MONTRACHET by DOMAINE RAMONET / It is the spring of 1978. A small man, 72 years of age and very much a peasant, with an old stained pullover, baggy trousers and the inevitable casquette on his head, arrives at a lawyer's office in Beaune.
He is about to buy 25 ares and 90 centiares - enough to make about four and half barrels - of Le Montrachet, the finest white wine vineyard in the world. The vendors are the Milan and Mathey-Blanchet families: gentle people. Pierre Ramonet is a man of the soil. Apart from the occasional meal at some of his clients - Lameloise, Alan Chapel, Troisgros, Bocuse - he never ventures outside Chassagne-Montrachet. He hates the telephone. He rarely writes a letter. Such paper-work that needs to be done is achieved by Mother Ramonet, née Lucie Prudhon, whom you will never see dressed otherwise than in black, as befits old ladies throughout France, in an old school exercise book which she keeps in a drawer in her kitchen.
There is the question of payment. "Ah, yes," says Ramonet. He fishes in one pocket for a thick wad of notes, in another for a second, in the back of his trousers for a third, and so on. The stacks of money pile up on the attorney's desk. He has never seen such an amount of espèces in his life. "I think you'll find it all there," says Ramonet, uncomfortable in the formal surroundings of the lawyers' office. And he leaves, anxious to return to the familiarity of his cellar and his vines.
"Père" Ramonet was more than a character. He was, to use the old cliché - but it is true in this instance - a legend in his own lifetime. More or less from scratch, by dint of sheer hard work and a genius for wine, he built up one of the finest white wine domaines in Burgundy. Today the name of Ramonet is synonymous with top Chardonnay. The allocations for bottles are fought over, for every collector considers it his or her right to own some. They sell at auction for astronomical sums whenever they appear. On the rare occasions, as in January 1995 at the Montrachet restaurant in New York, when someone puts on a special vertical tasting and dinner, the tickets - and they are not cheap - are over-subscribed ten times. Ramonet in white is the equivalent of Henri Jayer or the DRC in red.
Pierre Ramonet died in 1994 at the age of 88. He is much missed. But his echo lives on, and the wines, in the able hands of his grandsons Noël (born 1962) and Jean-Claude (b. 1967) since the 1984 vintage, (mais sous ses ordres, stoutly avers Noël), continue his reputation. They are very fine. More importantly, they are also very individual. A Ramonet wine is a Ramonet wine before it is a Chassagne, or a Bienvenue, or a Bâtard....or a Montrachet.
The original Ramonets came from the Bresse on the other side of the river Saône from Chalon. A branch settled in Beaune in the 19th century, where they were millers. The mill failed, and one of them, Claude, moved to Chassagne, where he became a tâcheron - a vineyard worker who is paid by the amount of land he tends rather than by the day as a direct employee - for Colonel Vuillard, owner of the Château de Maltroye.
This second Claude had three children; a daughter who married Georges Bachelet (from whence comes today's Bachelet-Ramonet domaine) and two sons, Pierre, born in 1906 and Claude (b. 1914). This Claude never married, and died in 1977. Pierre married Lucie Prudhon, daughter of the Duc de Magenta's chef de culture at the Domaine de l'Abbaye de Morgeot. (For a time the wine was sold as Domaine Ramonet-Prudhon). They had a single child, their son André (b. 1934), father of Noël and Jean-Claude. André has never enjoyed good health and for some time has been more or less of an invalid. He has never had total responsibility for the Ramonet domaine.
Pierre Ramonet left school at the age of 8 to help his father in the vineyard. His first vineyard purchase was in Chassagne-Montrachet, Les Ruchottes, early in the 1930s. Exhibiting at the Beaune wine fair in 1938, he found himself being addressed by Raymond Baudoin, one of the founders of the Revue des Vins de France, and adviser to many of the nation's top restaurants. Baudoin had obviously encountered something disagreeable at a neighbouring stand. "Have you got anything to take the taste away," he asked. And was given some Ruchottes 1934. "Excellent!" pronounced Baudoin. "Do you have any for sale? Can I take away a couple of bottles?" Six months later he arrived in Chassagne with Frank Schoonmaker, one of the first Americans to seize the opportunity provided by the abolition of prohibition. Schoonmaker took 200 cases of both red and white - though the Ramonets did not get paid until after the war!
Baudoin was of similar assistance in getting the Ramonet wine onto the lists of the top restaurants in France: Taillevent in Paris, Point in Vienne, the Côte D'Or in Avallon - and this encouraged the opening up of a market for vente directe. And of course, after the war, and his settlement of the bill for the 1934s, Schoonmaker continued as the major export customer.
Slowly but surely the Ramonet domaine began to expand. They now possess vines in 7 Chassagnepremiers crus (Ruchottes, Morgeots, Caillerets, Clos-de-la-Boudriotte, Clos-Saint-Jean, Chaumées and Vergers) and most of these were acquired in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1955, two adjoining parcels, one in Bâtard (45 a), one in Bienvenues (56 a), were obtained from Henri Coquet.
More recently the domaine has expanded into Saint-Aubin (Les Charmois) and into Puligny-Montrachet (Champ-Canet and village wine in Enseignières and Nosroyes: the best village appellation vineyards, says Noël Ramonet) and some Boudriottes white has been bought, while they have lost one hectare of Morgeot to another branch of the family. The total now exploited is 17 hectares.
An even more recent development, dating from 1998, is the exchange with the Domaine Jean Chartron of Bâtard-Montrachet must for Chevalier-Montrachet must. In this small way, therefore, the Ramonet brothers are merchants.
In theory Noël is responsible in the cellar and his brother Jean-Claude in the vineyard. But in fact it seems to be a joint effort. Neither has had technical training, and so if you ask why they do this, or not do that, you will be unlikely to receive a coherent answer. The approach is empirical and instinctive. But it seems to work.
The Chardonnays are pruned to the Guyot system, the Pinots Noirs cordon trained. In the vineyard the yields are kept low, the average age of the vines maintained high, with no repiquageafter a certain time. This means that, as has happened in Le Montrachet, whole parcels eventually have to be ripped up. The produce of the younger vines can then be vinified apart, and down-graded. This is the case today with half of the Montrachet.
The red wines, village Chassagne, Clos-Saint-Jean, Clos-de-la-Boudriotte and Morgeots, are partially destemmed, usually 50 percent, cold soaked for a few days, vinified in cement vats - there is a resistance to stainless steel here - macerated for 10 days, and matured using one-third new oak for a year, being both fined and lightly filtered.
There is a very noisy cooling unit for temperature control in the cellar. Above ground what looks like an ugly garage-type hangar stands over an extensive underground cellar hewn out of the rock. But the Ramonets express no interest in being able to cool down or warm up the wine in order to facilitate the malo-lactic. "We like to let nature take its course."
Unusually the Ramonets do not allow the gross lees to settle out before the fermentation of the white wine begins. "There are elements in the gross lees which are good," maintains Noël. Perhaps as a result of this, the wines are bâtonné-ed much less than elsewhere: only once a month for four months. Why? Because they fear that these gross lees would taint the wine. Fermentations are begun in tank, continued in wood - overall about one-third new - at 20-25°C, and the finished wine kept on the lees as long as possible before the first racking. A second racking takes place after a year or 15 months. The white wines, like the reds, are both fined and lightly filtered.
The cellar, both upstairs and downstairs, is not the neatest, most orderly cellar you have ever been into. Odd bits of machinery, adaptors for pipes, and boxes of this or that lie all over the place. You feel they have never had a tidy-up or thrown anything out. As you squeeze between a beaten-up truck and a redundant pumping machine to get below to sample the wines you find that the staircase is used as a cupboard for yet more accumulation of bits and pieces. It is like an ironmonger's nightmare.
But all this seems fitting when you meet Noël Ramonet. The man is in his early 40s, stocky, usually unshaven, in a dirty old T-shirt and jeans, with piercing blue eyes, a loud voice, and pre-emptory way of expressing himself. Finesse, order and method, and reflection are alien. Energy, passion and forthrightness is his manner. But when you listen, you realise that this is truly a chip off the old block. He reveres his grandfather. But he has his own full understanding of hismétier. (He has also got one of the most magnificent - and eclectic - private cellars I have ever seen. All bought; none exchanged).
"Moins fins mais plus profonds," he will agree with you, when you sample the Chassagne, Morgeots white after the Saint-Aubin, Charmois. And the Boudriottes is more mineral, less fat and heavy, because this is on the semi-coteaux, while the Morgeots is in the plain. The Chaumées, despite being young vines, and the Vergers, show more finesse. They are properly on the slope. And the Caillerets and the Ruchottes are best of all. "Where the soils are really well drained, as here," explains Noël, "you will always have much less problem with botrytis." This is the heartland of Chassagne white.
Why is there such a sharp contrast between the Bienvenues - composed, accessible, discreet - and the Bâtard - closed, powerful, masculine? After all the vines are adjacent, and the same age. Noël shrugs. You feel he knows the answer. But he can't articulate it. And is his Bâtard his most consistently successful wine, better even than the Montrachet, which can be totally brilliant, but over the 17 years since the Ramonets have produced it, certainly not always? Is this a question you even dare ask?
I find the Ramonet reds refreshingly direct. They are full, ample and plump, nicely concentrated but nicely succulent at the same time. Chassagne reds will never be great, and can be over-extracted. But the Ramonets get theirs right.
The whites, on the other hand, are exceptional. They are distinctive, full-bodied and long-lasting. They are rich and masculine, firm and concentrated. They can be magnificent.
And they can also be flawed. This is a result of risks being taken. But often the flaws are by no means disagreeable; they lend individuality; they give character; they add an element of dimension. For me, a great wine often does have often something just a little bit "wrong" about it. And a squeaky-clean "perfect" wine is very rarely as interesting.
Le Montrachet, 2005From 2022
This is still very closed and youthful. Marvelous energy and power. Very, very concentrated nose. Full body. Very, very rich and almost solid on the palate at present. Real depth and dimension here. Potentially excellent.
Le Montrachet, 2004Now-2025 plus
Flowery but youthful – indeed a bit ungainlyat first – on the nose. Medium to medium-full body. On the palate really classy. Lovely racy fresh fruit. Now just about ready. No lack of energy here. Very long at the end. Very lovely.
Le Montrachet, 2002From 2019
Nutty, fat, and very, very concentrated on the nose. Still very, very closed. Similar on the palate. Immense concentration and depth. Excellent fruit. Still a baby. This is very classy and very profound. Potentially a great wine. Even better than the 2005.
Le Montrachet, 2001Now-2030
Lovely ripe, profound nose. Unexpected depth here. A little evolution on the palate. But lots of energy and class. Marvelously balanced fruit. Brilliant for the vintage. Bags of life head of it.
Le Montrachet, 1999Now-2030
Very ripe and concentrated and profound on the nose. Splendidly, concentrated, rich, ripe fruit. Great depth. Still very young. At the end – for this bottle evolved quite fast in the glass – the wine is quite soft, showing lovely fruit. Now just aboiut à point. Very fine.
Le Montrachet, 1998Now-2020
Crisp, composed and flowery, but no great weight on the nose. Accessible and delightful if not greatly serious. Still very youthful on the palate though. Graceful, very fresh. A lovely wine. Just about ready.
Le Montrachet, 1997Now-2020
Some development on the colour. But the nose is still very fresh. Full, crisp, steely and youthful. Fullish body. Now à point. Better grip than the 1998 but less ample. This is very classy and very lovely.
Le Montrachet, 1996Now-2020 plus
Very fresh colour. Lovely, flowery, honeysuckle nose. Most seductive and quite delightful. Fullish body. Ripe, round. A point. Richer than the 2007. More depth. More vigour. Very fine.
Le Montrachet, 1995Now-2020 plus
Some development on the colour, yet not over-aged on the nose. Full bodied. Round and ripe. Fresh, concentrated on the palate, yet just a littgle rigid. But it improved in the glass. Lovely but not brilliant.
Le Montrachet, 1994Drink soon
Quite a developed colour. Full and fresh, if somewhat spicy and showing some age on the palate. Not the greatest of concentration, depth or dimension. A bit dull. But that is the vintage.
Le Montrachet, 1993Now-2019
Lovely fresh nose. Full body, rich and now mellow on the palate. Pure and clean. Ample and ripe and rich and fully ready. No undue austerity. Complex and classy and individual. Fine quality. But is the Bâtard better still?
Le Montrachet, 1991Now-2017
Impressive, youthful colour. Ample, fresh nose. Fullish body. Ripe. Very vigorous. Very lively still. Lots of fruit. Really surprisingly ample and elegant., classy, vigorous and ripe. Delicious. No hurry to drink.
Le Montrachet, 1990Drink soon
Just a little golden on the colour. Ample, round, ripe nose. Fullish on the palate. Slightly rigid. Good grip. But not the grace and depth of the 1991. Fine qualitgy fruit nevertheless.
Le Montrachet, 1985Drink soon
Just a little development here on the colour. But the nose has become a ittle vegetal. Fullish body. Somewhat rigid on the palate. Concentrated and very good acidity, but a bit four square. Was better five years ago. But other bottles may be holding up better than this;
Le Montrachet, 1983Now to 2020
Fresh if mature colour. Ample, very ripe – almost over-ripe – nose. Very complex. Great depth and complexity. Full body. Splendidy fresh, succulent, balanced , energetic and multi-dimensional. Individual and really great. These two 1983s are magnificent!
Domaine Ponsot - Clos de la Roche, Vieilles Vignes and its Morey-Saint-Denis, Clos des Monts Luisants
Up on the slopes above Clos de la Roche lies a one hectare vineyard that produces a wine which is truly unique: a premier cru blanc exclusively produced from the Aligoté grape. Elsewhere in Burgundy only generic wines can be made from the Aligoté, and such is the fashion for Chardonnay that this poor, unfashionable grape variety is increasingly confined to lesser vineyards, the flat lands on the 'wrong' side of the main road (which would probably be better suited to potatoes and beets) and hidden corners further up where the micro-climate and the aspect are not of the first order. Only in Bouzeron in the Côte Chalonnaise is the Aligoté taken seriously and planted in the full sun and on well-drained rocky soils. Here we have a delicious wine, if one at its best drunk soon after bottling. What comes out of the Clos des Monts Luisants, however, is altogether different. A bottle with all the same depth, interest, class and aging potential of the best of the Chardonnays of Meursault and Puligny-Montachet.
The Ponsot family hails originally from Saint-Romain. In 1872, one of their line, a lawyer in Dijon, bought a domaine in Morey-Saint-Denis on behalf of his son, William. William died childless in 1926, but not before his god-child and nephew Hippolyte had been roped in to learn the metier and prepare himself for the succession. Hippolyte's grandson, Laurent, born in 1954, has been in charge of Domaine Ponsot since 1983.
It was William Ponsot who created today's Clos des Monts Luisants. The vineyard, which begins some 20 metres below the tree line, is their monopoly. Back in the 19th century Aligoté was widespread, planted alongside the Chardonnay in places as exalted as Corton-Charlemagne. But after the phylloxera epidemic and the economic depression which followed it growers increasingly filled up their white wine vineyards exclusively with Chardonnay. It ripened better and the wine fetched more money. William Ponsot had different ideas. He would persevere with Aligoté, and so in 1911 the one hectare of Clos de Monts Luisants was replanted with this variety.
Some time later, in the late 1930s, his successor Hippolyte decided to add some 'Pinot Gouges' to the vineyard. This is mutated Pinot Noir, found by Henri Gouges in his vineyards in Nuits-Saint-Georges, and reproduced by him in the premier cru Les Perrières. Gouges allowed Ponsot to take cuttings for his own use, and so for a time 15 percent or so of the encépagement in the Clos des Monts Luisants came from this rare and original mutation. (As anyone who has tasted the Gouges wine will tell you, it bears absolutely no resemblance to Chardonnay).
Some time later the grape mix changed again: in the early 1950s Laurent's father Jean-Marie added some 20 percent Chardonnay. So for a time the wine was made out of all three varieties, with the Aligoté making up around 60 perecnt of the total. In 1992 the old Pinot Gouges were ripped up, and following the 2004 harvest, after Laurent had done various tests, he abandoned the Chardonnay. From 2005, therefore, we have a 100 perecent Aligoté wine once again, and still from the original 1911 stocks.
How is the wine made? Firstly production is severely limited. The yield averages less than 30 hl/ha. The fruit is collected in wicker hods, the fruit later being transferred to plastic trays. The grapes are not de-stemmed, and pressed in an old vertical press (today most perfectionists consider that vertical presses are better than horizontal ones). After settling out in bulk the must is transformed into wine in old wooden barrels, without any deliberate cooling, so temperatures can rise to 30° or so, and rarely undergoes malo-lactic fermenation. It is then hardly interfered with – no fining, for instance - until bottling, which takes place after 22 months. Throughout the process the sulphur level is kept to the barest minimum. If any wines could be considered to be made without the use of sulphur, they are those of Laurent Ponsot.
Does it keep? The answer is a strong yes, and even in vintages where nature has been less than kind. In the best years 20 years is a minimum: the 1989 is still an infant.
And what dose it taste like? Well, it is not honeyed in the sense of a Meursault. Neither is it peachy in the sense of a Puligny. And of couse it is not oaky. The wine is very fresh, though except in the very lean vintages with no undue acidity. It is flowery, and the fruit flavours are understated and very subtle. Now having sampled the more recent pure Aligoté wines and compared then with what was made before, I agree with Laurent that 100 perecent Aligoté makes the best wine. There is a brilliant complexity and delicacy about today's Clos des Monts Luisants. It is delicious and it really is unique. And yet is is not prohibitively expensive. Ponsot does not sell wines direct to private consumers. But the wine can be picked up at the shop in Morey-Saint-Denis for around 45 euros TTC.
The following vintages of Clos de la Roche, Vieilles Vignes were sampled at a Wine Weekend at the Hotel Wilden Mann, Lucerne, Switzerland, in November, 2011.
The average harvest in the Clos de la Roche, Vieilles Vignes is 26 he/hl.
2009 From 2020
(As a result of hail damage Ponsot produced 35 percent less than in 2008) Good colour. Some development. Rich, full, succulent, classy nose. Lovely fruit. Full bodied, rich and vigorous on the palate. Very well-balanced. Lots of depth and energy. Still needs time, but surprisingly accessible already. Ripe finish. Great class. Very long. Very fine.
2008 From 2020
Good colour. Still youthful. Good intensity and grip on the nose. Medium-full body. Quite pronouced acidity. But fresh and ripe. Lots of vigour and lots of dilmension. A splendid wine for food. But it needs keeping. The tannins are as ripe as those of 2009 but the expression of them is a little more austere.
2007 From 2014
Medium colour. Quite developed now. Soft nose. Plump but somewhat lightweight. Medium body. Nice and fresh. Attractive, ripe and succulent on the palate. Good energy, and positive at the end. Needs a year or two. Most enjoyable.
2006 From 2014
Medium colour. Developed. Also soft, but slightly more grip and intensity. Very seductive. There is an illusion of oak here which is very curious. And this soft aromatic ood flaviur is continued on the palate. Medium weight. Charming and balanced. A bit more to it than the 2007, but similar.
Not presented. Currently the wine is hard as nails and not showing very well.
2004 From 2017
Medium to medium-full colour. Just a touch of the vegetal on the nose. Less ripe than the 2006 and 2007 but more substantial. Yet no lack of fruit and charm. Medium to medium-full body. A lot more interest, succulence and vigour than most 2004s. Good positive follow through. Still a bit of tannin to resolve. Fine for the vintage.
2003 From 2017
From magnum. Full colour. Still immature. This is still youthful on the nose. Chocolaty and not a bit Rhônish. Full body. Rich, sweet, spicy, very good acidity. The second magnum was even fresher and more delicious than the first.
2002 From 2021
Medium colour. Looks fully mature, and there is a little mature spice on the nose, which is of medium weight. Reticent at first. Medium-full body. Still a bit adolescent. Some tannin. More energy and power than seemed at first. Very good grip and very good class. Long and very promising but it needs ten years to get to its best. Very fine.
2001 Now – 2021 plus
Medium to medium-full colour. Fresh, classy, medium weight nose. Good positive fruit. Soft, round, spicy, ripe, fresh and balanced. Medium body. Plenty of depth here. A great success. Just about ready.
2000 Now – 2020
Medium, mature colour. Soft, sweet, opulent and approachable. Medium body. Plenty of depth if not quite the energy of the 2001. Remarkably good for the vintage and plenty of life ahead of it.
1999 From 2017
Very good colour. Rich, full, abundant, lush and energetic on the nose. This is very delicious. Fullish body. A ripe mocha nose which is always encouraging. Fullish body. Still some tannin to rexolve. Real harmony, class and grip. Will still improve.
1998 Now – 2021 plus
Good fresh, medium-full colour. The nose is a little lean at first, but the wine opened up and gained charm in the glass. Medium-full body. A little reserved, but concentrated, pure, stylish and well-balanced. Lovely finish. Plenty of life.