Top Picks: The Crystal Elegance of True French Chardonnay

For most wine drinkers the greatest white in the world is made from the Chardonnay grape and comes from Burgundy in central France, especially the heart of the region, the Cote d’Or.

There’s a clear purity to great Chardonnay, a crystalline translucence that shines with an effortless grace. It has aristocratic poise, showing great power along with a brilliant intensity.

As Jamie Ritchie, head of Sotheby’s wine department in North America observes: “When good, they have extraordinary richness, depth and complexity, always balanced by lively acidity, which brings essential freshness. When combined with that lemon/lime flavor and great minerality, it is hard to beat.”

The best white Burgundies are made for long aging -- indeed, it is a crime against the gods of wine to drink them when first released. And they aren’t even that enjoyable in their youth.

“Burgundy is not about the obvious,” said Geri Tashjian, owner of the Burgundy Wine Company in New York. “It’s about the intricacy that evolves in the bottle with time.”

The nomenclature of Burgundy is fiendishly complicated, so it helps to keep a couple of basic rules in mind.

There are three important levels of quality: Grand Cru and 1er Cru wines, which carry the name of the individual vineyard from which they come, and village wines, which are grown within a specific location but not entitled to one of the more lofty appellations.

Many vineyards have multiple owners, so the producer’s name on the bottle is as important as the appellation, if not more so. As Tashjian points out, “That’s the true mark of a great winemaker: It’s not having to go and get the Grand Cru -- it’s being able to buy the village wine and be impressed that they put as much effort with the village wine as they do with the Grand Cru.”

Vintages do matter: In 2010, rain in September presented problems, making it even more important to buy the producer, not the appellation.

A warm summer in 2009 resulted in plush, mouth-filling wines that are accessible now, even if they lack the racy minerality of a great vintage.

A challenging vintage in 2008 yielded high acid wines the best of which could, with time -- and I mean 10 years here -- develop into something great.

A cross between ’08 and ’09, 2007 shows balance and harmony. The best should be good for medium-term aging, say 5 to 10 years.

Here are some of my favorites:

Saint-Aubin, Les Combes, Thomas Morey 2010 ($55)

A generation ago this small village in a side valley above Montrachet was virtually unknown. Now, thanks to a dramatic improvement in quality, it is a rising star. The wine is a pure, mouth-filling delight that can be drunk, without guilt, today.

Beaujolais Blanc Terres Dorées, Jean-Paul Brun 2010 ($19)

Largely overlooked, Beaujolais blanc can be a flavor-packed bargain, as this gem from top producer Brun shows. Better than many Cote d’Or village wines that sell for twice the price.

Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, Moreau 2009 ($65)

This comes from Les Clos, the greatest of Chablis’s seven Grand Cru vineyards. Lush and impossibly decadent for a Chablis thanks to the vintage, it still maintains the region’s characteristic steeliness.

Chassagne Montrachet

1er Cru Les Chaumees, Domaine Ramonet 2010 ($95)

Brothers Noel and Jean-Claude Ramonet, acclaimed masters of Chassagne, make big, powerful wines at all levels, and their best 1er Crus, like this brilliant Chaumees, equal and even surpass many Grand Crus in their perfumed intensity.

Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru, Philippe Colin 2010 ($320)

Just a little higher on the slope than the magisterial Montrachet, Chevalier can approach, though rarely top, the profundity of its neighbor. Here it gets very close, and is worth considering, given the huge price differential.

Clos des Mouches

Beaune 1er Cru, Joseph Drouhin 2008 ($100)

A 1er Cru vineyard that in many minds, including mine, warrants Grand Cru status, especially when the grapes are in the meticulous hands of the Drouhin family. This is a quintessential Burgundy thanks to the way it combines power with grace, generosity of flavor with a finely focused precision.

Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru Le Charlemagne

Chateau Genot-Boulanger 2009 ($144)

This wine is a fine marriage of opulence and finesse. Brimming with lush ripe fruit with no hint of excess, it abounds with stylishly hued flavors of apricots and peaches.

Corton Charlemagne, Coche-Dury 2005 ($1200)

The ultimate trophy wine, the sort you can’t buy unless your wine merchant is also your brother-in-law. A massively powerful Grand Cru with intense minerality, it is poles apart from the other, subtler, Grand Crus of the Cote du Beaune, the Montrachets. Demands long aging.

Meursault 1er Cru Sous le Dos d’Ane

Domaine Leflaive 2007 ($148)

Bright and taut, shiny with a lean and angular brilliance, this is a wine for long keeping, one packed with a delicate minerality rounded out with the aroma of ripe white peaches.

Meursault Les Tessons 2009, Domaine Pierre Morey ($82)

Fine proof of the axiom that the producer is more important to the quality of the wine than the appellation. Though “only” a village Meursault, thanks to the outstanding vineyard work of Pierre Morey, this gorgeous wine punches way above its weight.

Le Montrachet 2009, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti ($4,200)

The pinnacle of white Burgundy, the ultimate Grand Cru white, and the only white wine produced by the famed Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Perfumed and intense, it is everything a white Burgundy should be, but in spades. The 2009 will require many years before its true brilliance emerges.

Nuits Saint Georges 1er Cru Les Terres Blanches 2008

Domaine Bertrand Ambroise ($100)

The Cote de Nuits, the northern half of the Cote d’Or, is famous for its reds; Whites are rare. But this is a beauty of true Burgundian grace thanks to the painstaking efforts of the Ambroise family and their focus on low yields and rigorous selection.

Pernand-Vergelesses 1er Cru 2008

Maison Deux Montille Soeur et Frere ($40)

Another tongue-twisting double-barreled Burgundian name, but one that’s worth persevering with. This example is a small village tucked behind the hill of Corton. The wine is mineral-rich, big and mouthfilling, but steely dry on the long finish. It will reward a few years patience.

Puligny-Montrachet Champ-Gain 1er Cru 2006

Maison Louis Jadot ($85)

The wine is round and beautifully balanced, but at the moment, the nose offers more weight than the palate delivers. In five years it will be brilliant.

Vire-Clesse, Vielles Vignes 2011, Christophe Cordier ($28)

From a relatively new appellation in the Maconnais, a region that’s seen a huge improvement in quality in recent years, this is the perfect, inexpensive, introduction to the magic of Burgundian Chardonnay.

(Nick Passmore writes on wine for Bloomberg Businessweek. Any opinions expressed are his own.)

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