50 Shades of Chardonnay
It is the undisputed star of white grape varieties throughout the world. According to figures published by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine in 2017, Chardonnay thrives in 41 countries over a total area of 210,000 hectares. Native to Burgundy, this cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc still accounts for over half the varietal range in its homeland, where its finest renditions are born. Each Burgundy appellation reveals a different facet of Chardonnay, either fat or dry, mineral or floral, brioche or iodine-driven - some of them encapsulate them all.
When nonchalantly ordering a glass of Chardonnay, the lady at the next table to me at the pavement café was probably expecting a dry, mineral white wine, marked by aromas of white flowers and brioche. We may well ask for Chardonnay as we would a major brand of soda, this is no industrialised wine. Made from the most widely planted white grape variety in the world, its character changes depending on the soil where it grows. Nowhere displays this more potently than Burgundy. From Chablis to Mâcon via Beaune, Montagny-les-Buxy, Vinzelles and Saint-Vérand, each locality produces distinctive white wines which, whilst cut from the same cloth, manage to express their own personality.
Chablis, a legacy of the Kimmeridgian age
This array of personas owes much to the myriad soil types in Burgundy. In Chablis, Chardonnay is planted on marl and limestone soils dating back to an era of the Upper Jurassic, the Kimmeridgian. The subsoil is 150 to 200 million years old and is composed of grey marl and layers of limestone particularly rich in fossils. It is not uncommon to find small oysters called exoxyra virgula in the vineyards, bearing witness to the presence of a prehistoric sea. Over the millennia, this expanse of water gradually filled with minerals and sediments, which today form the wine region’s different terroirs. “The ground is very rocky," explains Stéphane Brocard. More than ten years after starting up in Longvic, the negociant, who also matures his wines, produces 250,000 bottles of Chablis, Petit-Chablis and Chablis Premier Cru every year. “The terroir suffuses Chardonnay with notes of citrus fruits and flowers, coupled with beautiful minerality. There is tension and precision. I particularly like the salty notes on the finish, which give the wine consistency”.
The Côte de Beaune, home to exceptional whites
One hundred kilometres farther south, the Burgundian subsoil has a completely different appearance. Emerging from the collapse of the Saône plain 150 million years ago, the Côte de Beaune forms a geological millefeuille that stretches from the Côte de Nuits to the Côte Chalonnaise. The soils of scree, marl and brown limestone, dating back to the Oxfordian, Callovian and Bathonian geological eras, can reach depths of up to ten metres. The vines sink their roots into them to draw out character and finesse. The clayey marl and limestone soils that predominate in the southern part of the Côte de Beaune, between Saint-Romain and Cheilly-lès-Maranges, make the area a propitious site for Chardonnay. It yields white wines with golden reflections. Intense, ample and powerful, they show distinctive aromas of white fruits, flowers and fresh butter. The aptly-named “Côte des Blancs” is home to five of Burgundy’s great wines, Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet, Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet and Chevalier-Montrachet, all of them symbolising the quintessential qualities of the grape variety worldwide.
The Côte Chalonnaise
Nestled between the Côte de Beaune to the north and the Mâconnais to the south, the Côte Chalonnaise stretches for 25 kilometres across Burgundy. Vineyards define a landscape made of rolling hills and slopes facing east and south. Connected to the north of the Massif Central, the soils date back to the Jurassic period and lay on a limestone bedrock. Sand, marl and flinty clay complete the geological profile of the wine region in the form of layers. While the less clayey soils are suitable for growing Pinot noir, the clay-limestone is particularly suitable for Chardonnay. The southernmost appellation in the region, Montagny, is totally dedicated to the white grape variety. “It is the only appellation in the Côte Chalonnaise to produce 100% Chardonnay," explains Françoise Feuillat-Juillot. Since 2004, she has been at the helm of the estate that bears her name. Every year, she produces nearly 80,000 bottles of Montagny and Montagny Premier Cru. These are fresh, lively wines which develop aromas of white-fleshed fruit. Their minerality accentuates their subtlety and elegance.
The Mâconnais, a land of contrasts
On the border with Beaujolais, the vineyards of the Mâconnais put down roots in brown limestone soils dating back to the Jurassic period. The north of the region, near Tournus, is distinguished by its clay soils. “These particular terroirs yield profound, ample and structured wines, with notes of ripe apricots”, explains Nicolas Dewé, managing director of the co-operative winery Les Vignerons de Mancey. Five kilometres away, in the Mâcon-Cruzilles appellation area, Frédéric Touzot produces a Chardonnay at the other end of the spectrum. Ethereal and aromatic, it is marked by notes of citrus fruits and white-fleshed fruits which underscore its elegance and smoothness. “The vines grow on very chalky soils. They're so white you almost need sunglasses!" quips Nicolas Dewé.
Northern Chardonnay versus southern Chardonnay
The fact that sunglasses are more useful in Mâcon than in Chablis hints at the diversity of Chardonnays from Burgundy. “We don't have the same climate”, notes Stéphane Brocard. “In Chablis, we are still in the North of France. Here it's cool in winter and summers are hot but not too hot”. Beaune’s temperatures are slightly further up the scale year-round, while Montagny-lès-Buxy basks in a temperate climate, characterised by cold winters and hot summers. “The difference in temperatures between the two seasons is quite high," explains Françoise Feuillat-Juillot.
Françoise Feuillat-Juillot and her daughter Camille adjust their winemaking techniques to suit each Montagny Premier Cru so that sense of place can be maximised for each vineyard parcel
Farther south, Tournus clearly marks the boundary between the northern vineyards and the first, southernmost plots. “The architecture in the towns attests to this climatic boundary", comments Nicolas Dewé. “From Tournus onwards, flat roof tiles switch to rounded terracotta Roman tiles. The roofs are much less steep and blinds designed to prevent the sun from shining indoors start to appear”. The wine growers' ability to understand their soil types and climate they bask in plays a pivotal role in the way they make their Chardonnays. “There has to be a good alchemy between the soil, the climate and the winegrower," explains Stéphane Brocard. “Harvesting takes place over a period of one week to ten days. In recent years, harvests have been warmer, resulting in richer wines. In my opinion, there should be no hesitation in bringing them forward two or three days if the summer has been particularly hot. This enables us to retain good acidity levels without foresaking ripeness. If we wait, we get heavier, fatter wines that lose their Chablis character”.
Tillage, a fundamental part of the process
“The human factor remains the essential element”, stresses Françoise Feuillat-Juillot. “From pruning through to the harvest, and in the winery during winemaking and maturation, the winegrower chooses the character he wants to give his wine”. Stéphane Brocard admits that he favours stainless steel vats to preserve salinity and minerality in his Chablis, although he concedes that “in the first few years, when the vines are young, it is tempting to influence the wines to make them fatter and more oaky. After four or five years, the terroir resumes its role”. Nicolas Dewé agrees: “Young vines have a more varietal side”. The grape variety is bound to express itself more than in grapes from older vines, whose roots have had time to dig down into the soil and draw out its fundamental qualities. “Working the soil is particularly important”, emphasises the managing director of Les Vignerons de Mancey. “Vine are lazy. They must be forced to put down deep roots so that sense of place can express itself”.
One grape variety, one appellation, several personas
The age and depth of the roots are exactly what help Chardonnay cover a broad spectrum within a single estate. “In Mâcon-Cruzilles, wines produced from young vines are driven by citrus fruits like grapefruit. The old vines, on the other hand, produce wines with lots of elegance and finesse, dominated by aromas of white fruits such as peach”, says Nicolas Dewé. At Domaine Feuillat-Juillot, each of the six Montagny Premier Cru wines have individual personas. One may show distinctive fat and an oaky finish, whilst another will offer up appealing roundness and suppleness. The Coères vineyard is planted to vines over sixty years old that yield a rich, upright wine with notes of white fruit, vanilla and marshmallow. “This is due to the terroir effect, aspect and the age of the vines”, explains the winegrower, who adds: "Winemaking techniques are adjusted to suit each Premier Cru to maximise sense of place in individual plots”.
Over time, vines push their roots down into the subsoil to draw out quintessential sense of place
Chardonnay, an easily-recognisable varietal and marketing cue
In addition to the simple - yet so incredibly complex! – Chardonnay itself, Burgundy winegrowers seek to enhance the characters specific to each appellation, or even each single vineyard, when introducing their wines to their customers. “I emphasise the typical characters of Montagny and its terroir”, confirms Françoise Feuillat-Juillot. Nicolas Dewé shares her viewpoint: “What is important is the appellation, whether that’s Cruzilles or Mancey. Chardonnay is only a tool, a lever”. Basically, Chardonnay is a cue that should not let us neglect the complexity and richness of white Burgundy wines.
Although Burgundy is its birthplace, Chardonnay now flourishes globally, from Champagne to Languedoc via Chile, Australia and Oregon. Its yield capacity and vigour – virtually nothing affects it, with the exception of spring frosts – make it a popular grape variety. It lends itself equally well to still wines as to sparkling wines: Champagne makes it the most widely drunk grape variety on the planet. It would be an illusion, however, to believe that the great white wines of Burgundy can be cloned on other continents. New Zealand Chardonnay, for example, is more heady and fruit-forward. In California, almost continuous sunshine yields opulent wines, far from the minerality of a Chablis. Argentina and South Africa alike take advantage of their cooler climates to make wines more suitable for ageing. In this way, all these Chardonnay-based whites from the New World have developed their own typicity and are praised for their increasingly high levels of quality. This is an essential dimension if the prospect of standardisation is to be averted.
By Alexandra Réveillon
Photographs: Courtesy of the estates