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White Burgundy (January 10, 2008)

"Chardonnay," says my friend Ron Giesbrecht, the winemaker at Henry of Pelham, "is the chicken of the vineyard." Which has nothing to do with the delicate sensibilities of this widely planted variety. The metaphor is culinary.

Chardonnay, like chicken, can be whatever you want it to be; it all depends on how you prepare it. Give a chicken to ten chefs and you'll get ten different taste experiences. So it goes with Chardonnay.

You may have heard of the ABC movement – "Anything But Chardonnay" – which speaks more to the exasperation of palate-weary North American wine writers than it does to consumers. Those who jump on the ABC bandwagon are sated with over-oaked, over-extracted tropical fruit bombs that have been lobbed at us from Australia and California. Ontario's Chardonnays, grown in a cool climate, are more Burgundian in style.

And the real wine lover can never tire of white Burgundy – Chardonnay's most noble expression. For centuries the Burgundians did not call their wines Chardonnay but named them after the parish or commune where the grapes were grown. So, you had Chablis, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Pouilly-Fuissé, Mâcon Blanc and even Beaujolais Blanc, all made from the same Chardonnay grape.

There are subtle but distinctive differences between all of these wines because of their terroir and the climate as you travel the region.

The best white Burgundies are never inexpensive, but if you want to spoil yourself, try:

2004 Puligny-Montrachet Les Perrieres (Henri Boillot)
Vintages #48348, $110.00

2004 Meursault les Charmes (H. Boillot)
Vintages #626853, $110.00

2004 La Soufrandière Pouilly-Vinzelles Climat les Quarts
Vintages #46490, $47.95

2004 Domaine Jean Pillot et Fils Chassagne-Montrachet les Macherelles
Vintages #25940, $89.00

2002 Labouré-Roi Corton Charlemagne Blanc
Vintages #45732, $117.95

Chablis, around 180 kilometers south of Paris, is the most northerly part of Burgundy. It's isolated from the rest of the region and closer to Champagne than it is to the Côte d'Or, the heart and soul of Burgundy. The cool climate and the limestone and clay soil here make for very crisp, sometimes austere wines that are mostly made in stainless steel to preserve their gun-flint and green apple character. These are wines that go well with oysters, seafood and delicate white fish.

The Côte d'Or, 110 kilometers south of Chablis, between Dijon and Santenay, contains some of the most expensive agricultural real estate on the planet. This district is divided between the Côte de Nuits (famous for its red wines) and the Côte de Beaune, where the truly sublime white Burgundies come from, as well as some delicious reds. Here you'll find the famous villages whose names grace the wine lists of the world's top restaurants: Pernand-Vergelesses, Ladoix-Serrigny, Aloxe-Corton, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. The hyphenated villages, incidentally, have attached to themselves the name of the most prestigious vineyard in the area. The white wines from the Côte d'Or, grown in limestone with higher temperatures, are remarkably elegant with flavours of apple and pear, nuts, white honey and minerally truffle notes balanced with spicy vanilla oak flavours. These wines go well with chicken, salmon, lobster and game birds.

The Côte Chalonnaise, a little further south, produces wines that may not be as refined as those of the Côte d'Or but they are less costly. Look for Mercurey, Rully and Montagny. These wines go well with runny cheeses as well as fish and white meat dishes.

Further south, before you get to Beaujolais, you come to the Mâconnais and the village called Chardonnay. This part of Burgundy is hilly and produces a lot of inexpensive wines, mainly in cooperatives. But it does have some outstanding wine values. Look for Pouilly-Fuissé, St-Véran and Mâcon-Villages. As you get further south the average temperatures rise, which means riper fruit. The best wines from this region have a pineapple note, although are a little rustic compared with their cousins in the Côte d'Or. Try them with fish and pasta dishes.

The best introduction to the pleasures of white Burgundy at an affordable price would be Louis Jadot Bourgogne Chardonnay 2005 ($18.95 at Vintages stores, #933077). Straw colour; on the nose, toasty oak with clove and apple nuances; medium-bodied, well balanced, dry and clean with harmonious fruit, oak and acidity.

But beware, it might spark a life-long love affair with a region whose wines can get mighty expensive.




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