By Per-Henrik Mansson

Let others scream themselves hoarse at ballparks and rock concerts. Wine aficionados like to root for a winemaker who lives and breathes his calling. This is the story of a man who inspires just such support. He is Jean Thévenet, a 52-year-old grower in Burgundy. He’s obsessed with quality and makes terrific, highly distinctive white Burgundy.

The word “passion” could have been coined for him. He scratches out a living in fairly modest terroir in southern Burgundy’s Mâconnais region. Although this is no grand cru real estate, he’s demonstrated that a serious grower can consistently make outstanding Chardonnay there–not a small point to make.

For being a beacon of quality, you’d expect him to be a hero in his own land. Instead, Thévenet has been penalized by French authorities.

Thévenet finds himself the main character in a very French cliffhanger, a provincial vigneron pitted against the Parisian powers that be. The controversy centers on the question of what constitutes politically correct wine in Thévenet’s little corner of Burgundy. 

Last November, the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine effectively voted to exclude Thévenet’s wines from a newly created appellation, Viré-Clessé. That surprised many, as Thévenet is the area’s best-known winemaker. He protested, but to no avail.

The Mâconnais winemakers had petitioned INAO several years ago to grant the loftier communal appellation of Viré-Clessé. It represents a significant step up the status ladder from the lower regional designations, Mâcon-Clessé and Mâcon-Viré, under which Thévenet and his neighbors had sold their Chardonnays. A higher appellation can mean a serious financial windfall, as such promotion often allows wineries to raise prices.

But Thévenet’s wines, having failed to qualify for the higher appellation, will soon be relegated to simple, regional Mâcon-Villages labeling. How could INAO upgrade an appellation and exclude its leading vigneron?

As required by its bylaws, INAO acted in the name of France’s sacred Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. The AOC system is designed to promote and protect quality, where quality is defined as the suitable expression of carefully delimited terroirs. That all sounds good on paper. But if what happened to Thévenet is France’s idea of encouraging quality, then it calls into question how the famous classification system is managed.

You see, as great as Thévenet’s wines are, they just aren’t considered “suitable” expressions of their appellation. So, when INAO approved Viré-Clessé, it decided that this new appellation could only sell dry wines, defined as Chardonnays with a maximum of 0.4 percent residual sugar. But Thévenet has made his–and his appellation’s–fame with several off-dry and late- harvest cuvées, some made from grapes affected by noble rot, or Botrytis cinerea. The residual sugar in his wines ranges from 0.4 percent to 15 percent.

INAO wants every controlled appellation to stand for one clearly defined type of wine. In Viré-Clessé, the institution concluded that Thévenet’s ripe, rich and concentrated wines didn’t fit the mold of the prototypical Mâcon wine. 

Thévenet puts to shame many other producers in the Mâconnais. This is a region dominated by large cooperatives and négociants, overcropping, mass production and machine harvesting. In this industrially oriented wine world, Thévenet marches to a different drummer, an idealist battling on for his vision of quality. 

You won’t see a harvest machine at his two wineries, Domaine de la Bongran in Clessé and Emilian Gillet in Viré. Thévenet harks back to an earlier time. He uses no chemicals to treat his vines, and he harvests by hand. He seeks ultraripe grapes, and thus picks them late. He routinely risks his yearly income, playing the odds that the weather won’t turn foul and ruin his crop.

Thévenet could start making Chardonnays that are dry, lean, neutral. Just the sort of Mâcons that INAO seems to have in mind. At least then he knows his wines would qualify for the new, “superior” communal appellation of Viré-Clessé.

Or he could continue to fight for his ideals. And I will cheer him on.

Per-Henrik Mansson, a Switzerland-based senior editor of Wine Spectator, has been with the magazine for 11 years.

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