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This Mâcon estate was one of Joe Dressner's and Denyse Louis's first additions to their nascent import book: they tasted there in 1987 and were smitten with these unusually rich, complex white Burgundies from vigneron Jean Thévenet. Today, his son Gautier carries on the production of Chardonnay from the original estate vineyard, Bongran, in Viré-Clissé, as well as from the newer addition to the estate, the Domaine de Roally. Jean’s father began piecing Bongran together after WWI, starting with 2 hectares, and making and bottling his wine, which was rare at that time. Today Bongran remains small at only 4 hectares of organically farmed vines on a limestone ridge overlooking the Saone River. The vineyard is populated exclusively with old Chardonnay clones, treated minimally with only copper and sulfur, and the vines range up to 80 years old. The name "Bongran" has been attributed to a couple of different sources, but Jean's research revealed it to be a reference to a priest by the name of Bongran who once owned some of the vines. The 4 hectares of Roally, also in Viré-Clessé though not contiguous with Bongran, were added to the Thévenet holdings in 2000, when its proprietor and a friend of Jean’s, Henri Goyard, retired and wanted to leave his old vines in good hands.
Jean’s son Gautier has stayed true to the family farming and winemaking history. Bongran was always organic—it was far too expensive to add any chemicals to the farming back in his grandfather’s day—and has been certified organic since 2010. The chalky-clay marne (marl) drains and dries out well, which is a benefit in the damp, humid microclimate of this gentle south-southeast-facing slope near the Saone River. But it is tricky too, because it gets quite sticky and difficult to work when wet and then becomes a hard shell when dry. Gautier lets wild plants like mustard thrive between and around the vines to help break it up and does also manually work the soil in some vintages. Any machine work or harvest is impossible here. Thévenet has always harvested late and the site is botrytis-prone. That special combination of late harvest plus touches of botrytis adds up to an old-school, rich, complex style of wine for their only annual bottling, the Cuvée Tradition.
The uniqueness of the Bongran style is magnified by the Thévenet way in the cellar. There is a minimum of intervention. The late-harvest fruit comes in quite high in sugar. After destemming, the pressing is quite gentle and with only a tiny amount of sulfur; the settling of the must lasts through the winter, making for a long “winter rest” and slow clarification in the cold cellar. The coming of spring kicks off fermentation in tank spontaneously –malolactic occurs along the way during alcoholic fermentation—and it is allowed to go until it ends naturally, generally for a year and up to two years, usually with a few grams of residual sugar. The wine is then bottled and aged for about five years before release. No oak is ever part of the process. Very occasionally under very particular conditions, Thevenet also produces long-aged, truly sweet wines—of two types, one being fully botrytized and the other from healthy later-harvest fruit—that are of a complexity and age-worthiness comparable to fine Sauternes.
The very traditional Bongran wines are the true Thévenet distinction in Viré-Clessé, but their Roally is also an important part of their estate. These 4 hectares—purchased from old family friend and like-minded vigneron Henri Goyard--are farmed identically to the home Bongran vineyard. The terroir is different, with more typically Burgundian clay-limestone soils, and the harvest earlier and without botrytis; the fermentation and aging of the wine, a single bottling under the Domaine de Roally label, are markedly shorter (and also only in tank, no wood). The end result is a dry Chardonnay, classic and clean in style. The Thévenet Viré-Clessé bottlings, Bongran and Roally, are expressive of their two different terroirs through the lens of a single, strong family tradition that imparts distinctive character to both wines.