Price-conscious consumers are understandably a little shy of the 2005 Burgundy vintage. Praise has been nearly unanimous, and prices have shot skyward.
While most attention has been on the reds, the whites are great, too. Still, not everybody will cheerfully drop $50 on a village-level Meursault, much less $150 for a good Corton-Charlemagne.
As ever, the Mâconnais region rides to the rescue. For decades, the Mâconnais, south of the Côte d’Or but part of Burgundy, has overflowed with inexpensive whites. The best were tangy, refreshing and satisfying. The problem was that few achieved even this modest level.
But for the last decade or two Mâconnais wines have been improving significantly. Dynamic young producers who couldn’t afford more desirable vineyard sites in Burgundy flocked to the Mâconnais, where they saw untapped potential at a reasonable price. Instead of viewing grapes as a cash crop to be transformed into wine at the local cooperative, they approach grape growing as seriously as the best Burgundian vignerons.
Even some of the most renowned Burgundy producers, like Comtes Lafon of Meursault and Anne-Claude Leflaive of Domaine Leflaive, unable to expand in the Côte d’Or, bought land in the Mâconnais. They recognized that the region was full of distinctive terroirs with much to offer.
As with any industry that moves with the agricultural cycle, change has been slow. But progress has been steady. So the panel decided to taste 25 bottles of 2005 Mâconnais to see how the wines fared in this excellent year and whether the Mâconnais was still a bargain hunter’s paradise. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Byron Bates, general manager of Bette in Chelsea; and the wine writer Natalie MacLean, proprietor of the Web site Nat Decants.
Like almost all white Burgundies, Mâconnais wines are made from chardonnay grapes. Yet their contrast with California chardonnays is extraordinary, and they serve as a delicious introduction to what makes white Burgundies distinct.
Unlike chardonnays made almost anywhere else, in which ripe fruit flavors dominate, the best white Burgundies exude minerality and a vibrant texture, with underlying fruit and floral aromas. These differences can make people more attuned to the big fruit flavors wonder whether something is missing in the more subtle Burgundies. It can require a recalibration of the pleasure center.
We found a lot to like about these wines, both in the glass and in their relatively light demand on the wallet. Because of the size of the Mâconnais, we restricted our tasting to the Mâcon appellations, excluding others that are parts of the larger Mâconnais, like Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Véran. Given the quality of the Mâcon wines, it would be fair to say that the Pouilly-Fuissés and Saint-Vérans would be even better, though they generally cost more, too.
The Mâconnais can be confusing in a different way than the Côte d’Or. There the village and vineyard names suggest a hierarchy. The Mâconnais is more chaotic. Though wines labeled simply Mâcon are thought to be insipid, two plain Mâcons made our top 10. If the grapes come from any of 40 or so villages, the wine can be called Mâcon-Villages; if the grapes all come from one of those villages, the name of that village can be appended to Mâcon, as in Mâcon-Igé. But the sort of taxonomic arrangement of Côte d’Or villages and vineyards has not yet taken place in Mâconnais.
I tended to be more impressed than my colleagues. They liked them, but only to a point. Ms. MacLean liked their lemon zestiness and what she called their sunny happiness. Mr. Bates was impressed by the minerality and the purity of several of the wines, but on the whole said they were to drink, not to ponder.
While these are not on the level of the Côte de Beaune, I think the ratio of quality to price counts. Is there a better $10 chardonnay than our No. 1, the Mâcon-Igé Château London from Domaine Fichet? This lively, exotic wine was floral and succulent, with a juiciness that kept drawing us back.
Our No. 2, a Mâcon-Villages from Trenel, was more of a classic white Burgundy, with good minerality and a nutlike flavor of barrel aging.
The Bret Brothers, Jean-Guillaume and Jean-Philippe, of Domaine de la Soufrandière, make excellent wines, primarily from Pouilly-Vinzelles. Their négociant operation offers some fine Mâcon wines, including our No. 3, Mâcon-Villages Cuvée Terroir du Mâconnais, which was big and oaky but buttressed by a fresh acidity.
The least expensive wines we tasted were $9, and two made the top 10.
The first, the Mâcon-Lugny Les Charmes from Cave de Lugny, is a blast from the past. Tangy, with an almost yeasty aroma and freshness, it was what the best Mâconnais wines were like before producers got more ambitious. It’s still delicious. The Labouré-Roi Mâcon-Villages St. Armand was unusual for its pronounced pear and apple flavors.
At the other end of the price spectrum was the Mâcon-Milly-Lamartine from Lafon’s Mâconnais operation, Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon. It also emphasized fruit as well as mineral flavors. While the wines are enjoyable, I expect them to improve as Lafon puts its stamp on the vineyards.
It is fashionable to extol smaller estates over larger operations, and we certainly had praise for the little guys. The Mâcon-Charnay Franclieu from Jean Manciat had delicious mineral and citrus flavors, while the Mâcon from Domaine Sainte-Barbe had anise and mineral flavors along with an attractive smoky quality. But some big négociants are reliable. The Mâcon-Villages from Joseph Drouhin was pure and delicious with great texture, and only $10.
We only scratched the surface of the Mâconnais. Producers like Guffens-Heynen, Jean Rijckaert, Olivier Merlin and Maison Verget all offer distinctive Mâcon wines, and wines from Saint-Véran and the Pouillys offer other perspectives.
Clearly, though, Mâconnais is a region in transition. The best wines show greater distinction and personality, and this is apparent in many of the 2005s. Yet they are still good values. Luckily, this has not changed.