Drawn back to Burgundy by the newly opened COMO Le Montrachet hotel and restaurant, leading wine writer Guy Woodward returns to an old French love affair: the exclusive vineyards and ancient cellars behind the world’s greatest whites
MAIN PHOTOGRAPHS MARTIN MORRELL | POLAROIDS GUY WOODWARD
There are four of us squeezing through the confines of Domaine Blain-Gagnard’s spartan cellar in the sleepy Burgundian village of Chassagne-Montrachet. Owner Jean-Marc Blain is extracting various 2022 wines from the oak barrels in which they are maturing before being bottled early next year. We taste a Chassagne-Montrachet, followed by a Puligny-Montrachet, taken from one of a dozen or so barrels of each of these white Burgundy staples. Then Blain leads us to a single barrel in the corner of a sepulchral side chamber, the name ‘Le Montrachet’ scrawled across it in chalk. It is the only vessel among the scores surrounding us to carry the venerated name, the wine harvested from Blain-Gagnard’s small patch of this vaunted vineyard, which extends to a mere 0.08 of a hectare. We are each given a thimbleful to try. Not yet fully integrated with the oak, it nevertheless carries a rich, long seam of nutty, spicy creaminess that is hard to equate with the reputation of its source material, that supposedly most banal of grape varieties, chardonnay.
Except this isn’t, of course, any old chardonnay. As the renowned wine critic William Kelley says, 'There is chardonnay, and then there is white Burgundy.' In much the same way, there is white Burgundy, and then there is Montrachet. In his dissertation on ‘La Situation de Bourgogne’ – the first documented chronicling of the wines of the region, published in 1728 – the abbott Claude Arnoux describes the wines of Montrachet as possessing ‘qualities which neither the Latin nor the French language can explain… Nor am I able to express their delicacy and excellence.’ Three centuries on, Montrachet’s reputation as the jewel in Burgundy’s much-decorated vinous crown remains undimmed (though wine writers have since essayed ever more extravagant language to extol its virtues). Both the wines and the vineyards of this appellation are the most rarefied in all the fine wine stratosphere. Such stardom comes at a price, however. You’ll do well to find a bottle of Montrachet selling for less than USD$700 (prices can reach USD$10,000+) while on the rare occasions that the land itself changes hands, it does so at upwards of USD$2 million per hectare.
As we survey the slopes of Montrachet and its satellite vineyards, pockets of quotidien activity are playing out around us. A horse is ploughing the soil, its owner’s playful dog in tow; a pair of workers are hunched over the vines, pruning some unruly shoots; another vineyard hand is applying a disease-repellent spray to the soil. All around us, candles the size of paint pots, known as bougies, are laid out on the ground to combat frost, while heated wind turbines are also on standby. It is mid-April, and with the buds on the vines starting to burst into life, vignerons’ main concern is the spectre of a late-spring frost, which could be disastrous (in 2021, some domaines lost 60 per cent of their crop – and revenue – after freezing temperatures shut down the nascent buds). These measures are understandable when you are dealing with such a valuable bounty, and this is far from the most involved technique employed to counter the vagaries of the climate. I learn later of a Burgundy-wide ‘cloud-seeding’ scheme; it’s already being deployed when storms are forecast, and disperses silver iodine into the clouds to ensure precipitation falls as rain rather than the more damaging hail.
Despite the almost unfathomable commercial implications of such an enterprise, the one thing that isn’t visible around the vineyards is any security. There are no imposing walls to scale, no CCTV cameras, not even a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign to dissuade over-enthusiastic wine lovers from intruding upon this pre-eminent terroir. In theory there is nothing to prevent anyone from tramping through the precious soil – though most visitors (and they come from all parts of the globe) maintain a respectful distance from which to take their Instagram shots. It all makes for a bucolic scene.
For wine lovers, this is the most hallowed of grounds. For while the spiralling auction prices that drive headlines around the likes of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Armand Rousseau tend to centre on the red wines, when it comes to the region’s whites (Burgundy produces almost equal parts red, made from Pinot Noir, and white, from Chardonnay), none are more coveted than those of Montrachet. And with the wines themselves inaccessible to many, visiting the vineyards is the next best thing.
Montrachet itself means ‘bald mountain’, a reference to its position at the top of the Côte d’Or slopes and the paucity of its soils (poor soils are a plus in winemaking, since they force the vine to work harder for nourishment, delivering concentration to the grapes). It covers just eight hectares in total, shared between 20 different producers. All of it is classified as ‘grand cru’ – the pinnacle of Burgundy’s hierarchical vineyard ranking, an elite category that accounts for no more than two per cent of its total plantings.
Burgundy’s vineyards and their attendant wines are graded according to the quality of the site. So while there are other Montrachets, not all of them are equal. The Chevalier-Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet and Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet vineyards are of a similar size to Montrachet itself, split among a similar number of producers and also all grand cru. Then you have the various Puligny- and Chassagne-Montrachet premiers crus (the second rank down, despite its name, but still highly regarded) and the more humble (yet still eminent) so-called ‘village’ wines, also drawn from various different sites.
Watching the unassuming Blain stand before us in his weathered, deep-pocketed gilet, it is sobering to think that each of his individual vines (any one of which generally yields no more grapes than the equivalent of a bottle’s worth of wine per year) is probably worth several thousand dollars. Yet when Blain invites us to the cellar to taste some of his 2022s, it is in the casual manner of a colleague proposing a quick post-work beer in the local bar.
Not that I spot many bars on our travels around Burgundy’s rural enclaves. This part of the Côte d’Or (named after the golden hue of the vineyard foliage post-harvest, or as an abbreviation of the east-facing Côte d’Orient, depending on who you believe) is a series of small villages, each far more notable for the surrounding vineyards and the wines to which they lend their names than their nightlife. In Chassagne-Montrachet I come across a restaurant, a church and little else, save for the modest wineries and cellars that, despite their unprepossessing appearance, house some of Burgundy’s most storied names. Puligny-Montrachet, two miles down the road, is a little larger, and plays host to a boulangerie, a couple of restaurants and wine shops, as well as the newly opened COMO Le Montrachet hotel.
Each village is surrounded by vineyards for as far as the eye can see. Drive 100 yards out of either and you’ll soon find yourself on a dirt track between the vines. We share the roads with cyclists, tractors and tourists in scenes that, save for the upgrading of vehicles, are little changed in the last 50 years.
As we meander our way through this peaceful pastoral scene, I try to piece together the various components of its vinous patchwork. Despite the fame of its wines, Burgundy is not a place for grand proclamations of status, and very few producers advertise their presence. Hence while there might be a road, a path or a dry-stone wall to delineate the various crus, rarely will there be anything as vulgar as a sign (other than the occasional ancient stone post) to mark where one producer’s holding ends and another’s begins. While I am able to decipher certain nuances in how the various producers each train, prune and cultivate their vines (techniques vary in more ways than one would have thought possible), still I find myself checking my map at regular intervals to clarify exactly whose plot is whose. Given the intensive nature of such labour, do producers share resources? I ask Amiot. He regards me with mock outrage. ‘We’re not communists,’ he replies.
That evening, back at the hotel, I enjoy a 2017 Puligny-Montrachet Les Enseignères from Jean-Claude Ramonet. It is one of the more modest wines amid a mouth-watering array of Burgundies that Berthier has assembled for the property’s sweeping wine list. I check my map once more and, sure enough, though it sits only yards away from the grand cru of Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet, the Enseignères vineyard carries the modest ‘village’ moniker. Such status is hard to tally with the quality of the liquid that swirls beguilingly in my glass. And as the wine lingers on my palate long after my glass is empty, I swear I can still taste the golden light, the limestone soil and the honeyed hue of Montrachet.
Embark on your Burgundian white wine discovery at COMO Le Montrachet.