When David Chang speaks, foodies listen (or they should). He's the founder and creative palate behind the New York-based Momofuku group of restaurants, a pan-Asian fine-dining sensation that grew out of a tiny Manhattan noodle bar famous for pork buns that made restaurant critics weep with ecstasy.
Chang has dabbled in television (of course) and the printed word. Last month he wrote a piece for GQ that proved to me, once and for all, that his sense of taste is beyond reproach. I discovered that he thinks white Burgundy is the ultimate wine.
Refreshingly, Chang seems as far from a wine snob as a restaurateur can get in the Michelin-star milieu of fancypants dining. By his admission, he is more of a light beer and sake guy when it comes to food-and-beverage pairing, and the wine he drinks most often is – are you ready? – "cheap white on ice." But, he wrote in GQ, "when there's a special occasion, or someone else is picking up the tab at dinner, I'm going for the stuff I think is the best in the world: white Burgundy." I wanted to give him a high-five.
He went on to describe white Burgundy as perhaps the world's most versatile wine, more so even than riesling. Strong words.
White Burgundy is the global high-water mark for chardonnay, a grape grown (often competently, sometimes beautifully, but way too often clumsily) pretty much everywhere. It undoubtedly is most at home in Burgundy, the east-central region of France better known for inducing lust for pinot noir-based reds. It ranges in style from steely-crisp Chablis in the far north to the mellower, fuller examples of such communes as Meursault further south, where oak-barrel aging adds volume and subtle characters of vanilla and toasty spice.
What for me generally distinguishes good white Burgundy from most other chardonnays is tension and relative austerity combined with integrated (rather than racy and disjointed) acidity. Even when full-bodied and powerful, the wines tend to be dry and kinetic rather than lazy and sweet. Call it minerality, if you will, or nervosité, a term favoured by some Burgundian winemakers. And there's often an intriguing nuttiness that you don't often get from New World chardonnays.
There must be something in the air that's bringing out confessions about white Burgundy because over at that other venerable men's magazine, Esquire, another rock-star foodie – this time a literal rocker – held forth on the same subject last month. Michael Diamond, better known as Mike D of 1980s band Beastie Boys, was interviewed on the occasion of his professional reinvention. At the ripe age of 51, he's begun wine consulting, having compiled most of the list for Hearth & Hound, a much-anticipated, soon-to-open Sunset Boulevard restaurant planned by April Bloomfield of New York's Spotted Pig fame.
While surfing in Costa Rica about a decade ago, Diamond reportedly got sucked deep into the wine-passion gyre – and into one style in particular – thanks to a few beverage agents who'd joined the surfing safari and brought cases of the good stuff to guzzle on the beach. "I think that was the start of my love affair with white Burgundy," he told Esquire. "I didn't realize the complexity that could be achieved in white wine."
The most complex and transcendent examples hail from the Côte de Beaune district, specifically from such storied little appellations as Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault, as well as from the top Chablis' vineyards designated as "grand cru." They tend to be pricy, as in $50-plus and rapidly ascending into the triple and in some cases quadruple digits.
But here's the thing: The region produces very good, much-less-expensive whites elsewhere that go by such place names as Rully, Viré Clessé, Saint-Véran, Pouilly-Fuissé and Mâcon. Then there's my favourite, Chablis, which need not break the bank if you settle on the ones not designated "grand cru." David Chang's all-time favourite happens to be a $140 Chablis from the great Domaine François Raveneau. It's a grand choice. But for pork buns, I'd almost be just as happy with a $20 Macon-Lugny.
Here's a selection of not-insanely priced new releases. They're available in limited supplies, like most white Burgundies, and mostly in Ontario and in private B.C. stores, but there are comparable examples from similar appellations in other provinces.
Deux Roches Vieilles Vignes Pouilly-Fuissé 2014, France
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $31.95
From mature vines ranging from 60 to 90 years of age. Creamy, buttery, ripe, toasty and moderately oaked, with suggestions of apricot jam, pineapple and vanilla. Rich chardonnay done right. Available in Ontario.
Domaine des Tourterelles Viré Clessé Terroir de l'Epinet 2015, France
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $22.95
Medium-full, silky and tidier than a maid at Buckingham Palace. Soft, tropical and peach-like fruit with a drizzle of honey and remarkably well-integrated acidity. Available in Ontario.
André Delorme Rully 2014, France
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $31.95
On the lighter side of full-bodied. Generous in density and flavour, oozing a sticky, caramel-crème-brûlée essence over ripe, almost tinned fruit and a faintly nutty note. Oaked chardonnay for adults, not sweet-toothed newbies. Available in Ontario.
Jean-Marc Brocard Sainte Claire Chablis 2015, France
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $26.95
Classically clean and clear Chablis, with a snappy, saline energy and fresh orchard-fruit flavours. Available in Ontario.
Joseph Drouhin Bourgogne Chardonnay 2015, France
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $22.95
Entry-level white Burgundy from a large, reputable producer, a blend of fruit from many sites in the region. Medium-weight and impressively harmonious, showing peaches, butter and a whisper of vanilla. A fairly priced introduction to restrained chardonnay in the Burgundy style.
Bouchard Père & Fils Mâcon-Lugny Saint-Pierre 2015, France
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $18.50
Medium-bodied, with good depth and ripeness and soft tropical-fruit notes of pineapple and mango along with crisp apple. The finish is lively and clean. Elegant for the money. Available in Ontario at the above price, $24.49 in British Columbia (on sale for $22.49 until Oct 28), $24.99 in New Brunswick, $23.99 in Nova Scotia.
Louis Jadot Mâcon-Villages Chardonnay 2015, France
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $20.65
Soft, smooth centre. Peach, citrus and a dab of butter. This is naked, unoaked chardonnay with compellingly Burgundian balance. Straightforward, and perhaps more of an Accord than Mercedes sedan, but the engine is well-tuned and the body spotless. Available in Ontario.
Beppi Crosariol will be among the hosts of The Globe and Mail River Cruise, which sails next August through the wine regions of Burgundy, Beaujolais and the Rhône Valley. For details, visit tgam.ca/cruise.
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