Pouilly-Fuissé is a famous wine grown in France. It is one small part of the region we know as Burgundy. This wine growing region is one hundred miles east of Paris and stretches another 225 miles south to Lyon. We landed in Geneva Friday morning and rented a car and plunged headlong into our journey! We had to decide quickly what we’d like to do. I had two regions on my list. First, was Pouilly-Fuissé and the other not too far north from there is Meursault. Meursault would likely induce sticker shock and so I opted to avoid the higher prices. Meursault is made of the same grape as Pouilly-Fuissé. In California we know the wine as chardonnay. The French decided to name wine by where it is grown, by the ground the grape comes from, and that’s just shorthand for a much more complex set of evaluations. “Terrior” is the French word that describes the mystical quality the ground has with the vine that in the end produces the grape. So, due to this insight into the interdependence the grape, the vine and its root system the French decided that where a grape is grown is the most important fact of the many involved. I find this all difficult. I have a hard time with all the things I have to remember in order to select a bottle of French wine. Enough!
I’ve been drinking Pouilly-Fuissé for years and never had the chance to look up the region or find out much about the place. From Geneva we drove west 90 miles to Mâcon, France and from there we left the well marked highways and began to fumble and stumble along the back roads that wind south and west of the city. There are just four of villages that make this wine: Chaintré, Fuissé, Solutré-Pouilly and Vergisson. They are all much the same.
Immaculate, clean and well tended to. The buildings all ache of older times. Each village is surrounded by vineyards and on the crests of hills woodlands. Hardly a soul was seen in our walks in each of the villages. Mostly the infrequent French local practicing for the twenty-four hour of Leman was spotted flashing and dashing from place to place. Everywhere we went was solitude, peace and silence. Buying a few bottles along our trek required some guts and linguistic ingenuity. Armed with failing grades and a small French-English Dictionary we plunged headlong into the task. Most places that seemed to sell wine weren’t open. The few places that were open it was hard to find anyone around. When we did find someone things generally worked out. One fellow dashing along lost out on these back roads much the same as us stopped to ask for directions and when he heard our voices he closed his eyes and shook his head and said something in French and then looked up and smiled. He knew how odd we were, but I think he decided we must be exceptional since we had come to appreciate the genius that is the French winemaker.
It is hard to explain enchantment. You know when you are held under its spell and when you are not. I am rarely if ever enchanted in grocery stores, rush hour traffic or the voting booth. In the villages of Chaintré, Fuissé, Solutré-Pouilly and Vergisson enchantment is a constant condition. The doors, the shutters, the door knobs, the streetlights, the ancient rock walls, the clay tile roofs, the fountains, the narrow streets, the flower boxes under windows, and of course the churches, the bells and seemingly everything has been painted, patched, restored, or left weathered yet perfect. It was hard to find anything that didn’t make my heart beat stronger or imagination soar.
The next day I spoke with the woman at the desk of the hotel we stayed at and had a pretty good idea of what might keep all of us from moving here and living out our lives in heaven on earth. It was the weather. Not the weather we experienced, not the blue skies and smattering of white clouds and shirt sleeve temperatures. No, it is the hard times that are about to descend upon the region. It will soon get cool. Then, the clouds will persist. Then, it will get colder and rain will fall and then snow. You will build fires. You will go outside and it will be wet. The vineyards will be barren. The leaves will have fallen. The cheer of a blue sky and green vineyards will be replaced with the gloom of gray overhead and the muck of mud and stiff thick roots and empty branches of the grapevines will be the only thing to greet the eye. In your solitude you will taste despair and long for a glimmer of hope.
That is as it should be. Here is a place for the vine. Here is a place for those certain souls who are constituted and suited well to the task of coaxing out of these Chardonnay grapes something that stirs the imagination of humans who have decided virtuosity and genius might well be found in the pleasures that come with taunting the palette.
To round off our adventures the evening we dined at Restaurant Pierre in Mâcon. Christian Gaulin is the chef and the Micheline Travel Guide honored his work with a two fork rating and then in 1997 came the “supreme distinction—a star in the Michelin!” It was a bit awkward. Between our splendid French speaking skills, jet lag, three hours of time required to dine, and a staff not inclined to my enthusiasms or my wife’s culinary preferences I’d say we had something less than a peak experience. On the particulars however I have to say that Gaulin’s Foie gras dish was more than sublime. It transcended all previous experiences I have had with this dish. Nothing else of the meal came close to this masterpiece, but then nothing else needed to be as good, and if it had been as good? Well, then we’d all likely be lined up in some little city in France, waiting patiently for a seat, standing upon cobblestones from centuries past. This could prove to be quite a problem.
We meandered back to Geneva today. Along the way stopped in Cerdon. There, they make a sparking wine. By chance we discovered there was a village event. They were pouring wines, serving food, and a French woman was thrilling the throng with song. We were taken with this woman’s voice. It was authentic, and to our ear utterly new. Nothing prepared us for the mix of her voice, the French songs she sang, and the unfamiliar music that accompanied her. As was our style we plunged headlong into the gathering of 50 or more souls in this thimble sized village.
I sat on a bench sipping this modest sparkling wine that the village is known for. It isn’t as famous as some of the other wines of France, but in the moment and under the circumstances its taste was exceptional. The French women of the village released their children to dance. Elders sat on benches and soaked in the sunlight. We drank in the moment…sun, song, wine, and our new French friends. It was simple, pure and pleasing. Trapped in the prison of our language barrier my wife and I exchanged glances again and again as we pleasured at the chance to witness how others make the most of being here. The moment had what we wished for. We just wanted to be with all those open hearts and honest efforts to make something that would serve their village well. It was unspoiled and authentic. That is what working with our senses can do for all of us… Fresh air, blue sky, sharp plow blade, happy children, small village locked in a seam of a valley and a simple sensual reminder that what we taste, what we see, who we share life with, and how well we do those things can matter most, and be the only real purpose of our being here.