Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Macon and the Tour de France

I visited the Macon region the other day, an area lying between the fruity softness of Beaujolais and the majestic soul-stirring beauty of Burgundy. This is a land of low-lying hills that surprise the traveler with sudden steep curves and angles. Spitting is de rigueur around here, lest one end up upside down amidst the vines.

A Chateau plays peek-a-boo in the vines

Still, there is a certain loveliness to the area, with quaint towns surrounded by rows and rows of vines crawling up the sides of the hills. However, one doesn’t get the same sense of history that Burgundy offers. There are no old monasteries hugging the sides of steep hills, no thousand year-old walls delineating different parcels of land, only the standard Gothic church which dominates most of the French landscape.

I was here in search of a nice, inexpensive, simple white wine, something I could offer cheaply, something that would be an easy sell. What I found surprised me: oceans of whites were indeed being made, but they lacked the character, the qualities, the je ne sais quoi I was seeking. And they weren’t cheap! How did this happen? Was it lack of skills? A prototypical French unwillingness to fight the market forces to create something unique? Or was it just plain laziness?

I knew the Macon was a warmer region than Burgundy, where the highest quality of Chardonnay is reached, but still, this was almost like California light. And it’s only an hour south of Beaune! With warmer conditions, one tends to get more tropical fruits from the Chardonnay grape (think sweet banana and pineapple instead of green apple and lemony hazelnuts), and this can be seen in extreme, almost absurd examples from California and Australia. Where was the minerality? Where was the acidity? Where was the balance? How did these fat wines waddle their way into this world? Was there a nefarious conspiracy of CA Chardonnay winemakers trying to turn the lovely white that I was looking for into a caricature of itself?

Despairing, I followed the twist and turns of the narrow roads, praying that the next stop would deliver me unto a good winemaker. But I hadn’t counted on two things: 1) most of the wineries that I did like were already taken by other importers, which was frustrating to say the least; and 2) the Tour de France. The Tour was wending its way through the region like a long Chinese New Year dragon, bouncing around from village to village and over hills and through dales. This, of course, meant that most of the adult population (ie the people I was here to meet) was either watching it live and thus not able to pour, or were in villages whose roads were closed by the Tour.

Gritting my teeth, I cancelled a few meetings and headed to my next appointments.

As in most businesses, it’s all about who you know, but probably nowhere is this more evident than in the wine industry. Especially in the hinterlands of Europe, where the Internet is still a new phenomenon or where getting a cell phone is still an amazing experience (how blazĂ© have we in the urbanized West become?). So my find in the Macon, Didier Tripoz, was due to this principle. A friendly wine shop-owner in Beaune (Mon Millesime, for you Burgheads) had told me about a delicious white being made by someone in a small town called Charnay. I looked on the map, and finally found the dot that was Charnay. As it turned out, he was on the outskirts of the picturesque town, clinging to the side of a steep hill overlooking the region.

Didier Tripoz makes some good wines, some interesting wines, and some so-so wines (mainly the reds, though truth be told I’m not a fan of Maconnais reds). His lowest-priced white was a lovely expression of the terroir, a ripe yet balanced Chardonnay that wasn’t smothered in oak and wasn’t sweet. But what really impressed me was his attitude, which was much more open than some of the old-timers I’d met. He was willing to try new things, even, sacrĂ© bleue, screw caps! And he was still capable of getting genuinely excited about it, not just doing it for the sake of the market, but just for the good old-fashioned Hell of it.

This attitude is very, very hard to come by in rural Europe, and even more so in France. For a nation that’s dying to change, they are just terrified of that very change. So to find someone making a good wine, at a decent price, and willing to remain open to new ideas, well, let’s just say that this particular tasting had a happy ending.

I have to say I was a bit disappointed in the Macon. I had expected more diversity and more interesting wines, but very few really stuck out as having that “hook” I was looking for. The fact that I only found one, out of all the wines I tasted, says a lot I think. It probably says a whole lot about me, but that’s a different story for a different time. Perhaps I’ve become too picky, but I do know one thing: I can’t represent it if I don’t like it.

Here's the full gallery of pictures (click on the photo, no need to register):

Pictures of the Maconnais region

Next, off to the Loire Valley.


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