Etienne de Montille – forever a man with two hats; for the last few years Etienne has gradually taken a more active rôle in the family firm of Domaine Hubert de Montille in Volnay, whilst at the same time working as a merchant banker in Paris.
As of 1st January 2002 he exchanged one of those hats – that of the Paris banker – for a new hat in the village of Puligny-Montrachet where he is now responsible for the Domaine du Chateau de Puligny-Montrachet. Life is very different compared to Paris, but at least commuting is much easier!
First I must tell you the terrible truth – if you (like me) take the back road from Meursault into Puligny and find the ‘Rue derrière le Chateau’, with precision Swiss timing arriving 2 minutes before your appointment time at the ‘Vieux Château de Puligny-Montrachet’ – you’re in for a surprise – you’re in the the wrong place! The much younger Domaine du Château de Puligny-Montrachet is closer to the main Route Nationale 74 and has usurped the name of the ‘old chateau’ – how was I supposed to know there were two Châteaux? – well that’s my excuse for being 10 minutes late!
At the time of my visit the domaine was actually quite well signposted from the RN-74 but by 2005 they seem to have gone incognito. A long sweeping driveway through vineyards that are enclosed by a wall brings you to the main house. A quick walk around shows outbuildings with amazingly large and well appointed tasting rooms with views into the barrel cellar – the truth to be revealed later. Follow the driveway a little further and you come to the commercial office for the domaine and the cuverie. I’m greeted in the reception by Etienne, who despite having to talk to some writer he’s never met before, seems relaxed – if a little tired.
History of the domaine
The domaine was previously owned by the “phantasmagoric, poet-vigneron” Roland Thévenin but was sold to a bank, five years later (1989) the first bank was acquired by another bank – Credit Foncier – this is really when our history starts.Bank number two was the catalyst for a much more ‘business oriented’ approach to managing the 20 hectare estate. Some restructuring of the vineyards was done, the Château was updated and the outbuildings converted for bank training courses – so not tasting rooms after-all! Finally the ‘space-age’ cuverie was built. If we hark back to around 1990, science and process technology were in the ascendancy, hence, a cuverie was constructed – all above ground – which used big pumps that pushed the grapes (now turned into a grape-soup) into temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, eventually finding their way into the fully air-conditioned barrel cellar. Of course wine-making is as much an art as a business and the business requirements for high (full plc) yields and no disease, together with upfront, oaky wines produced little market interest.
At the time that Etienne was looking for some changes in his life and, perhaps, a return to the Côte, the bank was looking for a new start for the domaine – after-all you can only give so much wine away as presents for clients! For two important reasons, Etienne was the perfect choice to take over in Puligny; first he knew about Banks, second he knew about grapes! Actually there is also a track record in Puligny too, Domaine Hubert de Montille have also been producing since the 1980’s a wine from a choice part of the 1er Cru Le Cailleret – 1997 tasted in this issue.
Etienne has started a move towards biodynamic practices – chemical ‘crop protection’ is now gone – he’s reduced the obvious oak content, and is now looking to have yields which will be reflected in quality improvements. Then there is the cuverie; he’s got a new pump which just pushes rather than gives the traditional push-pull and he’s also introduced some open top oak vats for fermentation.
Because of the almost antiseptic and very dry conditions in the air-conditioned barrel cellar, this is the next in line for changes. Already wines have been placed in the cellars and outbuildings of the main house; the picture above is the view of the red wines (for there are some) as seen from one of the ‘training rooms’.
Etienne sees his job away from the wines as re-positioning the domaine. I jump in (a bad habit) saying that I’d never previously tried the domaine’s wines, but given the similarity in label style and naming vs Château de Meursault; wines which I’ve previously found a little bland, I’d always assumed a similar ownership and style. Etienne said I was wrong on the first point, but possibly less wrong on the second point! So today we see the start of the new branding with an elegant and not too contemporary label design.
So the domaine is 20 hectares in size, producing wines from 20 different appellations. 25% are ‘Crus’, 25% village wines and 50% are regional wines – both red and white. The following were tasted in Puligny-Montrachet 2nd October 2003:
2001 Clos du Château, Bourgogne Blanc
An unusual wine in that despite it’s regional appelation it hails from a single vineyard – the walled ‘Clos’ of the Château grounds. The wall helps considerably in the process of becoming more biodynamic, but there can also be pitfalls when sourcing from a single vineyard; due to frost in April 2003 followed by the ‘le canicule’ yields this year were only 9.5hl/ha! Pale yellow coloured, the nose shows a little citrus and sherbety tones – quite wide, but not very deep. More interesting depth on the palate – more classy than the nose. Whilst not a ‘yardstick’ example this is good and quite persistent in the finish.
A blend from three different vineyards. Just a little darker in colour. A deeper nose, more sumptuous and floral, at first I thought ripe pear fruit, but before emptying the glass I decided it was more pineapple. More concentration and depth on the mid-palate than the Clos du Château. There’s a super little burst/flourish of fruit on the finish. This is a lovely villages.
A single vineyard – and what an amazing story behind it: at almost the northern extremity of Puligny, abutting the Meursault appelation is the Puligny 1er Cru of Les Chalumaux, and one area of that vineyard is rated as villages. It seems strange when you see that it is surrounded by 1er Cru vineyards, yet rated only a villages. The incredible story is that it used to be rated as a 1er Cru until a previous owner ‘imported’ 50cm of topsoil from outside the normal growing area. The powers that be removed it’s Cru status and that was that! So, the grapes for this wine come from that very vineyard. Medium lemon yellow. Quite an understated nose with more obvious citrus – quite classy. A fat and really very Puligny palate. Much more forward than the nose suggests. There’s super acidity and fine length. This is a very fine villages – and would be a pretty good 1er Cru!
2001 Saint-Aubin 1er, En Remilly
The ‘En Remilly’ vineyard is just over the the border from Puligny. Paler yellow colour. The nose is higher toned and less obviously fruity. In the mouth the wine is fat and shows a deeper fruit profile, quite exotic and less mineral. This is a nice wine but for my personal style preferences the previous wine puts it in shade.
2001 Meursault 1er, Les Perrières
Again a vineyard just over the border from Puligny. Medium yellow coloured. Deep and fruity nose, initially very linear – like following a beam of light – widens a little with time. Very fat palate – at first seems too fat, but the second sip shows enough rescuing acidity. There even seems to be just a trace of tannin. Very lovely finish, no fireworks, just fades very slowly. A really good wine.
2001 Puligny-Montrachet 1er, Les Folatières
Pale golden. You have to dig deep for the low-toned but very focused nose, swirling produces a little agrumes and subtle floral notes. Nice fat, but still a very elegant palate. So smooth, a wine which, with a bit of age and complexity, you could just float away with. Persistent yet very understated – a wine which you could (and would) enjoy today, but I sense that would be a waste.
Considering there was little Etienne could do to influence this vintage – the grapes were grown and the fermentations were done by 1st January 2002, all he could do was change the barrel regime – this is actually not a weak set set of wines. Etienne believes he made a significant step forward with the 2002 vintage, but for climatic reasons, perhaps a small step back in 2003 – we’ll see. Sneakily Etienne asked me which I though was best for today and best for the future; I had no problem with the former, it had to be the villages Puligny, for the latter it would have to be the toss of a coin between the Les Perrières and the Les Folatières. I say sneakily, as he disappeared for 2 minutes and returned with a bottle of village and 1er Cru Puligny, purely for photo props you understand – I’ll have to stop asking people for labels! – thank you Etienne!