Pouilly-Fume – a dry white wine made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes – is one of the Loire Valley's most revered wines. It is rivaled in this regard only by Sancerre, just the other side of the Loire River, and perhaps Vouvray. The Pouilly-Fume appellation title is composed of two parts: 'Pouilly' is the village the wines come from (Pouilly-sur-Loire) and 'Fume' is the grape variety they're made from (Blanc Fumé is the local name for Sauvignon Blanc). As if this weren't sufficiently confusing, the appellation title is very similar indeed to that of Pouilly-Fuisse (a Chardonnay-based wine from southern Burgundy).
The official Pouilly-Fume viticultural area encompasses seven parishes on the right bank of the Loire – from Mesves-sur-Loire in the south to Saint-Martin-sur-Nohain, seven miles (11km) to the north. These villages are technically in Burgundy, although Pouilly-Fume remains a quintessentially 'Loire Valley' wine. The appellation title was granted in 1937, at the same time as Pouilly-sur-Loire – a lesser-known appellation used for the village's Chasselas wines. At that time it was titled Blanc Fumé de Pouilly.
© Chateau de Tracy
The fumé in Blanc Fumé is French for 'smoky'. It denotes the struck gunflint aroma that characterizes the local Sauvignon Blanc wines. This distinctive smell is often referred to as pierre à fusil, which means 'flint' (literally 'rifle stone'). It is a key point of differentiation for Pouilly-Fume's winemakers, and a source of great local pride (the most famous of all Pouilly-Fume wines is named Silex, a traditional synonym for flint). The aroma is thought by some to come from the flint that litters the local vineyards, but this remains unproven.
Until phylloxera wiped out vast tracts of vines in the 1860s, the vineyards of Pouilly-sur-Loire grew mostly Gamay and Pinot Noir. When the solution to the phylloxera epidemic was identified – grafting European vines onto American rootstocks – Sauvignon Blanc proved to be more responsive than the red varieties. Thus, Sauvignon came to be the most widely planted variety in Pouilly and soon became known as Blanc Fumé because of the smoky aromas it displayed when grown in local soils.
Aromatically speaking, Pouilly-Fume wines are some of France's most vivacious, although they are typically less pungent than many New World styles of Sauvignon Blanc (particularly those from Marlborough). They are characterized by a vibrant streak of fruit (citrus, green apples and gooseberries) supported by their obvious mineral aromas of wet wool, slate and the trademark smoky flint. This all works in harmony with the wines' high acidity.
In the 1980s, some producers began introducing an element of oak into their Pouilly-Fume wines, either via barrel fermentation or barrel maturation, or both. This was generally well received, as it made the wines not only more complex but also better prepared for mid-term cellaring. Most modern Pouilly-Fume will improve in bottle for between three and six years (about twice as long as the average Sancerre).
The 1970s and 1980s saw Pouilly-Fume's popularity increase greatly, along with the vineyard area devoted to Sauvignon Blanc vines (at the cost of the Chasselas used for the village's less-popular Pouilly-sur-Loire wines). There were nearly 2840 acres (1150ha) of vines producing Pouilly-Fume in 2005, vastly more than the 105 acres (43ha) planted with Chasselas – a demonstration of the immense success that Sauvignon Blanc has achieved here.
In true French style, the local terroir is given the credit for Pouilly-Fume's very particular aroma and flavor. It has been intricately studied and mapped. The key soil types are divided into limestone, marlstone, clays of various compositions and the all-important flint. Limestone and flint are the most important. Both have excellent heat-retention and light-reflecting properties and help the vines to achieve optimal ripeness in the cool growing season here.