You can barely move for winemakers in the Burgundy villages of Puligny and Chassagne, says Stephen Brook. And no wonder. The area is home to the best white wine slopes in the region.
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 Puligny and Chassagne 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.