The Mâconnais is perhaps the birthplace of the Chardonnay grape. These low rolling hills are underpinned with Jurassic Limestone and support a wide range of mixed agriculture as well as vines. You’ll see woods, cherry orchards and soft fruit, market gardens, goats and the ubiquitous white Charolais cattle chewing quietly in river meadows.
The vineyards grow Gamay and Pinot Noir for reds, but today Chardonnay is predominant. Sadly the Mâconnais has long been the least ambitious part of Burgundy, dominated by the huge co-ops founded in the 1920’s making over-cropped and frequently ordinary wines. As a result, the image of Mâconnais is poor, with perhaps only the higher quality appellations based around the twin escarpments of Vergisson and Solutré (such as Pouilly-Fuissé) having a better reputation.
However, thanks to luminaries like Jean Thévenet, the best producers of the Mâconnais are now making wines to rival the great whites of the Cote de Beaune farther north. But this is a quiet revolution and there is still great value to be found.
At this individual producer level the Mâconnais is now one of the most exciting places in Burgundy, achieving the classic potential of Chardonnay on Limestone with stunning terroir-driven wines. There are illustrious Cote d’Or estates like Lafon and Leflaive seeking new horizons in this area where land prices are much cheaper. Others have settled in the region, like Olivier Merlin from Charolais or Jean-Marie Guffens from Belgium. Some are ambitious locals not content to make ordinary wines or sell grapes to the co-op’s, like the Bret Brothers, Saumaize-Michelin or Guillemot-Michel. Most are organic and many go further and are Biodynamic.
There is a group of sixteen winegrowers called ‘les Artisans Vignerons de Bourgogne du Sud’. Here’s their manifesto: “Now, with the standardisation of taste, the worldwide standardisation of Chardonnay, the systematic destruction of the soil in intensive and mindless agricultural practices, we are raising a timid voice to defend our liberty to be different, to offer a real diversity of wines faithful to their terroir. We hope that others will join us in this struggle.”
All owe a huge debt to Jean Thévenet, Chardonnay’s master, magician and maverick. Naturally, he is a member.
Situated in the village of Quintaine, just north of Mâcon on the west bank of the mighty river Saône, the Thévenet operation comprises three domaines that all run along the same lines:
Domaine de la Bongran. This flagship 9 ha estate in Quintaine has Thévenet family records dating back to 1439. It was originally known as bon gran, meaning good (wood) grain – as there were barrel makers (tonneliers) in the family ancestry.
Domaine de Roally. This micro-estate of just 3.5 ha is run by Jean’s son, Gautier. It was acquired from Henri Goyard when he retired in 2000, a winegrower that shared a similar outlook to Thévenet, so his traditions are being maintained here.
Domaine Emilian Gillet. This Domaine is named after Jean Thevenet’s great-great grandfather and is rented by Jean and Gauthier. There are 2 ha in Clessé to the south and a further 3.5 ha in Viré, to the north of Quintaine.
Jean Thévenet is in his early 60’s, an impish man that exudes good humour. His hands are calloused from years of tending vines and his mind sharp and wise. He has been involved on the estate since commencing work with his father back in 1961, but he made his first vintage in 1972.
We arrive at the Domaine same time as a local furniture repairer and are immediately treated to example that illustrates Thévenet’s patience and attention to detail. After a warm greeting for all of us, Thévenet retrieves a battered and clearly well-loved wooden chair from his office. The chair is handled lovingly and over the next 30 minutes the chair is earnestly discussed with the local man and the work required explained, revised and finally agreed upon in minute detail. Expressing himself satisfied, Thévenet returns to us with a big grin, “now it’s time for my wines, but first, the vines.” I’m left wondering. If an old chair gets this amount attention, what about his wines?
The Bongran vineyard contains shallow marl-like soils formed from limestone. These soils found at the bottom of the slopes of the low Quintaine hills are perfect for Chardonnay because they are derived from Oxfordian and Superior Bathonian Limestones (also good rock for building and sculpture). Further up the slopes the underlying rock changes to Inferior Bathonian, and here there are no vines. Jean describes those soils as “best for goats”.
There is mechanisation in the vineyards, for example, ploughing and weeding, but all the key operations including the harvest are by hand. Herbicides and pesticides have never been used on this land. Organic methods are used throughout, but not Biodynamics, which is “too new age for me.” No treatments are used apart from bouillie bordelaise against fungal diseases. The 55 year old vines are trained with a single cane in the traditional Taille a queue du Mâconnais.
Total belief in natural winemaking means that Thévenet works with nature and what the year brings. He is inspired by and passionate about the traditions passed down through his long family history. For example his father wrote and lectured on the subject of the harvests at Clessé in the Nineteenth Century, which he knows off by heart.
Thévenet looks for ripeness in the grapes and will often leave harvesting for as long as possible deep into the autumn, but is most concerned with equilibrium. “I never chaptalise and I want to preserve sufficient acidity to give an impression of freshness – but balance is all”.
Low yields, that mantra of quality winemaking, is a given here. “I like 10-12 small bunches per vine, small grapes with a high skin/juice ratio.” Yields are 30-35 hl/ha for the dry wines. The norm in these parts would still be more like 80-90 hl/ha!
Thévenet makes three different Chardonnay cuvées at Domaine Bongran, each one at a different level of grape ripeness:
Cuvée Traditionis in the traditional dry yet rich white burgundy style
Cuvée Levroutéeis again dry but includes an element of botrytis and a hint of residual sugar
Cuvée Botrytisée, a sweet wine made from ultra-ripe grapes with a high incidence of botrytis affected fruit.
He delights in making wines from grapes affected by Noble Rot (Botrytis Cinerea) if and when this occurs, and indeed he encourages it by picking as late as possible and far later than is usual. This is very rare in Burgundy but the villages of Quintaine, Viré and Clessé run parallel to the river Saône and the mists that rise from the river in autumn provide the conditions for Botrytis to flourish, though its incidence varies considerably from year to year.
Because sweet Botrytised Chardonnay is almost entirely confined to Bongran (and just one or two others like Guillemot-Michel) those wines have troubled the INAO authorities for years as there simply is no Appellation that accommodates the style. The wines are therefore labelled with the humble description Mâcon-Villages and for years the authorities have dithered and made rulings against them based on the fact that the wines are not typical of the region. If there was aVin de Payshere no doubt that would be applied.
Cynics might say that INAO prefer to embrace the norm of the distinctly ordinary. It is still possible that the Viré-Clessé appellation (itself now 10 years old) will be granted - but no one knows when. Thévenet is diplomatic, though his tongue is partially in his cheek and his eyes twinkle when he says; “it may seem very bureaucratic but the authorities are right to consider this matter most carefully, if this style is to be allowed we must ensure the highest standards”. He also is complimentary about the head of INAO, René Renou, “He owns a property in Bonnezeau (in the Loire) so I’m sure he understands sweet wines and Botrytis”. Thévenet knows about sweet botrytised wines too, and was Chairman of Sapros (the Botrytis wine club), featuring 13 notable estates from the Loire, Alsace and Sauternes.
The winery is relatively new, built in 1989. It is a winner of design awards but still employs some very traditional techniques. He shows us an ancient basket press kept in an outside courtyard. ”Modern pneumatic presses are ok, but for me you can’t beat the traditional press as used in Champagne”. It gives the best juice although, as with many of Thevenet’s techniques, using it is painstakingly slow.
After the juice has settled naturally, it is fermented at low temperatures that require very long and slow ferments. Fermentations can last between 6 months and 2 years! Only naturally occurring wild yeasts are used, found on the grapes or in the winery, and the vessels employed are either stainless steel Inox or ancient oak tuns that impart no oak flavours.
The wines are never released until Thévenet believes they are ready. Given the long fermentation and maturation times before bottling, the latest vintages available from Bongran, Gillet or Roally are likely to be several years older than from compatriots. The following wines were tasted with Jean Thévenet over a couple of hours. Indicative cellar-door prices shown.
Domaine de Roally, Viré-Clessé 2005. 13.5%
Very rich dry white wine, elegance and exotic, fruits densely textured. Not high acidity but “sufficient for balance”. Ready now, delicious drinking over the next five or so years. Bright, fresh style and lots of minerals. Mini-Bongran, great value.
Domaine Emilian Gillet, Viré-Clessé 2003. 13.5%
Tauter and more focused, a leaner and fresher white wine with more acidity. Given that this is from the super-hot 2003 vintage where plenty of other winemakers produced wines with low acidity, flabby alcohol and burnt flavours, the style and success of this wine is amazing. Thévenet explains, “the 2003 harvest on August 22nd was the earliest since 1822. I don’t perform leaf plucking or green harvest in the summer, I’m happy with my low yields and don’t need the grapes in full sun for good ripening, the leaves shade them. Look at a beach on a hot day, the clever sunbathers are shaded by their parasols. They enjoy the sun and they tan but they don’t burn. The leaves are my natural parasols”.
Domaine de la Bongran, Cuvée Tradition EJ Thévenet. Viré-Clessé, 2003 14%
Bongran’s dry wine, dedicated to his father Emile. An absolute classic, winemaking this clever means you can disregard any qualms about the qualities and charms of this vintage. Thévenet adds, “yes, low acidity can be found in inferior wines from this vintage and perhaps some winemakers thought about adding acid, (which is illegal). There’s plenty of good natural acidity in my grapes and in this wine”. Delicious minerality, big and broad and creamy, again that impression of acidity without tartness or sharpness, perfectly balanced with alcohol. Grapefruit, peach and pineapple flavours, very long and satisfying. Hints of orange peel – tiniest bit of botrytis? This will develop further over the next five years and will easily last another ten.
Domaine de la Bongran, Cuvée Levroutée, Mâcon-Villages 1999. 14%
The first wine that clearly show botrytis flavours, but vinified to dryness rather than left sweet. “Tres Mur” says Jean. Yes, very soft and subtle, a dry white with just a small percentage of noble rot that adds complexity and a unique character. “We made a special selection in the vines during the harvest”, he says. There are botrytis tones of orange peel and honey, exotic tropical fruit like pineapple and kiwi and finally some delicious hazelnut brought on by bottle age. The palate also has a wonderful flavour hard to pin down. “Truffles in butter”, says Jean, nailing it instantly. Just a hint of residual sugar, a stunning and unusual wine with perhaps another 10 or 15 years ahead, made in only small quantities.
Domaine de la Bongran, Cuvée Botrytisée, Mâcon-Villages 2001, 13.5%
The ultimate Bongran wine and a fine way to finish. 2001 was a year when a larger part of the harvest was affected by noble rot. This “Grand poirriture” allowed Thévenet to produce this deliciously dense sweet wine. All the botrytis hallmarks are here; voluptuous intensity and a complex array of flavours including that Truffle flavour that lasts minutes. Evolves and opens up in the glass over 30 minutes. Medium sweet, it is perfectly balanced by the acidity. Then Thévenet asks, “Ok then so how many grams of residual sugar?” There’s such weightless balance with the acidity it’s hard to tell. “Eighty”. With minute quantities made, it’s not cheap. But if there is a Montrachet of the Mâconnais, this it.
Chardonnay isn’t known for its affinity with botrytis, and certainly not in Burgundy! The more usual French suspects are Chenin Blanc in the Loire or Sémillon from Bordeaux. Someone needs to rewrite those textbooks. Think you know Chardonnay? Think again. Those wanting to experience the excitement of the Mâconnais should start here.