Inflection Point: Mâconnais 2020 & 2021
BY NEAL MARTIN | AUGUST 23, 2022
my all too brief trip to Mâconnais last year, this year, I wanted to spend more
time tasting the delights of the region. I drove down from my home to Mâcon in
late May, the perfect time to visit, with wall-to-wall sunshine the entire week
and, thankfully, preceding the summer heatwave. The picture-postcard panorama
of rolling hills punctured by its twin outcrops, the dramatic Roc de Solutré
and Roc de Vergisson, is mesmerising, especially combined with the quaint
villages and mouth-watering gastronomy. There is always a sense of tranquillity
here as things move at a less frenetic pace than elsewhere. The virtue that I
have come to most appreciate is its simplicity. It often reminds me of the Côte
d’Or 20-years ago when it was unencumbered by corporations stalking for the
next land acquisition, acrimonious family fallouts and the pursuit of money that
erodes its artisan spirit. Here in the Mâconnais, as banal as it reads, winemakers
just make wine.
that my presence would not be a curse. Last year’s trip coincided with
devastating hailstorms that decimated entire vineyards around the ambit of Fuissé.
Thankfully, the atmosphere was less volatile, and the 2022 growing season was
going great guns; the first flowers dusted vineyards towards the end of the
week under ideal conditions, though some winemakers were wary of flowering
passing too rapidly. (In the end, flowering turned out to be more strung out
than expected.) Naturally, the 2022 vintage is scheduled for assessment at a
later date. This trip focused on the 2020s and 2021s, two very different
seasons mirroring most French wine regions.
famous, quite mesmerising Roc de Vergisson.
moment is a defining point in the region’s history. The 2020 vintage marks the
introduction of 22 INAO-approved Premier Crus in the appellation of Pouilly-Fuissé,
equivalent to 194-hectares or 24% of vineyard acreage. As I have written
several times before, Frédéric Burrier, proprietor of Château de Beauregard, is
the driving force that overcame the bureaucracy and competing desires of
winemakers and co-operatives. I must confess feeling satisfaction in being able
to enter tasting notes with Premier Cru attached to their name. It is a just
reward for the progress that has been made in recent years, addressing what was
a glaring omission by authorities. Its impact upon markets remains to be seen,
though most winemakers are positive, especially as it puts the region on parity
with the likes of the Côte Chalonnaise. Premier Cru status should be bestowed
on other appellations in the future, possibly Pouilly-Vinzelles will be next in
line. We will see. I hope that it does not lose impetus now that the first
round of promotions has been accomplished.
tastings were a mixture of domaine visits plus a very useful blind tasting
organized by the BIVB (Bourgogne Wine Board). There are a handful of omissions because
either previous reports have brought the most recent vintages up to date, or,
in one or two occasions,
due to scheduling conflicts.
The 2020 Growing Season
2020 growing season was the third warm season in a row; however after a warm
April, May was an average 16.6°C, June a cool 18.9°C and July 22.9°C. It was
only in August that summer began to simmer with 22.8°C average temperatures,
some 3.4°C warmer than in 2021, underlying one of the major stylistic differences
between the two seasons. It also meant there was far less mildew pressure with
only localised outbreaks that touched the leaves in mid-June. September was a
respectable 19.0°C that ensured ripeness and ideal perfect conditions for
harvest. It was a relatively dry growing season. April to August all saw less
rainfall than usual, just 39mm in July, less than a third witnessed the same
month a year later, with 330 sunlight hours, around 30% higher than average.
Thankfully, 86mm in June warded off too much hydric stress amongst the vines.
There was fewer sunlight in August, 248 sunlight hours, which meant that it
avoided the tropical traits that mark the 2018, and to a lesser degree, 2019
vintages. Rain did interrupt some of the
picking with 70mm of rainfall. Most of the pickers went out around 25 August,
though as Olivier Merlin reminded me, picking date was crucial as Chardonnay
can gain an entire degree of additional alcohol each day in such conditions.
The 2021 Growing Season
much of the country, 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 around 20.3°C
but July 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 that 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. The other thing that I learned was how you can be in the midst
of the maelstrom, whilst just a kilometer or two away, they can be completely
untouched, as was the case in Pouilly-Fuissé. Though hail wrought destruction
in some localised areas, several winemakers explained that they actually lost
more due to frost earlier in the season.
In the Mâconnais, the common training system is a single cane bent into an arch known as ‘taille en arcure’. This increases the number of bunches per cane and being higher from the ground, reduces the potential impact of frost damage. Some winemakers, like Christophe Thibert, opt for a shorter cane to increase concentration, but I speculate whether global warming might make the arched cane beneficial in countering excess alcohol.
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
vineyard 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 in his own inimitable way, he
was already knackered and wondering how he would get through to the end 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 your efforts come harvest.
terms of dates, let us juxtapose the two vintages in question since they make
interesting comparisons. Bud break in 2020 was on 28 March, whereas in 2021, it
was on 4 April, still four days earlier than usual. Mi-fleuraison (the
middle of flowering that winemakers use as a measure) was 23 May in 2020 but 13
June in 2021, which is six days later than normal. So, we can already see that
the vintages are on very different tracks. Mi-véraison was on 31 July in
2020, but the grapes did not turn their colour until 20 August in 2021, so now
we have a three-week disparity between the two cycles. Examining graphs
indicating sugar levels, berries reached sugar levels of 200g/L in 2020; in
2021, sugar accretion languished. It was given a spurt in the first ten days of
September, but only reached 180g/L by the time the inclement weather from 10
September virtually stymied sugar accumulation altogether. Malic levels
remained comparatively high against other vintages, often over 4g/L. Most of
the 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 it
trickier recruiting pickers since many of the students are commencing the new
academic year around this time.
2020 vintage is certainly a success for the Mâconnais. Many of its finer
wines offer much-needed alternatives for those priced out of the Côte d’Or. The
summer heat was not quite as torrid or unrelenting, and this, together with comparatively
higher elevation and its limestone-rich soils, counterbalances excess. For
sure, fruit profiles often contain hints of tropical fruit, but the crucial
word is “hint”. They lend the wines prettiness without compromising their
terroir expression. Moreover, unlike the following years, at least winemakers
are blessed with decent quantities, a Godsend after the dramatic shortfall in
2021. Another factor is the improvement in viticulture. There is more manual
picking than when I first began visiting the region two decades ago, more
fastidious practices amongst the vines. Spending just a few moments with
Dominique Cornin down in Chaintré or just chatting with Jessica Litaud, it was
clear to see that these young winemakers are completely dedicated to their vineyards.
This revision of vineyard tenets contemporaneous with the introduction of
Premier Crus will hopefully encourage more consumers to take notice,
particularly those that have given the Mâconnais short shrift.
vintage threw many more challenges in winemakers’ paths, which is no
different from practically every other wine region across Europe. But difficult
vintages can play into the hands of those who focus on white varieties, not
least the most resilient of grape varieties: Chardonnay. Whenever I cast my
mind back to the fateful hailstorm in June, my gut reaction is that it must be
impossible to create wines of note given the tumultuous events throughout that
year. However, there are many positive signs that the best producers overcame
these curveballs and were rewarded with tiny quantities of excellent wines. Audrey
Braccini mentioned how well they appear to be evolving in barrel, without the
exoticism that plagued many of the 2003s. Of course, the depleted quantities
means that many have had to rejig the percentages of new wood that might be
higher in some cases.
quote Jean-Guillaume Bret and others, 2021 can be perceived as a return to a
“classic” style of cool-climate Mâconnais. How many times will the growing
season gift this in the future? Certainly not in 2022 by the looks of it. The
finest wines have a penetrating citric quality that might give them less all-around
appeal, yet might appease those that miss the sharpness of a great
Pouilly-Fuissé or Viré-Clessé. Quality becomes less consistent once you broach less
renowned producers where I found more dilution, less ripeness and occasionally
facile wines best drunk young.
maybe an inflection point for Mâconnais. The combination of factors: new blood
entering Domaines, improvements in viticulture and vinification, the
implementation of Premier Crus in Pouilly-Fuissé, reasonable prices vis-à-vis
the Côte d’Or, a beautiful landscape and cuisine, have all given this region a
sense of momentum. Global warming and the ever-present threat of spring frost
will inevitably throw spanners in the works, otherwise the Mâconnais can only
reach great heights from here. Later in the year, I will add more producers to
this report. In the meantime, I single out some names to look out for.
Domaine Soufrandière/Bret Brothers
I have been
following Jean-Guillaume and Jean-Philippe Bret for a number of years now. They
are the leading winemakers in Pouilly-Vinzelles, located down towards the south
of Mâconnais. “The grapes were golden with alcohol levels 12% to 12.5%,”
Jean-Guillaume Bret explained as we tasted a combination of 2020s and 2021s in
his cellar. “They had physiological ripeness. The yields were huge in 2020 in Pouilly-Vinzelles,
around 55hL/ha and 62hL/ha in Saint-Véran. With regard to 2021, we lost most of
the crop to frost rather than hail. The average yield was around 40hL/ha [which
is still no calamitous figure]. Normally we produce 100,000 bottles, but
instead, we will have 70,000 bottles. We started the picking on 22 September.
It’s a return to a classic style of 20 years ago, a most citric style.” The
Brets use minimal sulphur with 20mg/L added just prior to bottling. Quality was
consistent across the range of both their domaine-bottled and négociant wines
(the latter under the Bret Brothers label). Their 2021 Pouilly-Vinzelles Climat
Les Quarts Cuvée Millerandée proves that the challenges posed by the myriad of issues
did not preclude great producers from making potentially great wines. I feel
that a couple of cuvées from Mâcon were compromised by the growing season, but
otherwise this was a strong showing.
Château de Beauregard
my presence is a curse, and frankly, I would not blame Frédéric Burrier for being
absent when I visited seeing as last year’s meeting coincided with a
five-minute hailstorm that devastated many of his vineyards. So, it was a
pleasure to meet with Baptiste Burrier, 35-years old and the oldest of Burrier’s
three sons. “We started picking on 28 August with 17 days of harvest in 2020. The
2021 season was less sunny and less opulent due to the more cooler ground
temperatures. All the vineyards are in the second year of conversion to organic
except the Saint-Veran and Viré-Clessé with respect to Château de Beauregard.”
This is a producer that I feel has really improved in recent vintages, and their
2020 range in particular is studded with gems like the Pouilly-Fuissé Vers Cras
and Les Ménétrières. Perhaps the pick of the bunch in 2021 is the
Pouilly-Fuissé Les Resses that has exploited the coolness and malic bite of the
season to conjure a very flinty and surprisingly concentrated wine.
Domaine J-A Ferret
Audrey Braccini was on hand to show me both the 2020 and 2021 vintages at the
Fuissé-based domaine that was purchased by Louis Jadot back in 2009 but treated
as a separate entity (readers will find notes for bottlings under the Louis
Jadot label in this report). “The 2020 vintage was not as sunny as we expected
given the weather forecast,” Braccini told me, referring to the cooler June and
perhaps the sunshine hours compared to the previous two years. “We harvested
from 24 August, even earlier than 2003, but we don't find the exotic fruit. The
Les Clos and Les Perrières will be blended to make a Premier Cru that might be
labelled Clos de Jeanne. Two thousand and twenty-one was a long harvest that
began on 22 September and finished at the end of the month. It was difficult to
separate the growing season from how the wines are showing in barrel, but the
wines seem to possess amazing energy.” I was deeply impressed by Ferret’s wines
last year, and their 2020s are quite superb, crowned by an exemplary Les
Ménétrières, a climat that seemed to perform strongly in this vintage. Indeed,
my hunch is that it will be the standout in 2021 in a curtailed range that is
taut and fresh, albeit produced in tiny quantities.
to make a stop at Domaine Thevenet in Viré-Clessé, even though their policy of
late-releasing vintages means that I had tasted nearly all the current releases
during last year’s visit. “We started picking on 10 September. The yields as
40-42hL/ha. The wines have a bit more alcohol than in 2019, but you needed that
to keep the balance.”
Cornin withdrew from the co-operative in 1993 and has since become one of
Chaintré’s finest wineries. Really, it’s since his son Romain has taken charge
that it has come on leaps and bounds. I spent a fruitful hour or so touring his
vines and learning more about his approach in the vineyards, demonstrating the
arching training method common throughout the region. “It was a nice vintage,”
he told me as I tasted through his 2020s. “You could say it is the last normal
vintage. All the Mâcon wines were bottled last summer at the beginning of
September, not fined but with a light filtration. The 2020s were difficult to
clarify without filtration. So, they are clean but not totally brilliant [at
the moment]. I added 1gm/L of SO2 only during pressing and at bottling.” Readers
should check out his wonderful Pouilly-Fuissé Les Plessys and demi-muid-raised
Les Chevrières, the latter the one I might cellar for a few years.
Chateau de Fuissé
de Fuissé was one of my first ever visits back in 1997 or 1998 when my
erstwhile employer represented their wines in Japan. Antoine Vincent was on
hand to show me through his 2020s that tend to be a little fuller and more
leesy than others. “For the château
wines, in 2020, I started picking on 25 August, the Famille Vincent around the
same time. I did not want over-mature or heavy flavours. On the heavier soils,
you could lose a bit of finesse due to the lower juice to skin ratio, which is
why I picked early. The wines are around 13% alcohol, slightly lower than in
2018 and 2019. I didn’t have to change the élevage and just left them on the
lees a bit longer. I did some bâtonnage, not to add body to the wines, but I
feel that it adds freshness. It is something that I discovered with the 2015
vintage when the wines were quite shy but gained freshness after lees-stirring.”
I have been an ardent admirer of these wines for many years, and they have
unerring proclivity to age in bottle. Their monopole of Le Clos is the
strongest card in their pack, and it excels in 2020 with outstanding complexity
and length, though it deserves cellaring for several years.
2020, I started picking on 25 August, the earliest since 2003, which was on 21
August,” winemaker Olivier Merlin, who has been joined by sons Théo and Paul in
recent years. “That’s the new challenge: to determine the optimal date of
Merlin, the wizard of Mâcon.
harvest everything by hand. The window of picking is very short, so we have to
double the number of pickers. But that is difficult in terms of logistics,
accommodation etc. If you’re a bit late in picking, then that is a catastrophe
for Chardonnay as you can get one extra degree of alcohol each day in some
parcels. A southerly wind can also dehydrate the bunches, which happened in
2015. Fortunately, we did not have that in 2020, and we picked in perfect
conditions with just the right amount of warmth. The 2020s are between 12.8%
and 13% alcohol. They have good acidity and freshness with low pH. Everything
has been domaine-bottled since the 2018 vintage.”
and Christine Saumaize-Michelin have overseen a raft of top-notch
Pouilly-Fuissé from this winery perched on the foothills of the Roc de
Vergisson. We were joined by their daughter Lisa for the tasting. “We started
the picking on 5 September compared to 2021, which started on 21 September. I
prefer the 2020 over 2019. It has more directness. The vintage was easy to work,
and the wines just give so much pleasure, whereas the 2019 was very warm. We
started picking 25 August that year. The nights were fresher in 2019. Alcohol
levels are between 13.0% to 13.5%. They are just more drinkable.” These tend to
be fresh, nimble expressions of their vineyards, using minimal new oak, often
quite saline on their finish. Whilst I felt that the Les Ronchevats needs a pep
up on the nose and perhaps showed why it was not granted promotion in 2020,
their Courtelongs and La Roche are outstanding. But it’s their Les Courtelongs
that blew me away with its entrancing bouquet with supremely-well delineated
palate that displays thrilling tension from start to finish.
Christine and Lisa Saumaize-Michelin on the veranda at their winery in
was a last-minute but very welcome addition to my itinerary when I discovered I
had a bit of free time before dinner in Fuissé. I visited here several years
ago and had kept meaning to return. I met with Christophe Thibert, an extremely
passionate, garrulous and refreshingly opinionated winemaker, who works
alongside his sister Sandrine.
Thibert at the winery in Fuissé.
vineyard, 70% of the vines use simple Guyot pruning with a shorter cane, so
that there are less buds and more concentration,” Thibert explained. “This is
instead of the more common arched cane that is much longer. No chemicals are
used in the vineyard, and we use a mixture of organic and controlled organic
treatments. I don’t like using a lot of copper in the vineyard. We are going
back to my grandfather’s way of working the vines, even planting some fruit
trees in the vines. We use wild yeasts and ferment the wines to zero residual sugar,
using very little SO2 during pressing. But, if I have a problem, I will use a controlled
yeast as I want to make stable wines and ensure that alcoholic fermentation and
malo are completed. We use nitrogen during bottling in order to reduce the SO2
to around 25 parts per million free sulphur. My policy is to use a maximum of 20%
oak, a mixture of new and used. Our wines are aged in oak for ten months, then a
mixture of oak and stainless steel for another 10 months, making 22 months in
total. Our wines are all bottled under cork, but if money allows, I would like
to use natural cork that is compressed to reduce the spaces. All our corks are
thoroughly checked. The current vintage on release at the moment is 2018.” I
enjoyed the range of wines from Thibert. It is a bit unfair to compare them
with other growers’ wines in this report as I tasted through their 2018s
instead of 2019s or 2020s, and to be frank, I find that a more challenging
season due to the summer warmth. I will definitely return to this address in
future trips, and I suspect to see higher scores in these more favourable
de la Chapelle
was my first visit to Domaine de la Chapelle that lies in the heart of the
village of Pouilly. It began as a métayage in 1982. I met with owner
Pascal Rollet and his son Thomas, who has worked at the domaine for six years. They
farm 7.65-hectares in Pouilly-Fuissé, Mâcon-Solutré and Saint-Véran with an
average vine age of 60-years. Though not certified, they eschew synthetic
products in the vineyard. Everything manually harvested and gently whole bunch
pressed for around 18 hours. “We conduct the fermentation at 18°C-19°C in barrel,”
Thomas Rollet explained. “We just add SO2 after the malo with no correction.
The wines are bottled at the beginning of July.” This is a source of excellent
quality wines, not least a spectacular 2017 Pouilly-Fuissé Clos de la Chapelle
that overshadowed some of the older vintages shown, which to me, merely
highlighted the progress made in recent years. I was also impressed by the
Cuvée Les Grands Climats, as implied, a blend of parcels aged in barrel and
and Thomas Rollet, plus hound.
not help thinking of Chablis’ Edouard and Eleni Vocoret when I called in to
taste Jessica Litaud’s first two vintages in the shadow of the Roc de
Vergisson. That is because like them, she represents the next generation
branching out on her own. Baby steps at first, five-hectares of vine under her
stewardship with plans to augment those with her family’s holdings that include
0.60-hectare of Premier Cru due next year. She spent seven-months working with
Jean-Marie Guffens as well as two stints working at Domaine Ganevat in the
Litaud, a winemaker to look out for.
the vines, she is in the second year of conversion to organic, dabbling with
biodynamics here and there. Everything is hand-picked into seven-kilogram cagettes,
and she puts the fruit into refrigerated units for around three or four days.
After quick pressing and light settling, the wines are transferred directly
into used barrel, nothing new, for 11 months’ élevage. She currently uses
various cooperages, some barrels sourced from Guffens with plans to use larger
barrels in future vintages. Litaud’s wines have a touch of class. They are
wines that make you think: “I’d like to drink that tonight” and that is exactly
what I did when I dined at Mâcon’s excellent Cassis restaurant directly
afterwards. Of course, the hazardous 2021 season threw her a curveball, and she
lost 60% of her production. Nevertheless, such trials can only make you
stronger, and Litaud is certainly a name to look out for in the future.
Michel is a slightly generic name. Type it into the search and no doubt you
will have to wade through numerous producers with “Michel” in the name. It was
a new grower for myself, but I found their wines well-worth the detour to
Viré-Clessé. “It's a family estate, my brother and I are the sixth generation,”
Franck Michel told me. “My father started bottling at the Domaine back in 1970.
My brother Denis is 62, and he will soon retire, and we will be joined by my
Michel in the tasting room where he kindly opened some older vintages back to
the seventies, which you will find in the database.
farm 21.5-hectares, 3.5 hectares of Mâcon Village and the rest in Viré-Clessé.
There is no purchased fruit. The average age of the vine is 60- to 70-years-old,
working in a traditional way, short pruning, no chemical fertilizer (we have
cattle breeding, around 400 cows, the manure rich in organic compounds) and
harvest by hand. We are not organic, more lutte raisonée with HVE
certification. There are no added yeast or sugar, so the winemaking is simple,
aging on the fine lees with SO2 just added at harvest depending on the grapes.
The Mâcon Village is aged in stainless steel and bottled the following spring,
the Viré-Clessé Tradition spends one year in stainless-steel, and the rest sees
two years in vat. Sur Le Chêne are aged in oak for 12 months plus 12 months in
stainless steel, renewing 20% of barrel each year. There is a little bâtonnage
after the fermentation to make sure it’s finished with a little remontage
to bring a bit of oxygen to the yeast.” If you are a fan of Domaine Thevenet’s
wines, then I recommend giving these wines a look. I must confess that I
entered without any expectations but departed with a smile on my face. These
are clearly well-crafted, characterful wines with a propensity to age (expect a
couple of surprising mature vintages for a future Cellar Favourite).
my studies at the Lycée Viticole in Beaune where I learned to make wine in the
really traditional way and picking plot by plot,” winemaker Franz-Ludwig Gondard-Perrin
told me when I dropped in at the winery.
Franz-Ludwig Gondard-Perrin, winemaker at Gondard-Perrin.
first vintage was in 2013 when I worked alongside my parents. My mother heard
that a neighbour was selling 4.5-hectares six months before I was due to leave
the Domaine, and so I had to choose. I bought the vines instead of travelling.
In the vineyard we are close to organic, but I cannot say that we are organic,
and it takes time to convert the vineyard. We get as close as we can. The aim
is to convert all 18-hectares of vine to organic within five years. We only use
natural yeasts, the malo not always done as it depends on how the vats are
working. We like to do a long élevage to obtain more roundness.” There are a
couple of revelatory wines here. The 2020 Viré-Clessé Aux Mares and En Fontenay
are fabulous examples from this under-estimated appellation, full of tension
and complexity. Chapeau!
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