The Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits are like sisters – though certainly not twin sisters – the Côte de Beaune is the prettier – ‘front of house’ if you like.
At the core of the Côte de Beaune is Puligny-Montrachet, a village of contradictions, it has the look and feel of a well-to-do suburb of Paris; well-maintained, commodious houses with manicured hedges.
The contradiction is that something is missing – there are no people, and hence, no shops. Actually a small wine shop has recently opened in the centre, but that’s unlikely to keep the residents fed. You meet fellow ‘tourists’, but residents are hard to find, partly because many houses are empty, bought up, door-by-door by the Puligny growers, as insurance for hard times and accommodation for the pickers that they need for 2 weeks of the year. I’ve heard Puligny described simply as ‘concrete, lawns and vines’. The one corner of social activity in the village appears the be the Hotel Montrachet, however, it hardly seems egalitarian!
When discussing the relative merits of the Burgundy vineyards, Puligny-Montrachet is to white wine what Vosne-Romanée is to red. It has a palpable character that speaks so eloquently of its origins – it has no need to shout.
Excepting the hill of Corton, almost all of the great chardonnay grand crus of the Côte de Beaune are found within the boundaries of Puligny – or since 1879 we should say Puligny-Montrachet – the same year that Chassagne also extended its name to become Chassagne-Montrachet. For me this is the epicentre of great chardonnay; other communes have individual wines that come close – Meursault Perrières or Chassagne-Montrachet En Remilly for instance – but for my taste a well made villages Puligny is often on another level to similar wines from other communes.
Many people have tried to define what a glass of Puligny-Montrachet is or should be – and it’s a very hard thing to do. There is an often-used adjective – nervosity – I can just about picture that, a better description for me is ‘edginess’. There is certainly a characteristic nose and flavourful finish, but the key to Puligny could be this edginess: Many wines have concentration, acidity, length and interest, but a good Puligny successfully melds these aspects whilst at the same time retaining a really high level of interest; it is somehow this tightrope of presentation and the resulting ‘tension’ that holds your nose to the glass – edginess – or if you prefer, nervosity.
A little history…
Puliagnicus indicates a house built on or by water. In todays Puligny-Montrachet, we have both! The water table is quite high, so if you want a pond, just dig a hole. Also for many years there was a large cattle-pond at the centre of the village, fed by the stream that still runs out from the vineyards. The cattle-pond gives an indication that the local, rural economy was not always completely dependant on the grape – in fact it was only in more recent times that meadows and pasture in what is now classed as either regional or village appellations were planted.
In 1094 the church in Puligny was given to the Abbey of Cluny by its current lord, however for generations to come, the real, local economic engine would soon to be the Cistercian Abbey of Maizières to be founded in 1102. In the early 1200’s Maizières already ‘ran’ Puligny, and in 1252 recieved its first donation of vines in ‘Montrachaz’ – more were to follow. No-one can say what colour of grapes were harvested, but it seems the area already had some renown.
In 1448 Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy gave most of Puligny to a Beaune lawyer named Jean Perron – it was his family that owned the land until the late 1500’s. Two other families had control until 1685 when the area came to be owned by Rigoley family. The Rigoley’s were disposessed at the revolution.
For generations, Mont Rachet was exactly that, a stony hill, dotted with vineyrads – there was no distinction between Chevalier and Pucelles for instance – it was all Mont Rachet. What borders were drawn-up, were as much as anything based on the existing ownership of the plots of land – though it is not to be denied that we very often see corresponding changes in aspect or geology.
Perhaps the most important date in Puligny’s history is 1879 – this was the year that Puligny became Puligny-Montrachet (Chassagne also at the same time) and less happily the year that phylloxera was first identified in their vineyards – many families were ruined as the rural economy was already heading full-speed towards the modern monoculture…
235 hectares of vines lie within the borders of Puligny-Montrachet; 21.30 hectares of grand crus, a whisker over 100 hectares of premier cru and finally 114 hectares of villages level wine – a mere 3.5 hectares of which are red – these reds can also take the label of Côte de Beaune Villages.
As you will note from the picture above, the ‘AOC Villages’ Puligny vineyards are essentially flat as they radiate westwards from the centre of the village. This flatness contributes to a relatively high water-table in the village causing a few problems with regard to construction – it’s almost impossible to avoid flooding if you dig deep for a cellar – so cellars outside the village or at ground-level with air-con are usually the order of the day, however, there is an oft-repeated ‘inexactitude’ that ‘there are no cellars in Puligny’. There are not many, but the Vieux Château in the centre of the village certainly has them – this is the place I ended up when looking for Etienne de Montille’s charge – I wonder when it was that one house became the Château de Puligny-Montrachet, and the original title-holder became the Vieux Château de Puligny-Montrachet….
As you move over the road – the Route des Grand Crus – the vineyards start their shallow ascent in the direction of the Mont Rachet (more of a hill than a ‘Mont’, the St.Aubin vineyards behind going up very much higher), it is here that you find the start of the 1er crus, and at the southern extreme of Puligny the grand crus.
The Grand Crus
The grand crus straddle the border with neighbouring Chassagne-Montrachet There is only one of these vineyards – Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet – found fully within Chassagne.
When they hit the high notes, these are undeniably great wines – you can be astounded – I was, and I remember each of those bottles very well. Predominantly I drink red wine (perhaps 75%, though the reverse ratio often applies in summer), yet I actually feel privileged to have drunk two Montrachets from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, wines that perfectly dovetail with Danguy & Aubertin’s 1892 book ‘The Great Wines of Burgundy’ describing Montrachet in general: “This admirable white wine is the first rank of white Burgundy, as Château Yquem is to the top rank of white Bordeaux. Let us not be indecisive between the two, except to enthusiastically say that these two are the first rank white wines of the world”. Personal taste is involved here, but I would not put Yquem on the same level as a great Montrachet, and there are, of-course, some domaines in Alsace, Champagne, the Mosel and Vouvray that might be aggrieved to be overlooked, but that is not a discussion for today…
Historically (at least in the 1750’s) there was but one Grand cru – though that term was not used – and that was Mont Rachet. For producers who had been happy to label their bottles as ‘Montrachet’ wherever the vines were actually located, the concept and implementation of an AOC system was to be fought at all costs, hence, it took years (lobbying had already started by the turn of the 20th century) before today’s boundaries were finally drawn in 1935. Only the part previously referred to as Grand Montrachet – or Montrachet Aîne – plus a small extra piece from Chassagne that was judged of equal quality received the title ‘Montrachet’.
Montrachet is an 8 hectare, shallow sloped gold mine lying between 250 and 270 metres. Provided that there are some grapes to harvest, it is almost impossible not to make money: ~120€ seems to be the starting point for a bottle, and the price can be as much as ~800€ on release. Below it on the slope, and over the road is Bâtard-Montrachet, and above it on the slope is Chevalier-Montrachet. Equally split between Chassagne and Puligny, Montrachet is mainly surrounded by walls and the occasional grandiose gateway proclaiming entrance to ‘Grand Montrachet’ or the like. There are more owners in on the Chassagne half than the Puligny half – perhaps a dozen – Domaine de la Romanée-Conti being the most high-profile, and Thenard being the largest with almost 2 hectares. Only 4 owners have vines on the Puligny side, the Marquis de Laguiche being the largest. Because the Chassagne side is oriented more to the south, reaches lower down the hill and appears to have richer soil, there’s a good chance that the two parts will make very different wines – I’m not sure to whom I should propose this important tasting and research!
Chevalier-Montrachet covers 7.3 hectares, sloping more steeply than Montrachet, lying between 265 and 290 metres. Higher up on the slope than Montrachet, the soil is poorer and thinner – you soon reach the underlying rock – erosion can be a big problem at the top of this relatively steep vineyard. Chevalier has had a few extensions since the AOC was first defined: one hectare of Le Caillerets owned by Jadot and Latour was ‘upgraded’ to Chevalier in 1939, and just over half a hectare of Chartron’s ‘Demoisselles’ was also given the same treatment in 1974 – 19 years after Chartron requested it! There are at least 14 owners of this grand cru, but the reference standard for this vineyard is the wine from Domaine Leflaive, who’s 2 hectares seem to provide good availability assuming you can afford it – typically it retails ~for ~160€ per bottle. Bouchard P&F actually own even more with 2.5 hectares and differentiate their harvest into two bottlings, the regular (sorry Philippe!) Chevalier-Montrachet, and the higher tiered area surrounding their small stone vineyard-workers shelter – Chevalier-Montrachet La Cabotte.
Bâtard-Montrachet is by-far the biggest of these grand crus, covering 12 hectares, until the AOC it was more than twice the size, as Criots & Bienvenues were included, but also were today’s villages-level Blanchots Dessous and Enségnières plus Vide-Bourse which is a premier. There are many, many owners and most of them have only small plots, hence, this is a popular bottling with the négoce. Domaine Leflaive has the largest area, covering ~2 hectares, a little behind them is the Chassagne domaine of Ramonet – these are regarded together with Domaine Sauzet’s bottling as the pre-eminent wines – but three very different styles. Lying below Montrachet, and basically on the flat land, Bâtard enjoys a richer, deeper and more clay-based soil – because of this the wine is often fatter and less fine than the wines from the vines above. I would look out for this wine is slightly less ripe years if you prefer the shape of Maria Callas to Monserrat Caballé!
Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet covers 3.7 hectares, only Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet (which I will leave for a profile of Chassagne) is smaller. It’s located in the bottom corner of Bâtard – as far as possible away from Montrachet – next to the 1er Cru of Pucelles and villages plot of Les Enséignères. Like Bâtard, the soil is deep and, given its position, the drainage is also less good. The wines are usually less fine than Bâtard – Leflaive is again the largest owner, and if I compare their two wines; the power is often similar, as is the acidity, the real differentiation is the purity and precision of the fruit, both on the nose and in the mouth.
The Premier Crus
The reporting, or classification of the premier crus seems incredibly flexible; in the table below I list 14 main premiers in Puligny. I say main, because you could actually find 24 different premier cru names on the bottles, but ten of these could be considered as named ‘climats’ within the other 1ers.
The premiers have only one thing on common – they all lie to the north of the grand crus. Looking more closely at a few…
Les Folatières is a very well known vineyard; as much as this might be for its inherent quality, it is just as likely due to its size – at a whopping 17.64 hectares it’s almost twice that of any other Puligny 1er Cru. Take a look at a map of the vineyards and it looks anything but tidy as it’s encroached from several directions by scrubland, indeed many pieces of vineyard are relatively recent conversions of such land. Within the vineyard there are currently four distinct sections; Ez Folatières, En-la-Richarde, Le Peux-Bois and Au Chaniot. The En-la-Richarde section also including an area classed as villages rather than 1er Cru. The vineyard takes it’s name from its predicament – folle-terre – the vineyard is often quite steep and prone to erosion. Despite its size, there are many excellent bottlings.
Les Caillerets. Separated from Montrachet by only a wall, with almost the same exposition, it’s higher lying vines already re-classified as Chevalier-Montrachet, one should expect this the be the finest of the premier crus. It’s name does, however, give clue to a slight change at ground level vs Montrachet – the soil has become quite stony. The wines of Domaine de Montille and more recently Henri Boillot seem to be very good references.
Les Pucelles. It would be interesting to know how the ‘the virgins’ got their name… Lying below Le Cailleret and contiguous with Bâtard and Bienvenues-Bâtard – so being on the flatter richer soil like the grand crus before – Pucelles is typically a bigger, plusher version of the Caillerets, also reputed to be earlier maturing. Three of its 6.76 hectares are owned by Domaine Leflaive which is a lovely wine, but quite expensive at ~90€.
Les Champs-Gain The second largest premier cru. Lying above Folatières it actually lies very high for such a cru ~360 metres – the Mont Rachat hill providing some protection. The name gives some clue to the vineyard – reclaimed field – and much was not reclaimed from this poor, stony soil until the 1970’s.
Perrières. A common enough name – almost every appellation has one – though it tends to mean much more in the white-wine regions. Perrières is quite big at 8.4 hectares, almost half of that is the monopole climat of Clos de la Mouchère owned by Henri & Jean Boillot – an unreservedly recommended wine, other bottles of ‘Perrières’ seem to be hard to come by.
Clos de la Garenne is a small vineyard of ~1.5 hectares lying surrounded by Champ-Canet premier cru and Les Folatières premier cru. Le Domaine du Duc de Magenta owns the vast majority of this vineyard which is exploited on their behalf and marketed by Louis Jadot.
Take together all the potential appellations in Puligny, mix with a measured amount of domaines, season with a harder to measure addition of négociants and it would not be very surprising if you could cook-up 4-500 different labels each vintage. Like in Vosne, there will be those in Puligny who overcrop and/or pay insufficient attention to detail in the cuverie – or frankly don’t care because they can simply (and very easily) sell-on their barrels of wine. These producers can, and do take a significant amount of shine away from the lustre we expect from a wine with the name Puligny-Montrachet.
We are fortunate then, that there are a core of producers who year-in, year-out manage to show all the facets of the wines that we’ve come to expect, and, better still, this ‘cadre’ seems to be growing. I will develop this further over the coming issues, but generalising; the established names are very often high priced, whilst others, starting to make a name for themselves are a little lower. The ‘establishment’ offer a solid base of 10-20+ years consistent achievement – three easy picks are Domaine Leflaive, Domaine Etienne Sauzet and Domaine Louis Carillon. Recently I’ve been adding ‘newer’ names to the list: the labels of Henri & Jean Boillot have become are easy choices, I expect that more will follow…