Burgundy lovers enjoy debating the merits of vineyards almost as much as they savor the wines themselves. A favorite topic of conversation? Premier cru vineyards that in the right hands produce wines at grand cru quality. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in on that discussion over the years. [For background on the classification of Burgundies, refer to Ask Mister Wine Guy: “What are those Burgundy labels trying to tell me?”]
For red wine in Burgundy, for example, many—but not all—long-time collectors maintain that vineyards like Rugiens in Pommard, Les Saint-Georges in Nuits-Saint-Georges, and Clos Saint-Jacques in Gevrey-Chambertin consistently outperform their ranking. Certainly these favored sites produce more complex, refined and ageworthy wines, on average, than a number of vineyards that are officially grand cru. (By the way, you’ll know that a Burgundy lover is serious—or a serious pedant—if he or she maintains that only part of the vineyard deserves grand cru status.)
For white wines on the Côte de Beaune, the premier cru Meursault Perrières is widely considered to be of grand cru quality. In Chablis, there’s one long-established premier cru vineyard that consistently towers above the rest: Montée de Tonnerre.
If this vineyard does not quite reach the level of the region’s grand crus in depth and sheer palate presence, it often does in aromatic complexity and class. In a perfect classification system, it would be ranked between premier and grand cru. Why should you care? In a word: value. Because Chablis usually is significantly cheaper than white Burgundy from the Côte de Beaune in the first place, the best examples of Montée de Tonnerre can offer remarkable quality/price rapport. If Chablis is the insider’s white Burgundy, then Montée de Tonnerre is the insider’s Chablis premier cru.
A look at the map quickly explains why. Montée de Tonnerre is situated just to the southeast of the unbroken strip of Chablis grand crus on the right bank of the river Serein (it’s separated from Les Blanchots only by a narrow ravine). It enjoys a similar geographic profile, rich in the same Kimmeridgian limestoney chalk that makes the grand crus some of the world’s most cerebral, complex and distinctive examples of chardonnay. With its brisk citrus character, floral lift and incisive minerality, Montée de Tonnerre is wonderfully aromatic and penetrating in its youth, typically coming into greater harmony and putting on weight with five to ten years of bottle age.
Here are some of my favorites, from the very successful 2008 vintage, a year that offers classic Chablis minerality allied to sweetness and density of fruit. The vintage is ideal for long-time Chablis collectors and the unitiated alike. (The current issue of the International Wine Cellar offers extensive coverage of Chablis, highlighting the 2008s and the soon-to-arrive 2009s.)
The Montée de Tonnerre from Domaine Billaud-Simon ($50; Langdon-Shiverick), an estate long renowned for its steely wines made entirely in stainless steel, is tightly coiled, brisk and light on its feet, with aromas and flavors of lemon ice and crushed stone complicated by a saline character. This one would make a perfect oyster wine. The example from Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard ($42; Martine’s Wines) is distinctly silky and pliant for a wine with such pronounced minerality, offering a captivating sweetness to its vibrant citrus, stone fruit and spice flavors.
Domaine Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin ($35; European Cellars) is known for its rich and occasionally rather oaky wines, but its Montée de Tonnerre is a real mineral bomb, with aromas and flavors of orange and flint complicated by vineyard-typical saline notes of scallop shell and iodine. Domaine William Fèvre’s version of Montée de Tonnerre ($35; Henriot, Inc.) displays knockout high-pitched aromas of citrus peel, gingery spices, flowers, crushed stone and oyster shell, then saturates the entire mouth with tactile minerality. It’s a perfect example of a wine offering outstanding breadth and richness without any impression of weight. The example from Domaine Louis Michel ($39; Vineyard Brands) is also a fairly large-scaled, rich wine, with deep, layered flavors of lemon, apple, minerals and dusty stone. It’s structured for a slow evolution in bottle.
I’ve long enjoyed the user-friendly wines of Domaine Vocoret et Fils ($35; Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines), whose 2008 Montée de Tonnerre offers a compelling perfume of lime oil, mint and powdered stone followed by a wonderfully silky texture leavened by bright acidity. This very ripe, fine-grained wine is already approachable but can also be cellared.
Finally, year in and year out, Domaine François Raveneau (Kermit Lynch) offers one of the greatest examples of Montée de Tonnerre, if not the best. The pale, green-tinged 2008, with discreet aromas of citrus rind and crushed oyster shell, is at once penetrating and sweet, with terrific concentration and pliancy to its mineral and lemon flavors. This very refined wine explodes with flavor on the very long finish. The Raveneau brothers bottle on the late side, so their 2008s are not yet in the market. You’ll need connections to latch onto a bottle or two.