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Pouilly-Fumé – a dry white wine made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes – is one of the Loire Valley's most revered wines. It is rivalled in this regard only by Sancerre, just the other side of the Loire River, and perhaps Vouvray.

The Pouilly-Fumé name is composed of two parts. Pouilly is short for Pouilly-sur-Loire, the village the wines come from. Fumé is short for Blanc Fumé , which is the local nickname for Sauvignon Blanc. It is sometimes understandably confused with Pouilly-Fuissé (a Chardonnay-based wine from southern Burgundy).

The fumé in Blanc Fumé is French for "smoky". It denotes the struck gunflint aroma that characterises 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-Fumé's winemakers, and a source of great local pride. Local winemaking legend Didier Dagueneau even named one of his top bottlings "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.

Aromatically speaking, Pouilly-Fumé wines are some of France's most vivacious, although they are typically less pungent than the notoriously grassy styles of Sauvignon Blanc produced in New Zealand (particularly Marlborough). They have a vibrant streak of green fruit aromas (lime, green apple, gooseberry) supported by mineral aromas of wet wool, slate and smoky flint.

The official Pouilly-Fumé viticultural area encompasses seven parishes on the right bank of the Loire – from Mesves-sur-Loire in the south to Saint-Martin-sur-Nohain, a few miles to the north. These villages are technically in Burgundy, although Pouilly-Fumé remains a quintessentially Loire Valley wine. The Pouilly-Fumé appellation title was created in 1937 (originally as Blanc Fumé de Pouilly) at the same time as the appellation for the village's Chasselas-based wines, Pouilly-sur-Loire.

Until phylloxera wiped out vast tracts of vines in the 1860s, the vineyards around 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 to grafting than these red varieties. Thus Sauvignon Blanc came to be Pouilly's most widely planted grape variety.

The 1970s and 1980s saw Pouilly-Fumé's popularity increase greatly, along with the vineyard area devoted to Sauvignon Blanc vines (at the cost of the Chasselas). There were nearly 2,840 acres (1,150ha) of vines producing Pouilly-Fumé in 2005, vastly more than the 105 acres (43ha) planted with Chasselas – a demonstration of the immense success that Sauvignon Blanc has achieved here.

Sauvignon Blanc is known more for its lack of subtlety than its complexity or depth of flavour. It is an "obvious" grape variety. No matter how ideal the vintage, and how skilled the winemaking, a Sauvignon Blanc-based wine will always be slightly limited in its complexity. For this reason, the 1980s saw a number of producers introducing an element of oak into their Pouilly-Fumé wines, either via barrel fermentation or barrel maturation, or both. The resulting wines were aromatically and texturally more complex than the standard unoaked wines, and also better-suited for mid-term cellaring. Most modern Pouilly-Fumé will improve in bottle for between three and six years.

In true French style, the local terroir is given the credit for Pouilly-Fumé's very particular aroma and flavour. 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.