Chardonnay lovers who have for years been drinking their way through the California wines might now turn to Burgundy. That is not an invitation to abandon West Coast chardonnays, which are full of fruit and less oaky and alcoholic than they were a few years ago. But with good California chardonnays costing $18, $20 and even $24 a bottle, it is time to buy into the medium- range chardonnays from the land that made them famous in the first place.
I am not referring to the more steely whites of Chablis or the abundant but exorbitantly priced wines of Pouilly-Fuiss,e, but those from the C.ote d'Or, the 30-mile stretch south from Dijon that is the essence of Burgundy. The best buys come from Meursault, the village and surrounding vineyards that produces more white wine than its neighbors.
Good Meursau a full, rich quality that devotees of California chardonnay will appreciate, as well as added notes of complexity. Its opulence is better suited to white meats such as chicken and even pork than to fish, with the exception of swordfish and some substantial, sauced seafood dishes.
"Meursault," writes Anthony Hanson in Burgundy, "is a beautiful green-gold . . . The wines keep their bouquet, freshness and flavor perfectly when their development in hogshead allows a fairly early bottling."
Nowadays all burgundies tend to be approachable early because of more technical perfection, a lesson learned in part from the California winemakers. A producer in Burgundy once told me, "We worry about the soil, but in California all they talk about is cold fermentation, and clones." A trace of earthiness does come across in a Meursault, although it is more lyrical than literal. "Soil" implies complexity that so far the chardonnay grape has not acquired in other climes; it is the hallmark of great burgundy.
There are two types of Meursault and a wide divergence of quality within both categories, so you have to be careful -- and often lucky -- in your choices. In the first category are village wines entitled to use the name Meursault as well as the better vineyards, or premier crus. The most famous of these are Charmes, Perri often joined to the name Meursault with a hyphen. Remember that within each of these large vineyards are many different producers of varying skill and dedication, so one Meursault-Charmes, for instance, can be much better than its immediate neighbor. Also, the lines between village and premier crus are often blurred.
Vintages in Burgundy tend to be more important than those in California. The years 1978 and '79 were excellent for Meursault, the former producing well-structured wines with a lot of aging potential. The '79s were more approachable and are excellent for drinking now if yu can find and afford them. (A '79 Meursault crus costs about $20.) Unfortunately, 1980 was a bad year, with insubstantial wines that have not held up.
The 1981 vintage, widely available, has great backbone -- meaning good acidity -- and can be drunk now or put away. The '82, also good and plentiful, but lighter and fruitier, is eminently drinkable.
Good producers of all vintages include Drouhin, Jadot, Latour and Matrot.