It is the spring of 1978. A small man, 72 years of age and very much a peasant, with an old stained pullover, baggy trousers and the inevitable casquette on his head, arrives at a lawyer's office in Beaune. He is about to buy 25 ares and 90 centiares - enough to make about four and half barrels - of Le Montrachet, the finest white wine vineyard in the world. The vendors are the Milan and Mathey-Blanchet families: gentle people. Pierre Ramonet is a man of the soil. Apart from the occasional meal at some of his clients - Lameloise, Alan Chapel, Troisgros, Bocuse - he never ventures outside Chassagne-Montrachet. He hates the telephone. He rarely writes a letter. Such paper-work that needs to be done is achieved by Mother Ramonet, née Lucie Prudhon, whom you will never see dressed otherwise than in black, as befits old ladies throughout France, in an old school exercise book which she keeps in a drawer in her kitchen.
There is the question of payment. "Ah, yes," says Ramonet. He fishes in one pocket for a thick wad of notes, in another for a second, in the back of his trousers for a third, and so on. The stacks of money pile up on the attorney's desk. He has never seen such an amount of espèces in his life. "I think you'll find it all there," says Ramonet, uncomfortable in the formal surroundings of the lawyers' office. And he leaves, anxious to return to the familiarity of his cellar and his vines.
"Père" Ramonet was more than a character. He was, to use the old cliché - but it is true in this instance - a legend in his own lifetime. More or less from scratch, by dint of sheer hard work and a genius for wine, he built up one of the finest white wine domaines in Burgundy. Today the name of Ramonet is synonymous with top Chardonnay. The allocations for bottles are fought over, for every collector considers it his or her right to own some. They sell at auction for astronomical sums whenever they appear. On the rare occasions, as in January 1995 at the Montrachet restaurant in New York, when someone puts on a special vertical tasting and dinner, the tickets - and they are not cheap - are over-subscribed ten times. Ramonet in white is the equivalent of Henri Jayer or the DRC in red.
Pierre Ramonet died in 1994 at the age of 88. He is much missed. But his echo lives on, and the wines, in the able hands of his grandsons Noël (born 1962) and Jean-Claude (b. 1967) since the 1984 vintage, (mais sous ses ordres, stoutly avers Noël), continue his reputation. They are very fine. More importantly, they are also very individual. A Ramonet wine is a Ramonet wine before it is a Chassagne, or a Bienvenue, or a Bâtard....or a Montrachet.
The original Ramonets came from the Bresse on the other side of the river Saône from Chalon. A branch settled in Beaune in the 19th century, where they were millers. The mill failed, and one of them, Claude, moved to Chassagne, where he became a tâcheron - a vineyard worker who is paid by the amount of land he tends rather than by the day as a direct employee - for Colonel Vuillard, owner of the Château de Maltroye.
This second Claude had three children; a daughter who married Georges Bachelet (from whence comes today's Bachelet-Ramonet domaine) and two sons, Pierre, born in 1906 and Claude (b. 1914). This Claude never married, and died in 1977. Pierre married Lucie Prudhon, daughter of the Duc de Magenta's chef de culture at the Domaine de l'Abbaye de Morgeot. (For a time the wine was sold as Domaine Ramonet-Prudhon). They had a single child, their son André (b. 1934), father of Noël and Jean-Claude. André has never enjoyed good health and for some time has been more or less of an invalid. He has never had total responsibility for the Ramonet domaine.
Pierre Ramonet left school at the age of 8 to help his father in the vineyard. His first vineyard purchase was in Chassagne-Montrachet, Les Ruchottes, early in the 1930s. Exhibiting at the Beaune wine fair in 1938, he found himself being addressed by Raymond Baudoin, one of the founders of the Revue des Vins de France, and adviser to many of the nation's top restaurants. Baudoin had obviously encountered something disagreeable at a neighbouring stand. "Have you got anything to take the taste away," he asked. And was given some Ruchottes 1934. "Excellent!" pronounced Baudoin. "Do you have any for sale? Can I take away a couple of bottles?" Six months later he arrived in Chassagne with Frank Schoonmaker, one of the first Americans to seize the opportunity provided by the abolition of prohibition. Schoonmaker took 200 cases of both red and white - though the Ramonets did not get paid until after the war!
Baudoin was of similar assistance in getting the Ramonet wine onto the lists of the top restaurants in France: Taillevent in Paris, Point in Vienne, the Côte D'Or in Avallon - and this encouraged the opening up of a market for vente directe. And of course, after the war, and his settlement of the bill for the 1934s, Schoonmaker continued as the major export customer.
Slowly but surely the Ramonet domaine began to expand. They now possess vines in 7 Chassagne premiers crus (Ruchottes, Morgeots, Caillerets, Clos-de-la-Boudriotte, Clos-Saint-Jean, Chaumées and Vergers) and most of these were acquired in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1955, two adjoining parcels, one in Bâtard (45 a), one in Bienvenues (56 a), were obtained from Henri Coquet.
More recently the domaine has expanded into Saint-Aubin (Les Charmois) and into Puligny-Montrachet (Champ-Canet and village wine in Enseignières and Nosroyes: the best village appellation vineyards, says Noël Ramonet) and some Boudriottes white has been bought, while they have lost one hectare of Morgeot to another branch of the family. The total now exploited is 17 hectares.
An even more recent development, dating from 1998, is the exchange with the Domaine Jean Chartron of Bâtard-Montrachet must for Chevalier-Montrachet must. In this small way, therefore, the Ramonet brothers are merchants.
In theory Noël is responsible in the cellar and his brother Jean-Claude in the vineyard. But in fact it seems to be a joint effort. Neither has had technical training, and so if you ask why they do this, or not do that, you will be unlikely to receive a coherent answer. The approach is empirical and instinctive. But it seems to work.
The Chardonnays are pruned to the Guyot system, the Pinots Noirs cordon trained. In the vineyard the yields are kept low, the average age of the vines maintained high, with no repiquage after a certain time. This means that, as has happened in Le Montrachet, whole parcels eventually have to be ripped up. The produce of the younger vines can then be vinified apart, and down-graded. This is the case today with half of the Montrachet.
The red wines, village Chassagne, Clos-Saint-Jean, Clos-de-la-Boudriotte and Morgeots, are partially destemmed, usually 50 percent, cold soaked for a few days, vinified in cement vats - there is a resistance to stainless steel here - macerated for 10 days, and matured using one-third new oak for a year, being both fined and lightly filtered.
There is a very noisy cooling unit for temperature control in the cellar. Above ground what looks like an ugly garage-type hangar stands over an extensive underground cellar hewn out of the rock. But the Ramonets express no interest in being able to cool down or warm up the wine in order to facilitate the malo-lactic. "We like to let nature take its course."
Unusually the Ramonets do not allow the gross lees to settle out before the fermentation of the white wine begins. "There are elements in the gross lees which are good," maintains Noël. Perhaps as a result of this, the wines are bâtonné-ed much less than elsewhere: only once a month for four months. Why? Because they fear that these gross lees would taint the wine. Fermentations are begun in tank, continued in wood - overall about one-third new - at 20-25°C, and the finished wine kept on the lees as long as possible before the first racking. A second racking takes place after a year or 15 months. The white wines, like the reds, are both fined and lightly filtered.
The cellar, both upstairs and downstairs, is not the neatest, most orderly cellar you have ever been into. Odd bits of machinery, adaptors for pipes, and boxes of this or that lie all over the place. You feel they have never had a tidy-up or thrown anything out. As you squeeze between a beaten-up truck and a redundant pumping machine to get below to sample the wines you find that the staircase is used as a cupboard for yet more accumulation of bits and pieces. It is like an ironmonger's nightmare.
But all this seems fitting when you meet Noël Ramonet. The man is in his early 40s, stocky, usually unshaven, in a dirty old T-shirt and jeans, with piercing blue eyes, a loud voice, and pre-emptory way of expressing himself. Finesse, order and method, and reflection are alien. Energy, passion and forthrightness is his manner. But when you listen, you realise that this is truly a chip off the old block. He reveres his grandfather. But he has his own full understanding of his métier. (He has also got one of the most magnificent - and eclectic - private cellars I have ever seen. All bought; none exchanged).
"Moins fins mais plus profonds," he will agree with you, when you sample the Chassagne, Morgeots white after the Saint-Aubin, Charmois. And the Boudriottes is more mineral, less fat and heavy, because this is on the semi-coteaux, while the Morgeots is in the plain. The Chaumées, despite being young vines, and the Vergers, show more finesse. They are properly on the slope. And the Caillerets and the Ruchottes are best of all. "Where the soils are really well drained, as here," explains Noël, "you will always have much less problem with botrytis." This is the heartland of Chassagne white.
Why is there such a sharp contrast between the Bienvenues - composed, accessible, discreet - and the Bâtard - closed, powerful, masculine? After all the vines are adjacent, and the same age. Noël shrugs. You feel he knows the answer. But he can't articulate it. And is his Bâtard his most consistently successful wine, better even than the Montrachet, which can be totally brilliant, but over the 17 years since the Ramonets have produced it, certainly not always? Is this a question you even dare ask?
I find the Ramonet reds refreshingly direct. They are full, ample and plump, nicely concentrated but nicely succulent at the same time. Chassagne reds will never be great, and can be over-extracted. But the Ramonets get theirs right.
The whites, on the other hand, are exceptional. They are distinctive, full-bodied and long-lasting. They are rich and masculine, firm and concentrated. They can be magnificent.
And they can also be flawed. This is a result of risks being taken. But often the flaws are by no means disagreeable; they lend individuality; they give character; they add an element of dimension. For me, a great wine often does have often something just a little bit "wrong" about it. And a squeaky-clean "perfect" wine is very rarely as interesting.
The following wines were sampled at a tasting organized by Tom Black of Nashville, Tennessee in April 2011. A big thank you to him and his friends who supplied the wines.Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montracher, 2005 Now-2020 plus
Delicate, youthful nose. Honeyed, concentrated, but understated on the nose. Lovely fruit. Medium to medium-full body. Ripe and balanced, but really quite soft on the palate. Long and classy. Just about ready. But it lacks a bit of power. Fine.Bâtard-Montrachet, 2005 From 2018
Ripe, full, nutty nose. A lot of depth. Fullish body. Very gently oaky. Still very youthful. Rich. Full of energy.High class fruit. Excellent.Le Montrachet, 2005 From 2022
This is still very closed and youthful. Marvelous energy and power. Very, very concentrated nose. Full body. Very, very rich and almost solid on the palate at present. Real depth and dimension here. Potentially excellent.Bâtard-Montrachet, 2004 Now-2020 plus
Clean, crisp, and with plenty of depth. Excellent grip. Medium-full body. Flowery and stylish. Lovely fruit. Elegant and balanced. Very fine.Le Montrachet, 2004 Now-2025 plus
Flowery but youthful – indeed a bit ungainlyat first – on the nose. Medium to medium-full body. On the palate really classy. Lovely racy fresh fruit. Now just about ready. No lack of energy here. Very long at the end. Very lovely.Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet, 2002 From 2016
Delicate, youthful colour. Firmer, richer and more concentrated by some way than the 2005. Fullish body. Very good grip. Elegant and harmonious. Rather more power than the 2005. Lots of depth. Very fine.Bâtard-Montrachet, 2002 From 2018
Quite a developed colour. Fullish body. Profound and multi-dimensional. Very fine fruit. Still very young. This is concentrated and has even more depth than the 2005. Very, very long and classy. Brilliant.Le Montrachet, 2002 From 2019
Nutty, fat, and very, very concentrated on the nose. Still very, very closed. Similar on the palate. Immense concentration and depth. Excellent fruit. Still a baby. This is very classy and very profound. Potentially a great wine. Even better than the 2005.Bâtard-Montrachet, 2001 Now-2017
Some evolution on the nose now. Ripe, dryish, not an enormous amount of depth. Medium body. Of all the first flight of Bâtards this has the least dimension. Yet fresh and enjoyable nonetheless. Not a bit short.Le Montrachet, 2001 Now-2030
Lovely ripe, profound nose. Unexpected depth here. A little evolution on the palate. But lots of energy and class. Marvelously balanced fruit. Brilliant for the vintage. Bags of life head of it.Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet, 2000 Now-2017
Most attractive, ample, ripe nose. Very classy. Plump and flowery. Medium to medium-full body. Lovely and fresh. Not rich but cool, elegant, racy and with plenty of depth. Classy finish. Very lovely, especially for a 2000. Better than the Bâtard.Bâtard-Montrachet, 2000 Now-2017
Round, ripe, ready, mellow and full of charm. Medium weight. Fresh and flowery. An attractive wine which is closer to the 2001 in depth than the 1999. Just a bit dull.Bâtard-Montrachet, 1999 Now-2025
Fresh, ripe and concentrated on the nose. Lots of depth. This is very fine. Fullish body. Will still improve. Rich, vigorous, full bodied and multi-dimensional on the palate. Quite powerful even. Excellent.Le Montrachet, 1999 Now-2030
Very ripe and concentrated and profound on the nose. Splendidly, concentrated, rich, ripe fruit. Great depth. Still very young. At the end – for this bottle evolved quite fast in the glass – the wine is quite soft, showing lovely fruit. Now just aboiut à point. Very fine.Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet, 1988 Drink soon
Somewhat pinched on the nose. Some developement. Slightly four-square. Medium to medium-full body. Medium to medium-full body. Decent grip. But a lack of class.Le Montrachet, 1998 Now-2020
Crisp, composed and flowery, but no great weight on the nose. Accessible and delightful if not greatly serious. Still very youthful on the palate though. Graceful, very fresh. A lovely wine. Just about ready.Bâtard-Montrachet, 1997 Now-2018
Fresh and honeysuckle-flavoured on the nose. No undue age. Medium weight. Classy. Medium-full body. Fruit salady. Good energy and no lack of class. Long, elegant and complex. A lovely bottle. Totally à point. Excellent for the vintage.Le Montrachet, 1997 Now-2020
Some development on the colour. But the nose is still very fresh. Full, crisp, steely and youthful. Fullish body. Now à point. Better grip than the 1998 but less ample. This is very classy and very lovely.Bâtard-Montrachet, 1996 See note
Quite an old colour. Far too old on the palate.Le Montrachet, 1996 Now-2020 plus
Very fresh colour. Lovely, flowery, honeysuckle nose. Most seductive and quite delightful. Fullish body. Ripe, round. A point. Richer than the 2007. More depth. More vigour. Very fine.Bâtard-Montrachet, 1995 See note
Quite an old colour. Not quite as faded as the 1996 on the nose, but nevertheless past it on the palate.Le Montrachet, 1995 Now-2020 plus
Some development on the colour, yet not over-aged on the nose. Full bodied. Round and ripe. Fresh, concentrated on the palate, yet just a littgle rigid. But it improved in the glass. Lovely but not brilliant.Bâtard-Montrachet, 1994 Drink soon
Youthful colour. Attractive, ripe, ample and charming on the nose. Surprisingly fresh still. Fullish body. Good concentration. No great dimension but balanced and ripe and no lack of depth. Still holding up well. Fine for the vintage.Le Montrachet, 1994 Drink soon
Quite a developed colour. Full and fresh, if somewhat spicy and showing some age on the palate. Not the greatest of concentration, depth or dimension. A bit dull. But that is the vintage.Bâtard-Montrachet, 1993 Now-2017
Vigorous, youthful colour. Slightly lean but mature, round and fullish bodied. This is complex and delicious. A lot of interest, individuality and dimension. Will still last well. One of the best bottles of the second flight of Bâtards.Le Montrachet, 1993 Now-2019
Lovely fresh nose. Full body, rich and now mellow on the palate. Pure and clean. Ample and ripe and rich and fully ready. No undue austerity. Complex and classy and individual. Fine quality. But is the Bâtard better still?Le Montrachet, 1991 Now-2017
Impressive, youthful colour. Ample, fresh nose. Fullish body. Ripe. Very vigorous. Very lively still. Lots of fruit. Really surprisingly ample and elegant., classy, vigorous and ripe. Delicious. No hurry to drink.Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet, 1990 Past its best
A little evolution on the colour. Too old on the palate. Just drinkable but has lost most of its fruit.Bâtard-Montrachet, 1990 Drink soon
The colour is quite evolved. Round, ripe, plump and well-matured but no undue age. Fullish body. Fresh, ample and even mineral. But fine rather than great.Le Montrachet, 1990 Drink soon
Just a little golden on the colour. Ample, round, ripe nose. Fullish on the palate. Slightly rigid. Good grip. But not the grace and depth of the 1991. Fine qualitgy fruit nevertheless.Le Montrachet, 1987 Past its best
Orange colour. Tired and oxidized.Le Montrachet, 1985 Drink soon
Just a little development here on the colour. But the nose has become a ittle vegetal. Fullish body. Somewhat rigid on the palate. Concentrated and very good acidity, but a bit four square. Was better five years ago. But other bottles may be holding up better than this;Bâtard-Montrachet, 1983 Will still keep
Very fresh colour. Splendidly individual all the way through. Lots of dimension here. Very ripe; almost a touch of currants. At the same time the acidity is excellent. Fullish body. Intriguing. Glorious.Le Montrachet, 1983 Now to 2020
Fresh if mature colour. Ample, very ripe – almost over-ripe – nose. Very complex. Great depth and complexity. Full body. Splendidy fresh, succulent, balanced , energetic and multi-dimensional. Individual and really great. These two 1983s are magnificent!Bâtard-Montrachet, 1971 Drink soon
Well-matured but not aged colour. A little fade on the nose now. Fullish body on the palate. Beginning to lose its fruit, but no undue oxidation. A little past its best. Finishes a bit rigid.