Wednesday, August 8, 2007

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Burgundy and bargain aren”t words that usually go together. This famed French province produces some of the most highly coveted wines in the world, but their prices tend to bring sticker shock.

Burgundy, however, does offer some values. Particularly with whites from the southern portion of the region, notably in the Pouilly Fuisse appellation, savvy enthusiasts can find compelling wines that taste distinctive without breaking the bank.



Burgundy is not a single vineyard. It encompasses at least four distinct regions, within which are about 100 geographical appellations. No other wine-growing area has been as meticulously divided and subdivided over the centuries, the various distinctions all being designed to classify wines by quality rooted in origin.

The richest and most famous part of Burgundy is the Cote d’Or. Home to renowned appellations including Corton, Montrachet and Vougeot, this is where the wines set hearts fluttering and wallets emptying. Chablis to the northwest also produces wines that can inspire rapture. Top premier crus, though, cost close to $50 a bottle, while the finest grand crus come in at nearly $100.

To find bargains in Burgundy, you have to look south. Good buys come occasionally from the Cote Chalonnaise, which gets its name from the nearby city of Chalon-sur-Saone. The best wines there are red. Though they can taste juicy, they often seem harsh. Still farther south, though, is the Maconnais region, the one place in the province where values abound. The name comes from the town of Macon, 35 miles below Chalon on the Saone River.

This is white-wine country, the grape of choice being chardonnay, as in all serious white Burgundy. A slightly warmer climate allows the variety to ripen fully, yielding wines that taste simultaneously rich and harmonious, with nuanced subtleties that mark them as unmistakably Burgundian.

Chardonnay is cultivated all across the globe, but just a little more than a generation ago, it grew almost exclusively in Burgundy. When vintners elsewhere started planting it, they tried deliberately to echo the aromas and flavors of white Burgundy.

They succeeded to a considerable degree, as the grape proved very versatile. Good contemporary chardonnays from beyond Burgundy display concentrated fruit as well as spicy, often buttery undertones. Yet very few offer the secondary non-fruit flavors that characterize fine Burgundies.

For some reason — and there probably are many reasons — vintners outside this privileged place have been unable to replicate the sublime taste of chardonnay grown in prime sites. Top white Burgundies, from Cote d’Or but also from Maconnais, offer nutty, mineral-tinged aromas and flavors that prove elusive other places. Those supporting tastes give the wines their enthralling nuances and subtleties.

Maconnais certainly does not contain the very best sites in Burgundy. In fact, not too long ago, vineyards there were widely considered incapable of producing first-class wines. Today, however, Maconnais yields some wines that taste as exciting as those from Cote d’Or. They have the great advantage of being affordable. Millionaires buy Corton-Charlemagne for $200 or $300 a bottle. The rest of us happily enjoy Pouilly Fuisse for a fraction of the price.

Pouilly Fuisse is the star of Maconnais, a pocket of limestone-rich soil that produces chardonnay grapes capable of yielding succulent wines. Threads of limestone run out from the rocky hills surrounding this appellation, and vineyards planted on them tend to produce the most layered wines.

No one can explain exactly the connection between this sort of soil and fine wine, but it seems clear that the best white Burgundies need to be made with grapes grown in limestone in order to display the non-fruit flavors that make them so exciting to drink.

The United States imports about 60 percent of the wine made in Pouilly Fuisse, as well as plenty of wines from other Maconnais appellations. Obviously not everything is first-rate. Lots of Maconnais wine, even Pouilly Fuisses, taste lean and simple, but then, plenty of Cote d’Or wines disappoint too. For the consumer, the key everywhere in Burgundy is to seek out the best producers, those with a track record of making consistently first-class wines.

Much of the production in Maconnais is dominated by big firms that buy grapes from local farmers. The wines from companies such as Louis Latour, Louis Jadot or Joseph Drouhin can be very good, but the most thrilling wines tend to come from smaller, artisanal vintners. They can”t afford to buy vineyards in Cote d’Or but are making Maconnais wines that compete qualitatively with ones from the most renowned crus up north.

Here are nine top independent Maconnais vintners, based on tastings here at home and on a recent trip to the region. When shopping for their wines, you”ll likely see selections from 2003, 2004, and 2005 on store shelves. Pass by the 2003s, as the vintage was torridly hot and the wines often seem unbalanced. The 2005s have received lots of justified praise from critics, but the undervalued 2004s often can be just as good. Wines from both of these vintages are well worth buying.

Domaine Daniel Barraud

The Pouilly Fuisses from this estate rank among the region’s more expensive, often selling for about $50, but then, they also rank with the very best.

Domaine de la Chapelle

The Grands Climats and Vielles Vignes cuvees are delicious, but the mineral-laden Clos de la Chapelle Pouilly Fuisse from this small estate tastes ethereal. It comes from very old vines and more than holds its own with top Cote d’Or offerings.

Domaine Christophe Cordier

Excellent Pouilly Fuisses (look especially for the Vielles Vignes bottling), fine Saint-Verans, and an impressive Vire-Clesse mark this producer’s line. The latter, selling for about $30, is an especially good value.

Chateau de Fuisse

Once the leader in the region but now with many rivals, this estate produces vibrant wines. Look especially for the wonderfully aromatic Les Combettes and Vielles Vignes bottlings.

Domaine Guillemot-Michel

I only have tasted the Champ Choley Bourgogne Blanc from this producer, but it was extremely impressive and cost less than $20. A name to watch.

Domaine Roger Lassarat

Look especially for the Saint-Verans from this property — fresh, crisp but concentrated wines that put most comparably priced ($20 to $30) chardonnays to shame.

Domaine Saumaize-Michelin

Favorites here include the Vielles Vignes Saint-Veran, which seems to me to be about as good as wine from that appellation gets, and the Clos sur la Roche Pouilly-Fuisse, which tastes both rich and refined — a wonderful combination.

Maison Jean Rijckaert

The Saint-Veran Vielles Vignes can be stunning. So too the Pouilly Fuisse Les Brouthieres Vielles Vignes. Like all the top Maconnais wines, these two combine richness with purity of flavor, and seem simultaneously multifaceted and seamless.

Maison Verget

One of the leading names in Maconnais, this firm is owned by Jean-Marie Guffens, a chardonnay master. He makes Macons, Saint-Verans and Pouilly Fuisses that taste every bit as complex and compelling as top premier crus from Cote d’Or. He also makes wines from up there, but the prices are very different.

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