Friday Focus; Pouilly-Fuissé
Not to be confused with Pouilly-Fume in the central Loire Valley (I used to always mix them up!), today we travel to one of the lesser known corners of Burgundy, France; the Macon. A not so glamorous AOC usually associated with entry-level and easy to drink whites, within the Macon one can discover smaller regions with some surprisingly good wines. 98% of the Macon’s production is Chardonnay, and a huge percentage of that is sub-€8 in the supermarket shelves of France. Pouilly-Fuissé is the appellation that bucks this trend however, producing the best and most expensive Chardonnay in the entirety of the Macon (not a small region mind you!)- But why? What makes it so special?
The Macon district is the southern-most section of Burgundy. In fact, several southern Maconnaise vineyards can also be classed as Beaujolais! Pouilly-Fuissé sits in the south of this region, almost due west of the main city of the district, Mâcon (more a large town really). Only Chardonnay vines can be planted on the limestone-rich clay soils which sit over a granitic base. The 500 metre high limestone escarpment known as the Roche de Solutre is located at the heart of the appellation’s vine-growing area and towers over the vineyards below. This southerly location and the sun-trap south-facing amphitheatre vineyards get more sun than pretty much anywhere else in the whole of Burgundy, which results in Chardonnay that is riper than the majority of its northern examples. The typical Pouilly-Fuisse wine is full-bodied and fruit-forward with typical aromas of stonefruit (nectarine and white peach), hazelnuts, acacia blossom and mineral notes from the limestone soils. Despite their power, the wines are usually relatively elegant, with the best examples rivalling the finer wines of the Cote de Beaune. Their heavier textural weight and body can often lead to them being confused with top-quality, cool climate New World Chardonnays (a trick the Masters of Wine programme has used a few times in previous tests to trip-up unwitting students!). What makes these wines the best in the region however is not just the sun exposure or the soil, but how these two aspects come together; the high limestone content in the soil acts as a mineral foil to the ripe flavours, adding stone and flint elements to the almost tropical fruit spectrum of flavours. In addition to this, the limestone soil is extremely cool, meaning the overnight temperatures drop rapidly after the warm sun sets, preventing the break-down of acids in the grapes as the temperatures drop below 15 degrees Celsius and the vines shut down.
Without the sun and the amphitheatre hills, the wines would be lean, stony and harshly acidic, whereas without the limestone soils, the wines would be fat, full bodied and not very Burgundian. This region is the perfect coming together of two factors to make a wine greater than the sum of each of its parts- in short; both aspects are required to establish all important balance in wines. The complexity of the ripe fruit profile and mineral backbone usually precludes the need for much if any oak ageing in the wines of Pouilly-Fuissé, quite dissimilar to Chardonnays from further north- usually one year in oak is all that is needed, and many producers choose to use older oak to encourage balance and melding of flavours rather than to impart oakey characters in the final wine.
The use of the name Pouilly-Fuisse as its own appellation dates back officially to September 1936, however there are records using the name that date back to December 1922. There are no legislated quality designations in this region like the Premier and Grand Cru vineyards in Burgundian regions further to the north, therefore Pouilly-Fuissé is a region where enthusiasts must get to know specific producers rather than rely on vineyard names such as Grands Echezeaux or Montrachet to establish an average wine quality (one of my favourites is the Chateau de Fuissé). As I write this piece however, several key producers (including the Chateau mentioned above) who own or buy fruit from the most-respected vineyards such as La Roche, Les Vignes Blanches, Aux Chailloux and Les Crays are lobbying the BIVB (Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne– basically the legislative board charged with representing and defending the interests of Bourgogne producers as well as upholding the standards of these producers so that wines are of an established quality) in order to push these top-quality vineyards to be classified as Premier Crus. Who knows-one day we may even see one or two of the best vineyards finally achieve Grand Cru status!
Wine Sales Manager