We left the annual Jura trip a bit late this year. It was tinged with a little sadness as the tiny house we have stayed in for a number of years is being sold, and so it was our last time there, unless the new owners decide to rent it out. Those emotions were somewhat ameliorated by the weather. This was our first December visit to Arbois and it was seriously cold (minus eight degrees one morning), and the vineyards and forest were bathed in a very thick white frost. My first strong memory of Arbois was wood smoke, and that beautiful scent was everywhere last week, and there were some serious wood piles ready for a hard winter. I’ve always wanted a wood pile.
As usual following the yearly trip to Arbois, my next few articles will focus on the Jura region, but our first producer visit was a morning spent at Domaine de la Pinte with Laura Seibel, and briefly later that afternoon with winemaker Samuel Berger (who took over from Bruno Ciofi a couple of years ago).
This is not the first time I’ve had a bit of a moan about how Domaine de la Pinte is not quite as, shall I say, fashionable as some other producers in the cosmopolitan wine bars where Jura wine is so popular. Particularly in the UK, I find it frustrating that their wines have such a narrow distribution, and what you don’t see you can’t try. A British wine lover would never guess how many interesting and innovative wines they produce. Their wines are also becoming more exciting with every vintage.
A bit of history. Domaine de la Pinte was founded after the last World War by Roger Martin, in partnership with then Arbois Mayor, Marcel Poux. The Martin family owns a large construction company and there was a fortune to be made in this period of post-war reconstruction, hence (presumably) the funds to purchase such a sizeable estate. Later they became a large constructor of the French Autoroute network as well. One result of their expertise can be seen beneath the domaine. They have not one but three large cellars, all made from beautifully dressed stone, which are formed in the characteristic stretched curved arch of the tunnels in the Paris Metro, on which they are exactly modelled.
The idea originally was to make only Vin Jaune at La Pinte, although that soon broadened out. Savagnin is prone to late frost and in some recent vintages there are producers whose Savagnin has been pretty much wiped out, so it was a sensible move. That said, Domaine de la Pinte has a rich history in Vin Jaune, and there are always older vintages available both at the domaine, and in their Arbois shop…for a price. It is said that the domaine may have the largest Savagnin plantings in the world – close to 20 hectares out of a total vignoble of around 35 hectares.
Winter wonderland at La Pinte. Bottom right are Savagnin vines, with the slope up towards Pupillin (behind the trees) to the left of the photo
The domaine began conversion in the late 1990s to biodynamics, around the same time as Stéphane Tissot. This provided a great impetus for biodynamics, and for natural wine, which have both taken hold in the region. The importance of Domaine de la Pinte in particular can be seen when you visit all the younger natural wine producers around Arbois. Many seem to have worked at La Pinte, with Stéphane Tissot, or with Evelyne and Pascal Clairet at Domaine de la Tournelle (several have worked with more than one of them). Since 2009, under the stewarship of Bruno Ciofi, the whole domaine moved to being fully biodynamic. Samuel Berger continues that work.
Berger arrived as director of Domaine de la Pinte in 2016. His dynamism has taken the estate a step further, especially obvious in the range of wines he makes, and in the subtle changes he has instigated. The cellar boasts a large number of concrete tanks, the preferred fermentation vessel, and wood of various sizes, from foudre, through some new 400 litre demi-muids, down to small barrels, with experiments taking place all the time under Samuel.
Around 35% of production is exported (sadly all too little to the UK), with around a third each going into restaurants in France and sold locally.
We tasted our way through a number of 2018 wines in cask, and as other tastings showed, 2018 will likely be a very good year indeed. The wines all had great energy and presence, and this despite the increased (but normal, for once) yields. That production rose dramatically following several frost-hit vintages is great news for Jura vignerons generally. The financial strain of having so little wine to sell has manifested itself in so many ways around Arbois, some potential consequences of that strain being not altogether happy. Thankfully La Pinte is big enough to continue to thrive.
La Capitaine 2018 is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir with 40% Poulsard in this vintage. It comes from the plot of the same name, on the hill towards the N83. The two varieties are kept separate and blended following the malo, after which the wine is fed by gravity into foudre. The wine is very attractive now, although the Pinot dominates with its more tannic structure. It will definitely be a wine to keep.
There’s a little structural contrast with the Trousseau 2018, which is frankly stunning, so expressive, but not so tannic, offering bags of fruit at this stage. There hasn’t been any sulphur added yet, although it is fairly likely Samuel will add a little at bottling. There has been a systematic reduction in sulphur additions at the domaine over the past few years, and perhaps this is one reason that the reds especially have leapt in quality, and certainly in freshness.
We mustn’t forget the whites, though. 2018 will be the first vintage for a while where the white grapes were not adversely affected by the weather. The white grapes at La Pinte are quite exposed, on the hill near the winery as it slopes in the direction of Pupillin. This means that biodynamics gets a nice helping hand from a wind which keeps disease at bay, but it also means that these vines are prone to frosts. This doesn’t matter in winter, when the vine is asleep, but late ripening varieties are very susceptible. Even more of a problem in recent years has been a false spring followed by late frosts, which hit as the sap is rising. Damage can be catastrophic, 2017 seeing 85% loss to frost for the white varieties, but thankfully not in 2018. The Chardonnay 2017, tasted from demi-muid, was rather good despite the tiny quantity, retaining nice tension and line, but plush fruit.
Our final tasting from wood was the Vin Jaune 2006, from a glass-fronted barrel, that is yet to be bottled (though the 2006 is available), showing the voile, and the dead yeast piled on the bottom. The scent was astonishing. If only you could bottle that…beats any diffuser I’ve owned. Vin Jaune is something of a speciality here. As I mentioned before, the domaine originally planned to make only Vin Jaune, and even after diversification in many directions, yellow wine remains a focus.
The Domaine de la Pinte Vin Jaune always has a tremendous amount of spice, quite distinctive. It also ages magnificently – we drank a 1973 a few weeks ago at a BYO Jura Dinner (at The Pig in the New Forest – which you can read about here). 1973 wasn’t even one of the finest years of that decade, but it was a glorious, complex, stately, wine.
This is what a barrel of Vin Jaune looks like. I wish I could show you how it smells
We went on to try a number of wines from bottle. The palate-cleanser was a very linear, fresh, Crémant du Jura 2015 (with no dosage). This was followed by the 2017 vintage of the Capitaine blend, which Laura had opened a day in advance. It was still tannic, but very juicy (14% abv and just 0.5 mg/l of sulphur at bottling).
All the Crémant at La Pinte is riddled by hand in pupitres
One of several favourites here is the Melon à Queue Rouge (2016), a local Chardonnay variant with red stalks. The domaine has a small plot of around 1.5 hectares, one of the largest of the small number of producers who grow this rarity. The wines are usually more yellow than you’d expect from Jura Chardonnay, and this wine has a bouquet which is almost sweet (a MàQR characteristic), with flavours of yellow plum. The palate is totally dry. I recommend trying this if you can get to the domaine’s shop in Arbois (just opposite Jean-Paul Jeunet).
Savagnin 2014 shows just how well this variety can age. This was mellow, and more buttery than one might expect, yet also light and fresh. Savagnin 2011 saw extended barrel age, being bottled in December 2017. An elegant wine with a lovely bouquet showing an ethereal, whispy, smoky, quality. A top quality, totally balanced, wine from a fine Savagnin vintage in Arbois.
Next, a new wine, Sav ‘Or 2017. This is Savagnin with twelve days on skins in concrete with stems removed. It is finished by ageing in stainless steel. It’s their nod to Georgia…orange peel, herbs, good salinity and a bit of texture, plus 14% alcohol (but you’d never guess). The finish is a lovely bitter citrus/orange peel. This is a superb wine, I like it a lot. I think it will age very well, although I’m told it has been available “by the glass” at Barcelona’s famous Bar Brutal recently. It will keep a week once opened, and will offer up a different profile every day.
One of the cheaper wines in the range is Cuvée d’Automne. It’s another recommendation to try. In 2017 the blend is 85% Savagnin with 15% Chardonnay, although 2017 is not the vintage. This is a multi-vintage wine. The Savagnin comes from both 2009 (wine destined for Vin Jaune originally, so under flor) plus topped-up Savagnin from 2010, whilst the Chardonnay is topped-up 2015. Auto-suggestive as it may be, it does have an autumnal glow to it. A fascinating wine.
We finished up with Vin Jaune 2009, which had also been opened up a day in advance for us. Aged in a cool cellar (rather than a warm loft), this is youthful and restrained, yet already mellowing a touch. It has that characteristic turmeric sniff, which probably dominates the nutty profile you might expect. This is very good.
An aside on VJ vintages – There has been a string of good ones. 2008 less so for many, though good for some (the Château-Chalon at La Pinte is very good in this vintage, they own a small plot down there, just a few rows). 2009 made very good wines, 2010 even better (some spectacular), but in very small quantities, and 2011 also very good (and more of it).
With the requirement that Vin Jaune can only technically be sold after 1 January in the seventh year after harvest, though in reality now after the Percée ceremony on the first weekend in February, you will deduce that the current vintage is 2011, but not all producers will commercialise the most recent wine immediately.
As even a few years extra ageing by the consumer is very wise, if you can grab some 2009 from this address, it is well worth doing so. But as I said earlier, you can buy some older vintages here as well. The domaine itself has the 1986 for a little over €130. The first ever vintage of Vin Jaune at La Pinte was 1959, but I was told that the few remaining bottles are not for sale. Just as well, perhaps.
Old VJ – 1973 at The Pig and 1959
The entrance to Domaine de la Pinte is situated off the N83, just a couple of hundred metres from the “Arbois South” junction, on the left, and is well signposted…but please don’t turn up without an appointment. The whole range can be tasted in comfort at the domaine’s shop in Arbois (English spoken), on the rue de l’ Hôtel de Ville, opposite Jeunet, and the Domaine Rolet shop.
At the time of writing Domaine de la Pinte’s UK agent is Liberty Wines, but they only currently list Savagnin 2011, the interesting Poulsard L’Ami Karl 2015 and Vin Jaune.
La Pinte van, labelling machine, old press, new press, concrete tanks, one of the three cellars, tasting bench, secret treasure trove
*note on Le Nez dans le Vert – this is the increasingly well attended natural and organic wine fair held every year in the Jura Region. In the past it has been held every second year at Domaine de la Pinte, who more than anyone has promoted the tasting. Last time La Pinte hosted it they were getting more than 2,000 visitors per day and were unable to cope with the number of cars, and the number of people wandering around the cellars and estate. So in 2019 the event moves (so I’m told) to the Salines Royale building in Salins-les-Bains, much more able to cope with the success that “Le Nez” has become.
**note on the obscure quotation in the title – I’m sure those familiar with The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of Peter Jackson’s LOTR films, will recognise it.