Famous for their smoky mixture of yellow fruit flavors with more exotic spice and nut notes, the wines of Pouilly-Fuissé have emerged as the top white Burgundies outside the Côte de Beaune escarpment. Usually, they offer fractionally lower prices than Côte de Beaune boutique offerings, with proportionally more quality for the dollars. Certain cuvées have a dogged cult following, and the reputation of this area is growing to make it one of the most popular choices for Chardonnay in the world.
The Pouilly-Fuissé appellation is a trifle misleading in that there is no village of the same name. Rather, it is a composite of the four villages thought to make prime Mâconnais: Chaintré (1.28 square miles), Vergisson (2.23 square miles), Fuissé (1.88 square miles), and Solutré-Pouilly (2.38 square miles). This adds up to 7.77 square miles of village land--but due to the amazing viability of almost all land in these villages to produce wine, this ends up making for a record 1,871 acres of vineyard land.
The amazingly high amount of land used in Pouilly-Fuissé makes it the largest appellation in Burgundy in terms of production--around 430,000 cases each year. For the record, that's over five million bottles. Also, there are no Premiers Crus. One would think, then, that quality in Pouilly-Fuissé would be a gamble, but the magic of the village is that most wines rarely fail to deliver the special flavors that the appellation so often promises.
In 1936, the region was already known, but regulators cut out a few less esteemed parcels of land when making it into an appellation, and thus the Pouilly-Loche and Pouilly-Vinzelles appellations were made. Regulators also made the decision not to create Premiers Crus, and lieux-dits would later rise to prominence in a manner much reminiscent of the Grands Crus Corton and Clos de Vougeot.
Climate and Viticulture
The villages themselves are located southwest of the city of Mâcon, like all of the wine-producing appellations of that region. Oddly, they are actually located rather far away from each other, rather than being close together like most other villages joined in an appellation are. Rainfall and climate, then, vary slightly among the villages, not to mention the altitude of the hills on which most of the best vineyards are located.
AOC regulators selected for the Pouilly-Fuissé appellation only the land that was covered in the best soil. Rich in alkaline, the soils mainly consist of clay but have the limestone base that characterizes most hills in the area. The combination of the mineral-rich soil, which also is laced with iron in some parts, with the underlying structure of the limestone, is what makes white Burgundy so grand--and even if Pouilly-Fuissé doesn't have the altitude or coverage to rival Montrachet's perfection, it certainly makes a stylish Chardonnay.
- Chardonnay: Since 1936, all wines legally bottled Pouilly-Fuissé are 100% varietal Chardonnay. The wines are known for what's considered to be a smoky essence. Overcoating all of the flavors and making them, to Pouilly's fans, more alluring and defined, the smoky flavor is derived neither from oak nor any other part of the viticultural process, but is simply the way Pouilly Chardonnay comes out. The flavors that underly the smoky texture often include yellow fruit, from zesty apple and citrus in the less oaked wines to rich, honeyed pear and pineapple in the exotic, heavily oaked cuvées. Nutty, buttery nuances can come through in the most oaky wines, all but overshadowing the vibrant yellow fruit which is considered to define Chardonnay. The other main Pouilly-Fuissé flavor is spice, which isn't entirely rare for white Burgundy but reaches peaks of definition in this appellation. Exotic herbs such as ginger can complement the fruit, mingling with the smoke to create an altogether unusual white wine. These wines can be drunk young, but 3-5 years' aging might well lead to additional vibrancy in the flavors.
Quality in Pouilly-Fuissé is not guaranteed due to the size of the appellation, the amount of wine produced, and the lack of any Premier Cru designations. All wine is Chardonnay and must have 11% alcohol, but other than that, there are no rules. This is an odd situation for French wine, which is usually tightly regulated, but the freer system has apparently worked well for the best of the Pouilly-Fuissé growers.
We consider 16 producers to be leading, and most of their prices are fairly reasonable, at least in comparison to the intimidating price tags of white Côte de Beaune. Here is a list of these producers along with descriptions of their best wines.
- Daniel et Martine Barraud: This producer makes a number of cuvées from different vineyards. En France showcases consistent flavors of smoky citrus fruit, honey, and a powerful underlying minerality that keeps the wine monstrously precise. Les Crays is another of the greats, turning in more generously ripe flavors of exotic fruits, but also exhilarating mineral clarity. Recent vintages of La Roche have been unusually good, with almost salty minerality to complement vibrant citrus, and powerful, freshly vibrant yellow fruit. The old-vine cuvée En Buland is the most powerful and complex, with incredibly ripe citrus fruit and stony minerality, underlined by a classic Pouilly smoky element.
- Bret Brothers: A name often seen in any discussion of the Mâconnais, Bret Brothers is a fairly new producer that makes three cuvées in the prestigious Pouilly-Fuissé appellation. The En Carementrant is smoky and intense, emphasizing a mineral side. The Le Clos Reyssie is the best, notable for its concentrated fruit flavors combining with minerality to make a smoky wine of incredible texture and power.
- Château de Beauregard: Many reliable cuvées are made here. These include powerfully minerally, spicy and herbal Aux Charmes, stern but well-focused La Marechaude, richly exotic, honeyed Les Issarts, smoky and brooding Vers Cras, ripe Vers Pouilly, and rich yet citrussy Vignes Blanches. Styles vary between cuvée and vintage, but they tend to be classically made with the signature smoky tinge.
- Château Fuissé: One of the most established, and certainly one of the best, producers in Pouilly-Fuissé. Since the cuvées have almost without exception been around for decades, their flavors are consistent and they can be counted on for good fruit. The old-vine non-lieu-dit wine is exciting, with intensely buttered yet quite vibrant and lively fruit flavors. The Les Combettes is one of the better lieux-dits, showing greenish fruit and powerful if slightly undefined floral aromas. The Le Clos is a mainstay, with smoky herbs that mix alluringly with deep yellow and green fruit and spicy oak tones. Still, the Les Brûles is the flagship cuvée here, with its smoky palate of heavily oaked fruit showing buttery and herbal nuances. Often the most complex Pouilly-Fuissé with a few years of aging.
- Château des Rontets: Here the Clos Varambon is the least established, but in better vintages it is amazingly ripe and buttered yet has plenty of well-defined yellow fruit. Quality is close between the Les Birbettes and the Pierrefolle, the former showing powerfully perfumed spice and yellow fruit in an amazingly deep, thick style, and the latter concentrating much more on floral and mineral precision. Both would be interesting to age.
- Domaine de la Chapelle: The most high-profile wine here is the golden Les Grands Climats, with nobly honeyed yellow fruit mixing with sweet, buttered Meursault-like smells and smoky, intense minerality. Yet it is often outdone by the old-vine village example, which has much more vibrancy in its citrus fruit, if a little bitterness at first. The latter would be better aged, and yet can often show incredible liveliness with a few years.
- Dominique Cornin: The village example here is above average, but the Clos Reyssie is better for its definitively smoky flavors of rich fruit and positively oaky spice and vanilla scents. More interesting but less appealing citrussy nuances populate the greener but spicy Les Chevrières, but with the right amount of aging this wine's intensity and exhilarating vibrancy might prove it the better of the two.
- Robert Denogent: Amazing complexity and volume are found in the Cuvée Claude Denogent, perhaps because it is made from old vines; stony minerality combines well with smoky yellow fruit and soil nuances here. The La Croix can be better, though its heavier exotic aromas are not for all tastes. The Les Reisses is similarly exotic but has a bit more character. Still, the Les Carrons must be the best wine here, for its complexity and depth. Although one of the most oak-influenced cuvées of Pouilly-Fuissé, its buttery and nutty aromas combine well with powerful citrus and minerality for a greatly balanced Chardonnay.
- Eric Forest: Here the Haut de Crays is notable for its smoky minerality and unusually exotic yellow fruit notes. The La Côte is fresh and citrussy, but more harsh and intense. The Les Crays is more ripe and buttered but still has underlying force.
- Domaine Guffens Heynen: Though these wines are not always available, they are quite consistent. Tris des Hautes de Vignes is one of the better ones, with its fresh citrus and floral flavors mixing well to produce a cuvée of great purity and vibrancy. Powerful as this is, the Clos des Petits Croux often outdoes it, with honeyed yellow and green fruit overhung by smokiness. As a small-production wine this is hard to find and expensive but often worth it.
- Domaine Roger Lassarat: Ever-present in the Mâconnais, Lassarat is one of the top producers in Pouilly-Fuissé. In some vintages there are "Cuvée Unique" models from the lieux-dits, and these usually display exceptional purity. On a regular basis, their best climats are Clos des France, with its freshly minty if a bit lean yellow and green fruit aromas, and La Côte.
- Olivier Merlin: The village wine here is excellent, with oaky, exotic flavors. The Clos des Quarts is honeyed and exotic yet smoky, an intriguing concoction. Terroir de Vergisson might be the best; combining intensely vibrant, Chablis-like citrus fruit with more exotic, generous yellow fruit notes, it has the typical Pouilly smoky overlay for a traditional yet innovative style.
- Jean Rijckaert: Rijckaert's Pouilly-Fuissé offerings are with few exceptions outstanding, even the clear, well-defined and fruity village wine. All the Rijckaert climats in this appellation have old vines. Les Bouthières shows citrus notes obscured by floral elegance and good sweetness. The Les Chailloux is a bit more rounded, with a smokier texture to the same bitter fruit and powerful herb nuances. The Les Croux is another step up, with honeyed and exotic but yet still herbal notes of yellow fruit, and almost spicy undertones. The Vers Chanes is yet better, with a clearer smoke element but more oaky richness for its flavors of herbs and somewhat spicy, unusual peach and pear fruit. Still, the En Bulands has to be the signature wine for its superior vibrancy and aromatic power. Forcefully pungent, with almost wild peach and citrus notes mingling with sweeter honey aromas, it still has a clear smoke element. One of the top wines of its appellation, this could continue to evolve for an unusual 10 years.
- Domaine Jacques et Nathalie Saumaize: From this consistent domaine, even the basic old-vine village wine shows amazing green citrus flavors, bitter but smoky and well-concentrated. Among lieux-dits, La Roche has riper citrus with spicy undertones, and adds a bit more balance to the mix. Les Courtelongs is the flagship, though, for its more exotic yellow fruit, combined effortlessly with smoky, cooked notes, floral elegance, and biting minerality for the appellation.
- Domaine Saumaize-Michelin: The Vignes Blanches is spicy and has some strong minerality and dryness to make the fruit aromas a bit less pungent. Clos Sur la Roche is a step up, dense and fresh with only slightly citrussy yellow fruit and unimposing smoky minerality. The Ronchevats attempts a richer style; its notes of herbs and sweeter, almost soil-driven fruit mingle well with the typical smoky element and minerality. Still, the bizarrely named Ampelopsis lieu-dit manages to make a wine of even more smokiness and complexity, with rich yellow fruit and a powerful floral element. One of the most elegant cuvées of Pouilly-Fuissé, this can age.
- Verget: Last but not least. Verget is one of the most widespread producers of Burgundy, making white wine in the Côte de Beaune and Chablis as well. The Mâconnais are their headquarters and Pouilly-Fuissé makes for some of the best wines. The basic village wine is simple and citrussy but fresh and not overoaked. There are a number of lieux-dits, and all the good ones are marked by village. Fuissé is ripe and quite powerful in style, with greenish, citrussy fruit. From Solutré-Pouilly, the La Mure has golden notes of ripe, vibrant yellow fruit and amazing floral power as well. The Les Combes can also be interesting. But the Vergisson wines are the best, even the basic one, with its silky richness and un-Pouilly-like minerality. The La Roche from Vergisson is tip-top, with its amazingly powerful perfume of yellow and green citrus fruit and herbs and its unoaked vibrancy and clarity. Longer aging than average is possible.
The lack of Grands Crus and Premiers Crus in Pouilly-Fuissé means that everything is based around lieux-dits. As a result, the role of the producer rather than the vineyard becomes more important. Still, there are some lieux-dits that are considered very important here.
From Barraud and Rijckaert the En Buland vineyard produces magical old-vine cuvées, making it probably the best of its kind, but there are dozens of other common ones that can make for great wine. A few examples include La Roche, Vignes Blanches, Clos Reyssie, La Croix (often spelled different ways), and La Côte.