Don’t Rain on My Parade: Mâconnais 2019/2020
BY NEAL MARTIN | NOVEMBER 11, 2021
You could feel the volatility in the air. On 21 June, the summer equinox, I spent the morning touring Mâconnais, examining multitudinous vineyards, refreshing myself with its diverse array of terroirs, and absorbing the picture postcard landscape. The air was humid and sticky, hot in the tropical sense of the word. We stopped for a quick lunch in the village of Fuissé. By then, the sky was ominously overcast. Something was brewing. The heavens opened just as I arrived at Domaine de Beauregard. Since 2007, proprietor Frédéric Burrier has been instrumental in the campaign to promote Pouilly-Fuissé’s most propitious vineyards to Premier Cru status. On the first floor, I began tasting the wines. I was broaching the third, maybe fourth, when the sound outside changed pitch. Walking over to a large first-floor window, I could barely see more than 10-meters away. Without exaggeration, a hailstorm of biblical proportions was lacerating the vines outside. Silent and stoic, Burrier stood at my side, knowing only too well the damage being wrought.
“I can come back another time,” I told him, struggling to find the right consolatory words. “You must have a lot to do.”
“There’s nothing I can do. What’s done is done,” he replied, astoundingly sanguine, before advising that we should finish the tasting.
It felt in bad taste to take a photo of the actual hailstorm. This was taken as I was leaving Château de Beauregard. You can see at the bottom, the torrent of turbid brown rainwater making it rather difficult to get back to my car.
When I departed an hour later, the courtyard was inch-thick in melting bullets of ice. I asked Burrier about the extent of the damage in early October. “The global average yield on our Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Véran vineyards is about 25 hl/ha, our smallest production since 1981. The worst, as we anticipated, was the hill of Fuissé, including 1ers Crus Vignes Blanches & Ménétrières, with 7-hl/ha, a bit better in Pouilly with 15-hl/ha in Les Reisses and Château du Clos. In Milly and Viré-Clessé, it was better than expected, with 40-hl/ha.” The hailstorm was one more episode in an already tumultuous growing season. Because 2020 marks the first vintage that the region has its own Premier Crus, and just as Mâconnais growers are producing better wines than ever and they should be celebrating long overdue recognition, this misfortune is compounded by wretched timing.
The famous Roche de Solutré in the Mâconnais.
After years of wading through French bureaucracy and negotiations with the coteries of producers and co-operatives, each with something to lose or gain, 2020 marks the inaugural vintage when the appellation of Pouilly-Fuissé can boast 22 climats designated Premier Cru, equivalent to 194-hectares or 24% of vineyard area. Speaking to growers, of course they are pleased, jubilant even, that the most prized appellation in Mâconnais is finally recognised. They did make compromises to the INAO; however, for example, their stipulation is that no climat can be above 350m in altitude, which was derived from the fact that this governed the Premier Crus in the Côte d’Or. “There are many wrong things said about the criteria of altitude,” Burrier told me. “It cannot be considered alone - it is linked to exposure and gradient of slope. Limit of altitude for a 1er Cru was 350m, but if there is very favourable exposure towards the southeast, south and southwest (from 150° SSE to 210° SSO) and a gradient of slope superior to 15%, the limit can be brought to 400m.”
No doubt there will be contentious issues that will rumble on. Nevertheless, given this new chapter in Mâconnais’ long history, I wanted to visit some growers and review some wines before the year was over. I managed to ring the doorbells of Bret Brothers, Olivier Merlin, Domaine Ferret, Saumaize-Michelin, Domaine de la Bongran and spend a Saturday morning with Jean-Marie Guffens, amassing some 180 notes studded with some quite exceptional wines from the 2019 and 2020 vintages. I do not consider this a full report since I had to split my week in the region with Beaujolais, but I will be back for a deep dive next year. Readers should note that I included several wines from Beaujolais that did not go into my August report, but that are definitely worth your attention.
Here are some short overviews of those aforementioned producers.
Bret Brothers & La Soufrandière
Bret Brothers have long been one of my go-to producers in the Mâconnais. Usually, I meet with the more outgoing Jean-Philippe Bret, but as he was away, I had a very useful morning with his brother Jean-Guillaume who kindly spent an hour reacquainting me with the appellation and its terroirs. They debuted Domaine La Soufrandière in 2000 and established their négociant operation, Bret Brothers, the following year. Their philosophy has been organic since the outset and gradually they converted all their vineyards to biodynamic.
I asked him about the 2019 vintage since my tasting in their cellar focused on this growing season. “It took three weeks to harvest the 2019s. We had a severe frost on 5 April and lost an average of 30-40% of the crop, so it was even smaller than in 2003. For the region, it was the smallest since 1981.” As anticipated, Bret Brothers & La Soufrandière are a prime source of top-grade Mâconnais. Check out their wonderful 2019 Saint-Véran Climat La Bonnode – Ovoïde that is matured in concrete eggs. The wine palpably contains more energy vis-à-vis the cuvée from the same vineyard raised in regular oak barrels. The 2019 Pouilly-Vinzelles Climat Les Quarts Cuvée Millerandée has long been one of my favourites, comes from a vineyard that, as the name implies, tends to suffer millerandage during the growing season.
Jean-Guillaume Bret out amongst the vines on a sticky Monday morning.
Domaine J-A Ferret
This was my first visit to Domaine J-A Ferret, the producer acquired by Louis Jadot in 2008. I met with Audrey Braccini who runs the Domaine and continues its tradition of female winemakers. I was impressed by the quality that I found here. “The 2019 vintage was more challenging than 2020. The hardest thing was the drought, rather than maintaining the acidity,” Braccini explained. I appreciate her assiduous use of barrel ageing. The 2019 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Perrières and Tournant de Pouilly are both fizzing with energy and real depth, whilst the 2019 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Ménétrières is the one I would consider laying down in a cellar.
Winemaking Audrey Braccini who is doing a fantastic job at Domaine J-A Ferret.
Domaine Robert Denogent
This is a producer that I have been visiting for several years. Following Jean-Jacques Denogent’s retirement, I usually meet with his sons, Nicolas and Antoine, who are leading the way forward. Their 13-hectares of vine are located in Fuissé and Solutré. They use a Champagne press, like the one at Domaine de Bongran, allowing the must to oxidize. They are no longer buying new barrels and are experimenting with different sizes such as demi-muids. The key aspect here is the long élevage, a minimum of two winters in barrel, with topping up three times a year. “We go for ripeness, not acidity that is so in vogue,” Antoine told me. Because of the lengthy ageing, I focused on the bottled 2018s, highlighted by the superb 2018 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Cras Vieilles Vignes and Pouilly-Fuissé Vers Cras.
Château de Beauregard
Not to be conflated with the Pomerol estate, Château de Beauregard is located just outside of the village of Fuissé and is owned by Frédéric Burrier. As I said in my introduction, without Burrier’s dogged determination, Mâconnais would not have its Premier Crus from 2020. I decided to leave discussion about the promotion until next year when there should be more focus on that particular vintage. Within Burrier’s range there is actually a number of labels, including Château du Clos, Domaine de la Rochette and Maison Joseph Burrier. It can be a little difficult navigating yourself around all the cuvées, but there is certainly quality here, especially apropos the 2019 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Vignes-Blanches and Les Insarts, also the Hommage à Léonard Chandon, a selection of the oldest pre-war vines that has almost Chassagne-like qualities.
Jean Thevenet became renowned for his sweet cuvées, though the first time that I tasted them blind with the BIVB, the unorthodox style and residual sugar completely threw me. Was Mâconnais supposed to be like a Sauternes? It was only after visiting the estate that I really understood the wines and loved them ever since. I briefly said hello to Jean Thevenet, but spent most of my time with his son Gautier. “I think 2018 is better than 2019 at the moment,” he explained as we tasted through the three different labels (Domaine de la Bongran, Domaine Emilian Gilet and Domaine de Roally). “But maybe in the long-term 2019 might be more interesting because of the better acidity. Because we build the wines slowly in the winery, ageing gives the wines complexity.” He then reminded me that the white marn soils in Viré-Clessé are not unlike those in Corton-Charlemagne.
These are really quite exceptional bottlings that transcend their humble origins. If you think that Viré-Clessé cannot produce great wine, then you have not tasted Thevenet. These are wines that definitely deserve ample bottle maturity, not least Cuvée Levroutée. “Levrouté” is a term Jean Thevenet coined, but that is now legal for any producer using exceptionally ripe berries that are picked at a liminal point: sweet as can be, but without botrytis. These wines age brilliantly. Vintages like 1994, 1996, 2005 and 2006 rank amongst the greatest sweet wines in the world.
Jean and Gautier Thevenet outside their winery door.
I have visited Domaine Cornin a few times now. Dominique Cornin sold his fruit to the co-operative until 1993. Since then, Cornin has handed the running of the domaine to his son, Romain, who I met on this occasion. “Because of the frost we had a really small crop at 10hl/ha, so the wines are rich,” Cornin explained as I tasted through his 2019s. “In some plots we lost 80-90%. Everything has been certified organic for many years, in fact, my father stopped herbicides in 1988 and by 2003, everything was organic and biodynamic. The first parcel that was picked was the 2019 Pouilly-Fuissé. Les Chevrières will be the only Premier Cru for us in 2020.” Readers should look out for the 2019 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Plessys and Les Chevrières, but all their entry-level wines punch above their weights.
Domaine Frantz Chagnoleau
Knackered. That is how Frantz Chagnoleau and his partner, Caroline Gon appeared when I met them for a quick baguette and tasting at their small, rudimentary winery. The sheer amount of labour in the vineyard in 2021 means the couple have enjoyed few light days of work since the beginning of the traumatic season. Chagnoleau was cellar-master at Olivier Merlin between 2004 and 2009, whilst Gon is the chef de cave at Dominique Lafon’s Héritiers des Comtes Lafon. In total, they farm 9.5-hectares, including vines not yet in production, and they have never purchased grapes (they will have 5-hectares of Premier Cru from 2020.)
“We are very careful with the day we pick,” Chagnoleau told me. “One day early or late can have consequences. We started on 9 September. It was easy to find the acidity and concentration in 2019, easier than in 2018. We try to avoid excessive alcohol, aiming for around 13°, by picking earlier, keeping the grapes green with no hedging and by keeping leaf cover. I don’t need to stress the vines too much. We began to harvest the 2020 on 23 August, the earliest since 2003. We do lees-stirring only if we taste that the wines need some air and if we feel there is a little sugar, since stirring can fatigue the wine. So far, we only did it in 2012.” Readers should check out their 2019 Saint-Véran La Roche, which comes from 75-year-old vines and the 2019 Pouilly-Fuissé Madigral, that is a selection of five barrels with a lovely saffron-tinged finish.
Frantz Chagnoleau and Caroline Gon probably deserve a break after the arduous 2021 season.
Domaine Olivier Merlin
Merlin is another Mâconnais wizard that I have visited several times. He has expanded his team with his two sons Théo and Paul joining the domaine. “The 2019 growing season was initially quite late, but then we had a hot summer [that allowed the vines to catch up]. During the flowering we thought we would pick around 22 September, but in the end we picked 6-7 September as August was so hot and dry. We lost a lot of yield due to dryness. Getting the right starting date of harvest is a big challenge for us. We are picking earlier and earlier, and if you miss it by two or three days we can have a big problem in terms of higher alcohol. We use our own yeast from Château des Quarts [Merlin’s joint-venture with his friend, Dominique Lafon] that the BIVB propagates, and we use no acidification or enzymes.” This was a fine set of bottled 2019s and 2020s in barrel, though the wine that was most exciting is the nascent 2020 Château des Quarts 1er Cru Monopole. This is one that I would lay down for a number of years, but there are plenty of gems elsewhere. Readers should note that Merlin’s Saint-Véran was totally frosted over in 2021.
Olivier Merlin of Domaine Olivier Merlin.
Roger and Christine Saumaize-Michelin are one of a number of top-quality producers in the village of Vergisson. The Saumaize-Michelins have farmed biodynamically since 2005. “We had small yields in parcels that suffered heat,” Roger Saumaize-Michelin explained, “so, the 2019s were raised in barrel, except for the Mâcon Village in stainless steel. We started the harvest around 25-27 August and the yields were 25hl/ha in 2019. We had only one barrel of Les Cras due to frost.” This was another raft of very finely-tuned wines that peak with an energetic 2019 Pouilly-Fuissé La Maréchaude and a stunning 2019 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Crays, which will of course, be Premier Cru from 2020 onwards. There is also the anomalous 2019 Mâcon Les Bruyères, a red wine from goblet vines on granite soils, which was quite delicious.
I spent an entire Saturday morning with the irrepressible Jean-Marie Guffens. Even though I have been drinking Guffens wines for more than two decades, this was my first visit. It was a welcome marathon tasting through his comprehensive range, some older vintages were cleaved away for my Mature Burgundy article. “In 2019 we picked later than in 2021 as we had some rain,” he told me. “The pH can go down with concentration. You have to remember that there is a difference between acidity and mineralité. The grapes matured quickly, and we were scared about rising sugar levels, but it was important to maintain good ripeness and keep the anthocyanins. There is much more extraction in 2020 than in 2019. Grapes need 25 to 40 days between véraison and harvest, but the growing cycle is earlier nowadays, so the ripeness is quicker, meaning you risk not having physiological maturity.” Then with typical understatement, he told me: “Twenty-twenty will be one of the greatest vintages in the east of the country. It is almost as rich as 2019, but with more backbone. It makes me think about 1990, whilst 2019 is more 1989.” There were some extraordinary wines in Guffens’s line-up of 2019, particularly the 2019 Saint-Véran Lieu (Inter)dit, a brilliant 2019 Mâcon-Pierreclos Premier Jus de Chavigne and a sensual 2019 Pouilly-Fuissé Premiers Jus. He is right, the 2020s might just have the edge overall, an easy conclusion to make when you taste the pixelated 2020 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Combes Vieilles Vignes.
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