The Inflection Point: Mâconnais 2020 & 2021 


After 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.

I hoped 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.

The famous, quite mesmerising Roc de Vergisson.

This 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.  

My 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

The 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

Like 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.

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 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.

In 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.

The Wines

The 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.

The 2021 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.

To 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.

This is 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

Maybe 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

Winemaker 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.

Domaine Thevenet

I had 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.”

Domaine Cornin

Dominique 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

Château 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.

Olivier Merlin

“In 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 picking.”

Olivier Merlin, the wizard of Mâcon.

"We 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.”

Domaine Saumaize-Michelin

Roger 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.

Roger, Christine and Lisa Saumaize-Michelin on the veranda at their winery in Vergisson.

Domaine Thibert

Thibert 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.

Christophe Thibert at the winery in Fuissé.

“In the 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 vintages.

Domaine de la Chapelle

This 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 vat.

Pascal and Thomas Rollet, plus hound.

Jessica Litaud

I could 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 Jura.

Jessica Litaud, a winemaker to look out for.

Out in 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.

Domaine Michel

Domaine 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 nephew, Vincent.”

Franck Michel in the tasting room where he kindly opened some older vintages back to the seventies, which you will find in the database.

“We 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).

Domaine Gondard-Perrin

“I did 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.

“My 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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