The region of Burgundy—is there any other winegrowing area as complicated and difficult to understand? Besides the fact that the overwhelming majority of the white wine here is Chardonnay and the red is almost entirely Pinot Noir, trying to get a grasp on villages, producers and labels can be exasperating. At the same time, wine from Burgundy is some of the most pleasurable and rewarding wine out there. When I think of white Burgundy, two distinct styles come to mind: Chablis and Meursault. Although these wines are each made from Chardonnay, the neutral quality of the grape allows it to express terroir and the soil on which its vines were grown, unlike many other varietals.
There is no other place in the world that makes wines quite like those from Chablis. This region is located closer to Champagne than to the rest of Burgundy and is so far north and can be so cold that the grapes grown here have a hard time ripening. The resulting wines are high in acidity and can be quite austere. The famous Kimmeridgian limestone soil is made up of fossilized shellfish (200 million years ago, the Côte d’Or was a tropical sea!) that bring a particular mineral characteristic to the wines of Chablis. Although some producers are beginning to age Chablis in oak, most of the wines have a reputation for intense mineral, steely qualities from the region’s unique geology and stainless steel aging. These are wines that can be enjoyed while still somewhat young and fresh but others have the ability to please after a decade of aging.
Meursault, on the other hand, comes from the lower portion of the Côte d’Or, the Côte de Beaune. The same grape, but a completely different style of wine! Here, Chardonnay takes on creamy, nutty, oatmeal-like characteristics. Meursault often spends more time aged in oak than Chardonnay from other areas of the Côte de Beaune and is known for its rich concentration of flavor and seductive, silky texture. The best Meursault can age for many years in bottle and wines from this region and neighboring regions like Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet are some of the most sought after and highly regarded white wines in the world.
After considering villages, labels, vintages, vineyards (several producers can make wine from the same vineyard) and the array of producers, the intricacies of Burgundy may make you want to throw in the towel. Luckily, the food that calls for Chardonnay from Burgundy, in particular those from Chablis and Meursault, are some of the simplest, most easy to make and delicious dishes. These are foods without super-strong flavors (else, they overwhelm the flavor of the Chardonnay), but with simple cream sauces and citrus tang that, when paired with these whites, tantalize our palates. In general, fish and shellfish are always great pairings, as well as white meats like roasted chicken and even quail. Pastas, polenta and beans provide a textural layer for many of these wines. The more mature the wine (think Meursault), the more neutral the food should be, mirroring the flavors of the wine. Younger, zippier Chablis can be brilliant with slightly richer dishes as the high acidity of the wine cuts through the richness of the dish. After you’ve selected your wine (and hopefully discovered some reasonably priced bottles) here are six dishes that you can enjoy with minimal culinary effort.
1.) Poached oysters with watercress cream sauce (Chablis). A beautifully simple, fresh and easy recipe. Oysters are a classic pairing for Chablis, considering the makeup of the region’s soil and the mineral quality of the wine that mirrors it. The cream sauce itself is simple, with just a bit of watercress, but still adds complexity to the dish. The acidity in Chablis keeps the heaviness of the cream sauce to a minimum. Try Louis Michel & Fils Chablis Vaudésir 2009.
2.) Herb marinated grilled sea bass on great northern beans (Chablis). Sea bass is a great fish to pair with Chablis, as it is light and delicate in flavor. The herbs and garlic in the dish complement the mineral qualities of the wine while the beans add a textural layer to the pairing. Adding lemon to the marinade brings the wine and the food closer together, since Chablis has its own citrus qualities. Try a Chablis that’s not quite so high in acid, with a bit of a richer texture that will stand up to the beans, such as William Fèvre Chablis Bougros Côte Bouguerots Domaine 2009.
3.) Oeufs en meurette (Chablis). This classic dish of poached eggs in red wine sauce can be tweaked to make a fabulous pairing for Chablis. Instead of a red wine sauce, a Chablis and cream sauce adds a perfect compliment for the wine. Sliced truffles over the top or fresh herbs add a layer of complexity to the dish. This recipe has enough flavor and richness to sync with an elegant Chablis like Pascal Bouchard Chablis Blanchot 2009.
4.) Almond trout (Meursault). Buttered grilled fish with flaked almonds—it’s hard to think of a better partner for Meursault. The butter and almonds reflect the creamy, nutty character of the wine. The trout is light enough in flavor not to overwhelm the wine while the grill flavors pick up the oak accents in the wine. Louis Jadot Meursault Perrières 2008 will work nicely with this simple dish.
5.) Scallops in béchamel sauce (Meursault). Again, a most simple dish to make but hedonistically satisfying with Meursault. The scallops are light in flavor but higher in texture, a great match with the creaminess of the wine. The simple white sauce adds to this creamy element but keeps a low flavor profile, allowing the wine to shine. A Meursault with a strong acidic structure will keep the dish from being weighed down, like Philippe Bouzereau Meursault Perrières Château de Cîteaux 2009.
6.) Gougères, or French cheese puffs (Meursault). A meat-free bite to eat and a classic Meursault pairing. The buttery, savory pastry dough (also used to make profiteroles and beignets) creates a layer of texture that reflects the creamy, fuller-bodied Meursault. A young Gruyère that’s creamy and nutty in flavor is great for the Gougères and mirrors the flavor profile of the Meursault. This Burgundian pastry would be excellent with Joseph Drouhin Meursault 2008.
It’s been said that there exists a Chardonnay for every occasion, and the two distinct styles of Chablis and Meursault cover many of them. These are wines, and recipes, that you can have at home when the air is chill, or out on the patio by the grill when it’s warm. You can drink young Chablis on a casual occasion or opt for a more expensive, aged Meursault to complete a special evening. It may take you some time in the wine shop to find the right Chablis or Meursault (it can be difficult to interpret villages and vintages, let alone choose a producer!) but what’s really so bad about spending time cruising the Burgundy aisle? Whether you’re looking for the tang and mineral raciness of Chablis or the creamy, nutty lushness of Meursault, these wines are intensely pleasurable. So don’t worry about the food—poached oysters practically cook themselves. By the time you’ve polished your glasses, the perfect pairing for your wine is on the table. Enjoy!