Focus on the Maconnais

For wine lovers who enjoy chardonnay for its minerality and its ability to convey nuances of soil and site - rather than simply for its capacity to carry new oak past the blood-brain barrier - there is no better source of wine today than the Maconnais, especially if price is an issue. Although the most expensive Pouilly-Fuisse bottlings have recently sneaked up to the $40 to $50 range, an amazing number of brisk, precise and satisfying Maconnais wines are still available for under $20. These wines are far more flexible at the dinner table than just about any chardonnay you can find from California, at a fraction of the price of white Burgundies from the Cote de Beaune.

The 2002 and 2001 vintages. In November I made a long-overdue visit to the Maconnais, to taste the fleshy and seductive 2002s as well as numerous wines from the trickier, more reserved 2001 vintage. The 2002 vintage was a very ripe one, bringing high sugars and producing wines with substantial alcohol. Acidity levels were generally sound for the region, and pHs healthy. As in the Cote d'Or, a rainy stretch in late August and the first third of September was followed by sunny weather with a north wind, which had the effect of drying out the grapes, mostly stopping incipient rot and sending sugars quickly higher. Some growers consider the ultimate quality of 2002 to be nearly miraculous, given their degree of pessimism in early September; more than one told me that 2002 favored the later-ripening spots in this sprawling appellation, where the fruit was more green at the time of the rains. These sites ripened later, without as much loss of acidity and energy. Most Maconnais producers I visited in November described the 2002 material as unusually fleshy. Some call 2002 a great vintage with outstanding balance and considerable aging potential (i. e. , a decade or more), while others say the wines are better suited for drinking and enjoying over the next four to eight years. Vintage 2001 was more challenging, with a cool summer and a cold, rainy September resulting in less regular ripeness and triggering considerable difficulties with grey rot. Only the most conscientious growers, through labor-intensive work in the vines and careful harvesting, were able to make successful, clean wines. But the best 2001s are firm, minerally and typical, and a few growers think their 2001s will be more classic and longer-lived than their more charming 2002s.

A brief tour of the Mâconnais. The vast Mâconnais region includes more vine acreage than the Côte d'Or, scattered over an area extending from just south of Tournus to the border of Beaujolais, southwest of the town of Mâcon. The area is dominated by chardonnay (there is some gamay and pinot noir, but nothing to write home about), and the majority of chardonnay production is accounted for by numerous local co-ops, some of them huge. In fact, outside the best appellations, these co-ops can account for 90% of production.

It's a bit warmer than the Côte d'Or in this more southerly region, and chardonnay generally ripens early in the Mâconnais - typically a week or more earlier than on the Côte de Beaune, although this gap has shrunk in recent years, as spring, and the subsequent flowering, have come earlier to Northern France. But, as in most large and varied appellations in France, there are typically differences in harvest dates of as much as a month between the coolest and warmest sites. Moreover, as on the Côte d'Or, some of the best growers intentionally harvest late for maximum ripeness. As a rule, and especially in recent years, getting sufficient natural acidity has been more of a challenge for growers in the Mâconnais than getting fruit with enough sugar.

In theory, Mâcon-Villages is the appellation used to signify higher-quality wines from the region's favored villages. Wines made from fruit from a single village (out of nearly four dozen that have a right to the Mâcon-Villages appellation) generally append their name to Mâcon on the label (i.e., Mâcon-Fuissé, Mâcon-Vergisson, Mâcon-Davayé). Wines that are blends from two or more of these villages are typically bottled as Mâcon-Villages. In the northern portion of the large Mâconnais area a new appellation contrôlée, Viré-Clessé, was created in 1999 for dry white wines from a rather large delimited area around the towns of Viré and Clessé.

The Pouilly-Fuissé appellation, which has long been the source of the Mâconnais region's best and most expensive white wines, lies west and slightly south of the city of Mâcon. This appellation comprises the villages of Vergisson, Solutré, Pouilly, Fuissé and Chaintré, which are spread over a collection of limestone-rich hills. The best wines, especially those from vineyards at higher elevation in Vergisson, Solutré and Pouilly, show minerality, vibrancy and grip from chalky soil, while warmer sites facing south and south-east, as well as those closer to the Saône, often yield rounder wines with more tropical aromas of soft citrus fruits, apricot and honey. The town of Fuissé, home base for a number of Pouilly-Fuissé's top talents, typically produces very rich, ripe and sometimes rather exotic wines from soils with a generally higher clay content. The best Pouilly-Fuissés are typically the most ageworthy dry white wines of the Mâconnais region, improving in bottle for 12 to 15 years in vintages with sound acidity. Pouilly-Vinzelles and Pouilly-Loché, at the warm eastern edge of Pouilly-Fuissé, can be almost as good. East- and southeast-facing vineyards in these areas are open to the Saône (in much the same way that the villages of Quintaine and Clessé are, farther to the north), and often benefit from the concentrating effect of noble rot, as the river is a source of humidity and fog in the early fall.

Saint-Véran is a rather odd, bifurcated appellation for chardonnay, covering land south and north of Pouilly-Fuissé. The wines from the south, especially around the villages of Chasselas, Lèynes and St.-Véraud, at the northern edge of Beaujolais, rarely show the complexity or depth of those made around Davayé and Prissé, to the north of Poully-Fuissé.

There are only communal and regional wines in the Mâconnais; there are no grands crus or premiers crus, even though certain sites, especially in Pouilly-Fuissé, clearly merit premier cru status.

Mâconnais terroir? It is tempting to describe the distinctive character of each major appellation and its favored sites, but although there are clearly favored terroirs perfect for making rich, dense, minerally chardonnay, there are simply too many other variables working against site specificity. Among the most obvious are excessive yields: there is typically a major difference in concentration and soil character between vines producing the maximum allowable yields for their appellation (e.g., 60 hectoliters per hectare for Mâcon-Villages plus the plafond limite de classement, or the amount by which growers are allowed to exceed the rendement de base, or base yield, and 50 h/h plus P.L.C. for Pouilly-Fuissé) and wines from producers who keep crop levels 25% to 50% lower. Then, too, the overwhelming majority of growers in the vast Mâconnais area harvest by machine, which can result in seriously compromised quality in vintages in which the grape skins are less than perfect (as in 2001). The much smaller producers I sought out in November, by and large, harvest by hand.

Other important variables include the severity of selection at the harvest; the quality of the pressing; how the lees are used during élevage; the percentage and quality of new oak barrels; the length of élevage; and the amount of fining and filtration done prior to the bottling. As Jean-Marie Guffens, who owns one of the elite small estates in the region (Domaine Guffens-Heynen in Vergisson) and also offers a wide range of excellent négociant bottlings under his Verget label, puts it: "The Mâconnais is as complex as the Côte d'Or or Chablis; there's no typical taste of Mâcon. It's as if we're in California but working only with chardonnay. Obviously, at Verget we look for specific vineyard character, but this often has little to do with a vineyard's appellation." Hard-core terroiristes might argue with this assertion, but the textbook descriptions of, for example, Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Véran frequently break down when the bottles are actually in front of you.

On the following pages are brief producer profiles and tasting notes on the '02s (and in most cases on at least some '01s) based on my visit to the region in November. I have appended more recommended wines at the end of the article.