Domaine de Montille: The Genealogy of the Estate

By Gavin Smith

Jul 22nd, 2020

The De Montille estate of Volnay is one of the most historic in the Cote d’Or, founded in 1730 and family run and owned ever since. Today Etienne de Montille is the ninth generation at the helm. The De Montille story through the ages is a familiar one in Burgundy in which for a long period there was a dwindling of holdings as more and more of their prized vineyards were agonisingly sold off to make ends meet during the lean years of the early twentieth century. Etienne’s father, Hubert de Montille took over the estate in 1947, aged just 17, by this time the domaine had just 2.5 hectares to its name.

Etienne’s father knew that he had to change tack if the domaine was to survive and worked both as a vigneron and a lawyer to finance returning the estate to its former glory. Like his father, Etienne used his earnings as a lawyer to build up the domaine’s acreage, including a novel acquisition approach that in 2005 saw him acquire one of the region's finest Premier Cru sites -  Vosne-Romanee Premier Cru Les Malconsorts - neighbouring the Grand Cru of La Tache. The estate now produces over 35 cuvees from appellations throughout the Cote d’Or.

Etienne talks us through the De Montille’s bumpy history, its extensive vineyard acquisition in recent years, how he learnt to make white wine from his brother-in-law (who just so happened to be Jean-Marc Roulot), as well as mapping out the different flavour profiles of his favourite sites at the heart of the domaine in Volnay and neighbouring Pommard.

The History of the Domaine

Based in Volnay, the De Montille estate has had its fair shares of ups and down. It once had one of the finest portfolios of vineyards anywhere in the Cote d’Or (including Bonnes Mares, Musigny and Amoureuses), before these famed sites were sold off to make ends meet. Hubert de Montille on taking over the estate in 1947, brought renewed fame to the domaine, being one of the first in Burgundy to domaine bottle his wines and whose Volnay 1er crus quickly became some of the finest in the appellation. At this time, 90% of all Burgundy was made and bottled by the large negociant houses. Whilst historic estates such as Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Georges Roumier and Armand Rousseau were bottling their own wines, it was the Marquis d’Angerville of Volnay that no doubt set a trend in the Cote de Beaune by bottling his own wine, starting in the 1930s. Marquis d’Angerville chastised the exploitation of the main negociants at the time, who in response refused to bottle his wines, forcing him to bottle them himself. As Etienne explains the Marquis d’Angerville was an important figure in Burgundy at the time, not only setting the trend of domaine bottling in the region but also becoming one of the main instigators behind developing the AOC framework of the Cote d’Or, mapping the official boundaries of the Grand Cru and Premier Cru sites, a process that began in 1935.

The late Hubert de Montille with his son Etienne

The Distinct Influence of Hubert de Montille

The De Montille estate became famed for Hubert’s single-minded approach of making wines how he wanted them, austere and built for long ageing, making them fairly unapproachable in their youth. He was also known for his minimal chapitalisation, a method which he discovered accidentally by miscalculating his sugar levels on one of his cuvees in the 1959 vintage. It was only a couple of years later that he discovered how much better this cuvee aged than his other wines of the 1959 vintage and therefore adopted this approach going forward. Whilst, as Etienne explains, chapitalisation (the addition of sugar to the grape juice prior to fermentation to increase alcohol levels) in top estates in the modern era is very rarely adopted, it certainly didn’t harm the estate’s reputation when critics in the '90s started to raise concerns over over-chapitalisation as a worrying trend in the region. Whilst over-chapitalisaton is rare today, the process is still adopted in the wineries when necessary. Very rarely spoken about amongst vignerons, Etienne describes it as similar to the seasoning of food. Certain cuvees in certain vineyards may benefit from a light chapitalisation or even acidification if required; two processes that remain contentious outside of Burgundy. With De Montille famed for low chapitalisation and long ageing wines, the domaine's reputation continued to grow.

Puligny Montachet 1er Cru - Cailleret

Etienne takes on the domaine

On taking over the domaine in 1998 (following a staggering 50 year stint by his father), Etienne de Montille was an early advocate of organic farming. He continued to grow the estate, incorporating more Chardonnay vineyards to what was previously exclusively a Pinot Noir producing domaine. Their first white wine vineyard purchase was the 1er Cru Puligny Montrachet Le Caillerat bought by Hubert in 1993. Etienne learnt how to make white wine under the guidance of his brother in law, who just so happened to be Jean Marc Roulot and only helped see the domaine’s reputation grow. Etienne recounts how Jean Marc Roulot had a similar route to winemaking in that they both had successful careers outside of wine before returning to their family estates. Jean Marc Roulot is an actor, and was based in Paris at the same time Etienne was working as a lawyer there. Having both a separate career and being a vigneron, Etienne believes, made them both very open minded in their second profession as winemakers and Jean Roulot was happy to share his knowledge in white wine production as well as them both being more innovative with their methods.

Having two professions was a tradition that was passed down from one generation to the next of the de Montille family, with one of the siblings always working in legal services either as judges or lawyers. Etienne explains how it was in fact Hubert de Montille’s work as a lawyer looking after the estates of Monsieur Chatron that led to the acquisition of De Montille’s first chardonnay vineyard – Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru Le Caillerets – one of the finest sites in Puligny neighbouring the Grand Cru of Montrachet. Hubert worked as his lawyer advising him on how to pay off his inheritance fees in order to pass down the estate to the next generation. To do this he had to sell off some vines and offered Hubert to buy the Le Cailleret vineyard in Puligny to thank him for his services. Although not an experienced white winemaker, with Jean Roulot recently marrying his daughter, it seemed to be the perfect opportunity to get him on board and teach the young Etienne his white wine philosophy.

Etienne with his father Hubert and sister Alix

A Novel Acquisition Approach

Etienne’s experience as a lawyer gave him confidence to incorporate a novel approach to acquiring vineyards in the Cote d’Or at a time when vineyard acquisition was and remains a contentious issue for vignerons in the region. It led to Etienne successfully buying up vineyards including one of the Cote d’Or’s greatest sites: Vosne Romanee 1er Cru Malconsorts, neighbouring the Grand Cru of La Tache. Etienne explains that although his father had successfully taken his 2.5 hectares estate to 10 hectares over a 50 year period, the land prices of Burgundy were becoming too expensive for this to continue. With the Malconsorts vineyard along with the vineyards of the Thomas Moillard domaine put up for sale, Etienne thought the opportunity was too good to miss and approached the Seysses family (Domaine Dujac) to see if they would be interested in setting up a land company, buying the land together and using minority shareholders to finance the acquisition. These minority shareholders would then rent out their share of the land to the two estates and were often paid back in wine. Back then, Etienne states, it was the first time ever in Burgundy that two smaller family estates had bought a larger property. Etienne pioneered the legal structure to favour the vignerons with the controlling share and it became a popular method that was copied all over Burgundy by other vignerons following their success.

The top Premier Cru vineyard of Pommard - Rugiens-Bas

Etienne states “this is unlikely to happen again, land in Burgundy between now and 2005 has gone up by almost 12 times the value”. Despite this, Etienne successfully managed another huge acquisition following the financial crash of 2008 when he purchased Domaine de Puligny Montrachet. This estate was a property he had managed ever since he returned back to Burgundy from Paris in 2001. At that time it was owned by a bank and following financial pressures of the economic crash in 2008, viewed the estate as a non performing asset and therefore put it up for sale. Due to Etienne’s connection he was given first refusal.

Since taking over the property in 2009 an EU law that came into practice in 2017 banned the use of an appellation name to be part of a domaine name, so since 2017 the wines under the original Chateau de Puligny Montrachet have been incorporated into the De Montille domaine, increasing their holdings to a total of 37 hectares (20 in red; 17 in white) in 35 separate appellations.

Etienne de Montille's Winemaking Philosophy

But Etienne’s skills are not only in acquisition. He was an early advocate of organic farming, practising organic principles from 2003. He also changed the style of the De Montille wines making them less austere than his father’s with his influence coming through the wines from the 1998 vintage onwards. Etienne incorporates whole bunch fermentation but varies the quantity depending on the specific terroirs. Identifying the nuance of each site and how much whole cluster to use is the key to his red winemaking, ranging from 20% to 100% whole bunch depending on the site. He carries out no cold soak prior to fermentation which takes place at ambient temperatures with low level extraction, punch downs are carried out only when necessary. All wine is aged in barrel between 5% to 60% new oak depending on the site and vintage conditions, followed by a long elevage prior to bottling.

The approach to white wines, under the influence of Jean Marc Roulot’s teachings, is to be very conscious of preserving the acidic backbone of the wine providing a precise length and expression of terroir. The wine is barrel fermented followed by long elevage (12 months in barrel) and aged further on the lees in tank -  2 to 6 months with one racking. The percentage of new oak again varies depending on the specific plots, ranging from 5% to 50% new oak barrel.

The De Montille harvest team in Volnay

Mapping Volnay + Pommard’s Premier Crus

Etienne states that all the top Volnay Premier Cru sites are on the middle slopes of the appellation. Whilst slightly varying in topography and exposition, Etienne believe the flavour profiles of each of the vineyards is 80% to do with the geology and top soil of the specific vineyard, with the winemaking of each producer, the vintage variation and the exposition of the vineyards combined making up the remaining 20%. This highlights the overwhelming terroir influence of these Premier Crus.

The Premier Cru sites of Volnay + Pommard

Volnay 1er Cru Brouillards

"This is the most accessible of our Premier Crus and what is best described as “very Volnay”. It has all the characteristics most closely associated with the appellation – pretty red fruit, very juicy, elegant light tannins and very approachable."

Volnay 1er Cru Champans

"The Champans is similar to Brouillard in is fruitiness and approachability, although the tannins are firmer and slightly more structured. But it is a very expressive and immediate, open style Volnay. We use two thirds whole cluster in this cuvee."

Volnay 1er Cru Mitans

"The Mitans is the most perfumed and fragrant of the Premier Crus in Volnay. And whilst the Champans is also very expressive, the aromas of Mitans are more serious, not just fruit but mineral too. Here we use 100% whole cluster fermentation."

Volnay 1er Cru Taille Pieds

"This is the flagship cuvee of our estate. It is the most mineral driven wine in Volnay. Very spicy, very stony and lots of saline character. The wine has huge depth and a very long finish. It is however the least open and the less approachable requiring time in bottle to develop. Even at 40 – 60 years old the wine shows beautiful combination of rose petal, earth, morrel mushroom and truffle character. The wine has so many facets to it."

Pommard 1er Cru Rugiens Bas

"This wine is a planet on its own. It has the elegance and finesse of top Volnay site but with the depth and breadth and structure more akin to top Pommard vineyards. Its is Grand Cru quality and the top site in Pommard."

Pommard 1er Cu Grands Epenots

"The most classic Pommard in style. Deep clay soils gives the wine huge structure, sometimes can be a bit rustic to start with. Tannic, big, powerful wine."

Pommard 1er Cru Pezerolles

"This is the most Volnay-like Pommard 1er cru in the appellation despite being the furthest site away from Volnay! It is the most elegant Premier Cru of Pommard."

The northern Premier Crus of Nuits-Saint-Georges bordering Vosne Romanee

Nuits Saints Georges 1er Cru Aux Thorey

Etienne describes how this single vineyard site was bought in the acquisition of the Thomas Moillard domaine, along with the Malconsorts vineyard. When idenitfying which vineyards to buy in the sharing of the estate Etienne heard that Sylvain Cathiard  considered the Aux Thorey vineyard to be amongst the best terroirs in Nuits St Georges and that was enough to persuade him of its potential. The site is certainly more Vosne in profile than Nuits Saint Georges, with fine tannins, elegant structure and beautiful perfumes similar to the vineyards of the much admired La Damodes.

Subscribe to our emails
Get the best of F+R delivered to your inbox
We use cookies to give you the best possible experience of our website. If you continue, we’ll assume you’re happy for your web browser to receive all cookies from our website. See our cookie policy for more information on cookies and how to manage them.