.

But it's not just the grape's broad versatility that makes it useful. It is its quality and ageing potential as well. Of the 10 most expensive white wines in the world, chardonnay is the primary grape in half of them. And it is in these wines – all from Burgundy in France – where my favourite style of wine is produced. Burgundy is not just one of the best wine-producing regions in the world, it is also one of the most recognised, and the most sought after.

While Bordeaux and Burgundy battle it out for the most expensive wines in the world, Burgundy is ultimately a far smaller affair. Around 20,000 cases of Mouton Rothschild's Bordeaux are produced each year. The Domaine de la Romanee-Conti winery in Burgundy – arguably its most famous export – produces just 500 cases of its rare wines.

With white Burgundy, there are a few important things to look out for. First is where the wine is from. The word terroir is hugely important here. And within specific villages, you have wines just a few hundred metres apart which produce wines that can taste notably different.

The villages of Burgundy often rename themselves after the most famous local vineyards. Montrachet – a small grand cru vineyard, used exclusively for chardonnay produces around 47,000 bottles per year. The local communes of Puligny & Chassange both attached the vineyard's name to their own, becoming Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet respectively. This vineyard is split into 18 owned plots, of which 26 producers work (some subletting from the other vine owners). Wars have been fought over Burgundian vineyards. Marriages have been arranged. And in more recent years, acts of agriculture terrorism have bestowed this ancient land.

Introducing Le Grappin's Savigny-Les-Beaune

Le Grappin is a name for you to remember. An in-crowd favourite of the wine world, you'll find them at the various London wine markets, and on the lists of London's best gastropubs and restaurants. They have two ranges of wine. Du Grappin, is their more accessibly priced range. Offering wines in bag (bagnums), and some stellar wines at £20 and under. But it is their Le Grappin range we look for over Christmas.

Savigny-Lès-Beaune is a commune in the Côte-d'Or. 310 hectares of pinot noir are produced here to just 46 hectares of chardonnay. The commune has 22 premier cru vineyards, and no grand crus. Grappin buy their grapes from the two vineyards: Dessus Les Vermots, and Les Gollardes. The grapes are handpicked, chilled overnight, and foot-crushed in cases. Fermentation happens with indigenous yeasts, and the wines are then aged for 11 months on lies, in a combination of three large oak barrels.

The wine is ripe and generous, and yet is still underpinned by definite minerality. There's notes of apples, and lemon, peaches, and pears, black smoke, stony minerality, and lots of nuttiness. This is complex but endlessly drinkable. I challenge you not to fall in love with this.

Only four barrels of Grappin's Savigny-Lès-Beaune were produced in 2018, resulting in just 1250 bottles. It is a delight to share it with you.

Buy Savigny-Lès-Beaune Blanc for £43 per bottle

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