Reflections on the Côte Chalonnaise & Mâconnais

Ten years is too long a time to elapse between comprehensive visits to a portion of a major wine region, especially as I visit Burgundy several times a year. Mea culpa. So, this spring I spent three days in southern Burgundy to set this straight. My whirlwind tour of the best of the best – not only of producers but also of recent vintages – is one I intend to repeat very soon.

The wines of these terroirs represent some of Burgundy’s best values, and Burgundy is in sore need of values. They also offer immediate drinking pleasure without the nagging guilt of robbing the cradle that often accompanies the pop of the cork on a young Côte d’Or cru. And, most of the wines should be drunk young or through the mid-term. The occasional gem that will age to benefit is a both a steal and a prize.

Producer Profiles

Château de Fuissé
The vineyards of Château de Fuissé sit on one side of the crest that separates it from the Beaujolais. The bucolic, ten-kilometer stretch of Pouilly-Fuissé certainly feels southern, and it is. The region was in the “free zone” during World War II. Now run by the fifth generation, these wines faithfully represent the highly parcellated terroir of Pouilly-Fuissé, a town of only 350 inhabitants today. These wines are some of the great classics of the region.

Domaine A & P de Villaine
De Villaine is a name that makes wine lovers’ hearts palpitate. Yet most are thinking of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti rather than this modest Côte Chalonnaise property that sits on the cusp of the Côte d’Or. At this unassuming domaine, Aubert and Pamela de Villaine’s nephew, Pierre de Benoist de Gentissart, micro-manages the minutiae. The pristine clean character of the wines is admirable, yet some are so sanitized as to mask some soul. The Aligoté is the wine to follow here.

Domaine de la Bongran
On that first trip to the Mâconnais ten years ago, I met Jean Thévenet. This year I met his son, Gauthier. Certain crowds herald these wines as long-lived. Their oxidative style could possibly give them a leg-up for the long haul, but I don’t think they age any better than other top wines from the region. From what I have tasted, they simply show less evolution in bottle. The difference is that the fast-forwarded aging is done in the maker’s cellar rather than by the merchant or consumer elsewhere.

Domaine de Suremain
The de Suremain family has been making nothing but Mercurey rougefor seven generations. This surely is why their wines are head-turning. They know what they are doing! It doesn’t hurt that 75% of their vineyards are classified as Premier Cru, too. From this address you will find some of the most divine reds south of the Côte d’Or. Don’t miss them, and don’t succumb to the temptation to drink them too young.

Domaine du Clos Salomon
I met Ludovic du Gardin in 2011 while I was working on my Masters of Wine dissertation. He was a fountain of historical facts about the Côte Chalonnaise. In some ways I envy his highly focused work (making only three wines) that allows him to zero-in on other matters with equal intensity. These wines are so chiseled early on they definitely need time in the bottle to unwind. Though pent-up, they’re still tasty if you simply can’t wait.

Domaine François Lumpp
My visit here started out in a rather dark tasting room. With the blinds closed to the road outside and just one light fixture in the room’s center, the atmosphere felt oddly introspective. As I spoke with François, it all started to make sense. François prefers to drink wines that are at least ten years old, and he tends to decant wines for 3-4 hours. However, he always checks to see how the wine tastes first. Reflection and respect for the bottle are paramount at this domaine.

Domaine François Raquillet
François Raquillet believes 2012 compares to the greatness of 2005. In fact, he thinks his 2012s will live longer. In light of this excellence, he produced his third Cuvée Révélation (also made in 2007 and 2009) from a special parcel of 100-year-old vines. An eleventh generation vigneron, François has a wealth of old vines under his care. It seems most have been in the ground at least four decades.

Domaine Guffens-Heynen
“Accuracy is important for me! This isn't an art,” declared Jean-Marie Guffens. This seemed a surprising statement from a winemaker with a background in theater. Naturally, precision comes at a cost. Jean-Marie’s estate fruit costs twice as much as the juice and grapes he buys for his Verget business (see below.) He comically suggests imbibers “…divide the price of these wines by the seconds the flavors stay on the palate.”

Domaine Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon
This is where my money goes in the Côte Chalonnaise. Dominique Lafon’s brilliance with Chardonnay brings the full force of the Mâconnais’ potential to light. In these wines, he blends the sunshine of the south with the grace of the Côte d’Or. He exudes enthusiasm for this project and is as excited to buy a great vineyard in Saint-Véran as in Meursault.

Domaine J.A. Ferret
Collette Ferret’s world-class wines enjoyed a close following. After she passed in 2006 with no heir, Louis Jadot purchased her estate. Pierre-Henri Gagey sagely chose a woman to head the domaine, and he leaves Audrey Braccini to do the work she instinctively knows how to do. After all, when Audrey arrived, she had never made Chardonnay. While many fans of the old Ferret remain skeptical, Audrey’s respect for the property’s heritage and style should bring them back into the fold.

Domaine Vincent Durueil-Janthial
This is one of my favorite Rully producers, and there are 80 producers of Rully! The wines offer excellent value, complex flavor and structural poise. My only quibble is that all wines are treated exactly the same every year, and a house style is imprinted clearly on them. Vincent Durueil began with five appellations in 1994 and ambitiously expanded to 18. Chances are the estate will remain this size for a while as land transactions in Rully have become scarce.

Maison Verget
With this négociantproject, Jean-Marie Guffens buys grapes like a kid in the candy store. In some years he makes over 30 cuvées, including wines from Chablis and the Côte d’Or. While this Belgian’s Verget bottlings usually don’t reach the high heights of his domaine wines, they have the incontestable advantage of being far more widely available as well as more affordable.

Maison Vitteaut-Alberti
I was surprised to learn from this crémant specialist based in Rully, an appellation that produces more than twice as much Chardonnay as Pinot Noir, that Chardonnay is the harder of the two to buy-in. This third-generation family business run with only seven people cranks out an impressive 450,000 bottles a year, one-third of which are own-label. The descriptions fresh and vivacious characterize the house style.