Getting to the Cote de Beaune
Many producers around the World try to emulate the Burgundian style of Chardonnay. And, some get pretty close. This can often make getting to the Cote de Beaune in a blind tasting tricky.
Justification for getting there will be different depending on the wine or flight of wines presented. It could be: the balance of richness and elegance; the density and tension; the complex and layered flavour profile of baked apple, bright citrus fruit, hazelnut and integrated new oak with an underlying minerality; or a combination of these things.
Chardonnay can achieve this rich and complex but poised style in the Cote de Beaune due to a combination of factors. The northern location and continentality mean relatively moderate temperatures and broad diurnal variation. This allows a high level of fresh, crisp natural acidity to be retained. The generally poor, fairly shallow soil prevents excessive vigour and encourages the vine to ripen its fruit. The limestone soil that dominates the region can also help the grapes retain the acidity and impart an elegance to the wine.
The northern location also means long day light hours during the ripening period. Its believe this long UV exposure helps develop more complex, layered flavours. The south to south-east facing slopes mean better sun exposure and helps facilitate ripeness despite the cooler temperatures.
In blind tasting, getting to the Cote de Beaune can be one thing but then narrowing it down to somewhere more specific can be quite another. With so much variation within each commune (a function of both terrain, vintage, and winemaking) it’s not unusual to find Meursaults that taste like Pulignys and Chassagnes that taste like Mersaults and so on.
However, it’s important to know what is typical for each of the communes. It shows that you understand how the overall terroir of each commune typically, although not always, effects the flavour and style of the wine produced there. The specifics of the three main Chardonnay producing communes of the Cote de Beaune — Meursault, Puligny Montrachet, and Chassagne Montrachet — are outlined below.
Hallmarks: there are two general styles of Mersault. Rich, broad and buttery examples are cited in many texts as the classic style. However, there’s also more intense, racier examples with pronounced minerality/earthiness and distinct backbone. Grilled hazelnut, almond, oatmeal, browned butter, vanilla spice, peach, and citrus are also common flavour descriptors.
Why it tastes like this: the breadth of styles seen in Mersault can in part be attributed to its size. Meursault is the third largest commune in Cote d’Or behind Beaune and Gevrey-Chambertin. With this comes an (even more) increased variety of orientations and soils. Traditionally, Meursault is aged in barrels for longer than other communes usually 18-20 months (adding to complexity, richness, depth, ageability). Allen Meadows (aka the Burghound) talks about the richer Mersaults typically coming from the flatter vineyards of the appellation and the more focused mineral driven wines coming from the slopes. In his book, Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate and Culture in the Making of French Wines, James Wilson suggests a reason for this is in the soil. Vineyards further up the slope, such as Les Perrieres, only have about a foot of soil before hitting solid bedrock and produce lighter wines that are more mineral, stony, and flinty. By contrast, in vineyards farther down the slope, such as Les Charmes, there can be more than 6ft of soil before reaching bedrock. These vineyards tend to produce wines that are less flinty and more mellow and rounded. Another reason is the lower water table in Mersault results in drier soils leading to smaller crops and therefore more concentrated, richer fruit. The lower water table also means more underground cellars in Mersault than elsewhere and therefore traditionally spend longer in barrel.
What else: Benjamin Lewin MW suggests a new typicity for Meursault as having a more mineral focus. Dominique Lafon agrees with him. He also suggests some of the butteryness and richness associated with Mersault can, in part, be attributed to the previous world-wide trend for this style of Chardonnay.
Hallmarks: intense, precise minerality and tight, steely, backbone. Floral elegance and clarity of fruit alongside stylish, steely concentration.
Why it tastes like this: Puligny has a much higher active limestone content than the other communes. More limestone generally produces firmer tighter and more mineral wines. A higher water table also means it doesn’t have the deep cellars of Meursault so typically is not aged as long in barrel, which means less richness. Typically it is racked out of bottle before the next vintage
What else: there is a trend towards riper styles. Many Premier Crus are showing their richness before minerality. This can make it easy to confuse with more mineral versions of Mersault. In general, Puligny is more refined and delicate than Mersault but less perfumed. Compared to Chassagne it is perhaps a bit more austere
Hallmarks: a fine balance of rich, ripe fruit and fresh, crisp acid with some textural breadth. Often noted for being half way between steeliness of Puligny and the richness of Mersault.
Why it tastes like this: lime content of soils not as high as Puligny to give the intense minerality and tautness. Water table and soils not as deep as Mersault to get the richness