Regional profile: the Mâconnais
It’s time to sit up and take notice of the Mâconnais, says William Kelley. After years of largely mediocre winemaking, producers began to celebrate the diversity of the region’s terroirs and are today scaling new heights
A new cohort of artisan winemakers are beginning to realise this Burgundy region’s potential, says William Kelley
SouTh of SANTENAy, Burgundy changes. The slopes of the Côte d’or give way to the rolling hills of the Côte Chalonnaise, its vineyards dispersed among woodland, pasture and wheat fields. The Gothic cedes ground to the Romanesque, as the terracotta roof tiles of Provence replace the grey slate and colourful glazed ceramics of the region’s north.
Drive on and the landscape gains in drama and heightens in relief, culminating in the rearing limestone escarpments of Solutré and Vergisson ( left), Chardonnay vines clinging to the slopes below. This is the Mâconnais; a mere 50 miles from Beaune, but worlds apart.
Long dismissed as the Côte de Beaune’s rustic country cousin, a source of blowsy but inexpensive Chardonnay, the last three decades have witnessed a revolution in this territory. As artisan vignerons turn their backs on over-production and mechanisation, the region’s diverse terroirs are finding their voice. In the best producers’ bottles, the texture and fruit that this southern region yields so readily are now underpinned by tensile acids and tongue-tingling minerality; wines that could shame many a mediocre Puligny or Chassagne.
As prices for grander white Burgundies continue to rise, driven by insatiable international demand and compounded by a succession of smaller-than-average harvests, the Mâconnais offers unparalleled value.
What’s more, in the era of premature oxidation, cellaring many of the Côte de Beaune’s whites for more than a decade has become a dubious proposition; making the attractions of good Mâcon – which typically needs only a few years in bottle – more persuasive than ever. It’s time to take notice.
Not so long ago, the Mâconnais prospered. Viticulture here dates back to the 10th century, when the monks of Cluny planted the first vines: the beginning of a thoroughly
‘As prices for grander white Burgundies continue to rise... the Mâconnais offers unparalleled value’
respectable winemaking tradition. By the early modern period, the region’s leading market was Paris – a lucrative trade facilitated from 1854 by the railway, more dependable than roads and waterways.
But in 1876 phylloxera struck, bringing the good times to an end: to this day, vineyards cover only one third of the area they occupied in their mid-century heyday. Two World Wars hit the labour market, and the economic woes of the 1930s further impoverished the region.
Small landholders banded together to make ends meet, sharing resources in large cooperatives. At the low price-point these wines commanded, quantity took precedence over quality: growers planted high-yielding Chardonnay clones and even hybrids, applying fertiliser and herbicides with zeal. Machine harvesting became the norm, and in the cellar stainless steel tanks replaced the wooden foudres and demi-muids in which the Mâconnais’ wines had traditionally been fermented and matured.
By the 1960s, the region had fallen on hard times and its reputation declined. A handful of estates continued to produce dramatic wines in the rich, gourmand style of traditional Pouilly-Fuissé, but they stood out as islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity. Veteran Beaune-based exporter Becky Wasserman remembers travelling to the Mâconnais with empty water bottles that could be filled with wine for a mere three francs.
If, however, the reputation of the Mâconnais suffered in the 20th century, the latent potential of its terroirs only awaited rediscovery. Summers are warmer here than in the Côte de Beaune, but the region’s
‘If the Mâconnais’ reputation suffered in the 20th century, the latent potential of its terroirs only awaited rediscovery’
Chardonnay vines flourish in clay-limestone soils similar to those to be found in more celebrated appellations to the north, and complicated by alluvial terraces and even rare outcroppings of granite.
Vineyards wrap around low hills, capturing a wide variety of expositions and ranging considerably in elevation: some lie in natural amphitheatres which retain all the sun’s warmth; whereas cooler, higher-altitude sites, exposed northeast, have only begun to ripen reliably in the era of climate change.
These varied terroirs have the capacity to produce an extraordinary diversity of wines, to which the appellation system offers only rudimentary guidance. While Mâcon and Mâcon-Villages are simple and quaffable whites, modestly priced and intended for near-term consumption, the picture soon becomes more complex elsewhere: fully 26 villages have the right to append their names to the prefix ‘Mâcon’ – as in MâconUchizy or Mâcon-Milly-Lamartine.
Ranging from the supple and floral wines of Mâcon-Chardonnay to the more mineral, ageworthy bottlings of Mâcon-Pierreclos and the refined elegance of Mâcon-La RocheVineuse, these village appellations encompass considerable variety: initially perplexing, perhaps, but well-worth exploration.
Next come the standalone appellations, the oldest and most famous of which is PouillyFuissé, established in 1936 and traditionally the source of the region’s richest, most powerful wines. The smaller appellations of Pouilly-Loché and Pouilly-Vinzelles, created four years later, share similar characteristics.
By contrast, the AP of St-Véran (est. 1971) presents two faces: its warmest sites produce wines that nod to Pouilly, but others are altogether different – cooler, elegant and more tensile. In 1999, Viré- Clessé joined the club
as the Mâconnais’ newest appellation, – a well merited recognition of the intense and fragrant wines from these two communes.
It was this rich palette of terroirs that attracted Belgian-born Jean-Marie Guffens and his wife Maine to the Mâconnais. Arriving in 1976, within three years the couple had acquired their first vines, and Domaine Guffens-Heynen was born.
On paper, the duo were unlikely revolutionaries – Jean-Marie had studied architecture, Maine fine art – but before long, their wines were attracting global attention. The product of Maine’s meticulous viticulture and Jean-Marie’s virtuosic mastery of élevage – the art of raising a wine to maturity – they revealed an alliance of tension and texture to rival the great crus of the Côte de Beaune.
The quality of the wines combined with Guffens’ iconoclastic personality soon made the domaine a sensation: La Revue du Vin de France awarded Guffens-Heynen a coveted three stars, the highest rating in its famous classement; and Robert Parker dubbed its proprietor ‘one of the three best white winemakers on the planet’.
In 1990, Guffens even launched a foray into the Côte de Beaune and Chablis, nipping at the heels of his northern rivals by purchasing grapes from sites such as Bâtard-Montrachet and vinifying them under his négociant label, Maison Verget. His success compelled consumers and commentators to reconsider their preconceptions about what was possible in the humble Mâconnais, inspiring others to choose quality over quantity.
The Côte d’Or takes notice
With Mâconnais vignerons invading the Côte de Beaune, it was only a matter of time until the north was moved to strike back. In 1999, Dominique Lafon became the first Côte d’Or producer to invest in the region when his family established Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon at Milly-Lamartine – an important endorsement by Meursault’s grandest domaine, and a fitting culmination to a dynamic decade that had borne witness to a renaissance of artisanal wine-growing.
‘We are not looking to make Meursault in the Mâconnais: what is appropriate there is not always so here’ Dominique Lafon
More and more producers – led by the likes of Olivier Merlin, Jean Thévenet and André Bonhomme – were working the soil, harvesting by hand, and allowing their wines leisurely maturation time on the lees. It was a movement in which Lafon could feel very much at home; and what attracted him, like so many others, was the Mâconnais’ diversity. ‘I noticed that only yellow flowers were blooming in one parcel of vines, and only purple in another,’ he recalls with undiminished fascination: ‘There was so much to discover.’
For Lafon, it was also an opportunity to do something different. ‘We are not looking to make Meursault in the Mâconnais,’ he insists. ‘What is appropriate there is not always appropriate here; so I’ve found it very stimulating.’ At Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon, for instance, most of the wines mature in large foudres and demi-muids instead of the small 225-litre oak barrels Lafon uses for his Côte de Beaune whites, the larger vessels preserving freshness and allowing the different sites to shine through.
Inspired by Lafon’s example, in 2004 Puligny-Montrachet’s illustrious Domaine Leflaive followed suit, purchasing vines in the commune of Verzé. As a sign of the times, the very same year, a group of like-minded local producers joined together to form the
Artisans Vignerons de Bourgogne du Sud, an organisation committed to high quality and to perpetuating the region’s landscape, culture and winemaking savoir-faire. The Mâconnais, in short, had come of age.
Spoiled for choice
Today, the region offers up an embarrassment of vinous riches, the diversity of its highquality producers equalling the variety of its terroirs. The Artisans Vignerons de Bourgogne du Sud alone can boast 26 members, and other serious domaines plough their own furrow, espousing a similar philosophy.
Followers of the natural wine movement need look no further than Domaine Valette, whose cuvées of Mâcon-Chaintré and ViréClessé can age for as long as five years on the lees, only seeing sulphur dioxide at bottling. Julien Guillot’s Clos des Vignes du Maynes, first cultivated by the Benedictine monks of Cluny in the year 910 and a pioneer in biodynamics since 1954, carries a similar philosophy to lesser extremes, offering pure and characterful Mâcon-Cruzille.
Anyone seeking a taste of the 19th century can look to the wines that emerge from the Thévenet family’s cellars in the village of Quintaine. Harvested late and often marked by the exotic aromas of botrytis, their striking cuvées of Viré-Clessé can take as long as two years to ferment, typically finishing with a few grams of residual sugar. This is Chardonnay at its richest and most gastronomic – a style that today finds its only analogy in the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s extravagant Montrachet.
A larger group of vignerons work in a more conventional manner in the cellar, producing wines that bear a strong kinship to the whites of the Côte de Beaune. It’s becoming more common for producers to bottle the region’s different climats separately, highlighting their names on the label – a trend exemplified by Jean-Philippe and Jean-Guillaume Bret, who release more than 20 different cuvées under their Bret Brothers négociant label every vintage, in addition to five from their family domaine, La Soufrandière.
This year, that trend may receive official sanction too, when the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) deliberates on an application to establish premiers crus in Pouilly-Fuissé. But whatever the outcome of that, as more and more sites that were formerly blended into homogeneity begin to speak for themselves, the kaleidoscopic complexity of the Mâconnais’ varied terroirs is increasingly being revealed.
Left: Domaine Guffens-Heynen owns vines lying on the slopes above the village of Vergisson
Left: Jean-Marie Guffens of Maison Verget
Above: Chardonnay vineyards close to the village of Clessé
Above: Jean Thévenet with his old Chardonnay vines at Domaine de la Bongran in Quintaine