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The Wine Cellar: Great Dry Whites from Puligny-Montrachet

The Wine Cellar by Rene Corton
Puligny-Montrachet, a small hamlet of 500 residents six miles south of Beaune in Burgundy's famous Cote D'Or, is the home of the world's greatest and most expensive dry white wines.
   The village is not very scenic, and except for the growers' signs--usually just a small plaque on the wall or the gate--there is little to alert the visitor to the great riches which lie in the vast underground cellars.
   The hotel-restaurant Le Montrachet beside the square in the center of town is an excellent stop for lunch or dinner. The wine list is extensive and the rooms spacious and charming: Ask for room No. 39 with its high beamed ceiling (but not during the last two weeks of March, when it is reserved for me). Proprietors Thierry and Suzanne Gazagnes will make you welcome, share your interest in wine, and help arrange wine visits. Both speak excellent English.
   The great Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards lie behind the village to the west on a moderate hill which stretches from Meursault on the north to Chassagne-Montrachet to the south. The vineyards are quite small, occupying only about 350 acres. The Grand Cru vineyards are Le Montrachet itself (19.76 acres), Chevalier-Montrachet (18.1 acres), Batard-Montrachet (29.3 acres) and Bienvenues-Batard-Montrachet (9.1 acres).
   The Premier Cru vineyards cover 247 acres; Les Combettes, Les Pucelles, Les Folatieres, and Le Cailleret are excellent. The wines are expensive not only because of their high quality, but mainly due to the huge worldwide demand relative to the small production. Generally, Grand Cru will retail for $80-$500 per bottle, while Premier Cru can be had for a "mere" $40-$80. Clearly, at these prices, a competent wine merchant is most helpful.
   In general, a top producer from a good vintage is relatively more important than a specific vineyard. In recent years, the 1990s and 1992s are very good to excellent. The '91s, '93s, and '94s are less good, but a few growers made exceptional wine in each year. The 1995s look to be very good to excellent early on. Absolute top-notch producers would include Carillon, Drouhin, J.N. Gagnard, Jadot, Lafon, Leflaive, Pernot, Ramonet, and Sauzet.
   Two comprehensive and readily available sources of further information, both simply titled Burgundy, are the tomes authored by Robert Parker (Simon and Schuster, 1990) and Anthony Hanson (Faber and Faber, 1995).
   Recently, two memorable lunches featured these wines: Chevalier-Montrachet at Kaspar's in Seattle, and Batard-Montrachet at Le Gourmand in Ballard. In each, the wines were from the private cellars of the tasters and had probably been well-stored at temperatures between 55 and 60 degrees F. Constant cool storage conditions are exceedingly important for white wines which are meant to best at seven to 20 years of age.
   At the Chevalier-Montrachet lunch, the 1986 Jadot was my clear favorite, scoring 97. The fully gold color was followed by mature fruit flavors well integrated with the oak in the nose and a rich round middle. Powerful, but elegant in every way, the best of the day. I guessed the wine was a 1990. The same wine from a different cellar (known to be somewhat warmer) scored only 92, seemed to be five to 10 years older, and was slightly flabby, with more tropical fruit flavors.
   The 1988 Jadot and the 1989 were both light gold in color with lovely fruit and oak tones with balancing acidity. Rated 94 and 92, they will improve over the next five years and last for 10-15 years.
   The 1981 Latour Les Demoiselles Chevalier-Montrachet was fully gold, smelled very mature, and had slight oxidation in the taste. Still pleasant to drink, I guessed it was a pre-1980s wine clearly in decline. The 1982 Domaine Leflaive seemed thick and rich, but lacked focus and backbone for great.
   The youngest wine, the 1992 Colin-Deleger from an excellent vintage, scored 94 with its lush, rich fruit followed by a good bolus of acid. Clearly a wine that will last and develop for five to 10 years.
   Au revoir, and bonne degustation.