The many and varied wine styles in Chassagne -Montrachet have made it one of the least understood white wine areas in the Côte d'Or. stephen brook explores the region.
Cote d’Or, Chassagne -Montrachet is probably the least well known or understood. We identify Corton-Charlemagne by its robust mineral quality, its uncompromising power; Meursault by its rich buttery textures and flavours; Puligny-Montrachet by its vigour and finesse. But how do we characterise Chassagne, and why is that character hard to pin down?
Chassagne-Montrachet is very diverse in its soil types, so that a wide range of styles emerges from the same commune. It is certainly far less uniform than Corton or Meursault, although it would be foolish to minimise the differences between, say, Meursault Charmes and Meursault Perrières. Chassagne is also harder to get to grips with because less of its crop is sold to the négociants of Beaune. Consequently there are far more estate-bottling wineries in Chassagne. Puligny has its great estates too, such as Leflaive and Sauzet, but in Chassagne there are at least a dozen leading properties. To know Chassagne you need to have tasted widely from numerous producers, which is by definition not easy.The village is also characterised by the fact that a century ago almost all the vineyards, with the exception of the grands crus, were devoted to red grapes. Even today about half the vineyards are planted with Pinot Noir. Edouard Delagrange caused a scandal in the 1960s by replanting some parcels of premier cru Morgeot with Chardonnay. That trend has continued, and vineyards once best known for robust reds, such as La Boudriotte and Clos St-Jean, now contain large sections of Chardonnay. Not everyone is happy about it. Bernard Morey points out that some top red wine sites have been replanted: ‘The whites from some of the heavier soils are often mediocre, and end up being sold to négociants.’ Jean-Pierre Cournut of Château de la Maltroye agrees: ‘White wines from La Boudriotte and Clos St-Jean are rarely outstanding.’ But the commercial logic has proved irresistible: there is stronger demand for Chassagne whites, and these also fetch higher prices than the occasionally rustic reds.
Chassagne’s identity crisis is compounded by the fact that just about everybody shares the same name. You are not alone if you can’t work out how Blain-Gagnard is related, if at all, to Gagnard-Delagrange or JN Gagnard. There are also half a dozen Moreys and a couple of Moreaus. The good news is that almost all these families, or tributaries of families, are making very good wines. Which producer you prefer usually depends on stylistic differences rather than clear qualitative divergences.
Let’s begin, as one always should, with the vineyards. To the north they abut those of Puligny and St-Aubin, and share the grand-cru sites of Montrachet and Bâtard-Montrachet. Just as Puligny claims sole ownership of Bienvenues Bâtard-Montrachet, so Chassagne has a monopoly on the tiny grand cru of Criots Bâtard-Montrachet. At the southern end of the commune, the vineyards border those of Santenay.Although there are differences between the Puligny and Santenay ends of the village, there are also distinctions to be made between the richer soils of the vineyards below the village, and the stonier, chalkier, but cooler sites that lie above it. So which are the leading premiers crus in Chassagne? Opinions are not exactly divided, but seem influenced by whether the grower you are asking happens to own some vines in a particular cru. Just about everyone agrees, however, that the best sites include La Romanée, Les Grandes Ruchottes, and En Cailleret. There are also some tiny crus nudging up against the grands crus – such as En Remilly, Les Dents-de-Chien and Vide-Bourse – can also give exceptional wines.’There are certainly some premiers crus that are better than others,’ says Jean-Marc Pillot. ‘But in a blind tasting I don’t think anyone would mistake even the best of them for grands crus. The grands crus really are different, and unmistakably greater than the premiers.’
A DIFFERENT DIMENSION
He is right. Tasting my way through the cellars of a dozen producers, I was usually treated to a taste of Bâtard or Criots at the end of the range. One sniff and one sip, and you realise you are entering a different dimension. Bâtard is powerful and hefty, a sensual battering ram
of flavour and intensity; Criots, sometimes maligned by wine writers assessing the grands crus, is leaner, more elegant, more discreet, and very long.The largest premier cru by far is Morgeot, which is subdivided into vineyards that some growers trumpet on their labels: these include La Boudriotte, Vigne Blanche, and the powerful Les Fairendes. Here the soil is both richer and deeper, and the wines made are generally broader and fruitier. Les Chenevottes, like Morgeot, gives wines that can be drunk young, although they will keep perfectly well in a good vintage. Le Champ-Gain, with its reddish soil, also delivers broader, richer wines, as does Les Macherelles. At the other end of the flavour spectrum are the more minerally wines from Les Vergers and Les Baudines.If the vineyards are diverse, the winemaking styles are not. Just about everybody ploughs the soil, removes leaves and bunch-thins to keep yields under control, and yields tend to vary from 40 to 50 hectolitres per hectare. I have rarely encountered dilution in the wines. Most producers ferment in barrels, but a few, including some of the best, prefer to start the fermentation in tank and then transfer the fermenting must to barrel. Everyone stirs the lees until the end of malolactic fermentation. New oak is used sparingly, and premiers crus are usually aged in around one-third new oak, even though some of the wines have sufficient power and richness to support considerably more.
The distinctions between the growers are essentially stylistic. If you enjoy rich, full-bodied wines, producers such as Bernard Morey offer exactly that style. The burly, ebullient Morey says: ‘People say my wines resemble me, which suits me fine.’ Some of his wines are quite exotic, especially from Morgeot and Clos de la Maltroie, and in ripe years such as 1999 they can be a touch alcoholic. But they are powerful, enjoyable and dense. Marc Morey’s wines are not dissimilar, with the emphasis on rich fruit and easy accessibility; these are wines that can be drunk young, although the best crus, such as Les Vergers and En Cailleret, will age well. The well-regarded wines of Michel Niellon are in a similar style, with hints of tropical fruit; and so are those of Michel Colin-Deléger, although crus such as Les Chaumées, En Remilly and Les Vergers have more backbone. Jean-Marc Pillot of Jean Pillot clearly favours late harvesting, giving his wines a rich, almost sweet fruitiness that seems more New World than Chassagne. Michel Morey, the son of Marc Morey and owner of Morey-Coffinet, also favours a pure fruity style, although the En Remilly and Fairendes certainly don’t lack vigour, power, and complexity.
For my taste, which runs to wines with more mineral character and austerity in their youth, the outstanding estates include Château de la Maltroye and Guy Amiot. At Château de la Maltroye, a handsome building dominating its site, Clos du Château, Jean-Pierre Cornut takes his time. In his cold cellars malolactic fermentation often terminates as late as June, when the wines are racked for the first time. Cornut opts for a higher proportion of new oak than many other estates. The results are impressive: rich, powerful wines from Clos du Château and Grandes Ruchottes, explosive citric flavours from Les Dents-de-Chien and pure, racy wines from La Romanée. Impeccable.Power also characterises the wines from Amiot, which are solid and oaky with an occasional touch of austerity. The Baudines is very minerally, and En Cailleret can be wonderfully toasty and complex, with remarkable length. The Amiots own a substantial proportion of old vines, no doubt contributing to their wines’ body and intensity.
The wines from Jean-Marc Blain of Blain-Gagnard are slightly less imposing, but have a delightful limey elegance. The Boudriottes is delicious, although En Cailleret is the best of his premiers crus. The whites from Jean-Noël Gagnard are beautifully balanced and unusually lively: the Chenevottes and Caillerets can be exceptional. Gagnard and his daughter Caroline are unusual in ageing their wines for about 16 months before bottling, whereas most growers bottle before the next harvest. No overview of the top growers of Chassagne is complete without including the celebrated Ramonet estate, but since I was refused an appointment there, I cannot report on recent vintages.The Côte de Beaune has enjoyed a succession of fine vintages for white wines. 1995 and 1996 can still be kept, 1997 is ready for drinking now, and opinions are divided on the 1998s. Most producers believe it is a vintage for medium-term drinking; others find them more structured than the 1997s. Everyone relishes the fruity 1999s, which also have a fine, fresh acidity to balance the richness and, in some cases, alcohol. 2000 will also be a fine year, with some growers expressing a slender preference for it over 1999.
Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter.