Like an old flame that never really died, America's love affair with Pouilly-Fuisse is about to be reignited. Although not much in fashion today, Pouilly-Fuisse was the first white Burgundy that Americans truly embraced. This was back in the 1970s, at the very beginning of the wine boom, when most Americans were still drinking Almaden Chablis, Gallo Hearty Burgundy and Lancer's bubbly sweet rose. Pouilly-Fuisse was the French wine we turned to when maturing tastes and increasing incomes spurred our desire to explore beyond the screw-top.
Some say it was because the name (pronounced "pooyee fweeSAY") has a nice ring to it. Ever insecure about their level of wine knowledge, Americans like wines with names they can easily pronounce and remember, especially with the waiter hovering over them. While Pouilly-Fuisse certainly had that, the real attraction was probably more fundamental--Pouilly-Fuisse was the first really attractive Chardonnay to hit our collective palate.
Given the ubiquity of Chardonnay today, it may be hard to believe there was once a time when almost no one knew what it was. In the 1970s however, the California wine industry was still in its infancy, and only pioneers like Robert Mondavi, Sterling Vineyards, Chateau St. Jean, Burgess Cellars and a few others were truly committed to making world class wines, including Chardonnay. As far as France goes, connoisseurs knew of the great white Burgundies of the Cote d'Or, such as Puligny-Montrachet, Corton and Meursault, but only the last had much appeal beyond the cognoscenti, and all were expensive.
Also, by tradition, the Burgundians didn't label their wine as Chardonnay. In fact, neither did the producers of Pouilly-Fuisse, a small enclave within the larger region known as Macon, located 80 miles south of the Cote d'Or, just above Beaujolais. But they didn't have to. Unlike the typically more austere wines of the Cote d'Or, Pouilly-Fuisse shouted Chardonnay. Pouilly-Fuisse's style of Chardonnay is opulent, ripe, redolent of fresh apples, with a round, lush finish, and often has a bit of oak to harmonize with the fruit. Sound familiar? Think California, a little Kendall-Jackson, a bit of Mondavi, Sonoma-Cutrer and a host of other popular and well-made modern California Chardonnays. To sum it up, Pouilly-Fuisse was California before it was cool.
But not exactly like California, and that's what scuttled the budding romance. No one can make California Chardonnay like the Californians, and over time Pouilly-Fuisse began to look more like a pale imitation of the exciting new wines from the Golden State. As California wines got better and better, the public responded by marching over to the California aisle. While Pouilly-Fuisse didn't help itself by raising prices, the real problem was that Americans wanted something bolder and even fruitier, and California did that better.
But now, times have changed. Pouilly-Fuisse has moderated its pricing. And Americans have been-there-and-done-that on the big brassy style of Chardonnay. That makes for just the right atmosphere for a re-acquaintance with Pouilly-Fuisse. Ironically, what made Pouilly-Fuisse so attractive before is exactly what makes it so appealing today. It's still the most California-like white wine produced in Burgundy, delectably opulent and fruity at its best. On the other hand, it is unmistakably Burgundian with a subtle interplay of minerally notes, exotic fruit and the fine balance between acidity and fruit that is the trademark of great European wines.
The following half-dozen wines were my personal favorites from a tasting of 22 Pouilly-Fuisses. Prices are approximate. Retailers may order from the wholesaler listed in parentheses.
Domaine La Soufrandise 1997 Pouilly-Fuisse "Vieilles Vignes" ($25): This is the Domaine's top-of-line Vielles Vignes cuvee made from 70-year- old vines. The fruit surges from the glass, but an undercurrent of complex mineral and smoke notes puts this with top-grade Burgundy. Absolutely superb. (William-Harrison Imports, the importer, is sold out of the 1997 vintage, but the 1998s will arrive shortly. Retail stock only on 1997.)
Domaine Cordier 1997 Pouilly-Fuisse "Les Vignes Blanc" ($37): Superb balance of intense fruit, bracing acidity and complex flavors come at a high price. (Peter Weygandt Selection/Bacchus)
Michel Delorme 1997 Pouilly-Fuisse "La Vieille Vigne de la Marechaude" ($19): Easy to enjoy, forward fruit leads to a lush, nicely oaked finish. (Kysela)
Domaine Saumaize-Michelin 1997 Pouilly-Fuisse "Vigne Blanche" ($19): Delectably mouth-filling fruit nicely polished by oak. Impressive. (Kysela)
Louis Jadot 1998 Pouilly-Fuisse ($22): Jadot rarely misses a trick these days, and of the many negociant wines tasted (including Drouhin, Laboure-Roi, Leonard St. Aubin and others), this was the only one of estate-bottled quality. Fine, un-oaked style. (Kobrand/Forman Brothers)
Gilles Noblet 1997 Pouilly-Fuisse "Domaine de la Collonge" ($16): Excellent value, this wine has apple-like fruit set off by hints of fresh herbs and mineral. (Franklin Selections)