The Two Montrachets
- Friday 7 October 2005
The two adjacent villages of Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet share some of Burgundy’s best white wine slopes. Both lie along the Côte de Beaune, and Chassagne is the more southerly of the two. Chassagne is also a bit larger, but about one third of its vineyards are planted with Pinot Noir. Indeed, Chassagne used to be better known for its red than for its white wines, but the quality of the latter has persuaded many growers to
replant red vines with Chardonnay. Nonetheless, 40% of Chassagne’s production is still of red wine of an earthy character. There are more than 20 premiers crus in Chassagne, some of them very small. Puligny has 17.
Since all of Puligny’s vineyards are devoted to white grapes, there is not much difference between the two villages in terms of production. Although the wines from each village can have distinct characteristics, it is far from easy to distinguish, in a blind tasting, between their wines. Chassagne tends to be weightier, perhaps more rounded, and stronger in overt fruit characteristics; Puligny is more tight and floral, with a pronounced acidity and minerality. Such generalisations are dangerous, however, since so many other factors come into play. There are, in both villages, very distinctive microclimates derived from altitude, exposition and soil type, that will influence the aroma, flavour and structure of a wine. And inevitably there is the human influence: the specific choices, in vineyard and winery, made by each producer.
The greatest wines from both Puligny and Chassagne come, as indeed they should, from the grands crus of each. Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet (3.6ha (hectares)) belongs in its entirety to Puligny, as does Chevalier-Montrachet (7.2ha), which lies immediately above Le Montrachet. Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet (1.6ha) belongs to Chassagne. However, both
Le Montrachet (8ha) and Bâtard-Montrachet (12ha) are shared, more or less equally, by both villages. Generalisations about these superb vineyards need to be sketchy, but it’s not too far wide of the mark to say that Chevalier is esteemed for its finesse, while Bâtard tends to show the greatest power and richness. Le Montrachet’s supremacy derives from the fact that it manages to blend the elegance of Chevalier with the body of Bâtard. Both Criots and Bienvenues have their detractors, and it does seem, when one stands in the vineyards, that their exposition is less favourable.
As is usual in Burgundy, the premiers crus are often located mid-slope: not too high, where the microclimate is colder and windier, and not too low, where the soil may be too rich. Nonetheless, elevation varies considerably among the premiers crus in Puligny and Chassagne. In Puligny, La Garenne, Hameau de Blagny and Sous le Puits are all quite high on the slope, so in less ripe years they can yield rather lean, austere wines. Nonetheless, most tasters would rate La Garenne very highly. In Chassagne, there are fewer high sites, though La Grande Montagne and Les Chaumées are well up the slope.
It is not easy to pronounce on which are the ‘best’ premiers crus available. First of all, it depends on the style of wine you enjoy. If you tend to favour richness of fruit over elegance, then in Chassagne you are much more likely to enjoy Morgeots or Champs Gain over Vergers or Caillerets. And in Puligny, Les Referts or Les Combettes will appeal to you more than Folatières or Cailleret. Then, too, the style of the winemaker will play its part.
Although some winemakers still favour a substantial proportion of new oak for their white wines, that has become very much the exception. Most growers opt for 25–35% new wood for their premiers crus, and perhaps 50% for their grands crus.
The terroirs of both Puligny and Chassagne are sufficiently strong that the use of new wood is usually perceived as a way to enhance a wine’s complexity rather than as a mere flavour component. These are all subtle wines. Rather than trumpeting their fruit profile, they offer instead a discreet blend of fruit, minerality, acidity and oak. The best of them age beautifully, replacing primary aromas with more complex notes of nuts and stone and toast.
Great white Burgundy is not for everyone – not in any snobbish sense, but simply because the appeal of its subtly nuanced style is far from universal. On the other hand, this is just as well, since there isn’t a great deal of it to go round.
There are many superlative wines in Puligny, but few bargains. Chassagne, in contrast, has a greater number of small growers, and the wines are slightly less expensive than those from Puligny. Overall, good-value wines are more likely to come from Chassagne than from Puligny.
Guy Amiot: In a village thickly populated by Moreys, Gagnards, and other winemaking clans, Thierry Amiot’s excellent 12ha (hectare) estate is sometimes overlooked. The vines are old and the use of new oak is discreet, allowing the minerality of the wine to shine forth. Caillerets is the finest, but Vergers and Baudines are close behind. The style is mineral but powerful.
Blain-Gagnard: Almost half of Jean-Marc Blain’s 7.5ha of vineyards are planted with red vines, but his white holdings include parcels in three grands crus: Criots, Bâtard, and Montrachet. Blain likes to blend wines from young and old parcels: the former for their fruit and vigour, the latter for their richness and concentration. The wines are aged in 30% new oak, though up to 50% for the grands crus. Boudriotte and Caillerets are probably his best premiers crus. The wines are elegant with an underlying acidity.
Chateau de la Maltroye Jean-Pierre Cornut has run this family estate since 1992 with energy and enthusiasm. He is fortunate to have a fine array of crus, including the 2.8ha site of Clos du Château. Cold cellars allow him to prolong the malolactic fermentation and lees-stirring, giving his wines freshness and richness. The proportion of new oak varies according to the cru and vintage. These are among the most powerful and sumptuous of Chassagnes.
Marc Morey: Bernard Mollard, who married into the Morey family, cultivates vines in some outstanding crus, including the two grands crus of Bâtard and Chevalier. Morey’s wines may not be the greatest from Chassagne, but they are dependably enjoyable and sensibly priced. Vergers and Caillerets are his finest wines.
Michel Niellon: Niellon only farms 4.5ha of white Chassagne, so his wines are scarce. But they’re worth seeking out. He goes his own way, ageing in tanks as well as barrels to maintain freshness: the proportion of new oak rarely exceeds 20%. Apart from his grands crus (Bâtard and Chevalier), his top wine is Chaumées Clos de la Truffière, made from 75-year-old vines. Niellon’s wines are best enjoyed young.
Ramonet: Pierre Ramonet, who died in 1994 aged 88, secured the reputation of Chassagne’s most revered estate. Today the 17ha property is run by his grandsons, Noël and Jean-Claude. I have never had a disappointing bottle from here. The wines are classic Chassagne: spicy, mineral, creamy and elegant. They are also among the most long-lived of white Burgundies. A 1979 Montrachet was still impeccable and satisfying more than 20 years later.
Louis Carillon: This 12ha family domaine is now looked after by Louis’s sons, Jacques and François. They farm more than 2ha of premiers crus and a parcel in grand cru Bienvenues. The Carillons avoid herbicides and chemicals, and the soil is ploughed. The white wines are aged for 12 months in 20% new oak. Perrières is often their best cru, though Referts and Combettes are good too. The wines have vigour, charm and abundant fruit, but can lack complexity.
Domaine Leflaive: Always the leading property in Puligny, the domaine was reinvigorated when Anne-Claude Leflaive converted the vineyards to biodynamism in 1997. The wines were very good before, but they have gained in brilliance, vigour and intensity. She aims for and achieves a crystalline quality. She is lucky to work with 3ha in premier cru Pucelles and more than five in premier cru Clavoillon, and owns a total of 5ha of grands crus: Chevalier, Bâtard, Bienvenues and Montrachet.
Olivier Leflaive: Anne-Claude’s cousin Olivier runs a small négociant house in Puligny, and since 1989 has had the same talented winemaker, Franck Grux, at his side. Although Leflaive buys in fruit, the crus tend to come from the same growers each year, with the Leflaives determining the crucial picking dates. The wines are full bodied and supple, with an enlivening acidity. Chassagne Garenne and Folatières, and Chassagne Vergers are among his best premiers crus, and the Bâtard is glorious.
Paul Pernot: The Pernot family owns 16ha in Puligny, but has always sold 75% of the crop to Drouhin. Its major holding is in Folatières, which is consistently good. The sole grand cru is Bienvenues, which has a rich, creamy, sometimes toasty style.
Etienne Sauzet: Sauzet’s son-in-law Gérard Boudot has been running this 10ha property since 1974. He also buys in from 5ha of grapes in Puligny to compensate for the loss of vineyards after a family feud in 1990. Since the mid-1990s the wines have been splendid: spicy, powerful, mineral and complex, with considerable variations, as there should be, between the various premiers crus. Combettes is often the best of them, but it can be rivalled by the brilliantly concentrated and mineral Perrières.
Many top producers are located in other villages. They include Jacques Prieur (sumptuous Combettes) and Génot-Boulanger. Among the négociants, Jadot makes celebrated Puligny from the Duc de Magenta estate; Drouhin is famed for its Chassagne premier cru and Montrachet from the Laguiche estate; newcomer Alex Gambal makes fine Chassagnes.
The structure of vineyard holdings in the villages mean that it has become almost impossible to establish a new domaine in either of them, so new faces tend to be new generations, rather than outsiders.
Chateau de Puligny-Montrachet
The château isn’t much to look at, and the 20ha (hectare) property is owned by a bank, but it’s enjoying a new lease of life under Etienne de Montille, who was appointed manager in 2001. By 2003 he had converted half the domaine to biodynamism, the rest to organic. He also moved the barrels to the damp château cellars from the air-conditioned chais, which, he believes, dried out the wines. He also reduced the proportion of new oak to 25%. The results are a triumph: dense, lush, mineral Folatières and tight, elegant grand cru Chevalier.
Alain Chavy, Puligny
When Gérard Chavy retired in 1998, his sons took over, but after four years as partners they split the land between them. Alain Chavy has almost 7ha to work with, with parcels in the premiers crus, Clavoillon, Pucelles and Folatières. The wines are aged in oak barrels, with a slender amount of new oak. The 2003 is plump and should be drunk soon, but the 2004, with its citric edge, shows great promise.
Jean-Louis Chavy, Puligny
The good humoured Jean-Louis Chavy has a similar range of premiers crus to his bother Alain, and the winemaking is much the same. I find his 2003 marginally more successful, while the 2004 shows a grapefruity zest that is fresh and enjoyable.
Benoit Ente, Puligny
Born in 1968, Ente worked the small 3ha family domaine in conjunction with an aunt, before the crop was sold to Louis Latour. From 1999 Ente went solo, controlling every detail of the farming and winemaking. The viticulture isn’t strictly organic but it is close, and Ente is strict with his yields. His first vintages were rich and opulent, thanks to energetic batonnage, but from 2002 he was pursuing a more refined style. The Village wine is very good, thanks to very old vines, while both premiers crus – Champs Gain and Folatières – combine a lush and harmonious texture with both minerality and length. An estate to watch.
Changes are afoot at this well known estate, as in 2004 the 18ha were divided between Michel Colin’s sons Philippe and Bruno. What effect this will have on the style of the wines it is far too early to say.
Jean-Noel Gagnard, Chassagne
Over the past decade Jean-Noël Gagnard has been gradually handing control of this superb domaine to his daughter Caroline Lestimé. They have parcels of old vines in Bâtard and in premier cru Caillerets, and a fine range of other premiers crus. These are rich wines, sometimes a touch too broad, but the Caillerets and Bâtard can have tremendous bite and piquancy. In good vintages such as 2000 and 2002, Chassagne doesn’t get much better than this.
Domaine des Lambrays, Morey-St-Denis
Morey is a long way from Puligny, but Thierry Brouin, the manager of this celebrated grand cru – Clos des Lambrays – also makes costly Puligny from two premiers crus: Folatières and Caillerets. When young, they can be quite austere and very intense, but they mellow into splendidly floral and almost exotic Pulignys of the first rank.
Puligny and Chassagne don’t come cheap, but within that context the following wines offer fair value for money
Amiot, Chassagne Caillerets 2002
Lime and oak aromas; rich, concentrated and tangy, with a powerful spicy finish. Best drunk 2006–2012.
Blain-Gagnard, Chassagne Boudriotte 2001
Tight, austere, and mineral, with a classic structure and a fine length. Drink between 2006 and 2012.
Colin-Deléger, Chassagne En Remilly 2002
Smoky aromas, but not too oaky; lush, concentrated, and with a pleasant
nutty finish. Drink now–2010.
JN Gagnard, Chassagne Caillerets 2002
Rich, ripe and powerful nose, with flavours to match. Also a long peppery finish. Drink 2007–2015.
V Jouard, Clos de la Truffière, Chassagne Chaumées 2003
An exceptional 2003 vintage which has beautiful spicy lime aromas and a lovely supple structure around the rich fruit. Drink now–2008.
Maltroye, Chassagne Clos du Château 2000
Flamboyant and oaky wine, with power and complexity, and a mineral finish. £30.25; HoR
Marc Morey, Chassagne Vergers 2001
A restrained style, with ample body and a mineral tang. Drink now–2008.
Carillon, Puligny 2000
Fresh and citric, with some attractive spice and pungency. Drink now–2008. £31; BBR
Jacques Prieur, Puligny Combettes 2000
Rich, plump, full bodied, juicy, appley with a touch of spice on aftertaste. Drink now–2010. £36.50; BBR
Château de Puligny, Bourgogne Clos du Château 2002
Not AC Puligny, but the vines are in the heart of the village, making this a bargain, punching well above its weight. Full-bodied and persistent. Drink now–2008. £13.95; BBR
Chateau de Puligny, Puligny Folatières 2002
Rich, firm youthful wine, with discreet overtones of tropical fruit. Drink 2006–2015. £41.50; BBR
Alain Chavy, Puligny Folatières 2003
Spicy oaky aromas, and ample fruit on the palate, with more vigour than many 2003s. Drink now–2008. £22; HoR
Dom Leflaive, Puligny Clavoillon 2001
Tight and nutty, with persistence of flavour and fabulous length. Drink 2006–2015. £40; HoR
Pernot, Puligny 2002
Medium bodied, very ripe, and supple texture. Drink now–2007. £22.95; L&S
Sauzet, Puligny 2002
Citric floral nose, and toasty yet fresh structure. Drink now–2010. £28.08; J&B
Olivier Leflaive, Puligny Garenne 2002
Lean spicy nose, and the palate shows good concentration and acidity, with a pleasant touch of white pepper. Drink 2006–2012. N/A