Exploring The Mâconnais
From our base in Mâcon, I drove out to several of the southern Mâconnais villages: first to Vinzelles, then on to Fuissé, then Pouilly and then Solutré. These all lie within a few kilometers of each other, and although the Caves were all shut, it was enough to give me a taste for the region and to plan a more extensive and certainly more intensive visit later in the year.
Each of these villages has its own Appellation, but wine from the slopes around also go into the wine that most of us will see in the supermarkets: Mâcon villages.is basic wine that can be bought in most supermarkets for just a few Euros, but the Mâconnais is a large area and we also tried various vines from the region during our stay, some from the northern appellation of Viré-Clessé.
As is the case for Bourgogne as a whole, all the white wine in the Mâconnais region is made using the Chardonnay grape. This varietal has been used on the hillsides of Pouilly since the 18th century, and back then it was spelt “Chardenet”. Hardly any red wine is grown in Pouilly.
The villages were pretty and charming, but not particularly welcoming. There is a self-consciousness about their status that I didn’t feel in other parts of Bourgogne, especially in Fuissé which seemed to be fussily aware of its cachet, and not in a mood to help a stranger in town out of season. Of course, this is perhaps understandable when the individual concerned is from a nation that had just recently voted for Brexit, but I doubt the reception would have been different if I had been from elsewhere.
Vinzelles was more or less deserted when I got there around 11 am. Mine was the only car in the village’s spacious car park, and the only other presence I came across was a lady playing with her child in the nearby playground. Vinzelles has a very welcoming feel to it, with the wall of a house on the road that leads to the church decorated with faded paintings of the village’s landmarks, soft light blues and greens, and the warm browns and rose colours of the walls of the building. “Bienvenu à Vinzelles” is blazoned above this charming mural.
The village church was also shut, but it has a narrow nave and high walls, then the square tower with a tetrahedral roof. The sign next to it suggests the style is Romanesque, and that the church of Saint George was built in the second quarter of the 12th century. The walls of the church are a rich yellow ochre, and the church has apparently been little changed since it was first built. Note to self: find out more about church architecture in France.
From Vinzelles, I drove on to Fuissé, passing a small village with a that boasted five French tricolor and two flags with the blue background and gold stars of the EU. Outside the Mairie, there is a cabinet of books that I thought at first might be dedicated to wine. In fact, it contained an eclectic range of novels and some books about local administration.
Fuissé has an imposing church that towers over the town’s own Mairie. The church is from the 19th century and in the neo-gothic style.
The wine producer’s website says mysteriously: “easily identifiable by its tower’s missing arrow”. The town’s heritage apparently includes a historic wash-house, typical Mâconnais-Style houses and a 14th century Castle, although if I’m honest I did not find any of these. I did find quite a number of Domaines and Caves that were shut, several of which looked rather promising. Domaine Luquet at first looked like it might be open, but sadly another source of disappointment.
Fuissé is right next to the hamlet of Pouilly, which gives the appellation its name. Domaine Marin looked promising with its stone statue of a young girl surrounded by three rabbits underneath which a yellow and green sign announced Cave Ouverte, Degustation Vente. Sadly, once again, this turned out not to be the case.
I knocked on the main door of the Caves, went down the side alley to the entrance of the cellars and knocked on the sturdy iron gate, and then walked up some stairs to what seemed to be someone’s living room, but it was deserted. As I headed off towards the village, a slightly elderly lady who might have had a blue-rinse hairstyle asked me in French what I was looking for. I replied that I had come to Pouilly to taste some wine, but nowhere was open. She advised me, kindly but rather curtly, that I should go to Solutré instead.
Before I did this, I noticed a shop that seemed to sell all sorts of agricultural equipment. There were also some of those grape-picking tractors that are set up high above the ground, so that the driver can drive through the vines and gather the grapes mechanically. Of course, these can only be used on slopes that are not too steep.
I went into the shop, and feeling in foreign correspondent mode, I asked the gentleman how much these machines cost. He asked me why I wanted to know, and I explained patiently that I had worked as a journalist for many years and was now trying to become a wine writer, and therefore that it was of considerable interest. He looked somewhat doubtful, but ventured that each of these tractors would cost in the order of 200-300 thousand Euros. I asked him if he would mind if I took photos of some of the machinery in the shop, and he appeared to welcome this initiative, although I felt there was a palpable residue of doubt in his manner. I am sure he was glad when I left the shop.
Onwards to Solutré! When I had seen Pouilly-Solutré on wine labels, I had thought that Solutré was an adjective rather than the name of the village. I imagined it meant something like “diluted” or “containing minerals” and that it was a special type of Pouilly that was different from the Fuissé.
So I was excited to find that the village I went to had signs for a prehistory museum and the Roche de Solutré. I asked a very helpful lady where I could taste some wines, and she pointed me in the direction of the Atrium which, she said, “might” open at midday. I had seen signs for this place in Fuissé and Pouilly. It seemed to be a regional hub that stocked wines from the Greater Pouilly region, so I had high hopes. Sadly, these were dashed once again. The Atrium remained shut, and was still shut several hours later when I went back through Solutré on the way to Mâcon.
I noticed a Domaine called Les Trois Femmes which also seemed to hold out some hope of being open, but the lady who opened the shutters advised me that it was shut. “Are you only here for one day?” she asked in French. I said that was certainly the case, and she promptly closed the shutters again with a brief comment that there was nothing to be done.
Feeling thwarted rather than defeated, I headed out of town and was blessed with one of the most amazing sights I have seen. The vineyards around Solutré ran upwards to a massive ancient rock that dominates the whole region around.
The great Romantic poet Alphonse Lamartine, who was born in Mâcon in 1790, described the rocks of Solutré and Vergisson as “Two petrified ships overlooking a sea of vineyards.” This is a pretty apt description as the sheer face of the larger rock looks just like the bow of a ship. The site has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and in the early Middle Ages a castle was built on its summit as a way of controlling the region around, although hardly any of this construction remains.