My first boss in newspapers was very popular among her colleagues. Not just because she was good at nodding patiently at everyone’s woes and then cheering them up with her naughty sense of humour, but also because she kept a fridge under her desk.
In the fridge, every Friday, were two bottles of mâcon-villages (occasionally chablis) that she used to invite colleagues in to drink out of plastic cups as a short respite from all the shouting that went on beyond her office door. This was my introduction to white burgundy – aka chardonnay – and I think it’s fair to say I wasn’t really appreciating the style.
St-Véran, mâcon and mâcon-villages are among the first white burgundies that many of us encounter and they’re all from the south of the region (unlike chablis, which is made in the north). Beyond that books-department fridge, for years I mostly drank them, like so many other people, in pubs and restaurants where they appeared to have been selected less for flavour and more to add an air of respectability to the wine list.
Over time, I tasted more. Gradually, I began to prize the subtle curves of chardonnay grown in a cool climate: the tentative creaminess; the subtle corseting where oak has been used; the riffs of citrus and apple; the sense of place. Over time, the wines from those appellations also improved – partly a result of climate change, partly one of talent and hard work.
“Good value” is not a phrase that is much used in conjunction with burgundy, but there are now lots of white wines made in what are considered the lesser appellations of the Mâconnais district that offer exactly that.
You want an example? Majestic has a lovely one (see wines of the week, below). Another? Domaine Mallory et Benjamin Talmard, Mâcon-Villages 2020 (France, The Wine Society, £11.50) is a reassuring and reliable old favourite.
For something smarter, wines that really punch out of their appellation, look to the likes of Jacques Saumaize Saint-Véran en Crèches 2019 (France, The Wine Society, £14.50), or spend a little more on producers such as Domaine Daniel Barraud, whose wines are imported by Lea & Sandeman – the Saint-Véran en Crèches (France, Lea & Sandeman, £23.75) is particularly good.
If you’re looking for good value white from the rest of Burgundy, you can add the appellation of Saint-Aubin to your list. Farther north on the Côte de Beaune – to the north of and between the starry appellations of Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet – Saint-Aubin has also benefited from global warming and been propelled into the limelight by gifted producers such as Domaine Hubert Lamy and Domaine Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey.
Wines from Lamy and Colin-Morey exist in a (very happy) stratosphere of their own (the latter is so fêted that the winemaker is usually referred to by the initials PYCM). But you can also find more affordable wines from Saint-Aubin. They’re often characterised by a rich nuttiness (think roasted hazelnuts), such as The Society’s Exhibition Saint-Aubin Blanc 2019 (France, The Wine Society, £18), a super Saint-Aubin that I would have my eye on for Christmas.
But there is an issue. Burgundy has had a difficult vintage this year; its vineyards were ravaged by spring frosts. As a result, more than one independent wine merchant has told me producers are hanging on to their wines instead of selling them and that “we can’t get as much as we want”.
This need not be a disaster for your dinner table, however. You could look for chardonnay elsewhere in France: perhaps from Limoux, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Aldi has one that’s very serviceable for the price, though perhaps less subtle and more thickly flavoured than Limoux can be: Specially Selected Chardonnay Limoux 2020 (France, Aldi, £6.99).
And burgundy lovers would do well to consider wines beyond Europe, too. Because at the same time as those more affordable regions of Burgundy were benefiting from warmer weather, producers in other parts of the world were seeking out higher slopes and cooler regions and vineyards to make wines that are very classical in style.
I’m thinking in particular of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. The Cape has many excellent chardonnay producers. I like the crisp nerve of Iona Chardonnay 2019 (South Africa, The Wine Society, £16), from Elgin. And one that really dances and flows, in the same way that burgundy flows, mingling warmth and freshness, is made by Boschkloof in Stellenbosch (see below).
In Australia you could look to the regions of Margaret River or Mornington Peninsula. I would pick out Kooyong Clonale Chardonnay 2019 (Mornington Peninsula, Australia, greatwine.co.uk, £22), which tastes quite creamy and bright. I’d describe it as a soprano, not a bass, chardonnay: it’s aged in French oak, but the overarching themes are white peach and lemon.
After opening a lot of bottles, this is the one I drank with Diana Henry’s crab and peas with casarecce; the lemon notes freshened up the crab and chimed with the sugar snaps and pea shoots. I also love Hill-Smith Estate Chardonnay 2019 (Australia, Waitrose, £11.99), from Eden Valley, which is the cooler part of the Barossa, and it is fantastic value: made using only wild yeast and matured in French oak, this is a subtle and gently mealy Australian chardonnay. If I’d been eating roast chicken and not crab pasta, this is the one we’d have drunk. Not one for those who love wines that taste of pineapples and heavy oak.
Finally, New Zealand. The star producers here are Kumeu River (in the North Island) and Neudorf (in Nelson, on the South Island). I’ve tasted their wines with French wine producers who patriotically believed they were drinking chardonnay from their homeland. Marlborough makes some lovely chardonnay too – it’s not all sauvignon blanc. Do try some.
Wines of the week
Boschkloof Chardonnay 2020, Stellenbosch, South Africa (13%, greatwine.co.uk, £16.95)
Since taking over the winemaking at this small family farm on the edge of Stellenbosch less than a decade ago, Reenen Borman has already carved out a big reputation for both red and white wines. This is a particularly graceful chardonnay, with flavours of white peach and citrus. Very impressive.
Kumeu Village Hand-Harvested Chardonnay 2020, New Zealand (13.5%, The Wine Society, £10.50)
Kumeu River Wines is a chardonnay-specialist situated just outside Auckland. As well as its single vineyard estate wines (all of which are well-worth seeking out) it makes this entry-level chardonnay. Partially fermented in old French barrels, it has a gentle nuttiness and a creamy texture. Great value.
Definition Mâcon-Villages 2020, France (Majestic, £11.99/9.99 single bottle/mix six price)
Made by the Cave de Lugny co-operative, which produces about a third of all the wines in the Mâconnais district of south Burgundy, Majestic’s own-label Mâcon-Villages is unoaked, with the faintest hint of orange peel and a gentle freshness that makes it very easy to drink.