Extreme viticulture in Madeira. The famous Sercial from Seixal (‘Saychal’) on the cooler, wilder northern coast.

The volcanic archipelago of Madeira lies about 600km off the coast of Morocco. Discovered in 1419 by sailors in the service of Henry the Navigator (the son of John I of Portugal and nephew of Henry IV of England), the main island of Madeira became a regular port of call for ships bound for Africa, the Indies, and the Americas. Agriculture prospered, principally sugarcane, but also wheat, and, of course, the vine.

The earliest madeira wines were unfortified and in the habit of spoiling at sea. Sailors took to adding a small amount of distilled alcohol to stabilize the wines, a practice that had become routine by the mid-18th century. One day, a ship that had sailed out across the Equator returned to Madeira with some leftover wine. Producers tasted this wine and found that the intense heat and constant movement of the sea voyage had actually improved it. So-called vinho da roda [‘round-trip wine’] soon became very popular. To save on the phenomenal costs of shipping wine halfway around the world and back, producers began heating and ageing the wines on Madeira itself, either on trestles or in special rooms called estufas.

These were the halcyon years. But in 1852, the vineyards of Madeira were blighted by powdery mildew, and in 1872 by phylloxera. The industry had barely recovered when the Russian Revolution and American Prohibition cut off madeira’s two most important markets. American vines began to take over the vineyards and quality plummeted. The wine never recovered the prestige that it had enjoyed in the late eighteenth century, when it was poured to toast the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence. Much as Marsala, it came to be regarded as ‘cooking wine’.

Founded in 1979 to drive up quality, the Instituto do Vinho da Madeira (IVM) decreed that thenceforth madeira could only be made from Vitis vinifera. In 2006, the IVM merged to become the Instituto do Vinho, do Bordado e do Artesanato da Madeira (IVBAM), and continues to promote and incentivize the replanting of traditional varieties. Some of its other remits are to fix harvest dates, control quality, and promote madeira.

The lie of the land

The archipelago of Madeira consists of the inhabited islands of Madeira and Porto Santo and the uninhabited islands of Ilhas Desertas and Ilhas Selvagens. At 55 by 22km, Madeira is by far the largest island, with rugged, mountainous terrain and a peak altitude of 1,861m. The climate is subtropical with a mean temperature of 19°C, mild winters, hot summers, and high rainfall and humidity. When Winston Churchill visited the island in 1950, he came in a hydroplane because there was not enough flat land on which to build a runway.

Vineyards are mostly planted on man-made terraces of red and basaltic bedrock called poios and irrigated from historical irrigation channels called levadas. Given the high temperatures and humidity, rot is a constant threat, and vine canopies are frequently raised off the ground on trellises called latadas. There are ~2000 growers cultivating ~490ha (cf. Bordeaux 120,000ha), with rows of vines often interspersed with market vegetables and even bananas. Every year, growers hope for a wintery spell, without which the vines won’t know when to flower or shoot. Global heating is, therefore, a major threat.

Grape varieties

The vineyards of Madeira hug the coasts, and certain villages such as Seixal [‘Saychal’] and Sao Vicente are particularly noted for the quality of their grapes. Madeira varieties are classified as either ‘permitted’ or ‘recommended’, with almost all madeira being made from the latter. Recommended varieties include Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malvasia. Sercial and Verdelho do best at higher altitudes, and Bual and Malvasia at lower altitudes. Terrantez and Bastardo (which, in contrast to the other five, is a black variety) are both very rare because so difficult to cultivate. All six are varieties of V. vinifera. Broadly speaking, Sercial is dry, Verdelho off-dry or medium-dry, Bual medium-rich, and Malmsey rich.

Since 1993, a bottle labelled with any one variety must contain at least 85% of that variety. Madeira that does not bear a variety on the label, or that predates 1993, is likely to have been made mostly or entirely from Tinta Negra (formerly Tinta Negra Mole), a black variety that is often described as the workhorse of Madeira. After phylloxera hit in the nineteenth century, producers turned to Tinta Negra for its disease resistance and prolific yields, and it still accounts for over half of total production. It is a chameleon that, at best, can imitate if not quite match the quality of the other, noble varieties. But small growers, for whom viticulture is but a sideline, tend to favour it over more demanding, lower yielding varieties.

Vinification

The harvest is mostly manual, with Malvasia picked first and Verdelho and Sercial last. The grapes are crushed, pressed, and fermented in stainless steel tanks and oak casks. Malvasia and Bual are traditionally fermented on their skins to extract more phenols and balance the high residual sugar. As with port, fermentation is interrupted with 95% grape spirit. The precise timing of interruption depends on the amount of residual sugar desired, so, for example, very early for Malmsey and very late for Sercial.

Next comes the idiosyncratic estufagem process that seeks to replicate the effects of a long, tropical sea voyage. The fortified wine is entered into a stainless steel container or lined concrete vat. It is then gently heated to 45–55°C and maintained at this temperature for at least three months. After a rest period of three more months, it is entered into oak casks and aged oxidatively for 3–15 years. Finally, the individual wines are blended, often across several vintages, to produce a consistent and harmonious house style. Unlike with port, the indicated age pertains to the youngest wine in the blend.

A more expensive alternative to estufagem is canteiro, a gentler process that results in less caramelization and more freshness and fruitiness. The fortified wine is entered into 480l pipes or casks that are then placed on a beam, or canteiro, in a south-facing attic room (or equivalent) for 20–100+ years. Five years of canteiro is equivalent to only three months of estufa, so canteiro is used only for the finer wines. In Madeira, wineries have attics rather than cellars, and their cellars are a kind of terroir, with no two casks maturing in quite the same way.

There are nine attics at the historic Blandy’s Wine Lodge in Funchal, each with different temperature and humidity conditions.

Styles

Madeira must be made from V. vinifera varieties, which account for just over half of plantings on Madeira. Of these, Tinta Negra is the most commonly cultivated, and is often an important component of a brand name such as Blandy’s Duke of Clarence. Plantings of the four noble varieties remain small, and madeira labelled with one of the noble varieties is relatively expensive. 

Sercial is pale in colour with aromas of almonds and citrus peel, razor sharp acidity, and a dry, salty finish. It is very easy to pair with food, classically, on Madeira, with limpets, the snails of the sea. In comparison, Verdelho is less dry and more rounded, with a smoky complexity and aromas of dried fruits and honey. I usually get herbs and anise on Verdelho, but not everyone does. Bual is still darker, fuller, and sweeter, with aromas such as dried fruits, pecan, orange peel, passion fruit, banana, and molasses. The luscious Malvasia (Malmsey) is, perhaps unexpectedly, lighter in colour than Bual, with notes of baked orange peel, cloves, and Christmas cake. In a blind tasting, it can be distinguished from PX sherry (see later) by its high and balancing acidity, which is the hallmark of all quality madeira. The off-dry Terrantez, my favourite, is nuanced, floral, and spicy, with an almost delicate texture and notes of pepper and ginger. Bastardo is in fact Trousseau from the Jura, which long ago made its way down into Portugal and thence Madeira. The Portuguese called it Bastardo because it is so hard to cultivate, leaving Madeirans to speak of ‘the great Bastardo vintages of old’. Sadly, I’ve never tasted a Bastardo madeira.

The age of a madeira is indicated on the label: three years (Finest), five years (Reserve), 10 years (Old Reserve), 15 years (Extra Reserve), or more than 20 years (Vintage). Despite its name, Finest, which accounts for ~61% of production, is usually destined for cooking. Madeira with one of the noble varieties on the label must be aged for at least five years (to Reserve), often without any artificial heating. Vintage [Frasqueira] is made from exceptional grapes and must be aged for at least 20 years followed by a further two years in bottle. A more recent style is Harvest [Colheita], which is vintage-dated madeira that has been aged for at least five years (or, in the case of Sercial, seven years) versus 20 years for Vintage. Unlike with port, there are no declared or mythical vintages. What ends up in the glass depends not just on the vintage conditions but on the variety, the village, the shipper, the cask, the bottling date… leading to many surprises and much mystique. One might, for example, speak of Blandy’s 1977 Terrantez, or Barbeito’s 1993 Sercial. With increasing age, the appearance of madeira tends towards mahogany with a yellow-green rim, which, together with the high acidity, helps to set it apart it from other fortified wines.

Tasting frasqueiras with Luis d’Oliveira.

Here are a couple of pointers which also apply to tawny port and other oxidatively ages wines:

  • Once in bottle, vintage madeira improves much more slowly—so always check the bottling date, which must now, by law, feature on the back label. More recent bottling also avoids problems with the cork and with excess sediment. 
  • One on the great things about madeira is how stable (and long-lived) it is. You can invest in a fine bottle and taste from it for a month or even six. Wine bars and restaurants take note: this makes vintage Madeira ideal for wine by the glass—the major problem with Madeira being that very few people have tasted of what it is capable at the top end.

Industry

Each year, ~80% of the ~3.3m litres of madeira produced are exported. The largest national markets are France, Germany, Japan, the UK, and the US, although much of the madeira exported to France is of the cooking variety. The largest shipper of madeira is Justino’s, but the most famous is The Madeira Wine Company (MWC), a wrapper for Blandy, Cossart Gordon, Leacock, Miles, and others. In 1989, the Symington family acquired a controlling stake in the MWC and set about modernizing operations. In 2011, it sold most of this stake back to the Blandy Group, which thereby regained overall control. Beyond that, there are only a small handful of madeira shippers, most notably Barbeito, Pereira d’Oliveira, HM Borges, and Henriques & Henriques. The visionary Ricardo Diogo Freitas of Barbeito aims for freshness and elegance, and some of his bottlings are achieving icon status. Since 1850, the d’Oliveira family has been selling only a small fraction of production and is now sitting on large reserves of very old vintages—only releasing their 1899 Terrantez in 2020! HM Borges offers excellent value for money across the range, as does Henriques & Henriques.

A view of Mamoiada from atop some pre-Nuragic tombs.

Sardinia, although only slightly smaller than Sicily, produces seven times less wine. Yet, the island lays claim to over a hundred indigenous grape varieties and has more DOCs and IGPs than Calabria and Basilicata combined—the more visible ones being the island-wide Cannonau di Sardegna DOC, Vermentino di Sardegna DOC, and the catch-all Isola dei Nuraghi IGP, which, unusually for an IGP, does not permit varietal labelling. Before you ask, nuraghi are the stone towers built by the mysterious Bronze Age Nuragic civilization, still visible all around the island to stir the imagination. Even within a single DOC, there are often many styles including sparkling, late-harvest, passito, and fortified (dry and sweet). In short, it’s all terribly complicated—but I’ll try to give you some highlights.

The climate is Mediterranean, with hot, dry, summers and short, mild winters. As in Corsica, the sea greatly moderates temperatures and the shifting landscape and diverse soils harbour a variety of distinct terroirs. From 1324 to 1718, the Kingdom of Sardinia came under the Crown of Aragon, and the commoner grape varieties are more Spanish and French than Italian—so not Sangiovese and Trebbiano as you might expect, but Cannonau (Grenache), Vermentino, and Carignan, and even Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. In 1718, Sardinia passed to the House of Savoy, and, with Piedmont, came to form the rump of the Kingdom and later Republic of Italy.

Let’s begin in the granitic northeast with the island’s only, if quite large, DOCG, Vermentino di Gallura (not to be confused with Vermentino di Sardegna DOC). Vermentino di Gallura is made in a range of styles, including sparkling, late-harvest, and passito, although most are dry still wines of varying weight. These are typically fresh and mineral with notes such as white flowers, citrus and stone fruits, green mango, acacia, and sage. Robert Parker described Capichera’s barrique-aged VT (late-harvest) as ‘the best Italian white wine made from native grape varieties and the best Vermentino in the world’, although I found the more delicate and versatile Classico more to my taste.

In the cellar at Olbios, with a profile of the granite of Gallura.

In the port of Alghero, in the northwest, a dialect of Catalan is still spoken. Many varieties are cultivated on the surrounding calcareous soils, most notably Torbato, a low-yielding variety rescued by Sella e Mosca, which, with Argiolas down south, is one the island’s leading producers. Sella e Mosca’s Terre Bianche Torbato is dry, crisp, and smoky, but also rich and ripe, with notes of melon, pear, white flowers, fennel, ginger, turmeric, aloe vera, and honeycomb, and a lingering, salty finish. A fun pick for a blind tasting, their Alghero Cabernet Sauvignon, Marchese di Villamarina, is bloody, dusty, and savoury, with a long and elegant finish on coffee and dried fruits.

An hour from Alghero, in Sénnori on the other side of Sassari, is Dettori, the only certified biodynamic producer on Sardinia. Their wines, from single vineyards made picturesque by old bush vines, are deep and textured, with, it seems, a life of their own. Father and son work with Cannonau, Vermentino, and Moscato, and two lesser known indigenous reds, Monica and Pascale, which they are keen to rehabilitate. Monica is something of a workhorse grape on Sardinia, easy to cultivate with often very high yields—and therefore mostly associated with soft, simple wines. Pascale, on the other hand, is a rare and demanding breed. While at Dettori, I tasted a 2000 Pascale, which, to my delight, was delicate and silky with notes of pomegranate, cranberries, mushrooms, and dried fruits. I also tasted two vintages of the Vermentino, but, while the 2000 was still alive with notes of dried fruits and nuts, I preferred the vibrant and textured 2019. Still, who knew that 20-year-old Vermentino could be a thing?

While still in Gallura, at Olbios, I sampled some very inspired and off-piste wines, including a 2007 Vermentino part aged under flor. Flor ageing is in fact a tradition of the west coast, more specifically, of Vernaccia di Oristano DOC and Malvasia di Bosa DOC. According to lore, Malvasia was brought back to beautiful Bosa by the returning Knights Templar. The vines thrived in the area’s calcareous soils and the wine became highly prized, notably for holy sacraments: while in Bosa, I was shown a plot owned by the pope. But today the DOC counts just eight small producers and the sparkling styles shift more easily at Christmas.

Harvesting Malvasia in Bosa.

The people of Sardinia, who are very long-lived, attribute anti-ageing properties to Cannonau, just as they attributed antimalarial properties to Vernaccia di Oristano. Cannonau, it is said, was brought over by the Aragonese, although there is some emerging evidence that it—and therefore Grenache—may have originated in Sardinia. Cannonau is cultivated across the island, although certain areas, such as Mamoiada in the eastern hills, with its old vines and granitic soils, are especially noted for it. Mamoida does not have a DOC of its own, but some 70 vintners, including favourites such as Francesco Cadinu and VikeVike, have recently banded together to form the Mamojà association. Cadinu’s two Perdas Longas cuvées are made from 70- and 120-year-old vines and are superlative in every sense, with almost physical layers of black fruit, plum, tobacco, chocolate, coffee, herbs, and liquorice. I called them ‘wines for giants’ and a burly winemaker I drank with confided, ‘When you go down into Cadinu’s cellar, you don’t know when or if you’ll come up again.’

Another area to watch, although still finding its feet, is Mandrolisai DOC in the central heights, which is noted for blends based on Bovale (similar to Spain’s Bobal), completed by Cannonau and Monica. I lunched with around half of the appellation’s 15 producers. After the final course of porchetta (suckling pig), one asked me: ‘So which was better, the food or the wine?’ But how was I supposed to answer that?

Porchetta, served with myrtle leaves and berries.

Down in the southwest, the noble Carignano del Sulcis, with its old ungrafted vines in sandy soils overlooking the sea, is surely deserving of a DOCG. Imagine a perfectly balanced Carignan, full of power and restraint, fleshy blueberry to balance the earthy spice, and a sign-off on squid ink… In the Languedoc, Carignan is often blended, so it is unusual to taste a Carignan in purezza. But until the vine pull scheme, Carignan was the most planted grape variety in France. When I gave a Carignano del Sulcis to a friend to blind taste, he put it in Bordeaux and I can see why. But on analysis, it’s earthier, spicier, and softer.

Around the capital city of Cagliari in the south there are a number of varietal DOCs, including for Malvasia, Moscato, Monica, Nasco, Nuragus, and Giro. Nasco (ultimately from the Latin muscus, musk) is a rare indigenous variety that is low yielding and susceptible to rot. The historical style is sweet, though less so than Sauternes, with notes of citrus, cream, and spice, and no botrytis. Incidentally, did you know that Sardinian is the living language closest to Latin?

Let’s end as we would a Sardinian meal, with mirto, a liqueur made from myrtle berries. Red mirto is more common than white, and superior. It is sweet, with intense notes of dried figs, bluebells, maple syrup, juniper, mint, eucalyptus, cloves, and orange zest, and a pointed, bitter almond finish. In fact, many wines I tasted on Sardinia were marked by myrtle, which grows wild on the island. So, for blind tasters, maybe myrtle can be to Sardinia what eucalyptus is to Australia.

See my related article, The Wines of Corsica

What we can learn from the orgies of old.

orgy

Parties today are really nothing like they used to be.

To commemorate the destruction of the bloodthirsty lioness Sekhmet, the Ancient Egyptians held communal Festivals of Drunkenness at the beginning of their calendar year in mid-August, when the Nile is swelling.

Revelers drank to the point of passing out, only to be awoken by the beating of drums. The celebrations, which had an important religious dimension and typically took place in temples and shrines, also included dancing and public sex, in part to imitate and propitiate the flood and fertility to come.

The word “orgy,” ultimately from the Greek orgion, entered the English language in the 1560s to mean “a licentious revelry.” Today, people think of an orgy as a party involving open and unrestrained sex between strangers. But originally, orgia referred to the secret rites of Ancient Greek mystery cults such as the Dionysian Mysteries and the Cult of Cybele, which aimed, above all, at ecstatic union with the divine.

Dionysus, who, like Jesus, died and was reborn, was the god of wine, regeneration, fertility, theatre, and religious ecstasy, and was most fervently celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox. Let me paint you a picture of a Dionysian orgy.

The procession begins at sunset, led by torchbearers and followed by wine and fruit bearers, musicians, and a throng of revelers wearing masks and, well, not much else. At the back is a giant phallus representing the resurrection of the twice-born god. Everyone is pushing and shoving, singing and dancing, and shouting the name of the god mixed in with ribaldry and obscenity.

Arriving at a clearing in the woods, the crowd goes wild with drinking, dancing, and every imaginable manner of sex. The god is in the wine, and to imbibe it is to be possessed by his spirit—although in the bull’s horn the booze is interlaced with many other mind-bending substances. Animals, which stand in for the god, are hunted down, ripped apart with bare hands, and consumed raw with the blood still warm and dripping.

The “Dionysian” impulse for irrationality and chaos can be understood as a natural inversion of, and release from, the habitual “Apollonian” order and restraint imposed by the state and state religion. In the Birth of Tragedy (1872), the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche recognizes it as a primal and universal force:

Either through the influence of narcotic drink, of which all primitive men and peoples speak, or through the powerful coming on of spring, which drives joyfully through all of nature, that Dionysian excitement arises. As its power increases, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self. In the German Middle Ages under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing. In that St. John’s and St. Vitus’s dance we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, and its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea.

By diverting the Dionysian impulse into special rites on special days, the orgy was intended to keep it under control, preventing it from surfacing in more insidious and perfidious ways. More than that, it transformed it into an invigorating and liberating—and, in that much, profoundly religious—celebration of life and the life force.

It permitted people to escape from their artificial and restricted social roles, and regress into a more authentic state of nature, which modern psychologists have associated with the Freudian id or unconscious. It appealed most to marginal groups, since it set aside the usual hierarchies of man over woman, master over slave, patrician over commoner, rich over poor, and citizen over foreigner.

In short, it gave people a much-needed break—like modern holidays, but cheaper and more effective.

The Dionysian cult spread through the Greek colonies to Rome. In 186 BCE, the Roman Senate severely restricted it, but illicit Bacchanalia persisted, especially in Southern Italy, gradually folding into the much tamer Liberalia in honour of Liber Pater (“Free Father”), the Roman god of wine and fertility who so resembled Bacchus/Dionysus as, eventually, to fold into him.

As with the Dionysian cult, the Liberalia featured a giant phallus, carted through the countryside to fertilize the land and safeguard crops—after which a virtuous Roman matron would crown the phallus with a wreath. “Depravity” also featured in other Roman religious festivals, such as the Floralia, with prostitutes dancing naked, and the Lupercalia, with naked noblemen running through the streets and whipping willing ladies with strips of goatskin.

The 4th-century reign of Constantius II marked the beginning of the formal persecution of paganism by the Christian Roman Empire. But the springtime fertility orgy survived through the centuries, albeit in attenuated forms. At last, unable to suppress it, the Church integrated it into its calendar as Carnival—which, still today, involves the reversal of social norms and roles, licentiousness, and feasting ahead of the deprivations of Lent.

May Day celebrations across Europe and North America trace their origins to the Roman Floralia and corresponding Celtic traditions. In medieval times, people danced around the gigantic phallic symbol of the Maypole before descending into the fields or woods for indiscriminate sex, supposedly to fertilize the land. In 1644, the Puritans outlawed Maypoles in England, with the Long Parliament’s ordinance damning them as “a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness.”

“Ecstasy” literally means “to be or stand outside oneself” (“ex-stasis”). It is a trance-like state in which consciousness of an object is so heightened that the subject dissolves or merges into the object. Albert Einstein himself called it the “mystic emotion” and spoke of it as “the finest emotion of which we are capable,” “the germ of all art and all true science,” and “the core of the true religious sentiment.”

More than ever before, modern society emphasizes the sovereign supremacy of the ego and the ultimate separateness and responsibility of each and every one of us. From a young age, we are taught to remain in tight control of our ego or persona with the aim of projecting it as far out as possible. As a result, we have lost the art of letting go—and indeed, may no longer even recognize the possibility—leading to a poverty or monotony of conscious experience.

As I argue in my new book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, letting go can threaten the life that we have built or even the person that we have become, but it can also free us from our modern narrowness and neediness, and deliver, or re-deliver, us into a bigger and brighter world.

Little children have a quiescent or merged ego, which is why they brim with joy and wonder. Youth and ecstasy are the echoes of a primordial wisdom.

Heaven & Hell 2e cover

A wine rating is a summary of the appraisal of a wine by one or more critics, most notoriously Robert Parker, who assigns ‘Parker points’ on a scale of 0 to 100—although the lowest possible score is 50, scores of less than 70 are rare, and scores of less than 80 are uncommon. Since the 1970s, the practice of rating wines on a 100-point scale has proliferated. Other scales, including 0-to-20 and 0-to-5 (sometimes featuring stars in lieu of numbers), are also frequently used. Certain websites enable consumers to emulate critics by contributing to ‘community’ notes and scores. In competitions, wines are generally tasted blind by a panel of critics, usually alongside other wines from the same appellation or region. In theory, a rating is merely intended to supplement a tasting note; in practice, the tasting note—if it even exists—is often ignored or omitted, with the wine reduced to nothing more than a headline number.

Wine ratings convey information quickly and simply, guiding the purchasing decisions of novices in particular. Assuming strict single-blind conditions at the time of tasting, they reflect performance rather than price or pedigree. Scores can easily be compared, which encourages producers to compete and improve their offerings, and rewards them for doing so. Wines with 90-plus points are much more likely to shift, and those with scores in the high 90s can develop cult followings. Château Tirecul la Gravière in Monbazillac became an overnight reference after Robert Parker gave 100 points to its 1995 Cuvée Madame.

However, wine ratings can be criticized on the triple grounds of concept, procedure, and consequences. While a numerical score can come across as scientific, it merely reflects the personal preferences and prejudices of one or several critics, and it may be that grading wines is as misguided as ranking people in a beauty pageant. For what is beauty, and can it be measured on a stage? Like the contestants in the pageant, the wines are often very young, and scores cannot fully account for the delights and disappointments that they are yet to reveal. In any case, the most beautiful girl or boy is probably not on stage, but sitting at home buried in the Nicomachean Ethics. Many hallowed producers shun competitions, partly on ideological grounds, but mostly because they have little to gain and much to lose.

Scores are influenced not only by personal preferences and prejudices, but also by the context and conditions of the tasting, and, in a panel, by the group dynamics, with junior judges exquisitely sensitive to every ‘um’ and ‘aah’ of the distinguished panel chair. The number that comes out of this process might be of existential import to the producer, who has toiled for a year, indeed, several years, to make his or her wine, but reflects no more than a few seconds of tasting with no or very little time for discussion and debate. In competitions, there is also a financial incentive to dish out medals, which encourage further paid entries and increase sales of medal stickers.

As for consequences, wines with the highest scores fall prey to speculators and are traded like financial commodities, effectively removing them from the market-place. More gravely, ratings tend to favour the sort of wines that are able to stand out on a fatigued, tannin-coated palate, at the expense of more delicate wines, which are likely to be more elegant, more interesting, more faithful to terroir, and better suited to the table. This phenomenon has contributed in no small measure to the homogenization, or ‘Parkerization’, of wine styles as producers vie to obtain the highest scores—though Robert Parker himself stepped back significantly in 2016.

Wine ratings have played an important role in the rise of wine culture, but their grip seems to be loosening, if not quite fading, as consumers become more and more experienced and knowledgeable. To me, a score of 98 can also function as a signal for caution.

Adapted from The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The rock of Solutré

The climate of the Mâconnais is considerably warmer than that of Chablis or even the Côte d’Or. The relief is not as marked as in the Côte d’Or, and vineyards are mixed in with other forms of farming. The most reputed wines are from the south of Mâcon, in an area that rises into three limestone peaks: the Mont de Pouilly, the Roche de Solutré, and the Roche de Vergisson. The Roche de Solutré, which is a prehistoric and pilgrimage site, is picturesque, and well worth the gentle hike to its 493m summit.

Chardonnay predominates in the Mâconnais, but some Gamay and Pinot Noir are also found, especially in areas that are richer in sand and clay. The regional appellations are Mâcon, Mâcon-Villages (white wines only), and Mâcon + commune name. In addition, there are five commune-specific appellations (white wines only): Pouilly-Fuissé, Pouilly-Vinzelles, Pouilly-Loché, and Saint Véran to the south of Mâcon, and Viré-Clessé to the north. The vines are pruned as simple Guyot, with the cane trained in an arc (en arcure), which helps to delay budding (especially of terminal buds) and protect against frost.

Compared to Beaune, most Mâcon is simple and easy to drink, and unlikely to improve with age. That said, certain villages and producers have built a solid reputation and can offer great value for money. The limestone peaks of the Pouilly area belie the geological complexity of the surrounding terroir, with numerous faults and dips associated with at least fifteen distinct soil types. Some of the vineyards around the three peaks are deserving of Premier Cru status, and, in a first for the Mâconnais, there is a project to introduce about twenty. In 1866, Dr Jules Guyot wrote a report for the French ministry of agriculture in which he compared the potential of Meursault to that of Pouilly-Fuissé, and it’s interesting that he put it that way round.

The plan for Premier Crus

As with Chablis, much Mâcon is unoaked. However, Mâcon is less acidic than Chablis. Compared to Beaune and especially to Chablis, it is deeper in colour with riper aromas and a fuller body. The Pouilly wines, which are often lightly oaked, tend to be richer and riper on the one hand, and finer and more complex on the other. Owing to their sought-after smoky, flinty, or ‘wet stone’ character (goût de pierre à fusil), they are, I think, easier to confuse with Chablis than with Beaune. Pouilly-Vinzelles (~40ha) and Pouilly-Loché (~30ha) are exclaves of the much larger Pouilly-Fuissé (~760ha) and the wines from the three appellations are very similar in style. Vinzelles with its two castles was known to the Romans, who called it Vincella, or ‘Small Vine’. The soils in Vinzelles tend to be more ferrous, which can translate into spicier, broader wines. Neighbouring Loché can be labelled as Vinzelles, and is harder to find. Saint-Véran envelopes Pouilly-Fuissé like a scarf (or, to be more precise, like a bun) with wines that tend to a leaner, fresher style. Owing to an administrative cock-up in 1971, the village name is ‘Saint-Vérand’ but the appellation ‘Saint-Véran’, without the ‘d’. Viré-Clessé to the north of Mâcon varies in style, but the best examples, especially from Viré, are easily mistaken for Pouilly-Fuissé—as are the best examples from Saint-Véran.

Notable producers in the Mâconnais include Domaine de la Soufrandière and the related négoce Bret Brothers (very classic regional style), Guffens-Heynen and the related négoce Verget, Ferret, Valette, Chagnoleau, and Rijckaert. It’s all too easy to underestimate the Mâconnais, but the best wines can be as good as anything in Burgundy, at a fraction of the price.

And that’s saying something.