From The New York Times, JUNE 29, 2012
THE wines of the Mâconnais region of France are nobody’s idea of a new discovery. Back in the 1980s, when I began drinking a lot of wine, they were a reliable source for fresh, crisp, inexpensive whites, and they have remained so.
Yet the wines that used to define the Mâconnais are just a part of a much wider range of styles today, though a large part. This ungainly region in southern Burgundy, where chardonnay is the white grape just as in the Côte d’Or, now produces far more interesting wines than those simple bistro guzzlers.
For almost 20 years, a growing number of Mâconnais producers have been approaching their viticulture and winemaking with a seriousness of purpose once reserved for more-exalted regions. At the same time, celebrated Burgundy producers like Dominique Lafon of Comtes Lafon, the renowned Meursault estate, and Anne-Claude Leflaive of Domaine Leflaive, another top white Burgundy producer, sensed the untapped potential of the region and invested in it. And they are now making excellent Mâconnais wines.
This regional metamorphosis has not been widely recognized. Only in the more enlightened French restaurants, for example, will you find good Mâconnais wines. But for people who love white Burgundy and dread its expense, the Mâconnais offers an introduction at a much lower price point than what the Côte de Beaune, the heart of white Burgundy, has to offer. If the Mâconnais is well beyond discovery, it’s fair to say it is ready for rediscovery.
To refresh our own view of the Mâconnais, the wine panel recently tasted 20 whites from the 2010 vintage. Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Bernard Sun, the beverage director for Jean-Georges Management, and Kerrie O’Brien, the sommelier at DBGB.
Twenty bottles were simply a dip into the vast ocean of Mâconnais wines. We selected our favorite wines, but that is not the same as saying that these are the best of the region.
We restricted our selection to those wines labeled either Mâcon or St.-Véran, a collection of villages within the greater Mâcon area. We excluded Pouilly-Fuissé and other Pouilly wines, which, though they are within the region, tend to be thought of differently and command higher prices. Arbitrary? We had to draw the line somewhere.
We also confined ourselves to the 2010 vintage. In Chablis and the Côte d’Or, 2010 is considered to be a very good, classic vintage, a step back from the higher ripeness levels of 2009. Honestly, though, overgeneralizing about vintages is a dangerous business.
We found a diversity of styles and approaches. Some wines, my favorites, were lively, vivacious and energetic with taut minerally flavors. Others were rich and lightly fruity, or surprisingly oaky. And of course the familiar crisp, clean, easygoing wines were there as well.
It would be easy to see this variety of styles as regional inconsistency, and to lament, as Kerrie suggested, that consumers won’t know what they are getting when they buy. Yet it suggests as well that we can no longer think of the Mâconnais as a homogeneous region. It is a union of many varying terroirs that will display different characteristics if the grapes are grown and the wine is made with care.
Unlike the Côte d’Or, where the vineyards are ranked in a meticulous hierarchy, the Mâconnais offers only a rudimentary sense of vineyard quality. Plain Mâcon is the lowest rung of the ladder. A step above is Mâcon-Villages, or Mâcon followed by the name of a particular village, or Viré-Clessé, two villages combined into a single appellation.
And that’s it. The St.-Véran area, including the town Davayé, is on the southern end of the Mâconnais region, just north of Beaujolais. I often find St.-Vérans to possess a bit more structure and complexity than the Mâcon wines, though there is by no means a consensus on that.
Nonetheless, our top wine was a St.-Véran, the Terroir Davayé from Domaine Cheveau, which combined an almost kinetic energy with an inviting texture and deep mineral and citrus flavors. Our No. 4 bottle was a St.-Véran as well, this one called Terroirs de Davayé, from Maison Verget, a fresh, lively and spicy wine. In fact, three of the four St.-Vérans in the tasting made our top 10. The other was our No. 9 bottle, Les Pommards from Daniel et Martine Barraud, who generally make precise, focused wines, though this was a little oakier than I prefer.
Six of the 14 Mâcon-Villages in the tasting made our top 10, suggesting, predictably, that it is the most varied appellation. Among them was the Domaine Guillot-Broux Mâcon-Chardonnay Les Combettes, with Chardonnay being the actual name of a village that, legendarily, at least, gave its name to the grape. In any case, this was rich and substantial with obvious oak flavors, but the wine should integrate well over the next year. I thought this came the closest of the wines in our tasting to having a real Côte de Beaune texture.
At No. 3 was the Mâcon-Farges from Henri Perrusset, a lively wine that combined sweet and savory flavors. Other noteworthy wines included the tense and mineral Mâcon-Villages from Auvigue; the complex Viré-Clessé from Domaine de Roally; the lively Mâcon-Villages from Maison Champy; and, at $10, our best value, the crisp, bright Mâcon-Villages from VRAC, a throwback to the Mâconnais wines of yore. We had one bottle in our tasting from Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon, the Lafon Mâconnais operation, but sadly it was flawed and we could not judge it.
I’ve said that these wines at their best are an introduction to the style, if not the substance, of the white Burgundies of the Côte de Beaune. Like those wines, these are generally not powerfully fruity wines, as is the prevailing style for chardonnay in the New World. Instead, they captivate with texture, succulence and that difficult-to-describe sensation often referred to as minerality.
While it’s perhaps flattering to link these Mâconnais wines to their siblings in the Côte de Beaune, might it be demeaning as well because the comparison diminishes their own identity? Perhaps. But the Mâconnais wines are stuck in the white Burgundy context, and right now they don’t look too shabby.