By Celia Strong
Totally confused? It is confusing, but we’re going to go through things together. Like we always do. Clarify some information. Destroy some myths. Learn some new facts. Or, at least, what are facts today. (As I am learning, what is a fact one day in the world of wine may not be a fact on another day. Yikes!) Certainly, it’s confusing. But we now have the basis for our lesson this week. And, for our wine to go with our new knowledge. Yay!
We are going back to the Burgundy region in eastern France – the Mâcon area. This part of France produces red and white wines, and rosés. Our wine this week is white, made from Chardonnay grapes. The Mâcon area is just north of where Beaujolais comes from, which itself is located just north of where the Côtes-du-Rhône area begins. Weather-wise and wine style-wise (Boy, is that college-level English?), the Mâcon is sort a transitional sub-region south of where great, complex wines are made and north of where more Mediterranean style wines start. South of the rest of Burgundy where so many great Chardonnay wines are made – big and rich Chards, sublimely austere Chards. Some very good and very expensive Chards. The Chards from the Mâcon are less complicated, often easier drinking, crisp and minerally and distinct, but noticeably more affordable.
The first facts we have to update are about the origins and parentage of the Chardonnay grape. As of 2006, there were about thirty-five clones of Chardonnay used in the Burgundy region. For a long time, in years past, some reports of the origins of the variety said it came from the small village with the same name in this region. For a while, Chardonnay was also called Pinot Chardonnay because it was thought to be a member of the Pinot family. (Pinot Noir and bits of Pinot Blanc being widely used in Burgundy, it made sense the three were from the same family, right?) Actually, with DNA testing, it was found that Chardonnay is a cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc – a white variety that the Romans brought into France from Croatia. The Gouais Blanc was an easier grape to grow, so it was cultivated by peasants throughout eastern Burgundy. The more noble Pinot Noir was grown by the aristocracy. Being in close proximity to each other in the vineyards, the crossing of the two was inevitable. The multiple clones are all slight variations of these crossed grapes. So, Chardonnay the grape and Chardonnay the village are nothing to each other.
Another myth about to fall gets us closer to our winery for this week. Sort of. Pouilly-Fuissé is a well known Chardonnay wine from the Mâcon area. And, probably the most expensive. Actually, Pouilly-Fuissé is the appellation given to wines made from grapes grown in several communes. One is Pouilly, one is Solutré-Fuissé. (The others are Vergisson and Chaintré.) On the edge of Solutré, there is a large limestone escarpment. It is called the rock of Solutré and it can be seen for miles. There was a legend that said prehistoric tribes who hunted wild horses in this part of France would drive the herds of horses up the rock and they would fall over the edge, and die, I suppose. However, this legend did not explain all the Calicum in the soil found here that made the wines so distinctly flavored. Seems the truth is the rock was a big hunting sight, with the butchering and smoking going on near its base. That and the geological formation of the rock itself from tens of thousands of years before left all the calcium in the soil. No piles of dead horses. Good news!
Now, finally, we get to our winery. It is J J Vincent. The Vincent family owns the château in the commune of Fuissé. Unlike Bordeaux, where there are multiple, multiple châteaux in each town, in Burgundy there is only one château in each village. The Vincents are the Château Fuissé. Since 1862. Under that label they make the Château de Fuissé Marie Antoinette Pouilly- Fuissé. (Sorry, no big story here. The “Marie Antoinette” name is a tribute to Jean Jacques’ mother with that name.) Our wine is the J J Vincent Bourgogne. This wine is one hundred percent Chardonnay, mostly from vineyards owned by Vincent family members. Mostly southern vineyards with some clay in their soils that add minerality to the wines. Seventy percent of the wine is fermented in stainless steel. The rest is aged in oak barrels for about six months. This combination gives the finished wine rich and ripe fruit character and soft acidity. Ripe skins from the grapes give the wines exotic character with hints of brioche. All the Vincent wines have reputations as excellent in their appellations, and this is no exception.
One more fact? And, as far as I know this one is still true. Chardonnays from the very north of Burgundy, meaning Chablis, and from the Mâconnais (the Mâcon area) are generally not too high in alcohol. Usually twelve to thirteen percent. In warmer times of the year, this lower, slightly lower, percentage of alcohol makes the wines more enjoyable. They are more refreshing. And, true fact again, we have plenty of days coming when a refreshing style of wine is exactly what we need!
Gee, I don’t know about you, but as I had to adjust the things that I thought I knew, it was hard. Chardonnay grapes originated from a town with that name in the Burgundy region. How else could I remember Chardonnay was the grape for white Burgundies. But, oh no. False. Some ancient, barbarian tribe living in the Burgundy region chased horses off a cliff. And their bones made the soil, full of calcium, make the grapes growing there and the wine have special flavors. So, appellations made sense because each one had its own, distinct flavor profile. Yeh, they do, but this one is not because of horse bones. This all very hard. But, I can have a glass of the J J Vincent Bourgogne Blanc. And move on and be ready to learn more. Phew! For $15.99. Enjoy.