Don’t overlook village Burgundies

In all of Burgundy there are only six white wine vineyards called grand cru, the French government’s highest ranking. Two of them lie solely within Puligny-Montrachet and two, Le Montrachet and Batard Montrachet (literally, the bastard Montrachet), are shared with Chassagne-Montrachet, the neighboring town.

These grand cru white Burgundies are frightfully expensive, $200-plus per bottle, and, like the greatest red wines, need at least a decade of aging for all their glory to unfold. The French consider these wines unique and label them only with the vineyard name. Forty percent of the vineyards of Puligny-Montrachet have been ranked as premier cru, down a notch from grand cru, and are labeled with the village and vineyard name. The remaining half of the wine from Puligny-Montrachet comes from vineyards that are not classified as grand or premier cru and are labeled with the village name only.

In 1879, the villages, which at the time were called simply Puligny and Chassagne, affixed the name of their most famous vineyard to the towns’ names in hopes of elevating the reputation of the village wines. The resulting confusion (deception) persists today. I know more than one person who has purchased a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet thinking it was Le Montrachet. That not withstanding, these village wines should not be overlooked. Talented producers can make excellent wines even from nonclassified vineyards.

In selecting Burgundy, the producer is critically important, but especially when selecting village wines. A producer, such as Olivier Leflaive, buys grapes or newly made wine from growers throughout Puligny-Montrachet, blends and ages the wine in his cellars, and then sells it under his name. The skill lies in knowing what to buy and how to blend and age it.

The talented Franck Grux, Leflaive’s winemaker since 1988, has that skill. With a captivating creaminess intertwined with a mineral backbone, Olivier Leflaive’s 2002 Puligny Montrachet has an uncommon intensity and grace for ”just” a village wine (about $47). If you are contemplating spending that kind of money for a California chardonnay, try this one instead.

Olivier Leflaive’s wines are distributed by MS Walker, 800-238-0607. 

February 17, 2005.