Published on February 12th, 2020 | by Kevin Dauphinee0
The more things change, the more they stay the same…
In the 1980s, healthy lifestyle trends focused on ‘fish and poultry’ for main course restaurant selections.
Following this trend, Chardonnay became the wine selection of choice for fine and mid-priced dining. So prevalent and cost-effective, Chardonnay also became the beverage of choice at bars, parties, wedding receptions and the like. Everyone drank Chardonnay. Until the trend turned. Overproduction, insipid bottling and fickle fashion led to shifts in preference. But underlying the popularity of Chardonnay was the unmistakable quality of grape traditions, terroir and fine wine-making craftsmanship.
Having lived in Northern California in the 80s and 90s, visiting vineyards and wineries was a regular weekend event. Malolactic fermentation, soil rich with clay or limestone became conversation starters. From Napa to Sonoma and down to Santa Barbara, our search for the penultimate Chardonnay was never ending. Then about 1995, while visiting Paris, a business colleague suggested I drive to the Cote d’Or and experience French Chardonnay at its source.
Once clearing the Southern suburbs of Paris, a more picturesque drive cannot be imagined. Exceptional French cuisine can only come from exceptional agriculture, on full display over the 3+ hour drive to Beaune, the heart of the Cote d’Or. With vineyards extending in every direction, making up about 15% of the region’s economy, comparisons to Northern California immediately came to mind. What struck me about the township of Beaune was the architecture, particularly the geometric-patterned tile rooftops with a ‘fairytale’ suggestion. But this visit was about wine tasting and gastronomy, and of course, a little romance.
Discovering Olivier Leflaive’s (www.olivier-leflaive.com) wine degustation could not have been more apropos. Then situated in a traditional farmhouse just off the square of Puligny, our wine host, Pascal, introduced us to the Chardonnay grape and its glorious ascension from the Aligote to the Montrachet. Paired with country French small plates, we were in for an excursion of viniculture par excellence. We learned what separates one varietal from another is the terroir – where the grapes are grown, the constitution of the soil, the exposure to the sun and the water to nourish the fruit. Again, at the time, we were told that the Montrachet vineyards were irrigated naturally, without benefit of drip systems or other man-made interventions. And the terroir changes quite gradually, with the Aligote coming from the East side of the main road – D974. Then on the West side, close to the town of Puligny-Montrachet, the Village grapes are grown and harvested. The Aligote is a refreshing, everyday wine – perhaps preferred in spritzers. The Village wines begin to suggest something more substantial as a modest afternoon or dinner wine.
And then the fun begins. We began with the Premier Cru wine of Puligny-Montrachet, the second highest classification level and a treat to behold. Here, the terrain changes, sloping slightly uphill, differentiating the vineyards and appellations. The cloying nature of ‘oak’ or ‘vanilla’ from too many California Chardonnay was absent in favor of clear minerality, apricot and citrus suggestions. The great California Sonoma-Cutrer Les Pierres was brought to mind, notable for it’s minerality, lime and melon notes. What came next would change my view of Chardonnay forever and command repeat visits to the region.
For a few more euro, we were offered tastes of the Grand Cru, of which there were six from this magnificent plot of land totaling a mere 20 acres – Montrachet, Le Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet. These appellations command a view of the entire growing region, best experienced from the Chevalier-Montrachet arch in the afternoon sun. By this time, no amount of country kitchen cuisine could stabilize the alcohol, so we opted for 3 tastes – the Bâtard-Montrachet, the Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet and the top-of-the-line Montrachet. The following day, I had to refer to my notes to refresh my clouded memory and decided one visit to Puligny was just not enough.
A few years later, I was back in the Cote d’Or, this time with a focus on Meursault, just a few miles Northeast of Puligny. Settling in after a late afternoon drive from Paris, I’d booked ahead with advice from a close Parisian friend to Le Chevreuil for a fish dinner with a Premier-Cru Meursault. Unless a dinner is very fastidious, the Premier-Cru Chardonnays from the Cote d’Or are most satisfying and pair well with fish and poultry. Perhaps for that special occasion, the Grand-Crus can be enjoyed, but at a price. A recent purchase of a small vineyard sold for the equivalent of $1 million per acre, so get ready to count your Benjamins when ordering a Grand Cru Montrachet.
Many resources are available for touring and tasting in the region, so if you fancy a nice Chardonnay and want to learn a bit more about the background of this fine wine, book 3 or 4 days to tour the area and appreciate all that is the Cote d’Or. When I visit next, I’ll focus on the Pinot Noir. Until next time, au revoir!
This article was translated in French by Anne-Cécile Baer Porter.