The Nazis were responsible for the lack of Premier Cru vineyards in Pouilly-Fuissé. As Frédéric Burrier, the head of the Pouilly-Fuissé growers’ organization, explains: In the 1940s, in Occupied France, the Germans could requisition village wines, but had to pay for ones, at least theoretically, from a higher classification. At that time the only higher classification was Grand Cru. Premier Cru did not exist. So, growers there formalized the generally accepted classification of the better sites into a Premier Cru category that ranked above the village level. Pouilly-Fuissé sat in so-called “Free France” (or Vichy France), where the Germans had to pay for all wines, even those with only a village classification. Hence, there was no impetus for the growers to create a Premier Cru category. Contrast that with neighboring Montagny in the Côte Chalonnaise, just over the dividing line. Seventy-five percent of the vineyards became—and still are—Premier Cru.
It’s not as though there were no better situated vineyards in Pouilly-Fuissé, which was, and still is, the most important appellation in the Mâconnais, in southern Burgundy. Of course there were. Everyone agrees that Pouilly-Fuissé has plenty of superior vineyards that long ago should have been classified as Premier Cru. The problem, as is often the case in parochial Burgundy, was that growers could not agree on where to draw the lines.
Even a cursory look around the iconic cliffs, Roche de Solutré and Roche de Vergisson, reveals the plethora of exposures of the vineyards. Some must be better locales than others in this broad amphitheater that spreads over four villages, Solutré-Pouilly, Fuissé, Chaintré and Vergisson. Just as the topography changes abruptly, so does the soil in this part of Burgundy. Just a mile away over the next ridge, in Beaujolais, schist predominates, which is far better suited to Gamay than Chardonnay. But in Pouilly-Fuissé the soil, although variable, is primarily limestone and clay, similar to the Côte d’Or, and an ideal environment for Chardonnay, the only grape allowed in the appellation.
Now, 75-plus years later, that glaring mistake has been corrected. The French wine authority, the French National Institute of Origin and Quality (INAO), has recognized 22 vineyards in Pouilly-Fuissé appellation that merit Premier Cru status. The official timeline from submission to approval was lightning-fast by French bureaucratic standards: a decade. Burrier, who also is the head of Château de Beauregard, one of Pouilly Fuissé’s leading domaines, noted that it took another decade of work prior to the submission to convince his fellow growers of the value of the endeavor. The long process was necessary to allow the growers to become comfortable with the hierarchy of Premier Cru and to deal with the politics that inevitably arise when drawing boundaries.
The selection and delineation of the vineyards was stringent. Officials relied on soil analysis and a history of the quality of the wines, including how they developed over time, from candidate sites. Only about 25 percent of the total vineyard area of Pouilly-Fuissé is now designated as Premier Cru. Compare this with Premier Cru designation in the Côte d’Or: roughly 33 percent of Chambolle-Musigny is Premier Cru. Morey-St. Denis’ Premier Cru sites comprise about 40 percent of the vineyard area, and 75 percent of Beaune vineyards carry that designation.
The Premier Cru designation will appear on Pouilly-Fuissé labels starting with the 2020 vintage. Paradoxically, despite adding 22 names to the lexicon, the new designation eliminates confusion. Heretofore, a consumer would not know whether the name on the label was from a revered vineyard site, an ordinary piece of land, or a fantasy or brand name. Now they will—because all of the top sites will carry the Premier Cru moniker. A complete listing of new Premier Cru vineyards appears at the end of this article.
The new designation adds prestige to Pouilly-Fuissé in general because now, after all these years, it will share the same hierarchy as the rest of Burgundy. The upgrade, the first addition of Premier Cru vineyards in Burgundy since 1943, marks the beginning of a new era for the entire Mâconnais region, according to Burrier. Growers in neighboring St-Véran, for example, have already started the process of applying for Premier Cru status for some of that village’s vineyards. Super-star producers from the Côte d’Or, such as Dominique Lafon, Domaine Leflaive and Maison Louis Jadot, have invested heavily in the Mâconnais. More are sure to follow, especially as prices for vineyard land in the Côte d’Or remain in the stratosphere.
Audrey Braccini, winemaker and director at Domaine J. A. Ferret, another top domaine, believes that the new classification recognizes the quality of the wines from Pouilly-Fuissé and puts them on the same rank as other white wine appellations in Burgundy. At Ferret, they are deciding how their labeling will evolve. Traditionally, Domaine Ferret has always focused on individual climats (vineyards) using a time-honored, but somewhat confusing hierarchical ladder of “hors classé” and “tête de cuvée.” Those terms may disappear and their Tournant de Pouilly bottling, for example, currently an “hors classé,” could be labeled a Premier Cru, Les Reisses, because the grapes come from that vineyard.
Beaune-based négociants, who are responsible for roughly 70 percent of the wine produced in Pouilly-Fuissé, will also need to adjust to the new classification. Bernard Retournaz, head of Louis Latour, USA, told me that Maison Louis Latour, a top négociant, has contracts with two growers, each of whom has holdings in one of the newly designated Premier Cru vineyards, and will likely bottle those wines separately. Conversely, Frédéric Barnier, winemaker at Maison Louis Jadot, which also owns Domaine Ferret, will not bottle any Premier Cru Pouilly-Fuissé under the Jadot label, at least at this time, though he held out the possibility that they may do so in the future.
How exactly the new classification will change the quality and price of village Pouilly-Fuissé in the future remains to be determined because there are so many factors affecting the market today. Certainly, Pouilly-Fuissé Premier Crus will be more expensive than the village wines. Though prices have not yet been set, consumers should expect to pay at least 20 percent more for Premier Cru Pouilly-Fuissé from top growers or négociants. In many cases, though, consumers may see little or no increase because Pouilly-Fuissé from top sites, such as Le Clos or Les Perrières, already cost more, even without the official Premier Cru designation.
Theoretically, the quality of village Pouilly-Fuissé could fall as wine from Premier Cru vineyards that previously went into the village bottling is now bottled separately. Retournaz thinks that’s unlikely because climate change has helped previously marginal sites in Pouilly-Fuissé, so that overall quality is up. Both Burrier and Braccini are adamant that they would still include Premier Cru wines in their village cuvées to maintain the quality of their village Pouilly-Fuissé. They think their village wines could outshine some Premier Crus made by some of their neighbors. Barnier insists that Jadot will maintain the quality of what he describes as their “premium” Pouilly-Fuissé.
Pricing of village Pouilly-Fuissé will be a different matter and impossible to predict. Estimates indicate that about 70 percent of the overall production of Pouilly-Fuissé goes to the United States, and as such, it is almost a brand. The large importers and distributors exert enormous pressure to keep the price constant and reasonable. The 25 percent Trump tariff and the closure of restaurants due to Covid-19 have reduced demand, at least temporarily. As a result, the prices négociants are paying growers for bulk wine is down, according to Burrier. However, upward pressure on prices may be on the horizon if growers decide to bottle more Premier Cru, removing it from the bulk market. As the French would say, on verra (we’ll see).
The new Premier Cru stratification is a splendid opportunity for consumers to experience the magic of Burgundian terroir at reasonable prices. Burgundy so fascinates me because wines made using the same winemaking techniques from the same grape variety grown in adjacent vineyards taste different. It’s the magic of nature. That discovery has become impossibly expensive using wines from the Côte d’Or. However, the same magic exists in Pouilly-Fuissé. So, I urge consumers to taste two or three Pouilly-Fuissé Premier Crus from the same producer to discover for yourself the stunning effect of nature.
Despite the plethora of new vineyard names to learn, my advice for Pouilly-Fuissé remains that for Burgundy in general: producer, producer, producer. Here’s my short list of favorite domaines: Château de Beauregard, Château de Fuissé, Domaine Auvigue, Domaine Ferret, Domaine Jacques Saumaize, Domaine La Soufrandière, Domaine Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon, and Domaine Roger Lassarat. If the domaine wines are not available in your market, do not overlook those from the following négociants, whose wines are consistently good, well-priced and widely available: Maison Bouchard Père et Fils, Bret Brothers, Maison Joseph Drouhin, Maison Louis Jadot, Maison Louis Latour, and J. J. Vincent.
Under Vichy, and for the past 75 years, you couldn’t tell which were the best sites in Pouilly-Fuissé. Now you can.
The new Pouilly-Fuissé Premier Cru Vineyards, by village:
Le Clos de Monsieur Noly
Le Clos Reyssier
Les Vignes Blanches
Le Clos de Solutré
Vers Cras (the vineyard spans Solutré-Pouilly and Fuissé)
Sur La Roche
E-mail me your thoughts about Pouilly-Fuissé at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein and on Instagram.
September 30, 2020