The Côte d’Or’s southern neighbor may be ready for its closeup.
French Chardonnay is at its best in the heart of Burgundy, especially in such legendary Côte de Beaune vineyards as Meursault and Montrachet. A short distance south, though, Chardonnay also stars in the Mâconnais—a small, rocky area west of the Saône River and just north of Beaujolais, the official southern limit of Burgundy.
Full of gently rolling hills, fruit orchards, grazing cattle, and dozens of villages clustered around Romanesque churches, the Mâconnais region is picturesque and charming. The Romans, and later the monks from Cluny, built the early wine industry; in 1660, Louis XIV served Mâconnais wines at his court. Today, however, the appellation carries a less-than-stellar reputation. Co-ops and conglomerates produce boatloads of innocuous Mâcon Blanc, while producers fortunate enough to have access to the famous vineyards of Pouilly-Fuissé do little better while charging much more.
The current generation of winemaking families is working to improve the situation, placing a special emphasis on noninterventionist methods. These young vintners—including Audrey Braccini of Domaine J.A. Ferret, Jean-Marie Guffens of Domaine Guffens-Heynen, Jean-Jacques Robert of Domaine Robert-Denogent, and Jean Thévenet of Domaine de la Bongran—are now producing racy, terroir-driven wines that speak of place. Côte d’Or luminaries Anne-Claude Leflaive and Dominique Lafon have joined in, bringing even more attention to the area’s potential.
Chardonnay is still the most widely planted grape in the Mâconnais, accounting for 80% of its vineyard acreage, but Gamay and Pinot Noir are also well represented. Considering the region’s proximity to Beaujolais and the prevalence of granite soils, Gamay is the better choice for red wines and rosés.
Forty-three of the Mâconnais communes are classified as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) Mâcon-Villages. The Mâcon Supérieur designation is still used, but primarily for red wines, especially from the recognized villages. The best of these communes, La Roche-Vineuse, Verzé, and Milly-Lamartine, lie at the southern end of the zone, close to the city of Mâcon. Here, twin limestone towers, the Solutré and Vergisson escarpments, provide spectacular scenery, dramatic stories, and the lusted-after combination of ideal sun exposure and great drainage that has been known to yield some of the best wines in the world. Of the two rocks, or deux roches, Vergisson is less imposing and more popular for local and visiting hikers. Solutré served in prehistoric times as a hunting site—initially for the woolly rhino and later for horses and reindeer, which were driven off the bluffs to their deaths. Summits on both rock towers also offered shelter to early inhabitants from floods of the River Saône.
Pouilly-Fuissé AOC, the area’s most famous subappellation, confusingly includes the villages of Vergisson, Solutré-Pouilly, Fuissé, Pouilly, and Chaintré. Pouilly-Vinzelles and Pouilly-Loché are satellite appellations (similar in style, lower in cost and quality); the surrounding areas to the north and south fall under the St. Véran AOC, whose top winegrowing village is Davayé. Pouilly-Fuissés tend to be richer than most Mâcons, with honeyed, balsamic, and toasty notes accenting their fruit, while St. Vérans are closer in style to the lighter, crisper Mâcon Blancs, the best of which feature soft apple, pear, citrus, floral, alpine-meadow, and mineral notes.
Established in 1840 and thus one of the oldest estates in Pouilly-Fuissé, Domaine J.A. Ferret was owned by Colette Ferret, daughter of founder Jeanne Ferret, until its purchase three years ago by Maison Louis Jadot. Jadot president Pierre-Henry Gagey hired Braccini because “he wanted to keep the woman’s touch in the most complex soil of all of Burgundy.” Braccini says her vineyards “are the place where Chardonnay expresses the richness and minerality at the same time.”
She and others in the area have conducted a detailed soil analysis and historical appellation study for the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, in support of a request to upgrade nearly 1,000 acres of vineyards in Pouilly-Fuissé, Pouilly-Loché, Pouilly-Vinzelles, and St. Véran to premier cru status. Inspectors are beginning to visit the area and conduct site, or climat, inspections. Braccini is confident that within five years, the Pouilly-Fuissé AOC will comprise no fewer than 20 premiers crus.
While Meursault and Montrachet demand respect, attention, and deep pockets, most Mâconnais wines are down-to-earth and easy to find and enjoy. With no grands or premiers crus as of yet, the playing field—at least from an official point of view—is level. But savvy sommeliers know to steer clear of most simple Mâcon Blancs, especially from the larger producers, as well as the touristy, commercially driven Pouilly-Fuissés, and to concentrate instead on the more careful producers and the single vineyards, or lieux-dits —some of which are sure to have official status in a few years. Look also to the new cadre of artisanal producers, many of whom are employing organic or even biodynamic growing practices (Mâcon was a leader in biodynamic viticulture well before the Loire’s Nicolas Joly, and France’s first biodynamic school was opened in nearby Beaujeu). These winemakers are equally comfortable embracing or eschewing expensive French-oak barrels.
The wines, even at the richer end, are incredibly food-friendly. Elegant and quintessentially lean, with both crisp acidity and subtle minerality, they pair beautifully with fresh fish and shellfish dishes, leaner meats, and patés.