The Revitalized Mâconnais

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In the last 20 years no wine region in the world has made more impressive strides in producing serious quality wines than the Mâconnais in France. This is truly a revitalization, rather than a rediscovery, as the Mâconnais has been producing wines for a very long time. Although the area has always made some excellent wines, mostly what we saw were large quantities of mediocre wine, or acceptable basic stuff but without any real character. One of my wine books from the late 1990's states, "Unfortunately, the Mâcon is a sea of mediocrity due to over-production,” which was totally true then, and consumers had to be very selective. What's exciting is that we've seen dramatic changes recently which are making all the difference.

Understand that the Mâconnais is part of Burgundy and the soils have similar clay and limestone character as those from the Côte d'Or further north near Beaune. It is these soils that can produce Chardonnay capable of making beautiful wines with great expression. (A side note, even though Beaujolais is part of this region, and it's red Gamay has undergone revolutionary changes as well, I'm focusing on the white wines for this article.) What is new, over the past, are a few important things. First is that there are quality driven winemakers taking the steps necessary to produce wines of character over quantity, and secondly, many of these producers have been able to purchase excellent vineyard sites, both because land is less expensive here than in the Côte d'Or and because they are reclaiming some sites that were decimated by the phylloxera epidemic in the 19th century.

What to expect.

You will find a wide range of styles in these wines, some with oak, some without, and with profiles ranging from light and flowery to fuller, and honeyed with more richness. Differences are evident not only from site to site but with different producers as well. The best wines have great length and persistence on the palate with mineral tones from the soil shining through.

How to find the good wines.

As I mentioned, there have always been some great wines available, those from the near the villages of Pouilly and Fuissé, are most recognizable and have historically been the best known for superior quality (they are also the most expensive). Today, as in the past, you'll see wines labelled as Mâcon-Villages, and unfortunately many of these represent the mediocre wines produced by large companies and negociants. Fortunately, the Appellation Controlée system in this case does does a great service for us. The wines worth seeking out will have a name of a specific village appended to the Mâcon or Pouilly header, as in something like "Mâcon-Clessé". Combine this with a caring and talented winemaker and you'll find excellent wine and great values. A short list of villages to be on the lookout for include Bussières, Chaintré, Clessé, Cruzille, Loché, Lugny, Pierreclos, Vinzelles, and Viré. Honestly, I've enjoyed excellent wines from growers in all of these locations.

A list of quality producers.

As always, who makes the wine is the most important factor. I prefer estate bottled wines, that is from producers who grow their own grapes and make the wine themselves. There are some quality negociants (winemakers who purchase grapes) out there but I find it more the exception than the rule. The phrase "Mis en bouteille au Domaine" on the bottle can be a good indicator that the wine was made from a grower. Again, it's advantageous to find the combination of good producer with quality vineyard. A list of quality producers includes: Bret Brothers/La Soufrandière, Domaine Cheveau, Domaine du Clos des Rocs, Dominique Cornin, Domaine Guillot Broux, Jean Manciat, Domaine Olivier Merlin, Chateau du Pierreclos, Jean Rijckaert, Domaine de la Sarazinière, Domaine Thevenet & Fils, and Verget.

Food Pairings.

Chardonnay can be extremely flexible at the table so let the style of the wine be your guide. Lighter fishes, shellfish, salads, and pasta dishes with vegetables work well with the lighter, non-oaked versions while the bigger and richer wines are great partners for lobster, scallops, chicken, and pork, especially with butter and cream sauces. One of my favorite lesser known pairings is a beautiful ripe Mâcon with pasta carbonara.

Seek out these wines and enjoy the current revitalization of this great wine region. It pays to be adventurous and have fun with the search. At this point, I would try wines from any appended village if it is from a small producer. You'll see that some of the finds rival wines from more prestigious appellations and provide excellent quality for the price.

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