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

Decanter - - CONTENTS - Wil­liam Kelley is a Bur­gundy re­viewer for De­can­ter, as well as a judge at the DWWA

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.

Hard times

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.

La­tent po­ten­tial

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.

Bel­gian revo­lu­tion

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

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