Sunday, July 8, 2012

Together: Château de Puligny-Montrachet and Domaine de Montille

Etienne de Montille has been at the helm of both Domaine de Montille and Château de Puligny-Montrachet for the past ten years. Domaine de Montille, of course, is Etienne's family domaine. He was co-manager with his father, Hubert de Montille, in the mid-1990s, before taking full reins after 1999.

And around the same time, in 2001, Etienne was handed management of the underperforming legendary estate of Château de Puligny-Montrachet, which owns parcels in the glittering vineyards  of Puligny and neighboring Meursault. Etienne immediately went to work, lowering yields, converting the vineyards to organic and to biodynamic farming, and hiring a talented winemaking team. Later, he and his family took up residence at the elegant château.

Last month, news headlines reported that Château de Puligny-Montrachet sold its .417-hectare Montrachet parcel to high-profile French billionaire and Château Latour owner, François Pinault, for a jaw-dropping sum of one million euros. Immediately following the divestment, Domaine de Montille purchased the entirety of Château de Puligny-Montrachet from the French bank, Caisse d’Epargne.

These back-to-back transactions have generated a buzz for sure. What is Etienne up to? Etienne said that Domaine de Montille will sell off 5 hectares of the 21 hectares Château de Puligny-Montrachet owns and, presumably, will keep the rest to be folded into Domaine de Montille. However, which 5 hectares will be sold he did not specify. I hope that the half-hectare parcel of Puligny-Folatières would not be included, as this complements the Puligny-Cailleret parcel that Domaine de Montille has owned since 1993. Les Folatières is one of the finest vineyards in Puligny, potentially at the same quality level as Pucelles and Combettes, though its large size somewhat masks its class. Under the management of Etienne de Montille this parcel has produced marvelous wines since 2002.

And then there's the prized holdings in Chevalier-Montrachet and Meursault-Perrieres, brilliant, prestige vineyards that should be kept, especially after the Le Montrachet parcel apparently had to be sacrificed. So if I have to guess, the domaine would let go of the the red wine parcels of Château de Puligny-Montrachet in Nuits-St.-Georges, Pommard, and elsewhere, as these are not as important and, after all, the domaine has bulked up on prestige red wine vineyards, particularly in the Côte de Nuits, since 2005.

Yet, I wouldn't be surprised if Etienne de Montille is not finished expanding. He appears motivated by two desires. One is to continue the work started by his father to return the glory of the de Montille estate back in the 19th century when it owned some of the most dazzling parcels in the Côte de Nuits, which included Musigny, Bonnes-Mares, and Chambolle-Amoureuses. Sell-offs by ancestors reduced the estate to just 3 hectares by the time Hubert de Montille took over. But Hubert strove to get the domaine back on its feet, acquiring vineyards on the strength of the quality of the wines he made. By the time Hubert handed the domaine to Etienne in 2001 it consisted of about 15 hectares of vineyards and has become one of the most admired estates in Burgundy.

Etienne appears to be more ambitious than his father, as he has added prestige vineyards in both Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits, especially in the latter. Before acquiring Château de Puligny-Montrachet last month, Domaine de Montille's vineyard acreage totaled to about 20 hectares. With the addition of Château de Puligny-Montrachet (less the 5 hectares that will be sold) Domaine de Montille is set to be 35-hectare strong.

I also believe that Etienne wants to solidly establish the domaine for the future, for his children and for future generations of the family. Just like his father, he wants to reverse the mistakes of his ancestors. But he also realizes that the stakes are higher today and going into the future. To be able to compete and survive and be among the ranks of the elite producers of Burgundy, the domaine has to have significant vineyard holdings and own parcels in some of the best sites, as well as have a healthy negociant operation on the side. There is no doubt that so far Etienne has been successful in achieving his ambitious goals.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Thomas Jefferson and Burgundy

Thomas Jefferson was principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence, third President of the United States, and a Founding Father, but on the side, he was wine adviser to presidents George Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe. He famously declared that "good wine is a necessity of life for me.

Jefferson was definitely a drinker, not one who just sits on a bottle. His household in Monticello was said to consume 400 bottles of wine a year, and apparently exceeded that number on occasions--like the day when the Marquis de Lafayette dropped by to party in 1824, they exhausted every bottle of red wine in the cellar and Jefferson had to send someone to the city for backup.

Jefferson's cellar in Monticello must have been legendary during his time, as he filled it with all the great wines from France, Italy, and Portugal.  He had a keen palate, able to discern wines that he liked, without having to resort to Parker scores. His favorite wines are to this day regarded as some of the best wines in the world.

Jefferson clearly had a fondness for Burgundy, but even he realized back then that unlike Bordeaux, which was a cakewalk for him, Burgundy wasn't easy to navigate. He found help in the person of Etienne Parent, a cooper in Beaune, whom he met on a visit to Burgundy when he served as ambassador to France. It was said Jefferson and Parent talked shop on wine and viticulture, as well as philosophy and way of life over, we could only imagine, many bottles of great Burgundies.

After Jefferson became president and even later when he retired to Monticello, his communications with Etienne Parent continued. Apparently, Parent became Jefferson's negociant for importing Burgundies into the US. Papers, records, and correspondence exist that show proof of their purchases. Such was his friendship and respect for Etienne Parent that Jefferson signed some of their correspondence: "Thomas Jefferson, your humble and devoted servant." A bit over the top, perhaps? But, hey, Jefferson probably wanted to make sure he kept getting those allocations.

In late 2010, work on restoring Jefferson's Monticello cellar was completed and a formal celebration dinner was planned at the French Embassy in Washington DC. Among the folks invited were François Parent, direct descendant of Etienne Parent, and his wife, Anne-François Gros. François is proprietor of Domaine François Parent in Pommard. Unfortunately, François could not make it to the US but he sent a gift for the newly restored wine cellar, a bottle of 2005 Pommard Premier Cru Les Epenots and a bottle of 1789 Pommard Premier Cru Les Rugiens!

Ah, life, liberty, wine, and the pursuit of happiness.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Pure Chardonnay from Limoux

Pierre and Marie-Claire Fort are close friends of the late Didier Dagueneau. Pierre also makes wine in the Loire, at Château de Tracy in Pouilly-sur-Loire. When he's not in the Loire, Pierre is busy making wine in his native village in Limoux, which is known for its sparkling wines.

The Forts took control of a prized 35-year-old vineyard above their village of Roquetaillade. Situated at an altitude of 480 meters, this vineyard came to them through Pierre's family and, ironically, Pierre had helped plant the vineyard when he was in his early teens while studying winemaking.

The Forts' goal is to live the true, enlightened peasant lifestyle. One where time is regulated by nature and technique and execution are the thoughtful response to observation. They are in the process of restoring an ancient farmhouse in this stone village that will become the soul of their winery.

Several years ago, Michael Sullivan, Dagueneau's friend and US importer, received an unmarked sample of the Forts' wine from Dagueneau. Dagueneau simply asked him to taste it and to give it his honest opinion. Michael narrates his introduction to the Limoux wine:"The wine turned out to be splendid, a very pure, minerally expression of Chardonnay that reminded us of one of the chalkier sights in Burgundy (think St. Romain or Chablis). When speaking with Didier shortly thereafter, he informed me that it was from his friend Pierre in Limoux, 2003 vintage! Would we go and visit him when in France? Absolutely! After visiting the sight, walking the vineyards and tasting the 2004 from barrel, we were smitten. A finished bottle of the same wine sealed the deal (especially after tasting it on our burgundian friends blind)."

Mind you, Michael imports Dominique Lafon and de Montille among others.

There is almost no still Limoux sold outside of the region, and these people are making exclusively that. They farm organically and manually harvest 100% Chardonnay from clay and limestone chalk vineyards. Fermentation and elevage are done in large puncheons (450-600 liters). Lees stirring is done occasionally. The wine, in large part, was already made in the vineyard, and since not one blemished grape makes it into the press the Forts know that their hard work is over for the season.

You will pay less than $20 for this spectacular 2008 Domaine Mouscaillo Limoux Chardonnay that rivals more expensive fine white Burgundy.