Despite my enthusiasm for the Yonne town of Vézelay, I had, until a few weeks ago, still yet to pay a visit to La Soeur Cadette and Jean Montanet, the area's lone excellent winemaker. He just never seemed to be home when I was in town. After two stays in Saint-Père on separate bikes trip last summer, it had become a source of mild embarrassment.
A recent visit from my parents gave me the occasion to rectify the situation. The Native Companion and I organised a family trip and the first order of business, before even booking our regular chambre d'hôte, was to see if Jean Montanet was around. For as much as I adore Vézelay's basilica and nearby natural wine bistrot Le Bougaineville with its heavenly cheese cart, it's still the luminescent Chardonnays, violetty Pinot Noirs, and mineral Melon of La Soeur Cadette that put the town on the map.
La Soeur Cadette is actually a holding company for the wines of two semi-distinct organic-certified domaines, both named for Jean Montanet's wife Catherine: Domaine de la Cadette (a reference to Catherine's status as the youngest of her family), and Domaine Montanet-Thodon, which bears Catherine's maiden name. The former domaine was founded by Jean and Catherine in 1987. The latter was founded by Catherine and their son Valentin in 2000, with Valentin taking on increasing responsibility for winemaking at Montanet-Thodon. Jean and Catherine have since separated, but the family still shares facilities, a commercial apparatus, and, of course, Jean's considerable winemaking expertise.
Recently, at Le Siffleur de Ballons, Bistro Bellet, and several other fine Parisian natural wine standbys, I've been fairly blown away by the 2011 vintage of Montanet's assemblage Chardonnay cuvée "La Piecette." It was the 2013 of this cuvée we tasted first, from two barrels, and later the 2012 from bottle.
The cuvée's curious name, Montanet explained, is a made-up word, invented by accident by a visitor who couldn't seem to understand the difference between a typical barrel, or pièce, and the smaller Chablisien feuillette. I liked all the wines, she'd said. Especially the one aged in piècette!
An assemblage of grapes from various parcels including "La Chatelaine," the wine's exact make-up varies each year. The 2013, tasted from feuillette, was surprisingly coherent on the palate for a wine still undergoing fermentation, showing long acid and crisp pear fruit. The wine will spend one year in barrel, and will be racked once after malo.
A 2012 of same wine we later tasted from bottle seemed in an intermediary stage - slightly wan, without the high-flown apple-blossom brilliance the 2011 is lately showing.
More in form was a 2011 Montanet-Thoden "Clos du Thoden," from 25-year-old clay soil Chardonnay vines rented from the Michelin-starred chef Marc Meneau. Montanet explained that the rest of his own vines are on more limestone soils, so it was sort of an exploratory new experience vinifying clay soil fruit. (He used a more piquante analogy.) The wine was rich, athletic in structure, with sweet celery notes.
Another highlight of the day's tasting was the 2013 "Champs Cadet," a Bourgogne Rouge from very thin, rocky soils that spends 9 months in barrel. It was in blaring primary spirit, with a violet nose, pink citrus acid, and curl of raspberry fruit on the mineral palate. The kicker was that this klaxon of a young Pinot was a mere 11.4° alcohol. Montanet, like more than a few other vignerons I know, had a rather disastrous 2013, losing 60% of his production. It makes it all the more impressive that with the remainder he can turn out minor wonders like the "Champs Cadet."
The following day the Native Companion and I went to check out Domaine de la Cadette's caveau, a wine shop-slash-event space where Montanet receives most visitors.
There we were very well entertained by Thierry, one of the Montanets' ten employees, who showed us the winemaking facilities and opened a bottle of the domaine's brand-new négoçiant cider, made with apples from Jean's native Normandy.
Crisp, dry, and volcanically effervescent, it was a very encouraging first effort, and at very least an amusing way to pad out production in a lean vintage. Montanet also maintains several presumably more lucrative side projects, including consulting on cellars in China and Azerbaijan.
Given winemaking standards at other Vézelay domaines, one wishes more local winemakers would engage his services...
The overall region constitutes an underachieving viticultural cul-de-sac slung between Chablis and Burgundy proper. It actually lays closer to the Nievre appellation of Côteaux de Tannay, whose rather neglected wines I had the chance to taste last summer when my bike broke down in Clammecy during a village rafting fair.
A woodcarving artist with a toolbox provided the pliers we needed to jerry-rig the spring keeping my bike chain taut, and we took the occasion to sample, along with the local ice cream, some depressingly conventional Melon and Pinot Noir. (I squirmed listening to someone enumerate the labour-saving virtues of machine harvesting.)
I have sort of a pet interest in Melon de Bourgogne from Bourgogne, rather than its contemporary home in the western Loire. Accordingly, one of my first questions for Montanet had been whether he could think of anyone besides himself and Guy Bussière in the Val de Saone making credible Burgundian Melon.
"Non," he said, and shook his head, either in resignation or disbelief.
La Soeur Cadette
47 rue du Pont
89450 SAINT PERE
Tel: 33 (0)3 86 51 83 21
N.D.P. in Burgundy: Le Bougainville, Vézelay
N.D.P. in Burgundy: Le Vezelien, Vézelay
A good profile of Domaine La Soeur Cadette at the site of their longtime US importer, Kermit Lynch.