The Surprising, Saline Whites of the Mâconnais

I remember my first encounter around 20 years ago with the oxidative savagnin wines of the Jura, the isolated region in eastern France where some wines are made under a veil of yeast — sous-voile, in French — like the flor of sherry, which gives them a sharp, nutty, briny flavor.

I adored them, even as a friend teased me for extolling what he called “salty wines.” Who could have known back then that salinity would become a much-admired quality in wine and a fashionable description today?

I was reminiscing about this as I was drinking through the Mâconnais wines that we’ve been examining in Wine School over the last month. It struck me that each of these three very different wines showed pronounced salinity. They seemed salty.

At Wine School, we may come to the wines with certain questions in mind, like whether these Mâconnais wines speak more of the grape, chardonnay, or the place, the Mâcon region of southern Burgundy. But often the wines lead us in unanticipated directions. In this case, I was sidetracked by the salinity of these wines.

I have had many wines over the years that have seemed saline. Fino sherries, for one, especially manzanillas. Muscadet and Chablis, assyrtiko from Santorini, the Colares wines of Portugal and Etna Bianco from Sicily, all wines made not far from salt water (except Chablis, where the vines grow in an ancient seabed).

Most of them are white, but I’ve experienced the occasional red as saline as well, notably syrahs from the Northern Rhône Valley, which are made nowhere near an ocean but often have a savory, smoky, baconlike quality.

I could cite a lot more examples — in spirits, too, like tequila and Islay single malts. But it’s not a quality I’ve associated before with the Mâconnais.

What might cause such a character? Is it something atmospheric? In the earth? A result of winemaking techniques? A combination of the three or something else entirely?

As usual, I suggested three bottles for our study of the Mâconnais. They were: Domaine Frantz Chagnoleau Mâcon-Villages Clos Saint-Pancras 2020, Merlin Mâcon La Roche Vineuse 2020 and Bret Brothers Mâcon-Chardonnay Les Crays 2020.

I was initially struck by the salinity of the Chagnoleau, a wine that was lean in texture compared with the other two bottles, and with earthy, floral and herbal flavors underscored by that salty quality.

The salinity was there as well, though to a lesser extent, in the Merlin, which was both richer and more straightforward than the Chagnoleau, with savory citrus and floral flavors. And it was present in the succulent, beautifully textured Les Crays from the Bret Brothers, with its stony flavors of citrus and melon.

Most wine writers who have used the term would say it’s a more precise extension of the vaguer and much-debated quality “minerality,” a word that is often seen as controversial.

Why? Because people either interpret it literally, as if minerals were sucked up from rocks and soil by the roots of a vine and deposited directly into the glass. Or they believe it is not a specific enough, wanting instead a more precise analogy, like seashells, slate or pavement after a rain.

I happen to prefer general rather than precise descriptions for a wine. Unspecific terms like savory, fruity and mineral get at a wine’s overall character. Overly specific descriptions, like this one I read recently of a Chilean syrah, can seem poetic but are more meaningful to the writer as a device for jogging the memory than in communicating the nature of a wine to others:

“The taste is simply packed with blackberry and Santa Rosa plum fruit, but the bitter-edged brilliance of springtime wood sap hurtles through this heady fruit, trailing after it a summer scent like warm creosote, a hint of talcum powder and a brush of coal dust from a collier’s apron.”

These are mostly not references that are meaningful to me. But saline? That could be useful to anybody familiar with salt.

As to the source of this characteristic, the only thing that appears clear, as a recent article on salinity in wine pointed out, is that merely measuring the amount of salts in a wine — easy to do in a laboratory — does not necessarily correlate with how that wine is perceived by drinkers.

The article suggests that salinity actually can be transmitted in a literal fashion, from soils with a high salt content through the roots of the vine and into grapes, and through leaves in vineyards near seas and oceans. It can also come from certain limestone soils that contain high amounts of calcium carbonate as well as concentrations of sodium, potassium or magnesium.

This is not to say that atmospheric salt would be good for grapevines and wines. The vines of Colares are trained very close to the ground to protect them from the constant salty breeze blowing in from the Atlantic, which can burn the leaves and grapes.

With all this information, the article nonetheless concluded that much about what causes salinity in wine remains unknown.

“Many of these factors remain unknown and the variables are numerous,” it concluded. “Like so many aspects of wine, our current understanding of salinity leaves ample room for research.”

We do know that Burgundy and the Mâconnais vineyards are generally on limestone-and-clay soils. We might also infer that each of these three careful, conscientious producers may in their farming and winemaking use techniques intended to promote a savory result, unlocking the potential for salinity.

That brings us back to the original question: Do these wines speak more of the place or the grape?

For me, these are clearly wines of place rather than chardonnays. That is, the qualities of the Mâconnais, shaped by the winemakers’ skills and intent, are transmitted to the wine through the medium of the chardonnay grape.

In the big picture, these wines are utterly different from chardonnays from places like California or Oregon, Australia or South America. They also differ, in more subtle ways, from other Burgundian chardonnays. They are not as singular as Chablis. But they have a warm quality very much their own that differentiates them from the chardonnays of the Côte de Beaune, the source of some of the greatest white Burgundies.

This does not mean that you or I, given a dozen chardonnays from around the world, would invariably be able to identify the point of origin when tasting them blind. Terroir is rarely that obvious. Such abilities come with years of detailed experience, tasting and comparing these wines until you know them intuitively.

Many readers enjoyed the wines. Responses included much reminiscing about cheap, innocuous Mâcons of yesteryear, along with concern about the rising prices and acknowledgments of the rising level of quality.

“The prices will continue to rise (and hopefully the quality) until the locals will no longer be able to afford them, as has already happened in the Côte de Beaune and with Pouilly Fuissé in the Mâconnais,” wrote Corkpop of Reims, France.

Richard Claeys of Saratoga, Calif., drank the Chagnoleau. “This one is balanced, restrained and nuanced,” he said, calling it a great match with roasted salmon and spinach.

Finally, Peter of Philadelphia posed a question that extended well beyond these Mâconnais wines. Both of the bottles he tried were labeled “Vieilles Vignes,’’ French for old vines. He found in his research that wonderful qualities are often attributed to old vines and wondered whether that was true.

It is true, with some hype sprinkled in.

Most conscientious growers will tell you that vines behave differently when fully mature than they do when newly planted. Most vines will not produce a commercial crop until three or four years of age and take some time after that to establish their root systems.

Many growers liken vines 5-to-15-years old to awkward adolescents, producing too much fruit and, at the risk of anthropomorphizing, behaving impulsively. By 20 years or so, the vines will have become somewhat self-regulating, producing balanced crops and better able to defend themselves against maladies, drought and other ills.

These are all approximate ages, by the way. Christian Moueix, who owns Trotanoy in Pomerol along with other Bordeaux properties as well as Dominus and Ulysses in Napa Valley, once told me that vines in Napa at 10 years are just like vines in Bordeaux at 20.

Good producers do stand behind their judgment about vine age, often sacrificing money for their beliefs. Top Burgundy estates, when replanting vines in grand cru vineyards, will not use fruit from those young vines in their grand cru wines until they mature. Instead, they will put those grapes in less-expensive cuvées, even if they are entitled to sell them as grand cru, because they believe quality comes with age.

As the vines get very old, after many decades, their yield diminishes. But many growers believe the quality is much better with these ancient vines — assuming they are planted in good terroirs — and are worth the smaller yields.

The hype comes in because the terms “old vines,” “vieilles vignes” and the like are unregulated. It can sometimes be hard to weigh the claim against the reality. And, not surprisingly, those who replant their vines when the yield begins to shrink deny any qualitative association with vine age.

Salinity, terroir, vine age — wine can be simple or complicated. It all depends on where your curiosity takes you.

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