The Chardonnay Conundrum

Paul Blow

Every time some California winery sends me samples, you can bet there are at least one or two Chards in the assortment. California is awash in Chardonnay. I try some, but the remainder can be hard to even give away. The bottles litter the carpet of my office.

What’s wrong with Chardonnay? So much. As my wife, who’s a sommelier, says, “The conundrum of [the] Chardonnay [grape] is that it makes some of the wines I dislike most in the world, and some of the wines I most love.”

I agree, and I’ll make it clear: The ones she and I dislike tend to be new-world Chards. But old-world Chardonnays, specifically those from Meursault (it’s pronounced “mur-SO”), are the standouts.

Chardonnay is a multifaceted grape and can go in a lot of directions, depending on soil, climate, and style of winemaking. In the New World, where the popular style is high ripeness and tropical fruits, the wines become as cloying as a tiki drink. When winemakers shoot for something lean and mineral, the wines are too simple, and there’s often a plume of alcoholic afterburn on the finish.

And then there’s the whole question of butter. A refined note of butter (from malolactic fermentation) skillfully integrated into the mix can be lovely, but to have it slathered on in mass quantity is off-putting. The same is the case with the toast and spice of new oak barrels. Too much oak, clumsily added, tastes like a wooden plank.

But when you find a Chardonnay that fits your tastes, you can’t help but judge all the rest by a harsher standard. There are a few wineries in California and Oregon that make tasteful Chard, like Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Ramey, Hamacher, Peay, Lynmar, Hanzell, and Au Bon Climat. But for truly beautiful expressions of the grape, I look to Meursault.

In this little village in the south of Burgundy, there’s something in the climate, the soils, the vines, and the techniques that produces picture-perfect Chardonnay. When you’ve tasted a great Meursault, such as one by Domaine Coche-Dury, it shows you what is possible with this grape. Even the young, lower-tier wines (Bourgogne Blanc or Meursault AOC) can take the flamboyant, tropical fruit of Chardonnay, temper it with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and then bury it in an avalanche of rock and mineral. Tasting these wines—especially as they age a bit and develop hazelnut, honey, and cinnamon notes—is mind-boggling. Sadly, so is the price: 2004 Domaine Jean-François Coche-Dury Meursault, which is not one of the vineyard’s premier cru wines, starts at $159.95.

Not all are that pricey (but they are going up, as are all European imports—thanks, U.S. economy). Good Meursault can be had from $25 to $50. And while the best producers from the village of Meursault can be hard to find at retail shops, they turn up frequently on restaurant wine lists, often at pretty good prices.

2005 Meursault, Bouchard Père & Fils: This négociant/producer owns some of the best vineyard land in and around Meursault, and it knows how to vinify the wines. This is a good example of Meursault, with notes of white flowers, lemon curd, and apple. In the mouth, it’s both fleshy and round as well as firm and structured, with a dusting of mineral on the finish.

2004 Meursault, Domaine Pierre Matrot: For white wines, 2004 was a leaner, sharper vintage than 2005. This is a great wine to show vintage character—concentrated and steely with live-wire acidity. Flavors of lemons and limes and orange zest combine for a precise and well-drawn finish.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.