One day soon, a giant container ship, most likely one travelling out of Le Havre in northwest France, will dock at an East Coast port. Its cargo will be unloaded, segmented into its parts and delivered to its various destinations. A few days later, a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé Premier Cru 2020 will be unpackaged, tagged, priced, and placed on a shelf of a yet-to-be-determined wine shop somewhere near where I live. It’s a bottle I have been waiting for more than 10 years.
As a wine writer of some years, one of the most fascinating opportunities I have is to see interesting stories unfold – sometimes as quickly as over the course of a long afternoon, sometimes as slowly as 10 years, which has been the case with that bottle of Pouilly. And that story is still unfolding.
It was in November 2012 while attending the annual the Hospices de Beaune that I heard there would be a Pouilly-Fuissé presentation that afternoon at the Palais de Congress, an event that wasn’t on my schedule. The subject was how the white-wine region of the Mâcon was working its way to being granted Premier Cru status about 80 years after other areas of Burgundy, including those on the Côtes d’Or, had been granted theirs in 1942.
My kneejerk reaction was, “won’t happen.” Wholesale ranking changes don’t take place in France’s most rigid appellations – Burgundy and Bordeaux’s Left Bank – although there have been rare adjustments on a case-by-case basis. While it is commonplace to add new sub-appellations to many regions, or to have a process allowing gradual elevations, such as happens in the Rhône Valley, only in a few places, and especially in Bordeaux’s Saint-Émilion, are the rankings routinely reevaluated and reshuffled, generally with disastrous and vigorously contested results. Elevating several of Pouilly-Fuissé vineyards to Premier Cru ranking didn’t seem likely.
The main speaker and organizer for the presentation was a Mâconnais winemaker named Frédéric Marc Burrier, owner of Maison Joseph Burrier. In his presentation (one with many colorful maps) and later in a conversation I had with him, Burrier was certain that select Pouilly-Fuissé climats
or vineyards would soon receive 1er Cru ranking from the French regulator, the INAO. He thought – but was not as certain – it could happen as early as the 2014 vintage. “We believe that Mâcon has the same potential as the Côte d’Or,” Burrier said in a burst of regional pride, noting that the elevation process had already been in the works since 2007, with 11 climats
identified as probable candidates.
As with many things French, Burrier was correct in his assumption, but incorrectly optimistic on the matter of timing. In early 2013, not long after the meeting, I wrote an article about Burrier and his quest, explaining the Pouilly saga had its origins much earlier than with Burrier’s presentation.
I explained that when France surrendered to Germany early in World War II, the northern and western parts of the country, including most of Burgundy, were occupied and administered by German troops and the remainder overseen by the Vichy government, a sort of vassal state. Chablis, the Côte d’Or and the Côtes Chalonnais were all within the occupied zone, while the Mâcon region, including Pouilly-Fuissé, was in the zone libre. In 1942, as Burrier had
explained, measures were enacted in occupied Burgundy to recognize Premier Cru vineyards, primarily as a means to raise additional tax revenues to support the German regime. Most of these new Premier Crus were ones historically recognized as being just a step beneath the already recognized Grands Crus. Not being part of Burgundy’s occupied zone, Pouilly-Fuissé was left out of the classification.
“Not a lot of people complained at the time,” Burrier told me, “because they didn’t have to pay the extra taxes.”
During the early postwar era, long before there were official wine critics and before winemakers and chef became celebrities, the wines of Pouilly-Fuissé, along with those of Chablis, were the darlings of country clubs and French-style restaurants in the U.S., and Pouilly was often the more expensive of the two. Also in those days, French shippers or négociants, such as Cruse or Latour, made regional wines, and these shippers’ wines were generally most popular because of their blended uniformity of style from vintage to vintage.
After that first article appeared, I remained in touch with Burrier. I was not surprised that 2014 passed uneventfully, yet Burrier seemed optimistic and not the least inpatient. I even harbored the thought that he might be enjoying the process as much as relishing the goal.
That thought seemed even more likely when I again met Burrier in October 2015, this time one drizzly morning on the quai in the city of Mâcon just before daybreak. I was on another writing trip, this one aboard a small cruise ship travelling the Rhône but which was also making a diversion up the Sâone to visit the historic river town. Burrier had arranged to pick me up to tour Mâcon vineyards for a few hours, and I was more than happy to avoid the canned tour.
As we drove through small villages in the morning mist, Burrier told me the 11 targeted vineyards had by now swollen to 25 climats
, the sort of change that, I thought, would surely be challenged. Yes, he confirmed, that was indeed the case. Burrier told me he was in almost weekly contact with the INAO, but in a recent meeting the qualifications of several of the 25 proposed climats
had been aggressively challenged.
“They could tell we were quite upset,” Burrier said. One argument was over limestone soil sites, or the lack of them. “The INAO thinks limestone is very important,” Burrier complained, “although even some of the icons of Burgundy, such as Bâtard-Montrachet, are partially on clay.” His group was seeking about 90 per cent approval of the proffered vineyards, and he hinted darkly that they might abandon the process were the INAO not more understanding.
But by the time that I contacted him two months later, he was again optimistic. There had been a subsequent meeting, and the INAO had made a sound counter proposal. It now looked like they would reach an agreement by 2016. Unsurprisingly, that date also passed without approval.
Four years later, on October 23, 2000, during mid-pandemic, I received a welcomed email from Burrier: “Dear Roger, Please find here-attached our official announcement of the Pouilly-Fuissé 1ers Crus recognition.”
The communiqué read in part:
After more than 12 years of hard work together with INAO, Pouilly-Fuissé becomes the first appellation within Burgundy’s Mâconnais sub-region to benefit from Premier Cru vineyards. It’s a new era for Pouilly-Fuissé and probably for Mâconnais, joining now the prestigious classification established a long time ago in Côte d’Or. The hereunder 22 “1ers Crus” represent a total of 194 hectares under vine, accounting for 24% of Pouilly-Fuissé’s total vineyard area (800 hectares exclusively located on the four villages of Chaintré, Fuissé, Solutré-Pouilly and Vergisson). The conditions of production of the 1ers Crus are more restrictive: maximum yield 56 hl/ha, minimum soil’s rest of 3 years before replantation, no chemical herbicides, minimum time of ageing until July 1.
Burrier in the end had gotten more climats
– 22 – than the 15 he started with, but three less than the 25 he was campaigning for. And finally, after 13 years of labor, the mission was completed and the magical words “Premier Cru” could be placed on the 2020 vintage labels of wines made with grapes from those 22 vineyards.
Will a future bold Burrier seek to elevate the best Premier Cru climats in Pouilly-Fuissé to Grand Cru status like those of the Côte d’Or? To me, it seems highly unlikely, but then the current elevation seemed similarly impossible to me 10 years ago.
For now, I am anxiously waiting for that first bottle to arrive from whichever of the 22 vineyards it originated. I have no preference. Of course, I know the wine will taste the same as it would have if Burrier were still fighting the fight to get approval, since most affected vintners were already applying stringent production regimens.
But 10 odd years after hearing Burrier’s presentation in Beaune, I am determined there will be a celebration of some sort. Of course, all celebrations – a wedding, a graduation, a birth, a star received from Michelin or the first label as a 1er Cru – must be somewhat symbolic. Mine will be symbolic as well, but the symbols will be adjusted.
Instead of popping a cork, my celebration will begin by pulling one.
Read more: Wine Columns