Étienne de Montille - le successeur
At last, the baton passed between Hubert, the father, and Étienne, the son. Nevertheless, Hubert de Montille is not a man easily replaced. The presence of the father figure is strong, particularly in his winemaking role. Under these conditions, guiding the succession of such a storied domaine is not easy. In fact, when you ask Etienne about his story, he, without hesitation, begins with his father's extraordinary journey to become one of the greats. As he speaks, the listener can sense the son's deep respect and admiration for his father. Thus, it was in this unusual environment that Etienne was trained. In Burgundy it is called the school of excellence, that where the great viticulturalists share their secrets and recount their finest moments.
Although his own man, Étienne shares a number of things in common with his father. Like his father, he perpetuated the family tradition of studying law. Etienne went to Sciences Po in Paris and became an attorney advising on mergers and acquisitions before returning to the family domaine. Both are men of character and taste. Both enjoy the indescribable sensation of revealing the true expression of terroir, for example vinifying a Volnay to reveal its finest self-expression, that of a fine, elegant Pinot Noir, distinguished and direct, showing a visceral attachment to its soil. When well-structured, a Volnay, like the other wines, will show the best of itself. You can see a sparkle in the eyes of the craftsman when his wine reaches its fullest expression of complexity.
Well before taking control of the domaine's destiny, Étienne satisfied his need to 'go elsewhere'. Direction: California, San Francisco, where he celebrated his 20th birthday and survived on small jobs such as bartending at Chez Panisse, the restaurant at the forefront of the 'food and wine' revolution in the US. It was here, amongst the apostles of a new food and wine culture that he realized he should return to Volnay one day. His new friends in the New World constantly reminded him of his good fortune to have a domaine waiting for him with open arms. It was also here that he discovered his spirit of travel. Today, the domaine exports 90% of its wines and Étienne travels frequently between all the markets.
In 1983 he returned to France for his first harvest with his American friends and with the firm idea of succeeding his father. After a technical diploma in oenology and a long apprenticeship with Hubert, Étienne looked to assert his authority, asking to take over the vinifications in 1990. The father-son rivalry and the confrontation of two generations would be difficult for the two men to manage. It was tradition against progress.
They were two opposing force fields, yet both were elevating the profile of the domaine. 'It is difficult to push your ideas forward', explains Étienne, 'the more so when you lack experience'. By 1995 things changed. Étienne had become more confident, having vinified for more than 10 years, and became co-manager. He transitioned the domaine into its era of organic farming (1995) and then into biodynamic (2005). 'Other changes also came about, and my father was undoubtedly less combative.' The role of Christiane, Etienne's mother and Hubert's wife, was immense. Quietly, she managed all the administration. This remarkable, gracious woman of tremendous culinary skill shaped the tastes of the family. She was always there, often in the background, ready to advise or act as the referee.
As a result, since 1998 'there is more Étienne than Hubert in the bottle', with a change in style but not in spirit. Father and son seek the same things but arrive at them differently: authenticity of terroir, aromatic purity, underlying elegance (they are in Volnay after all), and balance to construct a well-bred Pinot Noir. Changes have been made but with respect for the elder's style.
A question to Etienne :
"Of course Étienne is different from Hubert, as is Alix, but what is the common denominator in your approach to wine and terroir ?"
"My father is a discriminating man. He understood before everyone else that he wanted to make wines that suited his tastes, not standardized wines - as they generally were at the time. When one can free oneself from the reality of the economic market it is very liberating. To sell your own wines by the bottle is not at all the same approach as when you sell your entire production to a negociant. My father made wines that stood out. It is for this that he is known. When you are a child, you don't understand why people stop by your house and compliment your father. He was immensely proud to be seen as a personality. I grew up with the idea that wine was a unique product. While we agree on the notion of terroir, I don't necessarily agree with his approach to the wines' characteristics. He crafted them into wines for aging - austere, and rigid like the law - in their youth. I am against the idea of making age-worthy wines at all costs. I try to understand each vintage and to vinify it according to its personality and its potential. My father imbued me with a passion for authentic wines - pure, balanced, elegant and with an ability to improve with age. I have added some fruit succulence and a velvet texture. The tannins are rounder and leave the charm of certain appellations to open up. I do this never forgetting to respect the terroir and our tradition."