In our coverage of Chardonnay in Burgundy, there is one final outpost. In the far south of the Burgundy region, practically on the southern border, lie the Mâconnais villages. The most prosaic of them produce wine that is uninteresting, but the most well-known--Pouilly-Fuissé--makes a style of wine that is inimitable to those who love its rich oakiness and firm structure. The magic of Pouilly has spread to neighboring villages, such as St-Véran, which is rapidly growing in prowess.
The region itself is called the Mâconnais, and takes its name from the town of Mâcon. Mâcon, which has a long non-wine history in which it established itself as one of Burgundy's most important places, is an important wine region in and of itself. It is here that almost the only reds are produced, but due to the unfavorable climate of the Pinot Noir grape, they are rarely promising and thus are almost never exported outside of France.
Comparison to the Côte de Beaune's top wines is difficult, but on the lower levels, Pouilly-Fuissé makes wine so much less expensive and with the potential to be equal or better that it is now the primary white Burgundy appellation for people of more modest means. If you have $400, of course a Montrachet is the best, but not everyone wants to spend that much, and Pouilly-Fuissé offers something that everyone loves--great Burgundy at a (comparatively) good price.
The Mâconnais appellation takes its name from the town of Mâcon. The ancient bishopric of Mâcon, also known as the ancient diocese of Mâcon, was located in the village and shaped much of its early history since its inception in the 530s. The bishops were so powerful that they were allowed to rule the village until the year 850.
Life in the village became bloody as authorities fought over who should rule it and whether it should be a part of the Burgundy appellation. Meanwhile, wine was a common export that had been introduced early on by the Romans, but food crops took precedence and the village of Pouilly-Fuissé wasn't particularly known.
The story got ugly after the French Revolution, when a battle between bishops and peasants ended badly for the poor. Eventually, the diocese was broken up and lost almost all of its power. Only in recent times has the capacity of Pouilly-Fuissé been recognized. In a time when the market is shifting towards more inexpensive wines from less reputed appellations, the Mâconnais continues to grow in importance.
Climate and Viticulture
It is important to remember that there are no limestone escarpments in Mâconnais; no Côtes, as a matter of fact, and this makes the wine style a lot different than in the Côte de Beaune. Also, it is very far south, meaning the weather is too hot for Pinot Noir, and this makes Chardonnay the main grape of the villages.
The soil of the Mâconnais villages is made up of alkaline, iron-rich clay. The powerful minerals in this clay keep the wine fresh and crisp, and the clay itself brings out great flavor in the Chardonnay. Most producers oak their wine to bring out the rich, honeyed side of the yellow fruit, which mingles with more generic notes of oak spice and vanilla, along with an underlying potency of minerals.
Except for the quaffing reds of the basic Mâcon appellation, which are rarely exported to the USA, it's pretty much all Chardonnay here. Since the appellations are generally large and diverse in terroir, the Chard varies in style, from rich and buttery to fresh, crisp, and minerally. But what all the wines seem to share is a smoky, hazy element that makes the exotic flavors of peach, pineapple, and other yellow fruits more perfumed and vibrant.
As a result, the best wines of this appellation are known for being "heady": so aromatic they almost could outdo their Côte d'Or cousins just on the strength of their aroma. Of course, to the trained palate there's less underlying complexity of flavor, but the difference in price here is so significant as to make up for these slight differences.
As a result of high production here, it is crucial to select a good producer. These vary as you go from town to town, but some domaines seem to have consistent success, such as Bret Brothers, Château de Beauregard, Daniel et Martine Barraud, Domaine Guffens-Heynen, any of the Saumaize producers, Jean Rijckaert, and Verget.
The Mâconnais has a pretty all-encompassing appellation system, consisting of seven AOCs for wine of both colors. More esoteric styles will have to be labeled under generic Bourgogne appellations. Here is a list of the seven Mâconnais appellations, with links to the three for which we have separate pages.
- Mâcon: This appellation is the basic appellation and rarely makes serious styles, as most of the better wines are funneled into Mâcon-Villages appellations. Generally reds here.
- Mâcon-Villages: This AOC is only for white wine, and contains some of the better Chardonnays that are not produced in a desirable village. They are allowed to list their village name; some of these distinctions have gained a reputation, such as Charnay, Prissé, and La Roche Vineuse. The common Mâconnais producers are also common here; prices are almost always low, often under $20.
- Pouilly-Fuissé: Since this village's inception, it has produced good Chardonnay, but only recently has the wine really caught on. Now, Pouilly is in high demand and a number of the surrounding villages are trying to imitate its success. Since there are no Premiers Crus in the Mâconnais, everything is based on lieux-dits, a few of which have attained a Premier Cru-like reputation. There are 1,871 acres here which produce over 400,000 cases of wine, the most of any village in Burgundy. The best of these wines are classic oaked Chardonnay—rich, exotic and honeyed, and fervently smoky and spicy.
- Pouilly-Loche: Pouilly-Loche is a tiny offshoot or satellite of Pouilly-Fuissé. There are only 80 acres, and much of the wine never makes it out of France. Good producers, however, can make a baby Pouilly-Fuissé for less money.
- Pouilly-Vinzelles: A more promising satellite than Pouilly-Loche, even though at 120 acres it produces only a few thousand more cases each year.
- St-Véran: This appellation takes on the name of the village of St-Vérand. So far south it was once a part of Beaujolais, this village was incorporated into the Burgundian list of appellations in 1971. There are 1,590 acres of vineyard land, since other villages are also used, making almost as much wine as the great Pouilly itself. The wines are crisp and fresh, rarely in the rich oaked style of Pouilly. As a result, they are gaining respect for making a distinct style.
- Viré-Clessé: The villages of Mâcon-Viré and Mâcon-Clessé were separated from Mâcon-Villages in 1999. This new but promising AOC encompasses 965 acres of vineyard land, and makes around half as much wine as Pouilly-Fuissé. The wines are fresh but sometimes a tad lean; so far, this vineyard has not carved out its own niche yet, but it is rapidly improving.