Best of Burgundy
The Mâconnais is a wonderful, picturesque part of France that is teeming with interesting white wines
Wandering around the lesser-known wine routes of France can be one of the great pleasures in life. Once you leave the main thoroughfares, peace descends and you can discover the most beautiful countryside dotted with sleepy, hidden villages.
I was reminded of this on a recent trip to the Mâconnais. Lying less than an hour’s drive south of Beaune (the wine capital of Burgundy and itself a beautiful town), this a wonderful, rural area with an attractive mix of vines, forest and corn growing on the gently undulating landscape. Add in the nearby picturesque rolling hills of north Beaujolais, and you have one of the most pleasant regions in France to amble around.
The food is good too; this is close to the home of Charolais beef and Poulet de Bresse. Mind you, you do need to choose your time; on my previous visit, in a cold and miserable November, you could see nothing through the damp impenetrable mist.
Just about every wine-drinker in the country will have tried Mâcon-Lugny at some stage. For many years it has been one of the most popular French white wines. It is sold under many names, but the vast majority of the grapes, and often the wine itself, comes from the Cave de Lugny, a large co-operative that dominates the appellation.
Wine snobs may turn up their noses at it, but it can offer an inexpensive introduction to white Burgundy. However, fine wine it ain’t and Mâcon does offer so much more.
The most basic wines of the region are labelled Mâcon or Mâcon-Villages. The better villages, Lugny included, have the right to append their own name, as in Mâcon-Uchizy or Mâcon-Davayé.
In 1998 the two best known, Viré and Clessé, combined to form their own separate appellation.
But the star name of the region is Pouilly-Fuissé, known as Polly-fussy to a generation of Irish wine drinkers. The wine appellation is made up of the two villages of Pouilly and Fuissé as well as Chaintré, Vergisson, and Solutré, all with vineyards twisting around the imposing rocks of Solutré and Vergisson.
In the past the name Pouilly-Fuissé was much abused by cynical negociants and co-ops, happy to sell ordinary wine at exorbitant prices. Nowadays, a growing number of small estates produce very fine wines, often from different “climats” or single vineyards.
If you add in the neighbouring appellations of Pouilly-Vinzelles, Pouilly-Loché and Saint-Véran, this is an area teeming with interesting wines that, in Burgundian terms at least, are reasonably priced.
You could argue that there are too many single-vineyard wines, but then again this is Burgundy, where every plot and parcel of land is analysed, measured and assessed.
Depending on where the vineyards lie, and how late the producer picks his grapes, the wines vary from lush and full-bodied to crisp and mineral.
The Bret Brothers are a prime example of how things have changed for the better in the Mâconnais. Fresh out of college, in 1998 they took over the vineyards surrounding the family holiday home and began farming organically and in some cases biodynamically.
Full of enthusiasm and good humour, they have become stars of the region, producing a series of very good, often great, wines from their own vineyards as well as bought-in grapes.
They produce 20 cuvées, and each one has its own distinct personality, alongside a hallmark refreshing mineral acidity that enables them to age very well. These are wines to seek out.
Domaine Thibert is another family-run estate, this time by brother and sister Christophe and Sandrine.
They may not be as well known as the Brets, but their wines are equally impressive. Their father bought the estate in 1970, with the children taking over in 1991.
Here, as at the Bret Brothers, I tasted a wide range of wines (they make 19 cuvées) and again each wine showed a distinct individuality.
Husband-and-wife team Jacques and Nathalie Saumaize are based in the village of Vergisson with an amazing view out over the vineyards. The majority of their vines are in Saint-Véran. Jacques took over from his father in 1982 and since then has forged an excellent reputation.
Other superstars of the region include Thévenet, Merlin, Lafon, Jean-Marie Guffens and Château-Fuissé, but there are many others in a region burgeoning with talent and excitement.