It’s still Chassagne to most people, but to give it its fuller, grander title, we should say Chassagne-Montrachet.
Head up the ‘Rue Principal’ and you see before you a village dominated by the bare rock of the quarry that towers behind it. Take the sign for the village centre and you end-up in a non-descript parking area, though in-front of the well-regarded ‘Restaurant Chassagne-Montrachet’ but that’s about it – hardly a village centre – perhaps there’s not much to Chassagne(?)
You really need to do some exploring to find out that the town planners have had their little joke, rather than being in the centre of the village you are still on the extreme northern edge, only a house-width from the vineyards that stretch northwards to Puligny, to the south there is much more of the village to find.
The local architecture is for big, deep and strong walls. Much of the village is in first-class repair, however, forgotten corners beg for renovation and others show part-renovated houses abandoned – a newly tiled roof, but no windows. Smaller family homes contrast with opulent-looking, beautifully presented bourgeois houses and mini châteaux. Despite those forgotten corners the overall impression is of quiet success.
Except for a friendly dog with improbably long ears and two boys practising for the 2014 World Cup, at seven o’clock on a Sunday evening this could be the twin of Puligny – hardly a soul to be seen – only the clink of knives & forks from behind curtains and, overhead, the twitter of early summer swallows – but at any other time of the week, this is a much busier place.
Keep trekking through the village and the mix of grand and ‘petit’ houses continues. Close to the substantial Marie is an impressive wineshop, the ‘Caveau de Chassagne’ with it’s striking line-up of labels, not just from the Côte de Beaune either. Close to the church is a peaceful green area, though presumably less-so while the goal-posts are in use! Largely the village avoids the ‘look but don’t touch’ impression that you get whilst walking through Puligny, but I have to say that vs ten years ago when it was a little more like Saint Aubin is today, it’s certainly beginning to follow the Puligny lead.
Today if you are offered a Chassagne you automatically think of a white wine – that’s despite 50% of production still being red. I often wonder who buys red Chassagne, not because of its quality – it has much in common with a good Nuits, plenty of colour and good structure – but because, like Pommard and Aloxe it seems somehow ‘unfashionable’ and that’s a shame as the value here is exceptional, hence, the potential for disappointment is low. For white, it’s almost impossible for me to put into words what defines a Chassagne, but vs a Puligny or a Meursault it’s relatively easy for me to say what it’s not: It’s not the richly exotic, and in its later years, nutty aspect of most Meursault 1ers, neither is there the mineral tension of a great Puligny. It sounds then like the wines of Chassagne might be missing a lot – but no – somehow they manage to hold everything together into what should be a concentrated, rich and balanced wine – richer than Saint Aubin – though often a little less silken in texture versus (the best) Puligny and Meursault wines. One thing that Chassagne certainly is, is a village of value – not, for whites, to the extent of Saint Aubin – but vs Puligny and Meursault the quality:price ratio often peaks here.
A little history…
Chassagne was burnt to the ground by Louis XI at the end of the 15th century – that was the payback for the local landowner – Jean de Chalons, Prince of Orange – siding with Margaret of Burgundy. Rebuilding followed, mainly by the monks of the Abbey of Maizières, sometimes using as a base the ruins of the old houses. It’s not known if, or how much of the land may have been planted to vine – the name of the Chassagne vineyard of La Romanée hints at a very long association – but the monks cleared much of the hillside for vines. Later a priory called the Abbeye de Morgeot was built in the village to house the monks who worked the vineyards. In 1879 Chassagne – together with Puligny – extended its name to become Chassagne-Montrachet, perhaps that’s one reason why we think white wine for Chassagne.
Not much more than a generation ago the village produced 75% red wine, and before that even more; it is even suggested that Chassagne – apart from Montrachet – was once exclusively red-wine territory. Given that today, a bottle of white Chassagne sells (on average) at twice the price of a bottle of red it’s no surprise that replantings have been mainly to white. Clive Coates unearthed the fact that in the Marquis de Laguiche’s archive, records show that at one time their red was worth twice as much as their white, even from Montrachet…
Just a sliver under 370 hectares of vines lie within the borders of Chassagne-Montrachet; 11.42 hectares of grand crus, 158.79 hectares of premier cru, 179.51 hectares of villages level wine, the balance being regional appellation. 60% of village wine is red coloured from pinot noir, 70% of the premier cru is white.
In contrast to Puligny where the vines radiate towards the hills, in Chassagne there’s only a small amount of vineyard between the village and the hillside, though in all other directions they can be found in quantity. The vineyards sit between 220 and 340 metres of elevation, and especially to the north they are not the easiest to navigate – even with your copy of Poupon. Some are broken-up by small grassy areas with trees, others (left) have areas devoted to vegetables and most have gates and stonework that need a little ‘attention’. Perhaps it is easier to spend money renovating houses in the village than repairing walls and gates…
I think that Chassagne could be the most difficult commune to really get a clear understanding of, a possible 52 premier crus and roughly another 50 village lieu-dits – and to keep life interesting, most of those 1ers come from internal lieu-dits within others.
The Grand Crus
Chassagne has only one grand cru all to itself and that is Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet.
Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet Running from the southern-most tip of Montrachet (actually across the road from Montrachet) and following the southwest border of Bâtard-Montrachet, Criots is – after Vosne’s La Romanée – the second smallest AOC in Burgundy. Belland is the largest owner followed by two Gagnards – Fontaine-Gagnard and Blain-Gagnard. Lamy is also a well-known producer of wine from here. Despite being such a close neighbour of Bâtard, the wines are more about perfume and delicacy, though it’s hard to be sure if it is really better than a few of the top premier cru contenders, but it does seem year-in, year-out to show higher levels of ripeness vs many other vineyards…
The Premier Crus
112 hectares of white wine at 1er Cru level and 32 hectares of red 1er Cru vines.
The premiers are 99% south of the Route National 6 – the old Paris to Lyon road – and probably 60% lie south of the village. This is a very complicated area – even more-so than in Puligny. There are possible 51 or 52 premier crus depending on which reference you take, but both could be right as many wines can be labelled with a particular lieu-dit within a vineyard, or take the name of the vineyard. Some of the larger, or more interesting ones follow:
Les Morgeots is a good way to start given that it is second in size only to Corton-Charlemagne as a white appellation and with it’s 54.23 hectares accounts for half of the premier cru land of Chassagne. Many maps make scant mention of this important cru as they prefer to concentrate on the lieu-dits that make it up – in-fact 19 of them! Take a look at a map of the vineyards and you can see Morgeots mentioned to the south of the appellation, but almost all of the vineyards around it, like La Chapelle, Brussonnes and Les Grands Clos can also take a Morgeots label. This area is the source for much of the 1er cru red Chassagne. It seems reds are often more successful than whites here, but given a large enough plot for selecting the fruit, very good if (generally) not great premier cru white can be found – Henri Boillot’s négociant version though, is usually a very good label for the white.
Clos St.Jean. This was once exclusively red wine territory and the red was worth more than most whites, but today pinot is much harder to find in the vineyard. All commentators point to this being a shame, as the ground seems better suited to pinot noir – but the growers just take the money. As for the whites, I often find these wines to be a little ‘bulky’ in presentation.
Les Caillerets. Here we have a vineyard that suits very well the chardonnay vines and produces reliable, top quality premier cru wines, for example from the domaines of Guy Amiot, Fontaine-Gagnard, Bernard Morey and Marc Colin.
Les Champs-Gain Sitting just below Les Caillerets, Champs-Gains seems to be a harder wine to track down (at least where I live), yet can often be the equal of Caillerets, really top quality is possible here and I would propose the domaines of Marc Colin, Jean-Noel Gagnard and Bernard Morey.
La Romanée. One of the most westerly vineyards, the name hints at quite some history and here is a wine that also can be top quality. I haven’t seen a red from here but the whites can be a little spicy and often have an exotic, rich character not found in the Morgeots vineyards that lie further downslope. Fontaine-Gagnard always seem to come up with a special version and I have often enjoyed wines from Vincent Dancer too.
a selection of wines
2004 Guy Amiot, Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Vergers
Medium-pale yellow. The nose is broad and deep, a faint background of cream and bread, but no overt oak. Lovely intense and complex palate of rippling acidity and citrussy fruit – lovely extension of width on the mid-palate before slowly dying into the finish. Super and from such a youngster – this is a definite re-buy!
2004 Philippe Colin, Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Chaumées
Drunk following the Chassagne of Amiot. Medium-yellow. The nose is a little richer and deeper, backed by some sweet oak. The palate also shows a richer edge and is very long. The acidity is just a little more forward and steely in presentation – perhaps helps push the finish. Very tasty, not the perfect balance of the Amiot but all the same, a very good buy.
2004 Chateau Maltroye, Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Clos de la Maltroye
Medium yellow. A wide nose, some higher tones but not quite the depth of some of these Chassagnes. The palate is rich and just a little softer but with real concentration. A real burst of intensity on the mid-palate though it’s just a little ‘un-knit’ at the moment. I think this is due to the oak treatment – there’s just perceptible coconut on the finish. Needs a little more time to come together, but it’s concentrated, has good acidity and should be rather good.
2004 Ramonet, Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Morgeot
Medium-pale yellow. Deep and creamy, vanilla-laden nose – I never did find any fruit. The palate is a real mix of fruit and mineral attributes, well-balanced acidity and really impressive complexity. This is a lovely wine and quite easy to drink today, though for the short-term I’d put Amiot’s wine ahead, longer-term I think there’s more to this wine.
2002 Michel Niellon, Chassagne-Montrachet
Pale-medium yellow, some crystallised solids in the bottom of the bottle. A reticent nose with very faint smoky caramel – needs swirling to release citrus-infected fruit. The palate has width, depth and a burst of interest that follows the acidity. Seems a little more austere than about one year ago, but it’s infused with material
2001 Michel Niellon, Chassagne-Montrachet
Medium yellow. The nose majors on depth – slightly oak influenced – and little else despite time in the glass. The wine is concentrated, with a citrussy intensity on the mid-palate, but always remains absolutely linear. The acidity has an edge of harshness but contributes well to the good length. Like the 2002, this was drinking much better last year – that lift of sweetness is now gone – I would let these rest in the cellar for a couple of years now.