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Now that cheap chardonnay is everywhere, some French winemakers attempt a reinvention

Red grapes at Clos des Vignes du Maynes in the Maconnais region of France. (Harry Annoni/Courtesy Clos de Vignes du Maynes)
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A quick two autoroute exits south of the southern end of Burgundy’s Cote d’Or and you land in the river town of Tournus, greeted by a tire store and the local McDonald’s. This is the start of the Maconnais — not far from the famed heart of Burgundy, but in spirit, a world away.

Once upon a time, when wine largely revolved around France, the Maconnais was a reliable place to find chardonnay. You encountered its wines if you drank something labeled Macon-Villages, Pouilly-Fuisse, Saint-Veran or maybe Vire-Clesse (the last approved in 1999, as the region’s fortunes were on the wane). They were fruity and more generous than the often-stoic white wines of northern Burgundy. If they tasted more basic, that was by design.

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For decades, they helped to bulk up the rosters of large Burgundy merchants — bottles that kept shelves full and offered a weeknight drink. Maybe they didn’t have the cachet of chablis. But if you wanted a decent chardonnay, touched by the wand of Burgundy, Macon wines were there.

Of course, that world is long gone, which is why I recently found myself back in the Maconnais, trying to figure out what comes next. Chardonnay is grown in nearly every wine-producing country, leaving wines like Macon-Villages without any special flair. They’re not cheap enough to compete with the oceans of inoffensive chardonnay from elsewhere. It’s understandable why their fortunes waned.

Except that’s starting to change. A handful of forward-thinking vintners are overcoming the region’s perennial inferiority complex, hoping that it will be seen again, in a different way. They envision a future guided by better, often organic, farming and defined as much by red wine as white. And their white wines largely discard the generic bottles of the past in trade for distinctive wines from specific villages and vineyards. It’s an acknowledgment that the region’s best parts share the same hillside plantings and limestone soils that made the Cote d’Or so special.

“When you think about the Maconnais, people think of Macon-Villages, of a flat ocean of vines,” says Jean-Philippe Bret, who with his brothers Marc-Antoine and Jean-Guillaume created the ascendant Bret Brothers label. “And it’s not flat.”

Let’s stick with geography for a moment, because it explains a lot about the region’s mixed fortunes. The city of Macon and surrounding countryside are squeezed in a complicated spot: Burgundy’s most famous dirt sits to the north, while to the south lies Beaujolais, whose northern edge touches the southernmost Maconnais towns. Historically, the area’s farmers aligned their fortunes more north than south; in the 16th-century era of Louis XIII, historian Roger Dion has pointed out, the Maconnais proclaimed their winemaking “superior in dignity” to their southern neighbors.

Their fortunes largely lay to the north, too. Large Burgundy négociants such as Louis Jadot (but large Beaujolais merchants too) bought a lot of wine from local growers and co-ops to bottle under their own names, enough that relatively few Macon growers bottled wines themselves. The wines became defined by that fruity, anodyne style — often, points out Caroline Gon, with California-like sugar left to soften the wine. “We want a cleaner, more pure style than that,” says Gon, who with her husband, Frantz Chagnoleau, is part of the new generation.

These forward-thinking winemakers have watched the white wines of the Cote become rarer and more collectible, while to the south, Beaujolais began enjoying a quality revolution for its red wines. They grew weary of being stuck in between; about 15 years ago, they formed the Artisans Vignerons de Bourgogne du Sud to find a path out of the doldrums.

It was Beaujolais, and its red gamay wines, that provided one hint for a revival. Today, Maconnais red wine, mostly from gamay, has become a new bright spot, partly because gamay is beloved by younger drinkers who may never have drunk a white Macon-Villages. The area’s limestone soils, very different from Beaujolais granite, provide brighter flavors and mineral aspects than vineyards to the south. There’s also pinot noir that more than holds its own with many basic Cote d’Or reds.

This is less a new twist than history repeating itself. Through the centuries, the Maconnais was predominantly a red-wine region; in 1857, the ampelographer Victor Rendu described it dominated by red grapes (although the best-known villages, including Pouilly and Fuisse, were known for white). As recently as the 1970s, reds accounted for nearly 40 percent of production. But that changed with the white-wine era of the 1980s, and the rise of chardonnay.

So there’s a lot riding on wines like Manganite, an old-vine red Mâcon-Cruzille from Julien Guillot at Clos des Vignes du Maynes. Guillot and his family, whose winery is a darling among natural-wine fans, staked their future on a long view of the region. That’s not a big surprise: His grandfather Pierre Guillot acquired the property in 1952 and helped to pioneer organic farming in France. And the Clos itself was founded over a millennium ago, by the same Clunisian monks who planted much of the Cote d’Or. But history was less kind to the south.

“They planted Clos de Beze [one of the greatest Burgundy vineyards] in 909, and they planted here in 910, the same monks,” Guillot tells me, “and they have the grand cru and we’re in generic Bourgogne.”

As for white wine, the Maconnais pulled another lesson from their neighbors’ success, both north and south — namely, the importance of trading out such generic appellations as Saint-Veran for more distinctive (and expensive) single-vineyard bottles, made with painstaking cellar work. This was already a precept among the region’s quality pioneers, including Domaine Valette and J.A. Ferret; today it can be seen in the wines of such younger vintners as Bret Brothers, and its sister label, La Soufrandière, most of which are bottled by individual parcel. Today you don’t simply make a Pouilly-Vinzelles, but a Les Quarts or a Les Longeays.

There’s also a more literal Burgundy influence. A handful of top Burgundian winemakers have come south, as négociants once did, to establish southern beachheads. This includes the famed Domaine Leflaive of Puligny-Montrachet, which has made a Macon-Verze since 2004, and Dominique Lafon of Meursault, who in 1999 bought a Maconnais property and founded Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon. Lafon — with Gon, who makes his wines (see below) — has largely focused on single vineyards. And both Leflaive and Lafon brought the biodynamic farming they refined on the Cote d’Or.

Is that enough to revive the region’s fortunes? Hard to say. Today, an undifferentiated bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse is still nearly $30; single-vineyard bottlings can be even more. And local agricultural organizations have frustrated outsiders’ attempts to buy Maconnais land, even Leflaive. They’ve also been working on a system of premier cru vineyards, much like in the Cote d’Or. On the surface, that seems like a good idea, but the French have a tendency to jump the gun on such endeavors. Is there really a market for premier cru Macon?

Either way, it’s time to shelve the old view of wines such as Macon-Villages. If the region doesn’t have fancy airs, today it’s a place with more faith in its own potential, rather than one marked by insecurity about its neighbors.

Top names to know

These five properties are helping define a new era of quality for the Maconnais. In addition, look for wines from Domaine Valette, Guillot-Broux, Domaine de la Bongran and Jean-Claude Thevenet.

Clos des Vignes du Maynes: Young Julien Guillot has turned this historic property in Cruzille into the model of the new Macon, with a particular focus on red wines, plus some exceptional beaujolais from purchased grapes.

Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon: Top Meursault producer Dominique Lafon takes the same approach as he does on the Cote de Beaune with his single-parcel Macons: farming in biodynamics and bottling such wines as his Les Maranches (on thin soils near the Saone river in Uchizy) or Clos du Four (a midslope planting in Milly-Lamartine).

Frantz Chagnoleau: Chagnoleau and his wife, Caroline Gon, winemaker at Heritiers , created their own small organic domaine in 2010. They’ve banked on the potential of the unheralded Saint-Veran appellation and shown its potential with such wines as their energetic La Roche, from 75-year-old vines.

Bret Brothers/La Soufrandière: The three Bret brothers control the family domaine in Vinzelles, which produces wines under the Soufrandière label, and buy grapes for their namesake label, both single-parcel Macon such as Pouilly-Fuisse Les Crays and some very good beaujolais.

Domaine du Clos des Rocs: The most prominent property in the tiny appellation of Pouilly-Loche, where Olivier Giroux bottles single-vineyard wines from his own 7 ½ -acre vineyard and other small plots, including Les Mures.

Bonné is the author of “The New Wine Rules” (Ten Speed Press, 2017) and the upcoming “The New French Wine” (Ten Speed Press).

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