Penniless after spending all your money on cases of Meursault, but need something to drink now? Look no further than the Mâconnais for inexpensive, highly drinkable Burgundy, says Clive Coates MW.
Were I to select one single wine as a daily staple for the rest of my life (not an inviting idea) I would probably choose Mâcon Blanc Villages from the Mâconnais region. The wine is good, consistent, widely available, cheap and food-friendly. The basic cooperative, own-label version sells for £4.99 or so, and can be particularly recommended in an excellent vintage such as 2005, in the shops now. But today there are an increasing number of more interesting, boutique-domaine wines or special cuvées from individual sites for which you don’t have to pay more than £7.50 or so. And on top of this you have the gems of southern Burgundy: the St-Vérans and Pouilly-Fuissés at £9 upwards (though often quite a lot upwards).
The Mâconnais region in Southern Burgundy enjoys a more auspicious climate than the Côte d’Or. There is an invisible barrier that you pass through as you journey south between Chalon and Mâcon: less vivid than the transition between the northern Rhône and the Midi at Montélimar, certainly, but crucial nonetheless. Winters can be cold, spring frost a problem, June and July hail a constant threat… But, of paramount importance when it comes to the ripeness, balance and cleanliness of the fruit at harvest, August and September in Mâconnais are much warmer. In Pouilly-Fuissé itself, the danger in the very warmest vintages used to be that the wines were a bit too heavy and alcoholic. Such is the improvement in winemaking techniques, however, that this sort of over-muscular Pouilly-Fuissé is less prevalent than in the past.
The Mâconnais begins at Sennecey-Le-Grand, roughly level with Tournus, and runs south to Saint-Vérand where it joins Beaujolais, and the limestone soil changes into granite. Bounded by the River Saône to the east and the valley of the River Grosne to the west, this gives us an area roughly 35km long by 15km wide. Discarding generics, the vignoble measures some 5,420ha (hectares), more or less the same as the Côte d’Or, of which the lion’s share, 89%, is white wine, and most of that is Mâcon-Blanc-Villages or Mâcon followed by the name of the commune.
The soil is essentially a limestone-clay mixture. Where there is a significant mixture of sand the land is better for light reds and rosés, or for vin de l’année whites. To the north in Uchizy and Chardonnay, according to Dominique Lafon, the wines produced have less acidity than those from his vineyards in Milly-Lamartine, to the south: these are more minerally. I have always found the wines of Prissé, in the southern part of the area, more flowery and delicate but intense, than those of Lugny, to the north of the region, whose wines are sturdier and slightly richer. In between we have the appellation of Viré-Clessé, promoted from Mâcon-Villages in 1998, whose wines are a satisfactory combination of both, and those of Verzé and La Roche-Vineuse and the other communes which abut St-Véran and Pouilly-Fuissé on the northern side. St-Véran is a wholly admirable wine, very often Pouilly-Fuissé at almost Mâcon-Villages prices. In Pouilly-Fuissé itself we have four communes: from the east, Vergisson, Pouilly-Solutré, Fuissé and Chaintré, the last two rolling into Pouilly-Vinzelles and Pouilly-Loché, both small appellations and dominated by the local joint coop. My taste is for minerally, steely wines, and I often get more pleasure from the Pouilly-Fuissés from Vergisson (Saumaize-Michelin, Jacques and Nathalie Saumaize, Daniel Barraud) than those of Fuissé, better exposed, much as I admire the wines of Château de Beauregard, Château de Fuissé and Christophe Cordier.
The Mâconnais is dominated, economically and politically, by its cooperatives. There are 13. The biggest is Lugny, controlling 1,750ha. That at Prissé covers 950ha and the Viré coop 320ha. This is the origin of your £4.99 Mâcon Blanc. While your Mâconnais petit vigneron is not in such dire straits as his counterpart in Beaujolais, life is by no means easy. All the coops have a team who visit the neighbouring vineyards, cajoling the growers not to over-produce, when to spray, when to harvest, and promising a bonus for good husbandry. Many coopérateurs would rather be officially authorised to produce more. Currently the maximum for Mâcon-Villages is 70hl/ha and for Mâcon with a village name 68hl/ha. Many, on or off the record, see no reason why the limit should not be 75hl/ha. Even as dedicated a winemaker as Lafon made 55–60 hl/ha in 2006, they point out. He sells his wines for a lot of money. The poor coopérateur hardly gets t1.5 a litre, in bulk.
With the top négociants such as Duboeuf and Loron, and those from Beaune (Jadot, Latour) somewhere in the middle in that they offer the whole range from basic Mâcon to single-vineyard Pouilly-Fuissé, the other side of the Mâconnais is, of course, represented by the individual domaines. Some have been in existence for decades. Others are new, with an interesting development being a mini-invasion on the part of Dominique Lafon and Anne-Claude Leflaive from the north. A number of the younger growers formed themselves into a group in 2004: Les Artisans Vignerons de Bourgogne du Sud.
What this group and their seniors have in common is a perfectionistic attitude towards what is done in the cellar and in the vineyard: low yields, harvesting by hand, (90% of the rest of the Mâconnais is machine-collected), a severe triage (sorting out of the fruit), and an approach which is very biological if not biodynamic. This, I feel certain, is the future. If local price increases (and the price for bulk Mâcon 2006 has risen by 10–15%), plus regular tax increases and inflation in general push Mâcon-Villages over the crucial £4.99 price-point, sales will halve. Abigail Hirshfield, who buys these sorts of wines for Sainsbury’s, suggests that while there is, finally, a small but discernable move back from the New World to France, customers don’t have much loyalty, and will just turn to another wine at £4.99. Dee Blackstock MW at Waitrose, where the wines of France have always been accorded more importance, is of the opinion that if all her competitors were selling their Mâcon at, say, £5.29 sales would not collapse so abruptly, and that those for whom £4.99 was important would change to the Loire or the Midi.
Where price points are more elastic, though sales are not as voluminous, Mâcon is further up the hierarchy. Here we have seen considerable growth in both supply and demand. As everyone, from Charles Lea of Lea & Sandeman and Chris Hardy, buyer for Majestic, to Jean-Guillaume Bret of Bret Brothers and Olivier Merlin agree: if the quality is top, the wine will find customers. And, as they also point out, quality has increased enormously over the last decade. The wines need good concentration, not to be dominated by their oak (here we have seen a refreshing move towards subtlety) and be harmonious and full of fruit. No one seems to doubt that there is room for several dozen more quality wineries in the Mâconnais. France has had a wake-up call. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Mâconnais.
Clive Coates MW is a world-leading authority on Burgundy. His book, Wines of Burgundy, will be published in autumn 2007.
New faces in Mâconnais
Leflaive bought 9.3ha in Verzé in 2004, more or less for the same motives as Dominique Lafon, only to see her harvest decimated by hail. This has somewhat comprimised the quality of the 2005s, which lack a bit of personality and bite. But such is the quality of the Pulignys she makes it will not be too long before we have another Mâconnais superstar.
The bearded mid-30s Nicolas Maillet started with 3.5ha when his father retired from the coop in 1999. He now has 7.5ha, near the Leflaive plot in Verzé. ‘I don’t make Corton-Charlemagne,’ he says. ‘I produce 60hl/ha. And at t6 before tax that’s good value. It’s essential to plough the vineyards and keep up the level of the micro-fauna and flora. That’s the way to get the goût de terroir.’
A slight man in his 50s with a moustache; Barraud works his 5ha, based in Vergisson, with his son. His knowledge of the small but crucial differences between this slope and that is encyclopedic. Tasting chez Barraud is fascinating.
CHATEAU DES RONTETS
Former architects Claire and Fabio Gazeau-Montrasi have been installed in Chaintré (the domaine belonged to her uncle) since 1993. They look after 7ha. The two best of the three Pouilly-Fuissé cuvées are bottled after 18 months. High-class wines to keep.
BRET BROS, LA SOUFRANDIERE
Jean-Philippe and Jean-Guillaume Bret, brothers in their 20s, are among the newest kids on the block. They look after 6ha, and buy in the equivalent as grapes. Their first vintage was 2001, since when the domaine has been strictly biodynamic. There is a wide range of local wines from different terroirs, and quality is high. If they had room it would be fascinating to see how more substantial wines would take to being bottled for longer than a year.
JEAN-MARIE CHANLAND, DOMAINE DE SAINTE-BARBE
This 5ha estate in Viré, now being converted to biodynamism, shares its cellar with that of the Domaine des Chazelles, run by Jean-Marie’s father. Oak for the Viré-Clessés; tank for the Mâcons.
All the above, with the exception of Leflaive, are members of the Artisans. Others include Lafon, Merlin; and the two Saumaize domaines in Vergisson.
Clive Coates’ top new Mâconnais
Bret Bros, Pouilly-Fuissé En Carementrant 2005 ????H
From Vergisson. A south-facing slope under the rock itself. Backward. Complex. Fine. £15 in bond; BBR
Château de Beauregard, Pouilly-Fuissé Les Charmes 2005 ????H
Distinguished. Concentrated. Splendid austerity. £18.50; DBy, DDi, Nsn, WSo
Château des Roncets, Birbettes, Pouilly-Fuissé 2005 ????H
Birbettes is an old word for old vines: 80 years in this case. Quite oaky. Needs time. Lovely finish. £20.99; RdW
Daniel Barraud, Pouilly-Fuissé, En Buland 2005 ????H
From very old vines on a northeastern-facing slope in Vergisson which gets the sun all day. Totally brilliant. £19.50; L&S
Domaine Cordier, Pouilly-Fuissé Terroir de Vergisson 2005 ????H
Minute harvest. Very lovely minerally fruit. Ripe and classy. Delicious; £16; HBa, Loe
J&N Saumaize, Pouilly-Fuissé, La Roche 2005 ????H
High up the slope overlooking Vergisson. Picked in two passages. Very mineral, lovely finish. So good I had to buy some for myself. £16.40; Brb, Ear, WSo
Jadot, Pouilly-Fuissé, Clos des Prouges 2005 ????H
A masculine wine with the depth of a Meusault. Excellent grip. £19; HaM
Lafon, Clos du Four, Mâcon-Milly-Lamartine 2005 ????H
Matured in newish demi-muids of 500-litre capacity. Complex, fragrant, flowery and very elegant. £16.95; BBR, J&B, Tan
Saumaize-Michelin, Ampelopsis, Pouilly-Fuissé 2005 ????H
A tête de cuvée which is bottled after 18 months. Lots of depth from an estate which is now almost entirely biodynamic. £21.40 (2004); CTW, EnW, Rae, SVS
Thevenet, Domaine de Roally, Mâcon-Viré 2005 ????H
Full, firm, rich, super-concentrated. Still in tank when tasted. £12.50; Adn, Gns, L&S
Coates’ best value buys
Château de Beauregard, Mâcon-Vergisson 2005 ????
No oak. Mineral, racy, very long. £10.99; DBy, DDi, Nsn, WSo
Christophe Cordier, Mâcon-Fuissé, Vieilles Vignes 2005 ????
Ripe, concentrated, plump and delicious; £10.50; Gns, HBa, Loe, WSo
Daniel Barraud, Mâcon-Vergisson La Roche 2004 ????
Matured in large and normal-sized casks. Cool, pure and minerally. £10.95–11.95; L&S
Olivier Merlin, Saint-Véran La Grande Bussière 2004 ????
Soft, flowery and intense. £13.50; BBR
Domaine de la Soufrandière, Mâcon-Villages, Le Clos de Grand-Père 2005 ???
Round, ripe, full of fruit. Easy to drink. £9.50; BBR
Domaine de Sainte-Barbe, Thurissey, Viré-Clessé, Vieilles Vignes 2004 ???
Fullish, firm, very good grip, lovely fruit. £13.25; NDW
Georges Duboeuf, Mâcon-Charnay 2005 ???
Stylish, balanced, and easy to drink. Fully ready. £7.49; BWC
Jadot, Château des Jacques, Grand Clos de Loyse, Beaujolais Villages Blanc 2002 ???
Original. Attractive. Lovely fruit. I prefer this to the oaky cuvée. £9; HaM
Loron, Château de la Tour Penet, Mâcon-Villages 2005 ???
From Peronne, near Viré. Ripe, positive, long on the palate. £6.99; Ave
Nicolas Maillet, Mâcon-Villages 2005 ???
No wood – Maillet doesn’t like oak. Delicious for regular drinking. £8.50; Gns, RSW
Maconnais: Know your vintages
2006 ????H A very good vintage, rescued after a miserable August by a fine September. Weight, balance and fruit: it’s all here. For reasonably early drinking; the basics from mid-summer.
2005 ???? A fine vintage. The lesser wines are delicious now. The top cuvées still need keeping. These will last well.
2004 ???? Hail in June all but obliterated La Roche Vineuse and surrounding vineyards. Elsewhere crisp, elegant, lightish wines which are delicious now. Drink quite soon.
2003 ??? The year of the heatwave. The wines have a tendency to be on the heavy side, though there are some pleasant surprises. Drink now.
2002 ??HHH A very good vintage. The lesser wines should be drunk soon. The best Pouilly-Fuissés are delicious now and can still be kept.
2001 and earlier Getting old. Drink up.