The Perfect Chardonnay

Paul Blow
White Burgundy Wine

If I were to describe for you the perfect Chardonnay—my platonic ideal of the wine—it would go something like this: In the glass, the wine would be a pale yellow with flecks of gold around the edges. Its nose would be crisp and lemony, with hints of white flowers and stones, as well as a touch of just-ripe nectarine. In the mouth the wine would be medium-bodied, rich but structured, creamy with a contrasting chalkiness and some racy acidity. On the tongue, I would taste citrus fruits with hints of spice and fresh, sweet butter. The wine's finish would linger with a charge of minerality.

Now let me tell you that this wine—or some version of it—exists and is easily obtainable. The 2008 vintage of white Burgundy is about as good as it gets. At this year's La Paulée, a Burgundy tasting put on in New York by the famous sommelier Daniel Johnnes, I tasted through dozens of the ’08s from a number of different producers and found them consistent in quality and character. The key to the wines is the tension between rich fruit and cutting, austere acidity, all framed with excellent minerality. "For me, it is a vintage of great purity and clarity," said Jean-Marc Roulot, one of the best producers of Meursault.

Behind most great vintages is one long, somewhat boring report of "perfect" weather. But the very best vintages have a story. And for Burgundy in 2008, the tale is that, amazingly, the year never looked good. Most of the growing season had exceedingly cool weather and plenty of rain, even hail. As September harvest approached, "I buried my head in my hands," said Aubert de Villaine, proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée Conti, "and thought to myself, 'That's it. There will be no vintage this year.'" But then everything turned. "I'll never forget it," continued de Villaine, "I woke up on September 14 and saw the sky had turned a deep, clear blue. The temperature was cool, but the north wind was blowing. The north wind is a good sign for us, as it brings clear, dry weather." And, indeed, it worked its magic, blowing consistently for two weeks. Rot dried out. As the grapes lost moisture, their sugars and acids concentrated. The grapes ripened by subtraction of water, not the addition of heat. It was a vintage born of the cold.

The greatest whites of Burgundy come mostly from two places: Chablis and the southernmost towns of the Côte de Beaune (Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, and Chassagne-Montrachet). And you don't have to spend hundreds of dollars to taste them. Good wine with 2008 character was made all around, even in lesser-known Côte de Beaune towns like Saint-Aubin and Saint-Romain and in the Mâcon, the vast region south of Burgundy's main slope. Pick up a simple 2008 Bourgogne Blanc like this Olivier Leflaive for a delicious, refreshing glass. Or, for something more complex and spendy, try a more aristocratic wine like this Meursault. But whatever you try, try the 2008 white Burgundies—they're what Chardonnay is supposed to taste like.

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.