The origins of the Pouilly-sur-Loire appellation lie in Gallo-Roman times, when vines were planted here alongside the Roman road that ran from Genabum (the forerunner of Orléans) to Noviodunum (modern-day Nevers). Its genesis and subsequent development are inevitably intertwined with that of its twin, Pouilly-Fumé, an appellation I have thoroughly explored in this guide. During the ensuing centuries the vineyard which was to give rise to these two appellations grew and evolved, for much of this time nurtured by the monks of nearby Benedictine and Carthusian monasteries. Royal patronage didn’t do the region any harm either, Louis XI (1423 – 1483) being an eager proponent of the wines.
The development of improved transport links between the region and Paris stimulated the planting of more and more vineyards. The Canal de Briare, built in 1642, which joined the Loire to the Seine, played an important role. By the 18th century there were more than 500 barges taking the wine from this region northwards to Paris, wine made from a much more diverse range of varieties than are planted here today. The two principal players in the region today are Sauvignon Blanc and Chasselas, and while the former is famed as the variety behind Pouilly-Fumé (and Sancerre of course), it is the latter variety that is the cornerstone around which the Pouilly-sur-Loire appellation was built.
Chasselas, The Table Grape
During the 19th century the vineyards of Pouilly-sur-Loire underwent something of a repurposing, driven by demand from Paris. The inhibitants of France’s capital city had a well-established taste for Chasselas, as an eating grape rather than a wine, the fruit sourced from Thomery, close to Fontainebleau, on the banks of the Seine. Here, since the early 18th century, local growers had developed a system of planting Chasselas against walls, a system which I would like to believe inspired Antoine Cristal (1837 – 1931) when he built his walled vineyard in Saumur at the end of the same century. The system ensured a more reliable ripening of the variety in the cool climate, and was immensely popular. The locals had also devised a method of preserving the freshly picked bunches of grapes through the winter, and so when they sold them to hungry Parisians the following spring they could charge a good price. Through this way of working the chasseletiers (as they were known) of Thomery accrued wealth and even fame.
The arrival of the railway in Pouilly-sur-Loire improved access to the markets of Paris, and the local vignerons soon realised that like the inhabitants of Thomery they too could sell Chasselas grapes there, and in doing so turn a more-than-handsome profit. As a consequence many working the vineyards around Pouilly-sur-Loire began growing Chasselas as a table grape, which when picked was destined for the bistros and kitchens of Paris. For much of the remaining years of the century business was good, and the vineyard thus expanded considerably.