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Wines and the Rock of Solutre

December 16, 1990|VIVIAN RINGER and ROY RINGER | The Ringers are Malibu - based free-lance writers

SOLUTRE, France — You are not likely to find this Burgundy village on most maps of France, although its principal landmark--a cathedral-like escarpment of limestone known as the Rock of Solutre--is the annual site of one of the world's strangest media events.

Solutre's more enduring fame, however, arises from its proximity to two other equally quiet villages whose names grace the label of one of the greatest of the white burgundy wines--Pouilly and Fuisse.

But one day a year--the seventh Sunday after Easter--Solutre is overrun by journalists, photographers, TV crews and Cabinet ministers who have come to watch the president of France risk life and limb on the steep flanks of the precipice.

Francois Mitterrand made a promise to himself in a German POW camp that if he survived the war, he would scale the Rock of Solutre every year on Pentecost. He made his pilgrimage again this year at the age of 73--not as briskly as in the past, but at a pace that left most of his entourage behind.

Solutre is only about a 10-minute drive from Macon, a Saone River port city of more than 70,000 in eastern France, and itself a prestigious wine center.

On the outskirts of Macon, the road to Solutre ascends sharply through vineyards sprawling on every hillside and passes through the only villages whose wine can bear the appellation Pouilly-Fuisse--Solutre, Chaintre, Vergisson, Pouilly and Fuisse.

The villages, all within minutes of each other, look remarkably alike--narrow streets and a small huddle of farmhouses, shops and wineries in the shadow of a church tower. In fact, it would be easy to confuse Solutre with Vergisson because the latter also has a massive upthrust of limestone looming over its vineyards.

But Solutre's rock is the more historic. Its crest was the mobilization point for the Gauls in their final battle for autonomy in AD 511. Every year on Midsummer's Day, local residents celebrate the event by building a giant bonfire of prunings from the vineyards.

The Pouilly-Fuisse district has more the feeling of Provence than of Burgundy--brown roof tiles instead of gray slate, lighter building stone, a craggier landscape and a warmer sun. The pale green and gold chardonnay grapes of the region are ready for harvest a week or more earlier than in the northern area of the Maconnais region.

We prefer to stay at the Relais de Solutre because of its many amenities, traditional cuisine, central location and reasonable rates. Most of the hotel's 30 rooms have views of the surrounding vineyards and, if you are lucky, of Mitterrand's rock.

(The president, who has a weekend home nearby, had dinner in a private room in the hotel our first night there. The confident young chef, Philippe La Farge, said cooking for Mitterrand "is no problem at all. He usually orders from the menu, just like you.")

The main purpose in coming to Solutre, of course, is to sample the crisp, fruity Pouilly-Fuisses, which the French cherish as the ideal accompaniment to fish and shellfish.

A measure of the wine's popularity is that more than half of the region's annual production of 400,000 gallons is sold in the epicurean centers of Paris and Lyon.

We set off the first day for a walking tour of the village, then a brisk 10-minute uphill hike to the winery of Marc Bressand. Strawberries and raspberries, peas, scallions and other vegetables grow in the kitchen gardens of most homes in the village, whose only commercial establishments are a gift shop, another hotel and a small grocery store.

On the way to the winery, one passes a public "laundromat," where villagers dip their clothes in a stream of water and then slap them clean against slabs of rough concrete.

In contrast to the long queues of visitors at many California wine-tasting centers, we had the Bressand cellar to ourselves, as we did other wineries in the area in late April.

Madame Bressand, a tall, brisk woman with a booming voice, was a cordial hostess, pouring generous splashes of various vintages and not once pressuring us to buy. But her bonhomie, unlike that of Chef La Farge, did not survive our reference to Mitterrand's visit.

"Mitterrand!" She almost spat out the name. "A disaster for farmers!" She was still railing against the president's agricultural policies when we left.

Unlike many sections of France, where huge cooperatives market most of the wine production, four out of five vintners in the Pouilly-Fuisse district are independent. To visit all of their cellars along twisting farm roads and narrow lanes would require days. But the tour would amply reward those with a penchant for both noble wines and marathon hikes through a dramatic countryside.

Wineries in the district known for the consistently high quality of their vintages include Les Boutieres, Les Peloux, Les Chanrue and Les Chailloux. Wines from this district are known for their light, delicate flavor. The Caveau du Pouilly-Fuisse in Solutre is generally open for sampling the wines of a number of local vintners.

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