drinkers in this country, who almost invariably consume
Chardonnay very soon after release, rarely even encounter
well-aged white Burgundy. The Sage of Monkton (aka Robert
Parker) once opined that the "window of opportunity
for drinking…white Burgundy is…one of the smallest
of any great wine in the world. The optimum drinking window…is
small, and closes quickly." Many wine writers take
exception to this view. Anthony Hanson, the noted English
critic, offered this rejoinder to Parker's "small window": "This
can only have been written by someone who does not really
understand the region's wines." JOHN WINTHROP here
offers some recent musings on the virtues of aged white
disciples of the Sage have zealously fastened upon the
Master's general admonition to renounce Chardonnay beyond
the age of four or five. Partially as a result, and largely
for more prosaic reasons, most great white Burgundies are
consumed in their infancy, long before they have inherited
the nuanced depth and concentration that is their birthright.
In fairness to the Sage, he does in fact concede that some
great white Burgundies (especially those from the Côte
de Beaune) can improve with age. Unhappily, this exception
is more often honored by consumers in the breach than the
observance. For whatever reason, the unfortunate reality
is that the voluptuous complexity of aged white Burgundy
is currently being appreciated by an ever decreasing number
of amateurs du vin.
the many factors that cause so few bottle-aged white Burgundies
from being enjoyed in the United States may be a certain
confusion arising from our familiarity with California
Chardonnay. Winston Churchill once quipped to the effect
that Americans and Englishmen comprise a single people
divided by a common language. Just so, California Chardonnay
and white Burgundy share a common grape, but are really
quite distinct wines. The differences are a function not
only of terroir but also of viticulture, vinification,
and elevage. For example, the fruit sugars present in the
must of white Burgundy are almost totally converted (usually
down to a level of 1-2 grams/liter) into alcohol during
the fermentation process. After vinification, California
Chardonnay (by reason largely of the higher volume of natural
sweetness in the California fruit) contains considerably
higher levels of residual sugar and/or alcohol. Similarly,
the economic demands of corporate viticulture typically
drive yields in California up to 4-5 tons per acre, even
for premium Chardonnay; in Burgundy, by contrast, yields
are more often in the range of 2.25-2.75 tons per acre.
(about 80% higher in California).
most salient characteristic of the Chardonnay grape is
its fragile malleability, and this quality is at once its
greatest blessing and profoundest curse. Traditionally-made
Chardonnay lacks the structured fruit tannins and flavors
derived from extended contact with grape skins typically
manifest, for example, in red Burgundy and California Cabernet.
Precisely for this reason, wine made from Chardonnay offers
an ideal medium for expressing either the nuances of the
terroir or the eccentric predilection of a winemaker.
In California, by reason both of consumer preferences and market strictures,
this malleability has resulted in a typical California-style Chardonnay that
is flattering, fruit-forward, and fully oaked. These qualities, however, are
most often attained by sacrificing a measure of concentration and richness.
The wines are very appealing and well balanced when released, and quickly reach
their optimum. A lack of underlying acidity, as well as a frequent surfeit
of residual sugar and alcohol, often lead California Chardonnay to become dried-out,
unbalanced and unappealing as it ages.
Burgundy, in contrast, by reason of differing terroirs,
the malleability of the Chardonnay grape is manifest in
a variety of styles. The apparent differences between Chablis,
Meursault, Corton-Charlemagne, Chevalier-Montrachet, and
Le Montrachet, illustrate the depth of this variation.
The salient characteristic of all these white Burgundies
is the refined balance between the tartness of the underlying
acidity and the apparent sweetness simulated by the alcohol.
Unlike California Chardonnay, in which residual sugars
oxidize quickly and fruit dries out because of the high
alcohol, the balance in white Burgundy abides as it ages.
The inherently greater depth and concentration in white
Burgundy emerges to the forefront, gradually developing
more layers and nuances as it ages in natural balance.