Moving On Up: Mâconnais 2021 & 2022



Dumbstruck by the insult, the winemaker stands motionless, mouth agape, lost for words…

It is the 1990s and the day of the pre-auction tasting of barrel samples due to be auctioned by the Hospice de Beaune. Anticipation is rife as tasters congregate and exchange views on the wines. Among the number is winemaker Dominique Cornin. Under his aegis are five parcels of 35- to 90-year-old vines around the village of Chaintré, the source for the Hospice’s sole representation from Mâconnais, a Pouilly-Fuissé gifted by Françoise Poisard in 1994 (and again in 2012).

Inexplicably, the reds are poured before the whites.

Complicating matters further, attendees are given a single glass, which begs the question: how will the glasses be cleaned after those tannic reds?

The advice given by organizers is to rinse them not with water but with the Pouilly-Fuissé.

What a slur against Pouilly-Fuissé and Mâconnais, an attack against the dignity of Cornin and his fellow vignerons. It testifies to the low esteem towards the Mâconnais, indicative of how cognoscenti viewed the region at that time. This anecdote, related by Cornin’s son Romain during my visit, elucidates the region’s strides since then. The quality of Pouilly-Fuissé, Mâcon, Saint-Véran and Viré-Clessé is being recognized by increasing numbers of oenophiles, not least legions priced out of the Côte d’Or. The long-fought for and ultimately successful application for Premier Cru status apropos Pouilly-Fuissé validates its status as a region whose wines can rank amongst the best in Burgundy. If you are yet to discover the joys of Mâconnais, you’re missing out.

Looking up towards the mesmerizing Roc de Vergisson from the titular village.

Growing Seasons

This report focuses on the 2021 and 2022 vintages, the latter comprising early bottled cuvées or barrel samples tasted during visits.

I summarised the 2021 vintage in last year’s report, which I replicate below.

Like much of France, the Mâconnais had a rather turbulent, cool growing season. An unseasonably warm February was misleading as temperatures struggled in the ensuing months: 10.3°C in April, 13.1°C in May, June was normal at around 20.3°C but July was cooler at 19.9°C and August cooler still at 19.4°C. Meanwhile, it was decidedly wet, with 144mm, 92mm and a torrential 150mm in May, June and July. Compare that figure to Beaune, which received just under 82mm that month – we are looking at almost double the amount of rain. August brought some relief as it was dry, with 36mm of rain, though September saw the taps turn on again with 83mm. The hail episode that struck the region was on 21 June, if I recall correctly, around 2:30pm. It was the first time I had witnessed the destructive force of hail. I learned how you might well be in the eye of a storm. Yet, just a kilometer away, conditions may be completely benign, vines untouched, as was the case that day when Pouilly-Fuissé bore the brunt. At the same time, nearby appellations such as Pouilly-Vinzelles were almost completely spared. Though hail wrought destruction in some localized areas, several winemakers explained that they actually lost more due to frost earlier in the season.

Sunlight hours were average in June, but there was a shortfall in July, 207 hours in total, around 20% below average. August was also below normal. Fortunately, September saw more sunshine with 214 hours – more than in July despite shorter daylight hours. Unsurprisingly mildew and oidium were a constant threat, and teams had to be constantly vigilant, entering the vineyards during dry interludes, sometimes in a futile effort to keep on top of things. I remember visiting Jean-Marie Guffens in early June and finding the normally indefatigable winemaker already knackered and ruing the remainder of the growing season. There was so much saturated ground that tractors were often impossible to operate, mandating arduous and costlier manual spraying, not knowing the reward for the effort come harvest.

Frédéric Burrier and his son Baptiste at Château de Beauregard following an extensive tasting of their latest wines.

Bud break in 2020 was on 28 March, still four days earlier than usual, while mi-fleuraison (the middle of flowering that winemakers use as a measure) took place on 13 June 2021, six days later than usual, mi-véraison not until 20 August 2021. In 2021, sugar accretion languished below that of vintages on either side, only reaching 180g/L by the time the inclement weather from 10 September stifled accumulation altogether. Malic levels remained comparatively high against other vintages, often over 4g/L. Most pickers went out into the vineyard much later than in recent years, around 21 September, nearly a month later than the previous year. This can make recruiting pickers trickier since many students are commencing the new academic year around this time.

Nature dealt winemakers a completely different set of playing cards in 2022, one that draws comparisons with 2020. It was an unprecedented hot vintage with unseasonably warm temperatures in February and March that enticed vines out of winter dormancy. April was cooler at 11.5° Celsius followed by summer weather in May when the mercury averaged 18.5°C, some 5.4°C warmer than the previous year. Conditions remained balmy with temperatures in June, July and August, 21.5°C, 23.7°C and 23.9°C, respectively. As rapper Nelly once claimed: It’s Getting Hot in Here. BIVB figures show that during the 12 months of 2022, there were 105 and 48 days when the mercury tipped 25°C and 30°C, respectively, compared to 83 and 40 days in 2020., which was also slightly more than in the Côte d’Or.

As you would expect, drought conditions prevailed throughout almost the entire year, just 13mm in May and 8mm in July – 142mm less than the previous July! The anomalous month of June saw 145mm of rain, perversely much more than the previous year. However, the figures do not tell the entire story since precipitation was concentrated in storms between June 21 and 25, whereas what vines really need is steady, earth-saturating rain. Sunlight hours were also way above average: 390 hours in July alone, almost double that of 2021, and a further 298 sunlight hours in August. The result is that 2022 was the warmest year since the beginning of the 20th century, not to mention drier than 2020 2019 and even 2003.

Julien Barraud in the barrel cellar. The domaine’s portfolio benefitted from promoted Pouilly-Fuissé, though they have been making superb wines for many years.

A Next Crop of Premier Crus

My last two reports have detailed the promotion of Pouilly-Fuissé’s top climats, spearheaded by the Frédéric Burrier of Château de Beauregard. “Without him, it would not have been possible,” remarked one grateful winemaker who benefitted from Burrier’s diplomacy, perseverance and assertiveness. Burrier had recently hosted a dinner with some of Burgundy’s finest bottles that he had set aside for those that had helped him along the way, and I averred to him directly that it should be the other way around.

Speaking to growers such as Olivier Merlin, the introduction of Premier Cru vineyards has had an immediate effect. There is a feeling that finally, there is some kind of parity with the Côte de Beaune, Burrier opining that consumers now see the Premier Crus as viable alternatives conferred with equal status as top Côte Chalonnaise and some appellations within the Côte de Beaune. Consumers are willing to pay higher premiums for Premier Crus, and in turn, this has encouraged some winemakers to upgrade their viticulture. They can see the potential returns. For sure, grumblings rumble regarding the criteria used to make the final selection, inevitable given by its very nature you cannot please everyone. For there to be winners, there must be losers. One thing to point out is that this is not the end of the story. The Premier Crus could legally be expanded in the future. But for the time being, several winemakers told me that the strictness of the selection and the fact that, in the end, they wisely resisted lowering the bar to appease all sides, strengthened the category.

I ask Burrier about the impact that promotions have had on the region. “The first effect was among growers’ minds. Looking at the vineyards, you can see real changes in the techniques used. Nowadays, no herbicides are allowed, so even the most conventional growers have had to change. Consumers’ perceptions have also altered, choosing Pouilly-Fuissé Premier Cru instead of an Auxey-Duresses, for example. More than half the appellation’s wine is sold in bulk to the négociants, and as 25% less is now available, the average price of the Pouilly-Fuissé Village is constant [one would imagine that had this scenario played out in the Côte de Beaune, it would have resulted in far more escalated prices]. The main market for Pouilly-Fuissé is the United States which is a more sophisticated market in terms of restaurants and retailers. That is where we have seen the most change. Prices have doubled in five years. Here, Jadot and Louis Latour represent 30% of the market.” 

Out in the vines with Edouard Parinet and winemaker Brice Laffond just over the road from the winery at Domaine Roc de Boutires.

What will be the effect on land prices? Olivier Merlin told me that a parcel in Meursault had recently sold for an equivalent of an astronomical 24 million Euros per hectare. By contrast, there has only been one transaction amongst the newly promoted Pouilly-Fuissé Premier Crus, simply because everyone is cautious. There is no precedent upon which to base the selling price. At the moment, it is around the equivalent of €500,000 per hectare, of course, far less than up in the Côte d’Or.

Could that tempt some of the monied domaines and négociants to invest in Mâconnais? Well, both Domaine Leflaive and Louis Jadot have already expanded into the region. In June 2023, Drouhin announced they had acquired Château de Chasselas which includes 7.5 hectares of vineyard, as well as historical buildings with the potential to be converted into a hotel. Perhaps a sign of things to come? A few locals expressed disdain towards a prospective influx of winemakers from other regions. “They just want to make wines like a Chassagne or Meursault,” one vigneron told me. “They are not interested in making true Mâconnais.” If winemakers start buying vineyards, and I think it is inevitable, it will place pressure on land prices with the same consequences as seen in the Côte d’Or. Whether it reaches such extremes is another matter. Olivier Merlin pointed out that in the Mâconnais, SAFER, the organization responsible for vetting vineyard sales to ensure that younger and less pocketed winemakers get a foothold, has more muscle here than the Côte d’Or, where winemakers are more inclined to accept free land transactions without governmental interference. Time will tell what will happen.

That is not the end of the story. The INAO is considering similar promotions for both Pouilly-Vinzelles and Pouilly-Loché. Nobody would dispute that they don’t quite possess the reclamé of Pouilly-Fuissé, one winemaker jibing that the best notional Pouilly-Vinzelles Premier Cru can only match the least Pouilly-Fuissé Premier Cru! That’s not a view I concur with. Those appellations' wines can achieve high-quality levels in the hands of its finest exponents, such as Jean-Philippe Bret. At the time of this writing, if everything goes ahead, we should see the first Premier Crus appearing with the 2024 vintage. Watch this space. One intriguing difference is that unlike Pouilly-Fuissé Premier Crus, where I suspect to the disapproval of some winemakers, mechanical harvesting is permitted, the INAO has decreed that both Pouilly-Vinzelles and Pouilly-Loché Premiers Crus must be picked by hand - essentially raising the bar. When you think about it, that means the most lax regulations would apply to the Côte d’Or that, which lest we forget, permits the use of herbicides and pesticides, both prohibited under the Mâconnais Premier Crus laws.

I did suggest to winemaker Caroline Gon at Domaine Frantz Chagnoleau the prospect of Premier Crus for Saint-Véran or even Viré-Clessé, swayed at that moment by the quality of her 2022s. But as she pointed out, co-operatives retain power and influence in both regions. To maintain low prices, the idea of promotion is not necessarily in their favor. That’s a pity because, in the right hands, these sites can both produce wonderful wines, contentiously better than most Montagny Premier Crus that made the fatal mistake of being too generous when dishing out Premier Cru status.

Finally, the introduction of the 22 Premier Crus means that some familiar vineyard designations have vanished or been renamed. For example, Les Cras becomes Vers Cras, while Saumaize Michelin’s Les Ronchevats is now Aux Charmes. This “reorganization of the furniture” can complicate navigating the patchwork of climats, but no doubt we will be accustomed to new names just as we are with the Côte d’Or and Chablis.

Caroline Gon at Domaine Frantz Chagnoleau, one of the finest exponents of Saint-Véran and Pouilly-Fuissé.

The Wines

There is a stark contrast between what is often dubbed “classical” 2021s, marked by lower alcohol levels, racier acidities and lean physiques. Two thousand twenty-two cannot be described as a consistent vintage since unequivocally, at the high volume/low priced end, there exists a swathe of wine that slipped past quality control, regrettably, one or two parading around in their new “Premier Cru” garb. Some co-operatives make very commendable value-for-money wines that have an important role to play - not everyone can afford to guzzle Pouilly-Fuissé Premier Crus every day. Such wines should be applauded. However, others seem content to coast on their name and churn out faceless wines that are either faulty or bereft of anything to say. I wish I could wave a magic wand in their direction and relegate them into Vin de France.

Yet Mâconnais is a dynamic region. A youthful and arguably more enlightened generation of winemakers are taking the helm, young guns such as Romain Cornin, Julien Barraud, Caroline Gon and though unable to visit on this trip, Jessica Litaud. Elsewhere, established domaines such as Domaine Thibert and Saumaize-Michelin are handing the reins to sons and, pleasing to witness, talented daughters. There is a feeling of newfound pride in Mâconnais as its top wines finally garner plaudits and gain a reputation, long deserved. It is a far cry and a far more agreeable state of affairs than the one dramatized in my introduction.

With respect to the 2022s, one major difference between the Mâconnais and the Côte d’Or is that quantities are lower in the Mâconnais because of less rain during summer. This caused evaporation of moisture within berries that was not understood until winemakers stood by their presses and observed a dribble of juice instead of the plenitude of expected free-run juice. However, yields are not as dismal as the previous year. Stylistically, there will be comparisons with the 2020s, with one or two more candid winemakers opining that the 2022s are not entirely on the same par. It depends on who you speak to. The class of 2022 veers back to the more perfumed, tropical-tinged style of Mâconnais, thankfully counterbalanced by acidity engendered by its less clayey, more limestone-rich soils compared to much of the Côte de Beaune.

Dominique Cornin is pictured in the barrel cellar. He told me the anecdote about his father at the Hospices de Beaune auction in my opening paragraph.

Final Thoughts

Maybe it seeps through the prose, but the Mâconnais is one of my favorite assignments, one I always look forward to, perhaps now more than ever. Apart from the landscape, quaint villages and a clutch of stellar restaurants, this is a region in ascendance. Conferred status by the Premier Cru classification, it has the bit between its teeth, though I hope it doesn’t persuade wine-lovers to focus solely on this top tier without venturing into other appellations, not least Viré-Clessé and Saint-Véran, which both offer tremendous value-for-money.

The 2021 and 2022 vintages offer contrasting takes on its terroirs, though paltry yields in the former mean that some will miss out. Thankfully, cellars have been replenished by the more benevolent growing season, if not to the extent winemakers envisaged during the season. Perhaps the question is whether warmer vintages like 2020 and 2022 manifest wines with a propensity to age? My limited experience with mature vintages has proven that a great Pouilly-Fuissé, or for that matter Mâcon-Village (see notes for Domaine Michel), can repay those willing to cellar bottles over 10 or 20 years. One might argue that it is a moot point given the minority willing to cellar wines these days. Then again, kudos appropriated towards an appellation is partly driven by longevity. Would it not diminish the newly anointed Premier Crus if the wines failed to age more than four or five years? Two thousand twenty-two is a vintage that will tempt consumers to pull those corks, and one might argue that the 2021s might mature with more aplomb. We will see. For now, plenty is waiting to be discovered in the Mâconnais, including Premier Crus and beyond them.

Finally, I sincerely hope that the Hospices no longer encourages attendees to rinse their stemware with Pouilly-Fuissé.

Who knows. Maybe they even provide a second glass?  

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