Collecting guide White Burgundy wine

Collecting guide: White Burgundy wine

With the offer of some exceptional and rare white burgundies in our Fine and Rare Wines  sale in London on 20 March, Christie's Wine Specialist Charles Foley offers an introduction to the greatest white wines on Earth

The rising interest in the best Burgundy wines in our Christie’s auctions has not only resulted in a growing demand for the finest Pinot Noirs, but also reflects a dramatic increase in the worldwide thirst for grand and premier cru white Burgundies.

The best of white burgundy hails from the region just south of Dijon known as the Cote d’ Or (literally, ‘golden slope’), a limestone escarpment that stretches south as far as the river Dheune, about 65km long and between one and two kilometres wide. While the northern half, the Côte de Nuits, produces red wine almost exclusively, the Côte de Beaune, around Beaune in the south, produces both reds and whites.

The grape

In common with other white burgundy regions — Chablis and Mâconnais — the wines are made from a single grape: Chardonnay. Although there are successful examples of good Chardonnay made in California, Chile and Australia, it’s in the southern part of the Côte de Beaune and the slopes of the Corton hill that the greatest white wines in the world are made. Just three small villages — Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet — must supply the increasing number of wine collectors who thirst for these vinous treasures.

Founded in 1731, Bouchard Père et Fils is one of the oldest wine estates in Burgundy

Founded in 1731, Bouchard Père et Fils is one of the oldest wine estates in Burgundy

The styles: Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet

Its difficult to generalise on different styles, although its fair to say that the wines of Meursault give a nuttier, rounded style of wine compared to the tensile, refined and focused wines from Puligny-Montrachet. Chassagne is more broad-shouldered and intense compared to its neighbours.

But it is the mystique of the individual vineyards — the magic of what the French term ‘terroir’ — and the hard craft of the producers that really drives each wines style.

The best vineyards

In Pinot Noir country, north of Beaune, the isolated grand cru of Corton-Charlemagne makes one of the most refined white grand crus, with a vibrant acidity and mineral tone that requires ageing in the bottle to truly reveal its character.

White Burgundy reaches its highest quality in Montrachet itself. In January 2017 the Christie’s wine team had the pleasure of tasting at Bouchard Père & Fils a number of Montrachets from 2015, 2008, 1992, 1971 and 1939. While all were of a very high quality level, it was the older wines that were showing best. The true complexity of a Montrachet only comes out after ten or more years of ageing.

The Domaines

There are many domaines that make profound white Burgundies, although here we will focus on the top tier as these are the most sought-after in our Christie’s wine auctions.

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Montrachet 1986, 12 bottles per lot. Sold for £96,000 on 28-29 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Montrachet 1986, 12 bottles per lot. Sold for £96,000 on 28-29 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is known for its exceptional red wines, but the famed producer has been turning its hand to crafting tiny quantities of Montrachet since the 1960s. The combination of power and purity in this wine makes it a fiercely contested lot at auction.

A true white wine specialist is Domaine Comte Lafon in Meursault, which has the deepest and coldest cellars in Burgundy. Dominique Lafon has been in charge of the domaine since 1985, and it is now cultivated along biodynamic principles without use of herbicides of chemical sprays. Lafon’s Montrachet displays a complexity and mystery that reveals him as a true master of his craft.

From the same village comes another domaine that focuses the minds of wine collectors: Domaine Coche-Dury. Although Jean-François Coche officially retired in 2010, his son Raphael continues to adhere to his father’s bywords: balance and length. 

The waiting list for a small allocation is long. His wines are examples of absolute refinement with beautiful acidity. From Bourgogne Blanc and Meursault village to his very rare Corton-Charlemagne, each level of the appellation pyramid will offer one of the best wines in that particular vintage. The tiny quantities produced each year make these wines a rare find — drinking one of the domaine’s premier crus is an experience any wine lover will remember.

Farther down the road is Domaine Roulot where, after pursuing an acting career in Paris, Jean-Marc Roulot succeeded his father Guy in 1989. Here are wines that give a complex crescendo of layer over layer of flavour, with Meursault-Charmes and Meursault-Perrières benchmarks of oatmeal complexity over pure white peach and lemon fruit.

To the south it is in the village of Puligny-Montrachet that we find one of the best known domaines for excellent white Burgundy, Domaine Leflaive. Its impressive portfolio of vineyards has no fewer then four grand crus: Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, Bienvenue Bâtard-Montrachet and Chevalier-Montrachet. These are superb wines that leave one in awe with each taste, but the real diamond in the crown here is the super-small production of Montrachet. If one is fortunate enough to receive an allocation of this wine, it is only in terms of single bottles, making it even rarer then Coche-Dury’s Corton-Charlemagne and DRC’s Montrachet, and certainly a treasure worth seeking.

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Other producers and wines of note include Comte de Vogüé, Musigny Blanc; Joseph Drouhin, Montrachet; Bouchard Père & Fils, Montrachet/Chevalier-Montrachet; and Ramonet, Montrachet