Maconnais


I taste — not drink — a great deal of chardonnay wines made in California. Much of them are well-made and serve as exemplars of the grape, but far too many reveal signs of being over-manipulated in the winery with barrel-fermentation, malolactic, lees stirring and long aging in barrel. The result is often chardonnays that I find undrinkable because of their cloying viscosity and dessert-like character, their aggressive spiciness, their flamboyant richness and over-ripeness and basic lack of balance. This is why, when LL and I sit down to a dinner that requires a white wine, I generally open a sauvignon blanc or riesling, a Rhone-inspired white, a pinot blanc or an albariño. Looking for respite from tasting California chardonnays, I purchased a bottle of the Domaine Perraud Vieilles Vignes Mâcon-Villages 2013 from a local retail store. This is made completely from chardonnay grapes from 45-year-old vines; it sees no oak, and it’s a shimmering graceful beauty. Mâconnais lies south of Burgundy proper, between Chalonnais and Beaujolais and considerably smaller than either. The soil tends to be limestone and chalk and is best on the south-facing hillsides about 800 or so feet elevation. This wine spends eight to 12 months in stainless steel tanks, resting on the fine lees of dead yeast cells and skin fragments. The color is very pale gold; beguiling aromas of roasted lemon and lemon balm, lime peel, jasmine and verbena are highlighted by bright notes of quince and ginger; a lovely, almost talc-like texture is riven by a blade of clean acidity and bolstered by layers of chiseled limestone minerality, all at the service of delicious citrus and stone fruit flavors tempered by a concluding fillip of bracing grapefruit vigor. Utterly fresh, beautifully poised between elegance and delicacy, on the one hand, and presence and gravity on the other. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. We had this last night with a dinner of broiled catfish with boiled potatoes and salsa verde, green beans on the side. What’s the lesson here? Chardonnay does not have to be bold, brassy, brash and buxom. Excellent. About $20, a Great Value.

Imported by North Berkeley Wine, Berkeley, Calif.

Sunday night I cooked the Smoked Catfish with Sweet-and-Sour Fennel and Kumquat Sauce from Charlie Trotter’s book The Kitchen Sessions (10 Speed Press, 1999), in which the recipes are more manageable for home-cooks than is the case with his earlier series of large-format, full-color manuals. I’ve done this dish three times for LL and me and once for a dinner party, and like most of Trotter’s recipes it involves a sequence of different preparations with all elements assembled just before serving. And speaking of serving, what wine did I choose for the dish? One that was not a review sample but rather purchased at a retail store: the Domaine Leflaive Mâcon-Verzé 2011. Those of you who are fanciers of Burgundy wines will say, “Mâcon-Verzé? But Leflaive is one of the greatest producers of white Burgundy. Why would you bother with Mâcon?” Well, My Readers, Leflaive is indeed among a handful of the greatest producers of white Burgundy at the Grand Cru and Premier Cru levels in Puligny-Montrachet, but quantities are minutes and prices high. This Domaine Leflaive Mâcon-Verzé 2011 was there, on a shelf at a retail store, and I bought it.

The chapter on Domaine Leflaive in Clive Coates’ Côte d’Or: A Celebration of the Great Wines of Burgundy (University of California Press, 1997), is unsurpassed in its research, acumen and judicial enthusiasm. In quick summary, the family traces its origin to the 15th Century, and the beginning of the domaine to 1717. In accordance with French law, though, with the death of each patriarch, the vineyards were divided among the heirs, until all that remained to the family by 1905 was two hectares of vines (5.14 acres). Joseph Leflaive (1870-1953), a mechanical engineer — he helped design the first French submarine — saw opportunity in the depression that followed the phylloxera disaster and started buying tiny portions of Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards in Puligny-Montrachet, totaling about 20 hectares (some 51.5 acres). Proprietorship passed to brothers Joseph Leflaive (1908-1982) and Vincent (1912-1993), and then, when Vincent retired in 1990, to his daughter Anne-Claude and nephew Olivier, who now operates his own negociant company. Anne-Claude Leflaive began experimenting with biodynamic methods in selected parcels in 1990, and now the entire domain is operated on those techniques.

In 2004, the domaine acquired five sections of vines in the Mâcon-Verzé appellation. These vineyards are farmed biodynamically, and the wine is made by Eric Remy, Domaine Leflaive’s estate manager. Fermentation is in stainless steel tanks with indigenous yeasts; the wine spent 15 months in barrels. The vines are 26 years old.

The Domaine Leflaive Mâcon-Verzé 2011 displays a clean light gold color and offers exceedingly attractive aromas of jasmine and lilac, talc, roasted lemon, yellow plums and lemongrass; a few moments in the glass bring in notes of lime peel, grapefruit and limestone. This is a wine — 100 percent chardonnay — of tremendous tone and presence that still embodies all we desire in the way of harmony, delicacy and elegance. The lovely texture is almost powdery in effect yet enlivened by bright vibrant acidity and scintillating flint-and-limestone minerality. The finish — very dry, a little austere — delivers spare elements of cloves, lemon balm and shale. 12.5 percent alcohol. The Domaine Leflaive Mâcon-Verzé 2011 is drinking beautifully now and will through 2016 or ’17 and perhaps go longer. Excellent. I paid $50, the full asking price, but the wine is being discounted around the country to $35 or so as the 2012 version becomes available.

Imported by Wilson Daniels, St, Helena, Calif.

Say, how about a steely, limestone-soaked, oyster-shell-tinged, high-toned little white wine for your delectation? I have just the number you’re looking for. It’s the Chanson Viré-Clessé 2011, a tightly-wound yet paradoxically charming chardonnay from an appellation, created from these two villages in 1998, in the Mâconnais just south of Burgundy proper. The domaine is one of the oldest in Burgundy, dating back to 1750; it has been owned since 1999 by the Family Champagne Group Societé Jacques Bollinger. The color of the Chanson Viré-Clessé 2011 is pale pale straw-gold; aromas of lime peel, lemon and pear are permeated by flint and limestone and a sort of talc-like minerality, by which I mean that gratifying (and symbolic) combination of lilacs and dust. Oh, this is fresh, clean and crisp and crisper, with snappy acidity and the snap of flint and shale that warns of austerity from mid-palate back through the finish. This is not just about structure, however, allowing a winsome floral, fruity and slightly spicy element to emerge, just a hint, you understand, but enough to please before the limestone takes over. 13 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014. The spareness of the new label matches the lean and lithe nature of the wine. Very Good+. About $22.

Imported by Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Ill. A sample for review. Image, much modified, from hogsheadwine.