Even if you already know that Pouilly-Fuissé is white wine from the Burgundy region of France made entirely from the Chardonnay grape, you might not know that an arbitrary border drawn during World War II is partially responsible for its best wines not being held in the same esteem as those in northern Burgundy.
During a wine dinner at The Westin Grand Cayman Resort, Domaine Ferret winemaker Audrey Braccini said the reason the best Pouilly-Fuissé vineyards didn’t get premier cru designations had to do with the way France was divided after German occupation in 1940.
The demarcation line left everything north of Chalon-sur-Sâone – including all of the Côte d’Or – occupied by Germany, with everything else falling in the free zone controlled by the Vichy France government. Because the regular German army was given permission to requisition any wine that wasn’t classified premier cru or grand crus made by producers inside the occupied zone, Côte d’Or winemakers quickly classified as many of the top vineyards as they could with the premier cru designation, which until that time hadn’t existed in Burgundy.
Since there was no reason do to that in the free zone of southern Burgundy, no vineyards in the Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais or Beaujolais regions were classified as premier crus.
This meant, among other things, fewer restrictions in the winemaking process in designated appellations, although white Burgundy still had to be made entirely from Chardonnay grapes and the resulting wine had to be at least 11 percent alcohol.
That fact, however, does not mean that wines of quality equal or surpassing premier crus from the Côte d’Or aren’t produced in southern Burgundy, and that is especially true in Pouilly-Fuissé.
Founded in 1840, Domaine Ferret is one of the oldest wine estates in Pouilly-Fuissé. Throughout its history, Domaine Ferret has only had women winemakers, with Braccini coming on board in 2008, the same year the winery was purchased by the winery Louis Jadot.
Braccini said that after the war, Domaine Ferret’s Madame Jeanne Ferret made a series of decisions that helped establish a quality standard at the winery, and ultimately throughout Pouilly-Fuissé, which up until that time produced bulk wines.
“She had a good palate and she realized the vineyards in Pouilly-Fuissé were not all the same, and at the same level,” she said. “She decided to keep separate [the grapes from particular vineyards] as they do in the north [of Burgundy]. She was the first to do it in Pouilly-Fuissé.”
By producing some single vineyard wines that were bottled on the estate, Madame Ferret created premier cru-like wines, even if such a classification didn’t exist. Instead, she established her own unofficial classifications – tête de cru and hors classe – to signify higher quality.
Today, Domaine Ferret produces seven different wines, ranging from the standard Pouilly-Fuissé – which Braccini calls “the ambassador” – to single vineyard tête de crus. Two of the latter, from the vineyards Les Perrières and Les Clos, were served at the Westin wine dinner. Although produced from vineyards that are situated a short distance from each other, they are two very distinct wines, an indication the complexities of terroir in Pouilly-Fuissé are just as pronounced as they are in the Côte de Beaune, where some of the world’s best Chardonnays are produced.
When she first started at Domaine Ferret, Braccini – who had been working with the Gamay grape in Beaujolais previously – did not think the transition to Chardonnay would be difficult.
“When I got here, I thought it should be easy,” she said with a laugh. “It’s one area, one grape and one appellation.”
She found out differently.
“It’s anything but easy.”
The difficulty lies in working with grapes grown in an area less than 8 square miles, but where 15 different soil types exist, with sand, alkaline clay, marl, granite and limestone all significantly present with a variety of minerals.
As a result, the characteristics of the grapes grown in the Pouilly-Fuissé appellation – which incorporates four small villages – can differ substantially from vineyard to vineyard. Bringing out the best of the grapes from each of Domaine Ferret’s many vineyard plots would be a challenge for any winemaker, but it’s one Braccini eagerly – and passionately – embraces.
Over her years at Domaine Ferret, Braccini has come to love the Pouilly-Fuissé appellation.
“I like this part of Burgundy and the sun you can find in the south,” she said, adding that the warmer climate makes for riper fruit and a easier drinking wines that often display flavors of peaches or mangoes mixed with spices like ginger and vanilla.
“The wines from the north [of Burgundy] are more aristocratic. The wines from Pouilly-Fuissé are more friendly,”she said. “That’s the purity of the Chardonnay grape; it gives you the truth of the place.”
There’s an effort, of which Braccini has been a part, to create a premier cru classification in Pouilly-Fuissé and sometime in the next few years, some of the vineyards in the appellation are expected to receive the designation. Braccini believes it has been well earned.
“It’s an appellation that deserves as much respect those in the north,” she said.