Montrachet is one of the five Grand Cru vineyards that includes the Montrachet designation. Montrachet itself is so famous that the others are all named for it. The vineyard, considered one of the best in the world for white wine, is situated roughly evenly between the two villages Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet. The wine is usually titled Le Montrachet when from the Chassagne-Montrachet side and simply Montrachet when grown on the Puligny-Montrachet side.
The appellation system of the Montrachet areas is fairly confusing, but wine labeled as Montrachet automatically brings a guarantee of a very highly pedigreed, luxurious Chardonnay. They win out over Bâtard-Montrachet and, in fact, just about every other competitor, with their sleek combination of richness with great flavors, complex but without any hard edges. There are certainly enough Montrachet fans to drive the prices to preposterous levels. Production is low, the Grand Cru vineyard's 19.7 acres turning out less than 4,000 cases annually. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, with its ownership of about a tenth of the vineyard, makes slightly less than 300 cases each year.
As a result, the wines become collectible as soon as they are released to the market, and limited imports in America means that these wines are often bought up as soon as they are brought in. The new vintages of Romanée-Conti's Montrachet tends to be about $2500-$4000 for new bottles, and potentially over $6000 for old bottles from great vintages. Even négociant-bottled wines such as those from Drouhin tend to cost $600+.
A number of fans of California Chardonnay would argue that Montrachet's wines are not powerful enough for their taste. And certainly some Sonoma County Chardonnays, such as Kistler and Marcassin, can offer flavors that are in some ways greater. But that does not stand in the way of the fact that the Grand Cru vineyard of Montrachet has for years produced amazingly consistent wine that has often outdone most Californian offerings. With this considered, Montrachet has to be considered the world's best dry white wine area.
Montrachet was recognized as a Grand Cru AOC in 1937, as was its neighbor Bâtard-Montrachet. The rules changed little that producers did not already have in place; yields, minimum alcohol (12%) and the grape variety (100% Chardonnay only) were regulated. Even before then, the limited production numbers and sheer outstanding brilliance of the wines had made Montrachets popular among those few people who could afford them. During the mid-20th century Montrachet cemented its reputation with a number of great Burgundian vintages.
Buying into a Montrachet plot of land was something that only the most wealthy and ambitious producers attempted. A Montrachet belonged in the cellar of every ambitious (or affluent) wine collector. Certainly Montrachet never had a monopoly on dry white wine, but it's clear that into the 1970s no area could be considered clearly superior. Therefore it is a baffling error that no Montrachet was included in the 1976 Judgement of Paris. Instead, a Bâtard-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru were selected to represent the Montrachet wines. Certainly, Bâtard-Montrachet is one of the leading Burgundy Grand Crus, but then and now Montrachet is considered clearly superior.
As a result of Burgundy's loss to California in the Judgement, the prices and reputation of Montrachet were dragged down along with the rest of white Burgundies. And as with all white Burgundies, Montrachet producers took the opportunity to up the ante and improve the quality of their wine. Nowadays, many California fans continue to discredit Montrachet, but the many diehard fans still consider it to be the best place for dry white wine in the world.
Climate and Viticulture
Clearly, there are no inferior weather conditions on the Montrachet slope that contains no less than five Grand Cru vineyards. The weather is perfect, as is the concentration of limestone in the soil. Yields are low, and the whole slope is sheltered enough from wind to prevent the wine from getting unpleasantly lean or unripe. But what makes Montrachet the best of all the Montrachet Grand Crus?
This is a difficult question with an uncertain answer. One guess is that the secret is in the steepness of the slopes. The Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet Premiers Crus, as well as the village land, are somewhat flat. Bâtard-Montrachet is sloped, but Montrachet has a more natural, even slope that lends character and elegance to the wine. Chevalier-Montrachet's slope is more acute, meaning that the wine is slightly more austere. Viticulturists can't be completely sure, but they believe it's no coincidence the world's best white wines (as well as many of the best reds) are made from grapes that grow on hills.
- Chardonnay: Since it is not allowed to label red wine--from Pinot Noir or any other grape--as Montrachet, Chardonnay steals the spotlight as the main Montrachet varietal. In fact, Montrachet's white wine must be varietal Chardonnay, and blending is illegal. Therefore we have 100% Chardonnay wines that quite simply epitomize Burgundian Chardonnay. Many people argue that they are the best dry whites in the world, and history has certainly honored this position, but of course continuing challenges from California, New Zealand, South Africa, and numerous other areas have kept Montrachet's superiority a question mark. But within the Montrachet areas, which are themselves a large hub for reliably elegant, rich but dry, incredibly complex and refined wines, Montrachet is the undoubted leader. Chardonnay makes a generally fruitier wine here than it does in Bâtard-Montrachet, lacking the mineral edge that, to the inexperienced taster, can be construed as unpleasant. They exemplify purity, starting out with exotic fruit flavors, and on the palate having a saturating richness of butter and spice. Into the long finish, they remain completely dry. These are incredibly powerful wines, but they are never heavy, which is rare even in the Côte de Beaune. More impressively, they tend to age longer than any other dry Chardonnays; they will be more mellow but with the same impressive richness in 10 years, but will still be going at 20. At 25, they begin to fade, but even after that marker they will still offer great flavor and concentration.
Here is a list of the Montrachets that are generally considered to be world-class. This does not include certain very limited-production wines that are highly rated, but almost impossible for anyone to obtain outside Europe. A prime example of this is Domaine Leroy, whose very rare--although certainly excellent--wines are a true feat to find and purchase.
A note on price: $200 in Montrachet or Le Montrachet is almost suspiciously below-par. In fact, one should expect to pay at least $350 for an entry-level Montrachet, and $600 for a world-class bottle. More limited-production, "boutique" domaines such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti will charge well into the thousands for a bottle, but these prices are based on collectibility more than actual quality. Here is a list of nine wines to note here.
- Bouchard Pere et Fils: Like five of the nine wines on this list, Bouchard's Montrachet is made on the Chassagne-Montrachet side of the vineyard and is called Le Montrachet. As in many other Grands Crus, Bouchard proves that its size is no obstacle, and that in its case quality is very much consistent with quantity. Few bad vintages get in the way of Bouchard's very consistent Montrachet offerings. Many Bouchard vintages are explosively powerful in their youth, with a creamy richness powerfully backed up by pear, apple, and nut flavors. The exotic scents are sometimes too overpowering and have to be given time to mellow; since sometimes the Bouchard vintages are in a more backward style, 10 years of aging for any Bouchard Montrachet is probably a must. An exotically rich but totally dry wine, one of the classics of Montrachet, even if it must age in order to show its best side. New vintages are usually somewhere between $500 and $700.
- Domaine du Comte Lafon: Lafon's Montrachet holdings also happen to be on the Chassagne side of the Grand Cru. These wines are extremely elegant with a richness of flavor that makes them approachable in their youth. But while having great refinement, they are also some of the most unabashedly aggressive white Burgundies. With the power-wine trademarks of deep, intense flavors, scents of smoke and oak, and a long, saturating finish, these wines have some of the most intense, concentrated character of any wine in Montrachet. They are sweet in their richness but deep and intense enough to never be cloying. Try 10-12 years of aging in order to get a more mellow—but surely still rich and powerful—wine, although early drinking would certainly be intriguing. This is definitely a boutique producer, and count yourself among the lucky if you are able to obtain a bottle from any vintage (excepting perhaps the subpar 2003) for under $1000. Indeed, some of the older bottles can range closer to $2000, and well above that when sold by private collectors.
- Drouhin: Drouhin's rows of Chardonnay grapes, which lie in the Puligny-Montrachet part of the vineyard, are actually not holdings but are instead leased to them by the original owners, the Laguiche family. As a result, "Marquis de Laguiche" is appended after Montrachet on the label. These rows were always excellent, but in recent years the resulting wines have become more consistently stellar, now placing Drouhin very certainly on the list of Montrachet's top producers. These are some of the most exotic, wildly scented wines of Montrachet; nobody ever said these flavors lacked diversity, but new ones for this wine have been added such as quinine, violet, and sugar. It's a very sophisticated and complex wine, with few vintages in which it doesn't reach a burstingly rich, pleasantly sweet quality. They also have a long finish on which the creamy oak tendency shows through. These can age with the best of the Montrachets, but can be approached earlier on as well. Certain vintages are in the $350 range, but most of the time they are over $600.
- Jadot: Some négociants have not made it into this list, but Jadot competes in the very small, competition-fraught area of Montrachet as well, with apparent success. This wine comes from the Chassagne side of the Grand Cru. It is some very intense wine when young, and although it can be drunk young for its explosive, aggressive nature, aging is advisable so that the flavors harmonize with the acidity and sheer power. Aged vintages are said to be nutty, spicy and rich, with flavors of clove, almonds, and a number of exotic scents. This has to be aged for 8-10 years, but other than that it is in no way inferior to much more expensive Montrachets. As usual for Jadot, the prices are much less than those of other producers. In this case they usually are between $300 and $400 for new bottles.
- Domaine Leflaive: Located in Puligny-Montrachet, Leflaive's holdings make very good Montrachets. Unlike many other Montrachets, they are dangerously austere in their youth and lack the explosive, exotically tinged richness that the appellation is known for. Even in the beginning, they have impressive aromas of stones, oak, and intense minerals, but the wines are also quite lean and can have an acidic bite. The exotic richness will arrive within 5-10 years of aging; unlike some of the other wines listed here, there's no reasonable case for opening this early. Prices of over $2,000 are common.
- Lucien Le Moine: There isn't much of this wine, and on production it becomes immediately collectible, but it's one of the best Montrachets. The rows, located on the Puligny-Montrachet side, yield wine of great complexity and richness, but there's greatly precise acidity to cut through the buttery sweetness. The 2005 was particularly lauded. This wine is sheer power, but also prides itself on its balance. The right compromise is apparently struck, and in 10 years the wine may become even more stellar. The wines are hard to obtain and can cost $500+.
- Domaine Ramonet: Ramonet's vineyards are located in Chassagne-Montrachet. These are some of the most classy wines of the Grand Cru, showing Ramonet's typical commitment to a reasonable blend of powerful intensity and light elegance. There's a lot of power on the nose, palate, and finish, with flavors ranging from exotic peach and citrus to more Burgundian nut and smoky cream flavors. But description is largely irrelevant as the wines change with time to become even more refined and sophisticated. In short, this is a wine that makes the right compromise between power and elegance. The best vintages sometimes need 15 or more years, but less impressive vintages can be opened early in order to appreciate their power and richness while it's still present. The wines range from $550 to $1200, and tend to settle in the $700 range. Older vintages, however, will probably run closer to $2000, especially if they are from classic Burgundy years such as 1990.
- Domaine de la Romanée-Conti: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the most brilliant and expensive red wine producer in the Côte de Nuits and perhaps the world, has only one white wine holding. This is about a tenth of the Montrachet Grand Cru vineyard; all of this land is on the Puligny-Montrachet side of the vineyard. The same production value and low yields are applied in Montrachet as they are in the Côte de Nuits, and while not nearly as expensive, the resulting wines still lead the area in terms of price. These are amazingly powerful wines, made in the classic Montrachet style that the area has become known for. Ideally, they have a bit more depth and heaviness to make the flavors that much more impressive. Very masculine Montrachet in general, the wine has buttery aromas but also somewhat exotic notes of honey, clove, pineapple, and peach. A minerality is also present, although it's never intrusive. These wines are rich but, importantly, not at all sweet, so 10-15 years of bottle aging is wise. New vintages tend to be in between $2000 and $7000, driven up by the fact that this is perhaps the most collectible white Burgundy.
- Domaine Sauzet: Sauzet's Montrachets are similar to their Bâtard-Montrachets; heavy and intense, but impressive young, they become totally singular with the right amount of aging. The Montrachet holdings are located entirely on the Chassagne-Montrachet side of the vineyard. They are highly textured, layered wines that are too intense to be drunk at a young age. But even in their closed, unapproachable nature they display a broad, layered complexity of exotic flowers and some minerals. In addition, the usual buttery vanilla notes of oak are noticeable. For powerful Montrachet it's pretty hard to beat this domaine, as the wines show a monstrous finish as well as great power on the palate. But yet they still have a great elegance. New prices are around $500.
Montrachet does not have any subregions. Confusingly, the several other appellations with Montrachet in their name are so titled not because they are part of Montrachet, but because their producers wanted their wine associated with this Cadillac of white Burgundies.