French chardonnays, particularly the grand crus from the Côte de Beaune, are at the pinnacle of the world’s white wines. Given that, it’s hard to believe that for centuries the variety was little-known outside Burgundy as far as table wines were concerned. For that you can largely blame France’s appellation laws, which forbade the mention of the grape variety on the label. Like most varieties in Europe, it was a vine that succeeded locally, moulded to suit the region’s geography, but otherwise staying largely in obscurity.

Chardonnay seems to have arisen as a chance cross between pinot noir and gouais near the village whence came its name, near Mâcon in southern Burgundy. The village, currently with a mere 199 inhabitants, was first known by the Roman name Cardonnacum. It seems Kath and Kim knew something we didn’t.

My comment at the outset neatly excludes Champagne and the variety’s small presence in the Loire Valley and Jura, but there was nevertheless no suggestion of the variety’s huge international growth that would follow initial trials in California in the 1960s. That international success has fuelled growth elsewhere in France, too, with plantings in the Ardèche and, most notably, the Languedoc. Chardonnay is now the second most-widely planted white grape in the world, after Spain’s airén.

In spite of huge variation over the years in winemaking methods – attempts might be a better word in the New World – chardonnay production has mostly settled on the following. The most affordable, entry-level wines are fermented in tank and bottled early, without barrel age. Wines made for the upper reaches of the market are exclusively barrel fermented, usually in a combination of used and new French oak. The winemaking technique here is largely “put the juice in a barrel and walk away”. Eat your heart out, natural wine movement!

Just as Australian winemakers have benefitted from studying the French winemaking methods, so have many French companies improved the freshness and balance of their wines by looking towards Australia’s worldwide success. The panel therefore thought it about time we examined what the moderately priced end of French chardonnay was delivering, rather than the grands crus we love to drink but can rarely afford.

We could find only four chardonnays from France outside Burgundy available to taste in Australia. Three of these didn’t quite make the grade for a review while the fourth was destroyed by cork taint. (Alarmingly, another wine showing TCA had a Diam composite closure.) Our report is therefore, in one sense, concise, Burgundy alone, but nevertheless showing great variation in style, covering Burgundy from one end to the other.

Our regular panellists on this occasion were educator and writer Peter Bourne, writer and author Huon Hooke, wine judge and writer Toni Paterson MW and me, winemaking consultant Nick Bulleid MW. We were joined by Matt Dunne, Group Sommelier of the Solotel Group (which includes Aria, other restaurants and hotels) and the returning Stuart Knox, proprietor/sommelier of Fix St James. We tasted the wines as usual in flights of about 10, in descending order of vintage and the regions combined.

Burgundy is a long region, stretching from near the southern tip of Champagne to close to the northern Rhône. The wines we review here greatly reflect the varied terroir along the way, with climate the principal driver. All the same, my first scribbled comment after nosing the first group was that they could come from nowhere other than France. There was something in their characters and in their complexity that consistently spoke of their origin, even across 260 kilometres. I’ll leave speculation for another day.

The northern wines, principally Chablis, showed great purity and crispness, yet still with wonderful drive through the palate. Very few used any fermentation or storage in barrel. This is usual until you reach the premiers and grands crus. 2015, 2016 and particularly 2017 are regarded as very good vintages in Chablis. Almost all wines we reviewed will develop in bottle for at least three years, filling out further in flavour, while others will be delicious at 10 years of age, should you wish. The Bourgogne Chardonnay AOP wines – the grape variety is now allowed in this combination – were varied in style, not surprising given their wide origins. Several give very good value.

The Chalon and Mâcon wines, from the warmer south, are a great way to start for Burgundy novices. They have generous flavours and are rounder in the mouth than the wines from the north of Burgundy, not such a big leap from New World chardonnay as is Chablis for instance. All told, we found some wonderful drinking pleasure here. The little village of Chardonnay can display its name with pride.

The Marc Colin et Fils and La Chablisienne Le Finage were the top chardonnays from the tasting.
The Marc Colin et Fils and La Chablisienne Le Finage were the top chardonnays from the tasting.

Auxerre

Auxerre is an outpost of Burgundy to the west of Chablis. It’s little-seen in Australia, more’s the pity, but we may see more in the future, with the assistance of the warming climate.

2017 Domaine Goisot Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre (A$48) appealed to me with its combination of preserved lemon, peach and almond. There’s just a hint of flor, to add more interest. “A curious nose,” found Knox, “with hints of reduction but more funk than flint. Tight acid, over crunchy green apple. Some oxy/flor characteristics giving a nutty note over a chalky/mineral layer. Good length and presence.” It’s tight and intense, with good length. Worth a try!

Bourgogne

This is the appellation for the broad Burgundy region, since 2012 indicated as the Bourgogne AOP and replacing AC or AOC. Some labels are slow to catch on, however. It covers the length from Chablis to Mâcon and may contain a single region or blends thereof. The styles vary with the part of Burgundy where the grapes were grown, but will generally be more forward in their development and lack the intensity and finesse of higher appellations. From a good producer they offer very good value.

2017 Bouchard Père et Fils Bourgogne La Vignée (A$35) reminded us how quality extends throughout the Bouchard Père et Fils whites. “Clean-cut, with slight herbaceousness,” thought Dunne, “but well-balanced and vibrant, with hints of gunflint and well-balanced flavour and acidity.” I liked its delicate stone fruits, distinct texture, yet poised balance and line.

2016 Domaine Matrot Bourgogne (A$46) comes from the Côte de Beaune. It’s a fruit-forward wine showing generously ripe yellow peach on the nose. The palate’s fresh and more delicate than the nose suggested, with a light texture that dries the finish. “Blanched almonds and oyster shell,” Dunne noted. “Great acidity, focus and harmony.”

2016 Domaine Paul Pillot Bourgogne Blanc (A$73) – there is also an Aligoté – appealed to Knox. “A touch of sulfide on the nose. Lemon and lime across the palate,” he said. “Acid drives a chalky texture with some hot stone aromas adding complex layers.” I liked its fresh, complex citrus nose and the drying, light phenolic grip. The vineyard lies just south of Chassagne-Montrachet, a further sign of its quality.

The Marc Colin et Fils and La Chablisienne Le Finage were the top chardonnays from the tasting.

2016 Louis Moreau Bourgogne (A$40) has a generous nose suggesting stone fruits and even guava. There’s plenty of flavour, too, in the full, round palate. It finishes with a light grip. “Smoky, toasty, lemon and honey aromas,” stated Hooke, “very attractive, subtly detailed and clean. Similar honey and lemon/citrus flavour – delicate and intense, refined and long, with terrific line and precision.”

2016 Maison Roche de Bellene Bourgogne Vieilles Vignes (A$33) received strong points from Paterson. “Candied lemon zest with gentle hints of cream,” she began. “Good weight, texture and palate softness. A very gentle yet complete wine.” I found white peach, too, and loved its freshness and crisp, balanced finish. It will gain complexity in bottle over another two years at least, should you wish. The wine’s made by Nicolas Potel, ex. Domaine de la Pousse d’Or, from grapes grown in the Côte de Beaune and Côte Chalonnaise.

2015 Marc Colin et Fils Bourgogne La Combe (A$60) thoroughly impressed both Hooke and me. “A funky low-level sulfide nose,” wrote Hooke. “The palate adds lemon and fresh, crisp, citrusy acidity. It’s bright and refreshing after the slightly funky nose, the palate and finish lovely and clean and refreshing. The energy is great and it powers on and on.” On and on indeed! The intensity is superb, as are the line through the palate and the fine finish. There’s a sense of purity, as well as the sulfide. The wine comes from the slope below Puligny-Montrachet.

2016 Vincent Girardin Cuvée Saint-Vincent Bourgogne Blanc (A$43) comes from the Côte de Beaune. It has fresh lemon and chalk on the nose, with great textured drive through the palate, good flavour and persistence. “Flint and lemon nose,” noted Knox. “Stones and chalk with lemon curd and creamy hints, and great acid drive. Some sulfides adding character and funk without getting dirty. Showing freshness and poise. Long across the palate.”

The tasting panel found some excellent, affordable white Burgundy.
The tasting panel found some excellent, affordable white Burgundy.
Barbera has become the third-most important red grape in Italy.

Chablis

Chablis is typically fine and tightly structured, with a lighter body and usually more apparent acidity than the more southern regions. Oak maturation is usually used only in the premier and grand crus. Chablis has more crystal-clear fruit than a couple of decades ago, when wines were often hard and showing obvious sulphur dioxide. A renaissance in winemaking and assistance from the warming climate have both helped. The vineyard area in Chablis has, somewhat controversially, increased greatly in recent years, but in my view the quality has never been better.

2017 Daniel Dampt & Fils Chablis 1er Cru Côte de Lechet (A$68) gained all-round support, not surprising for a premier cru, and Knox spoke up. “Green apple nose,” he began. “A chalky minerality steps forward, chased down the acid line with bright citrus fruits and corralled with pleasing phenolic textures. It has good length and drive.” I found ripe white peach, too, and beautiful length. This will build further over at least four years.

2017 Domaine Bernard Defaix Chablis (A$61) appealed to Knox. “Feijoa!” he exclaimed. “Clean crisp green fruits, with a bright crunch and tight acid line. Almost saline in its minerality. Lovely tension between the fresh, intense mid-palate fruit and the savoury elements, all framed beautifully with that acidity.” This is classic Chablis, with a tight chalkiness, ripe apple flavour and crisp finish. It will develop well.

The Paolo Scavino Dolcetto d'Alba DOC topped the tasting.

2015 Domaine des Hâtes Les Chatillons Chablis (A$57) gained top marks from Bourne and Knox. “Complex bouquet of honeysuckle, marzipan and preserved lemon,” Bourne began. “The palate is both pure and persistent with a real sense of harmony. There’s abundant flavour with a tight, linear acidity driving the seamless finish. Top notch chardonnay.” The wine’s fresh, youthful and finely structured, and has several years’ potential in bottle, should you wish.

2017 Domaine Drouhin Vaudon Chablis (A$43) gained top points from Paterson. “A complete and harmonious wine with excellent depth and integrated acidity,” she began. “Faint smoky notes on the nose. The palate is layered, long and satisfying. I like the gentle phenolic frame.” I noted a bit of reduction accompanying subtle lemon and lees characters. The palate opens up beautifully in flavour, with nice textural grip and good acidity.

2016 Domaine Eleni et Edouard Vocoret Le Bas de Chapelot Chablis (A$55) gained strong points from Bourne. “Upfront aromas of lemon pith, guava, honeydew melon and fresh fig,” he noted. “The palate is full and flavoursome with a mouth-filling texture and soft, refined finish.” I noted stone fruits, too, and liked its delicacy and round balance.

2017 Domaine Jean Dauvissat Père & Fils Chablis (A$50) sports a famous name in Chablis, with good reason. This example has a fresh lemon aroma, which is intense and delicate at the same time. The palate’s fine and polished, with beautiful length. “A very lean chalky style with perfumes of spring blossom, lemon sorbet, yellow grapefruit and wet pebbles,” said Bourne. “Sinewy and singular with a thrust of mouth-watering acidity driving the finish.”

2017 Domaine Laroche Chablis Saint Martin (A$60) has plenty of ripe fruit, including citrus and hints of mango and peach. The palate is taut and fine, with crisp lemony acidity to finish. Dunne strongly approved. “A core of stone fruits, acacia flower and a little butterscotch,” he noted. “The texture is in balance. A really good drink!”

Fine, tight, a  renaissance in  winemaking.
Fine, tight, a renaissance in winemaking.

2017 Domaine Louis Michel & Fils Chablis (A$50) is a very fine, even pure, example of Chablis, with fresh stone-fruit and citrus flavours. It’s intense, crisp and has excellent length – Bourne agreed. “Tightly held aromas of lemongrass, pink grapefruit and honeysuckle,” he noted, “with a hint of lemon myrtle. Well-structured, spicy palate. Fine and long with an amazing persistence.”

2016 Domaine Roland Lavantureux Chablis Vieilles Vignes (A$60) has a rich nose showing stone fruits, nutty complexity from bottle age and a perfumed lift suggesting lychee. The palate follows suit – full and round with rich flavours and good balance. Bourne agreed on its style, too. “Lots of spice on the nose,” he said, “with lemongrass, custard apple and feijoa. Concentrated and generous, the flavours mirror the nose. A Chablis at the full end of the spectrum.” It’s ready for flavoursome food.

2016 Etienne Boileau Chablis 1er Cru Montmains (A$47) contrasts the previous wine in its more taut, less developed style. I found it quite understated, still taut and fresh, with a crisp finish and fine phenolics. “A bright, lemony wine with good freshness and drive,” noted Paterson. “Quite linear in its profile. Lively and youthful.” Hooke added, “I liked its reserve.” As a premier cru, the wine will have several years in it yet, so be patient. This is a producer I’ve loved previously.

2017 Gilbert Picq Chablis (A$53) brought some disagreement. Paterson was in no doubt, however, finding the wine gently aromatic. “The palate is beautifully structured and stylish with excellent flavour progression,” she said. “Faint hints of nuts and cream. There is an intense core of lemony fruit and excellent length. I enjoy the depth of flavour, the subtle complexing nuances and the texture.” I found the wine full flavoured, but found its pithy, dry finish made it appear a little hollow. A four-to-two approval gave the wine a strong result.

Pick from lean and bright to fuller and ripe wines.
Pick from lean and bright to fuller and ripe wines.

2017 J. Moreau & Fils Chablis (A$49) delighted Paterson. “A heady aroma of ripe stone fruits,” she began, “though the palate has good fruit restraint and tension with prominent minerally acidity. Gentle phenolics frame the finish.” There’s a hint of brioche complexity, too. I found the palate tighter than the generous nose had suggested and the finish is dry and chalky.

2017 La Chablisienne Le Finage Chablis (A$38) is the most recent vintage from this outstanding cooperative, which has impressed us for many years. Paterson was glowing in praise. “Excellent fruit restraint with subtle nutty nuances,” she told us. “The palate is powerful and long, and defined by a solid core of acidity. Gorgeous preserved lemon on the close.” I agreed, loving its savoury hints of bran and beautiful drive across the palate.

2017 Louis Jadot Chablis (A$49) found Hooke enthusiastic. “Lightly toasted bread, lovely complex nectarine, honey, mealy, smoky and grapefruit nuances, but subtle,” he began. “The wine has real depth and flesh to its palate. Soft, round. The flavours are beautifully layered. Seamless acidity, good length. Gorgeous wine!” There’s a hint of development adding further character, too. With so many domaine wines available now, it’s good to see the traditional négociant still giving such good quality.

2017 Louis Moreau Chablis (A$44) was Dunne’s favourite Chablis. “Composed,” he began, “a delicate but edgy wine with lemon pith and a long, enduring finish.” There’s fresh lemon and a hint of malty complexity on the nose, while the palate has a delicate lees character and beautiful savoury power. Classic Chablis!

2017 Louis Moreau Domaine de Biéville Chablis (A$36) has a very pure nose of fresh citrus. The palate’s fine and poised with a light texture to finish. “Relatively backward,” Hooke noted. “Savoury, straightforward on the nose, straw/hay and pistachio. The palate is lean, dry and reserved. An all-round restrained style and very refreshing. Good length and quite moreish. Youthful and appetising.”

2017 Stephanie et Vincent Michelet Chablis (A$55) is an intriguing wine, with quite a cool nose of fresh garden herbs. The palate is taut, but not lacking flesh, with fresh acidity, good line and overall balance. Dunne also scored this highly. “Zesty lemon, alpine herbs and nettle,” he wrote. “Roasted almonds in the flavour. Vibrancy and tension.”

2017 William Fèvre Chablis (A$40) appealed to Bourne. “Singular, fine and long,” he wrote, “this is a modest wine but rates highly for its sense of harmony. Fresh grapefruit and lemony spices dominate the nose. Then a compact, understated palate and gently persistent finish.” I, too, liked its delicacy, which is not impeded by a little reduction. The wine should open up more in time.

Chablis has seen quality soar in recent years.
Chablis has seen quality soar in recent years.

Chalonnaise

This region starts where the Côte de Beaune ends, near Chagny. I’ve driven across the border without realising it. The white wines are surprisingly different, however, generally lacking the concentration and ageing ability of the Côte de Beaune wines, although there are highlights.

2016 Domaine Faiveley Mercurey Clos Rochette Blanc (A$43) shows sweet fruits on the nose with a little development yet it’s still fresh. The palate runs a taut line, with attractive stone-fruit flavours. “A bright bouquet of white nectarine, ruby grapefruit and tonic water,” noted Bourne. “The palate is zesty and tangy with plenty of drive and energy. An enticing textural richness adds extra appeal.”

Mâconnais wines are generally broader and riper in flavour.
Mâconnais wines are generally broader and riper in flavour.

Mâconnais

This is the southernmost part of Burgundy, with Beaujolais nestling at the bottom and with only 30 kilometres separating it from the northern Rhône. The chardonnay wines are generally broader, riper in flavour and have lower acidity than in the Côte de Beaune. They’re the antithesis of Chablis.

2016 Chateau-Fuissé Pouilly-Fuissé Tête de Cru (A$60) shows ripe yellow peach on the nose with nutty development appearing. The wine’s round in the mouth, with good flesh and balance, and a light texture to finish. “Made in a riper style,” Dunne began. “Beeswax. Good weight on the back palate with a mineral touch.”

2016 Domaine Leflaive Mâcon-Verzé (A$65) has a reticent nose, showing a fresh, white nectarine aroma. The palate’s similar in character and beautifully balanced, and Hooke agreed. “Reserved but quietly complex,” he said. “Shaved almond, smoky, nutty aromas, developing honey as it aired and warmed. The palate is tight and refined, taking a while to open up, but growing more and more impressive. Subtle smoky buttery overtones. It will live on.”

2016 Domaine Saumaize-Michelin Saint-Véran (A$55) ticks all the boxes – fresh white peach and lemon on the nose followed by intense flavours and a crisp, fine finish with a hint of chalky texture. “An assertive wine with good, ripe juicy fruit,” noted Paterson. “Hints of caramel, butter and oatmeal. Excellent length with lingering grapefruit flavours. A big, bold, generous style.”

2015 Domaine Thibert Père et Fils Pouilly-Fuissé (A$62) had universal approval. “Wax and flint nose,” said Knox. “Good mid-palate concentration with some smoky savoury notes. Characters of stone fruits with phenolic structure and bright acidity driving a long palate.”

2017 Louis Jadot Saint-Véran (A$42) has a full nose redolent of preserved lemons. The palate’s quite textured, but with plenty of flesh to give balance. It finishes chalky yet fine. “Pure, with pineapple skin and good lees work,” added Dunne. It’s ready now.

2017 Philippe Bouchard Mâcon-Villages (A$20) crept in for its great value. “A heady and expressive nose of stone fruits, melon and spice,” said Paterson. “The palate is gently juicy and textural with good depth.” Bourne added, “Ruby grapefruit and ripe feijoa. Finishes with a powerful thrust.” Hooke and Knox, however, thought it simple and short. This gives a mouthful of flavour.  

Top French Chardonnays

5 STARS
95 2017 La Chablisienne Le Finage Chablis, A$38
95 2015 Marc Colin et Fils Bourgogne La Combe, A$60

4 STARS
94 2016 Domaine Leflaive Mâcon-Verzé, A$65
94 2015 Domaine Thibert Père et Fils Pouilly-Fuissé, A$62
93 2017 Daniel Dampt & Fils Chablis 1er Cru Côte de Lechet, A$68
93 2016 Domaine Faiveley Mercurey Clos Rochette Blanc, A$43
93 2017 Domaine Jean Dauvissat Père & Fils Chablis, A$50
93 2016 Domaine Matrot Bourgogne, A$46
92 2015 Domaine des Hâtes Les Chatillons Chablis, A$57
92 2016 Domaine Saumaize-Michelin Saint-Véran, A$55
92 2016 Louis Moreau Bourgogne, A$40
91 2017 J. Moreau & Fils Chablis, A$49
91 2017 Louis Jadot Chablis, A$49
91 2016 Vincent Girardin Cuvée Saint-Vincent Bourgogne Blanc, A$43
90 2017 Bouchard Père et Fils Bourgogne La Vignée, A$35
90 2017 Domaine Bernard Defaix Chablis, A$61
90 2017 Domaine Goisot Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre, A$48
90 2017 Domaine Louis Michel & Fils Chablis, A$50
90 2016 Domaine Paul Pillot Bourgogne Blanc, A$73
90 2016 Etienne Boileau Chablis 1er Cru Montmains, A$47
90 2017 Gilbert Picq Chablis, A$53
90 2017 Louis Moreau Chablis, A$44
90 2017 Louis Moreau Domaine de Biéville Chablis, A$36
90 2017 Stephanie et Vincent Michelet Chablis, A$55
90 2017 William Fèvre Chablis, A$40

3 STARS
89 2016 Chateau-Fuissé Pouilly-Fuissé Tête de Cru, A$60
89 2017 Domaine Drouhin Vaudon Chablis, A$43
89 2016 Domaine Roland Lavantureux Chablis Vieilles Vignes, A$60
89 2016 Maison Roche de Bellene Bourgogne Vieilles Vignes, A$33
88 2016 Domaine Eleni et Edouard Vocoret Le Bas de Chapelot Chablis, A$55
88 2017 Domaine Laroche Chablis Saint Martin, A$60
88 2017 Louis Jadot Saint-Véran, A$42
87 2017 Philippe Bouchard Mâcon-Villages, A$20