Viré-Clessé is an appellation of the Mâconnais in the south of Burgundy. Producing only Chardonnay, the appellation includes vineyards from the villages of Laizé (4.03 square miles), Montbellet (7.64 square miles), and the titular Viré and Clessé communes (4.36 and 3.88 square miles respectively). This makes up about 9.65 square miles, quite a bit but less than the other two major Mâconnais appellations. Approximately 250,000 cases are produced each year, around half that of Pouilly-Fuissé.
There are no Grands Crus or Premiers Crus, as the original makers of the appellation did not apply for these. Thus, everything is determined via the quality of the producer, and secondarily, the lieux-dits. Overall quality is high. As for the actual character of the wine, it is fairly Pouilly-like in style, but ranges from rich and honeyed to fresh but lean. There is no "general style".
Viré and Clessé were originally just villages that could be attached to the Mâcon-Villages label. Quality began to escalate in the latter part of the 20th century, and when growers realized the best of their wines could rival Pouilly-Fuissé, they applied for separate appellation status. This was finally granted in 1999, but the village has quickly caught up and is now more popular than older appellations such as Pouilly-Vinzelles.
Climate and Viticulture
The limestone hills of the Mâconnais are quite common in the villages that make up the Viré-Clessé AOC. The soil is that typical mix of chalky clay that makes Chardonnay great, but unlike in Pouilly-Fuissé there is much less iron influence in the soil. The best vineyards are situated on hillsides and thus get great sun exposure and have a good base of limestone.
- Chardonnay: As usual, this is varietal stuff, 100% Chardonnay or nothing. Defined only by a refusal to be defined, these Mâconnais whites can take on the rather rich, smokily aromatic character of Pouilly-Fuissé, or the citrus-and-herbs, lean but fresh character of the more southerly St-Véran. The best wines usually lean toward the former; it all depends on whether or not the particular producer decides to use oak. If they do, the wines are nutty and buttered with a honey element; if not, they be more spicy. Aging is not necessary, but in the best wines 4-5 years can bring out better character.
Reasonably priced and almost always good, Viré-Clessé wines hardly need a guide. When you're talking about the great wines, though, the list quickly can be cut down. In the end, after eliminating inferior wines and hard-to-find or expensive cuvées, 8 producers are left on our shortlist.
- Domaine de la Bongran: The Cuvée Tradition is one of many of Bongran's cuvées here. Problem is, all others are labeled Mâcon-Villages for technical reasons. The Tradition is highly smoky, with a seductive perfume of exotic yellow fruit from pineapple to melon, strongly spicy aromas, and amazing richness for the appellation.
- Domaine Andre Bonhomme: With fancy script on the bottle and reasonable prices, these wines try to be fashionable Burgundy Chardonnay at a good price. There's not much of a difference between the cuvées, with yellow fruit conflicting with the more floral side of the wine in its first few years. The old-vine example might display a little more complexity, but is also more expensive.
- Bret Brothers: Two lieux-dit wines are commonly seen here: Sous les Plantes, with its noble aromas of smooth yet dry yellow fruit and spices, and the La Verchère. This is the more complex of the two, with a lot of volume to its honeyed but precise yellow and green fruit.
- Domaine Emilian Gillet: This is very good village wine for under $20, its exotic, almost tropical fruit mingling well with pungent floral essence and underlined by a core of powerful but not stark minerality.
- Jean Rijckaert: This ambitious producer makes a whole boatload of Viré-Clessé. The L'Epinet is good but classically intense, needing time to show its greenish apple and yellow fruit flavors. The En Thurissey is similarly intense--odd, for the Mâconnais. The Les Verchères, particularly the old-vine example, is much better, with nutty, obviously oaked aromas of honeyed yellow fruit making for a cuvée of seamless early appeal if little complexity.
- Domaine de Roally: The only wine here is simply called the Tradition. What makes this cuvée unusual is that it is clearly heavily oaked, with rich nut and butter aromas in an almost grilled fashion. Yet underneath, the fruit remains fresh and vibrant, with an almost citrussy tinge.
- Domaine Sainte Barbe: A few separate lieux-dit wines are produced here, but there's no major difference between them. All the wines show strong minerality, as well as almost green, limey fruit, stony minerality and citrus edges. They are close to Chablis in style, actually; light-bodied and vibrant but lean, they need time to show their best.
- Domaine Valette: Pungently perfumed, this producer's leading village wine is odd for its appellation, but nonetheless shows quite characterful fruit flavors of citrussy lemon, peach, and anise, as well as a strong mineral component and almost exotic nuts and spices. This cuvée combines depth and vibrancy well and could certainly be aged.
Unfortunately, with the lack of Grands Crus and Premiers Crus in Viré-Clessé, it's solely up to the lieux-dits to be the arbiters of higher quality. Even they rarely signify much of a difference from the simple village wines or "Tradition" cuvées. The one good shared lieu-dit to remember is Verchère, as from both Bret Brothers and Rijckaert some amazingly good wines are made here.