Today we work our way south through Burgundy, to the southern-most point of the region, the Mâconnais. This is the warmest and driest part of Burgundy, and is known mainly for its Chardonnay (which is responsible for around 85% of annual production), which tends to be drink-now, fruit-forward and less expensive compared to its northerly expressions. Viré-Clessé is one of the few exceptions to this rule, being considered as close to a Premier Cru vineyard as possible in this veritable sea of Village wine. Viré-Clessé as an established appellation is very new. It was setup in 1998, when the quality of wine from four towns, Viré, Clessé, Laize and Montbellet was seen as superior. Unfortunately for the last two towns, the name would have been too long to include everyone, so only the first two were used. But why? What is it that allows the wines from this appellation to shine where the other wines of the region are sold off as bulk wines for immediate consumption?
Firstly, a word on how rare high-quality production is from this region. The Mâconnais consists of about 7000 hectares of vineyards. Of this, the grapes from just under of 6000 hectares are destined for unoaked, drink-now Village level Mâcon- approximately 83% of total production. It’s fair to say then that quality is not the main focus here- at least not compared to appellations further to the north. The few exceptions, like Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Véran make up the remaining vineyards, with Viré-Clessé one of the smallest quality regions making up a miniscule 1.2% of vineyard area. The scarcity of quality Viré-Clessé is the first reason for its uniqueness.
The second important point about Viré-Clessé is the style of wine made here- a style not just unusual compared to others in the Mâconnais, but unusual for all Chardonnay in Burgundy! Usually when I say a region has an individual style within the framework of Burgundy wines, pretty much all the wines still tick a few of the same boxes when you taste them blind. Which is really helpful; it means you can start to funnel your thoughts into the right region, then pay more attention to teasing out the more specific aromas and flavours. This assists in answering the question “which appellation does this wine come from” a lot faster. In regards to Chardonnay, all Burgundian examples possess a pale green/gold colour, searingly sharp acid, a light body and aroma and a bone dry finish- none of them have the same voluptuous oak usage or sweet fruit expression seen in the New World. All except Viré-Clessé that is…
The wines of Viré-Clessé are the polar opposite of the fine-boned, subtly ethereal white wines Burgundy hangs it hat on; they are plump, ripe and voluptuous. Ripe, rich primary fruit notes are immediately recognisable in these wines, and they speak of sunshine in the peach, red apple and quince aromas, and though there is still fresh acid underpinning the wines, they can often be mistaken for high-quality New World Chardonnays. The producers here are not afraid of these bold flavours- this is what their terrior gives them, so they embrace it, and the wines from here are enjoyable because of their viscous, ripe flavours. When the Appellation was established in 1998, the laws stated that, like in every other quality site in Burgundy, residual sugar should be kept to a minimum. This was a problem for several quality producers, whose traditional style retained 6-9 grams of residual sugar in the wine to emphasise the ripe fruit flavours and keep the alcohol moderate. After a few years of back-and-forth, this rule was overturned and today Viré-Clessé producers are allowed to keep a slight amount of sugar in the wine.
Here in the south of the Mâconnais, slope plays a major role in how the wines taste, and the development of grape sugars. The soil makeup is very similar to the northern appellations, with a heavy subsoil of limestone laid over with clay topsoil, and while this is the most southerly region, realistically it is not that far south- it’s about 100km from the northern-most town of Dijon to the town of Mâcon. To put this in perspective, this is about the same distance between the Barossa and the McLaren Vales, two regions with fairly similar annual temperatures. The most famed White Burgundy sites are even closer; the hill of Montrachet with the famous 5 Grands Crus are only 65km from Viré-Clessé. Therefore the major difference is the layout of the land. Because there is less rainfall and more sunshine in the Mâconnais, there is lower risk of disease, which means the vines can be planted on the flatlands. These vines receive the full power of the morning, midday and afternoon sun, unlike the hillside vineyards further north which receive a smaller percentage of sunlight. These few hours of sunlight add up over the entire season, and the grapes here achieve full physiological ripeness. It is then up to the winemaker to decide when to pick to attain the best balance, and when to arrest the fermentation to leave this touch of sweetness and keep the Burgundian-style lower alcohol.
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