In Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, attaching a big, famous name to your own plebian, obscure name has been an effective technique in the never-ending wine hustle. So much so, in fact, that négociants often purchase the local hyphen supply en primeur, two years before they are released to the general public, while they are still in the callow ‘dash’ phase.
Hyphen-mania was formalized in the 1870s in order to add a note of legality to the centuries-old, somewhat odious practice of usurping the names of superb, but tiny plots of real estate to sell wines of somewhat lesser quality. Indeed, as in the case of Bâtard-Montrachet—which at least has enough class to call the wine a ‘bastard’ Montrachet—the distance between vineyards may be no more than a hyphen’s length.
For the most part, it was nearby communes rather than nearby acres that found the most commercial value in tacking on the prestige names: Thus, the wine village of Gevrey, which contains the fabled Chambertin vineyard, becomes ‘Gevrey-Chambertin’, while several nearby vineyards (despite have unique AOLs) hoist the Chambertin moniker upon their backs via the Superglue of hyphenation. There’s Chapelle-Chambertin; there’s Griotte-Chambertin and Charmes-Chambertin; there’s Latricières-Chambertin and there’s four more which hyphen-conservation precludes mentioning.
Likewise is the case with Le Montrachet, arguably the finest white-wine-growing dirt on the planet. The whole kaboodle is less than twenty acres; add on the kit that is Bâtard-Montrachet and you have another thirty, making the total output of both, on an average year, around 100,000 bottles—eight thousand cases, or roughly that of a California boutique winery.
In 1879, engaging in one of the most peculiar cases of legalized identity fraud in wine history, the village of Puligny in the Côte-d’Or département of eastern France, decided to change their name to Puligny-Montrachet—and with a single flourish of the mayoral plume, every second-rate wine from that village became, by default, a Montrachet.
Yet, lest that sound too dismissive, consider that second-rate is pretty damned remarkable when ‘first-rate’—true Le Montrachet—rings the cash register at over a thousand dollars for an average vintage; top producers in top harvests may command five times as much. Granted, nobody is sponsoring a television series call Beverly Hills, 90211, but tasting wine from the hood costing a twentieth as much is a worthwhile experience: It gives you a shade of grandeur, an idea of the stylistic differences between Chardonnay produced from the thin limestone soils on the southern apex of the Mont-Rachet hill and Chardonnay made anywhere (and everywhere) else.
It may not be quite as potent an encounter as with a Mason jar filled with Le Montrachet Grand Cru DRC 2007, but you can certainly suppose that you’ve tasted a shadow of the great appellation—a whisper of transcendency.
In other words, it’s sort of like dating Jennie Garth’s sister.
An example of what I’m rambling on about can be seen in Bachelet-Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet 2012, retailing for around $60. Perhaps mindful of the commercial potential of hyphens, the estate of Bachelet-Ramonet saw no harm in adding one to their name—in fact, it’s run by a Bachelet son-in-law named Bonnefoy, so it is not out of the question that a further dip into the dash-stash may be in the offing.
Père Ramonet, who died in 1994 at the age of 88, was a legend in Chassagne—grandson of the original vintner, he is credited with single-handedly raising the individuality bar on local Chardonnay, and even today it is claimed that a Ramonet wine is a Ramonet wine before it is a Chassagne, or a Bienvenue, or a Bâtard… or a Montrachet. Part of the technique still at use in the cellar is a specific style of bâtonnage—the stirring in of dead yeast cells and other organic particulates while the wine ages: The fermenting mass is stirred only four times over as many months. The theory is that some of these ‘gross’ lees, while offering subtle but distinct augmentation to the flavor, need do so with as little disturbance as possible. The must is only lightly fined and filtered before bottling, which results in a discreetly powerful wine with many layers of complexity.
2012 was another tough, short-crop vendange, and Bachelet-Ramonet’s Chassagne-Montrachet shows clean, but pronounced acidity. I have no idea if it is chaptalized or not, but if so, Bonnefoy was hardly alone throughout the region. The wine is lean and unforced, fine-boned rather than opulent; it opens with a strong slate-like stoniness fading to white peach, honey and light, sweet flowers. There’s some lime on the palate to compliment the peach notes echoed there, and the wine offers a medium long finish with the slightest tang of tannin. Overall, it’s an understated Chardonnay, less fat than many a Chassagne-Montrachet, but made in a austere, Burgundian, mineral-driven style that the New World—whether by nurture or nature—just doesn’t emulate.
Meanwhile, keep the hyphens coming. They alert us to intentions not always reveled in execution, and we won’t worry if hyphen-wines bask in a little reflected glory: Montrachet has enough to spare.
Chris-Robert Kassel-Parker Jr.