Montrachet, Chablis,Mersault: if you want to know how a white wine should taste, stick to these Burgundies!
I am not really a wine writer. When asked, I always say that I write about food but I only drink wine. Partly this is because I don’t have the discerning palate and nose of a wine lover—when we go out to restaurants, it is always my wife who tastes the wine.
But mostly it is because I don’t have the geographical range to be knowledgeable about wine. For most of my life, I have concentrated on one country: France.
I like good Italian red wines and drink them all the time (though I can do without Prosecco or Italian whites) and whenever I travel abroad I stick to the local wine. This means that I have some experience of Spanish, Portuguese, Austrian, Australian and New Zealand wines, but no real knowledge. And when it comes to Germany, it is all too complex for me. (I can’t even pronounce the names.)
Within France, I like most wines (not wild about non-sparkling rose, though) but sadly, many are unavailable in India. Those that you can get are either basic or very high end (the great chateaux of Bordeaux for instance). Even with champagne, we get the big names - Krug, Cristal, Dom Perignon, etc. – but not the smaller growers’ champagnes that have taken the wine world by storm over the last decade.
Fortunately, our wine importers do bring in a reasonable quantity of what is probably my favourite wine in the world: white Burgundy. Unfortunately, all too often the bottles do not travel well and the wines are spoiled by the time they reach our tables. (I watched in mortification many years ago when my wife sent back three successive bottles of Burgundy at the Taj Palace. She was right. The wines were spoilt. But it is still an awkward thing to do at a top restaurant.)
If you like wine, you have probably drunk white Burgundy even if it has not been described as such. The most familiar white Burgundy is probably Chablis.
When I first started drinking it decades ago, prices were not too high and it had what we then regarded as classic Chablis character: acid and minerality. (The French use a term that translates as gunflint which sounds kind of ambiguous but which makes sense the moment you have your first sip.)
Over the years, the producers of basic Chablis (wine that is simply labelled as Chablis) have adopted different styles. Many have abandoned the traditional acidic edge to make smoother wines that beginners find easier to drink. Sadly, unless you know every producer and bottler in Chablis, it is not easy to be sure about what you are getting till the bottle is opened.
The great thing about all of Burgundy is that these days, very few grape varieties are planted. Nearly all of the white wine is made from one grape: chardonnay. This is a fairly bland grape which American wine-makers love because they can tart it up (new oak, lots of chemical tricks, etc.) during the wine making process.
In Burgundy, however, wine is an agricultural product so ideally there is minimal human intervention. Two villages a few miles apart will produce completely different wines. Even within a vineyard, the first row of vines may produce a better wine than the second row.
So, the best Chablis is made, even from undistinguished vineyards, by growers who know how to bring out the taste of the grapes and the soil. (Everyone agrees that the best producers are Dauvissat and Raveneau but good luck if you want to find their wines here.)
You will find quite bland Chablis in India (it is still drinkable) and more than often than not, sommeliers with fob you off with Petit Chablis which is not Chablis at all but is a region on the periphery of Chablis. Even when Raveneau makes Petit Chablis, it is not a great wine. So send it back if they serve it to you pretending that it is real Chablis.
The classic pairing for Chablis is oysters but that only works if you get real Chablis, with its mineral notes. Over a decade ago, my wife and I went to a restaurant in Chablis with our friends Aman and Madhulika Dhall. One of the dishes we ate was oysters in a sea water emulsion, served with cold Chablis. Madhulika and I still talk about that combination whenever we meet and it may be the most perfect Chablis pairing I have ever tasted.
Of the 5,500 hectares in the Chablis region, the best wines come from just 18 per cent of the vineyards. If you want classic Chablis character, order a Premier Cru (16 per cent of the region). There are 40 Premier Crus of which some (Vaillons and Fourchaume) appear on many Indian wine lists. They will exhibit real Chablis character and if you want to be sure of what you are getting, splash out on them.You will not be disappointed.
Chablis is a slightly strange region in the sense that the seven grand Cru vineyards (all on one hill) make a subtler, deeper, rounder wine which you may not immediately recognise as Chablis. They are all wonderful but my favourite is Les Clos. Currently the Grand Crus represent the best value of all the top wines of Burgundy.
I like Chablis because it usually costs less than other great white Burgundies and pairs wonderfully well with fish (not just oysters). I started drinking it when I was young because it was the only white Burgundy I could afford and it still has a special place in my heart.
The most famous white wine of Burgundy is Le Montrachet, a small vineyard which produces some of the world’s most expensive white wine. Few of us can afford the wine and I have drunk Le Montrachet only once and it more than lived up to its reputation.
Such is Montrachet’s fame that the surrounding villages have added its name to theirs. Puligny (where most of Le Montrachet is located) changed its name to Puligny-Montrachet. Its neighbour (and rival) Chassagne used to make lots of (so-so) red wine but since the fame of Montrachet has spread, the red vines have been pulled out and replaced with chardonnay.
There are greater Burgundies (Corton Charlemagne, for instance), all of which I cannot afford but I can drink Puligny with nearly everything. A few years ago, as an experiment, I served Puligny at home along with a nice Dum Pukht biryani to some French friends who had fallen for all the only-Riesling-with-Indian-food crap. They had to concede that the wine and the fragrant rice went perfectly.
The caricature view, at least in Puligny, is that Chassagne is the less complex wine. But it is hard to generalise because the wines differ from vineyard to vineyard. A Chassange from Domaine Ramonet will top most of Puligny’s wines. And even Batard Montrachet (just below Montrachet on the map) which is supposed to be a lesser wine will rise to great heights in a domaine like Leflaive.
My solution (at least in India) is to be grateful for any kind of Montrachet. I even drink it with Chinese food at Delhi’s China Kitchen and it has never disappointed.(Actually it is the perfect pairing with the restaurant’s famous Peking Duck and goes with both, the thin slices of crisp duck skin and the hoisin sauce that comes with the duck.)
Which brings us to the big question: it is all very well to talk about these wines but given that we don’t eat lobster and oysters every day, does it make sense to drink white burgundy regularly. My view is slightly perverse, I believe that you choose the wine first and worry about the food later.
If I have a good bottle of white Burgundy, then I might just lightly sauté prawns in garlic and butter and open the bottle. The food doesn’t matter that much as long as it doesn’t interfere with the wine.
Two weeks ago, at Megu, the Japanese restaurant at the Leela Palace in Delhi, Gaurav Dixit, the young sommelier served us a 2011 Meursault, a 2011 Chassagne and a younger Puligny.
We had Japanese oysters with the Puligny (perfect) and scallop sashimi with the Chassagne. But the great flavour explosion came with the combination of a Puligny and raw sea urchin. I can still close my eyes and remember that marriage of flavours.
Meursault is supposed to be a fleshier wine, plumper than any of the Montrachets but once again, it is a mistake to generalise because producers in the village are now aiming for a less lush wine. But what is clear is that Meursault only reveals it secrets when you pair it with something that is umami-packed.
The Japanese chef at Megu braised some fresh and fleshy shitake mushrooms with soya and Japanese spices and created the dish of the evening. We had the mushrooms with the Meursault and nothing (not even the toro sashimi) tasted as good after that.
You may get some idea of my love for white burgundy from all of the above. I don’t drink wine without food but I have yet to think of a meal (except a steak, may be) that does not improve with a good bottle of Burgundy.
It can be expensive but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. There are lesser wines (say Saint Aubin) which are more reasonably priced because the global market (and sadly most Indian importers) has not discovered them. A decade ago, when I helped compile the wine list for Air-India, I packed it with cheaper and lesser known Burgundies. (Now alas, Air India is back to serving cat’s piss.) They didn’t cost that much but they elevated every flight.
So, if you like wine or want to know more, here’s my suggestion: start with white Burgundy. It will do things to your palate that you never thought were possible!
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