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The King of Chardonnays

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: February 27, 2003

At the California Wine Experience in Las Vegas in October, I tasted dozens of lovely, and very distinctive, California Chardonnays. They put to rest the old, silly argument that California Chardonnays all come from one vat. There is terroir in California -- and winemaking skills to match.

But those California Chardonnays paled in comparison to the extraordinary wines presented at an extensive tasting of Le Montrachet held in New York the following week.

Not that the Montrachets give more pleasure than other top-flight wines made in the world. They don't. And that is precisely the point.

Like campaigning candidates, many California Chardonnays try to win you over by delivering gobs of up-front pleasure and intriguing flavors. In comparison, young Montrachets are backward, unyielding and muscular. They are out of step with today's immediate-gratification society. Collectors understand this and are ready to pay accordingly.

The tasting was held at Montrachet restaurant in New York's TriBeCa district. Wine director Daniel Johnnes presented 35 Montrachets, starting with the 2000 vintage and ending with the 1939 from Bouchard Père & Fils.

While each wine was distinctive, depending on each winemaker's individual winemaking style, there was a common denominator that transcended the winemakers. Montrachet is like a well-muscled model: You can dress him in Ferragamo or Armani, but the body underneath doesn't change.

Montrachet makes Chardonnays with built-in concentration. This power translates to great intensity on the palate and keeps them fresh for many years, preventing them from turning flabby with age, as so many Chardonnays do. "Montrachet has a force, an energy," Pierre-Henry Gagey, CEO of Maison Louis Jadot, said. "It takes it from the soil. Therefore it can age well."

Montrachet's pedigree dates back almost a millennium. The name first appears in 1242 when local landowners donated to the Church parcels in "mont Rachaz" or "Montrachaz," according to Le Montrachet, a newly published book by French sommelier and retailer Jean-Claude Wallerand in cooperation with Keiko Kato and Maika Masuko of Japan.

Today, 18 growers own land in the 20-acre Montrachet vineyard, but some sell part of their crop to other winemakers, which explains why there are 25 producers making Montrachet. We tasted the wines of 24 of these producers.

Two owners divide half of Montrachet between them: Marquis de Laguiche (who sells to Joseph Drouhin) and Domaine Bernard Thénard. The 16 other owners divide the remaining 10 acres.

The heart of the tasting was a flight of 16 Montrachets from 1997, a forward vintage that I rated 88 points. It produced ripe, even ultraripe, wines in many sites of the Côte de Beaune, where most of Burgundy's top Chardonnay vineyards are located, including Montrachet. As expected, the '97 Montrachets were still amazingly firm, clean and youthful. They will improve for at least another decade.

Some '97s were powerful and oaky (Vincent Girardin, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti); others intriguingly terroir-driven and slightly funky (Louis Latour and Guy Amiot); others elegant and refined (Henri Boillot, Fontaine-Gagnard, Bouchard Père & Fils). Six rose to the top, showing remarkable complexity, balance and typical Montrachet intensity: Joseph Drouhin Marquis de Laguiche, Louis Jadot, Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Domaine Leflaive, Pierre Morey and Jacques Prieur.

Among the aficionados, who had paid $1,500 for the tasting and a five-course meal created by chef Harold Moore, the excitement level rose as the vintages aged. Lafon's powerful, ultrayoung 1989 and classy, racy 1992 were my two favorites.

Bouchard's wines from the 1961, 1947 and 1939 vintages were a revelation. None was oxidized, and while truffles and mushroom dominated the aromas, Moore's roast suckling pig with chestnuts boosted the impression of dried fruit in the wines. The '47 and '61 were energetic on the palate and long on the finish.

"These are grands vins, and you have to be patient to wait for them," said Bernard Hervet, Bouchard's general director.

Nobody suggests waiting 50 years as a rule, but the tasting confirmed the character and staying power of this grand cru. There are thousands of Chardonnays, but only one Montrachet.

Per-Henrik Mansson, Wine Spectator's Switzerland-based senior editor, has been with the magazine since 1987.

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