Wine 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 Burgundy.

Many 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.

Among 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).

The 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.

In 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.

© Veritas Imports, LLC. 2001