Mike Bennie is, along with Max Allen, one of two Australian wine writers/journalists who have informed my knowledge, and indeed passion for, the New Australia. Max came into my life via his wonderful (and I would say still essential) The Future Makers (2010), one of a small number of wine books which was so ahead of its time that here we are, in that future, drinking these wines. Mike, however, isn’t a book writing kind of guy, and his work came to me initially via Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine and Decanter.
This was all before I knew Mike shared my passion for natural and low intervention wines, before I knew he was a founder of Sydney’s best wine company, and indeed before I knew he shared another of my passions, the wines of The Jura. My son moved to Sydney last year and had the good fortune to fall on his feet in one of the very best of the inner suburbs, at least for a young person, Newtown. This is where P&V Wine Merchants has its largest store. It was on my first visit here in April that I sussed Mike was doing a Jura Masterclass, and on inquiry there was one seat left. It was meant to be.
So, on 27 April I wandered a mere fifteen minutes up to 64 Enmore Road for an evening (as expected, rather longer than billed) with one of Australia’s best palates and greatest wine entertainers too. An informative tasting of ten wines covered far more than mere sipping, but here are those ten wines, including two from producers I had never tried (Philippe Chatillon and Frédéric Lambert).
I’ve included the prices in Aussie dollars for reference. Those who read my last article, on the Australian wines I drank on my trip, will notice a reversal in that whilst those wines were far cheaper than we have to pay in the UK once imported, these Jura wines tend to cost the Aussies more than we will pay in the UK (which in turn is very often a good whack more than you’ll pay in Arbois etc).
*Sorry some of the photos are not in full focus. The light was very low in the tasting room.
Domaine Tissot Crémant du Jura Blanc de Noirs NV ($112)
Familiar territory for me, perhaps, but I will never complain at a taste of this exemplary Crémant, especially when I don’t need to spit. Even in one of Stéphane’s entry level sparklers you get texture, fine bubbles, and genuine depth. Although Stéphane and his wife Bénédicte have built this estate up to a large one of over 50 hectares, producing a dizzying array of wines, not one wine feels as if it isn’t made with great care. The Crémants, including this Pinot Noir cuvée, can easily be a good substitute for Grower Champagne. Here you get Demeter Certified biodynamics, zero dosage and no added sulphur. The skill here is to create a zero-dosage sparkling wine which keeps the very fine acidity in balance, which Stéphane does so well.
Domaine de Montbourgeau Côtes du Jura Trousseau 2020 ($110)
Following the Jura tradition of tasting the reds before the whites/yellows, we kicked off the still wines with an example from an estate often underrated, or even ignored, aside from those who know the region well. Nicole Deriaux doesn’t jump and shout about her wines, but she is without question the star producer in L’Etoile, a village and an appellation to the southwest of Château-Chalon. As Wink Lorch points out (Jura Wine, 2014), she was for a time also the only woman solely in charge of a fine Jura estate, although thankfully that has changed somewhat in recent decades.
This Trousseau, perhaps Jura’s signature red variety, comes from vines within the wider Côtes du Jura appellation. Although Nicole has a greater focus on white wines, as has traditionally been the case in L’Etoile, this red is of no less interest, and perhaps more so for being produced in much smaller quantity than the white wines. It’s a wine with hints of both “old school” and modern. Old school perhaps in part because this is recognisably an old vine cuvée, here from 100-year-old vines. Yet it is also a product of very careful winemaking. The bouquet is heavily scented. I picked out violets over predominantly red fruits with a bit of bramble thrown in. The palate is savoury. Having not drunk a wine from this domaine for three or four years I thoroughly enjoyed doing so. If you are busy checking out the plethora of new names in the region, do not pass this producer by.
Domaine Berthet-Bondet Côtes du Jura Rouge « Trio » 2020
This domaine will soon have been producing wine in Château-Chalon for four decades and today it is still a real family affair. It’s a producer I got to know first via their Château-Chalon yellow wines, which are exemplary. Over the past ten-to-fifteen years I’ve become more acquainted with their table wines, especially their famous Savagnin range.
The trio of varieties here are Trousseau and Poulsard, of course, plus Pinot Noir. Pinot does well in the Jura, perhaps not often quite reaching the heights of the very best from the other side of the Saône Valley (but how much Burgundy actually does hit the peaks?), but still making high quality wine. The bouquet is gamey, but pleasantly so and not too overtly, as you’d expect from a wine approaching just three years of age. Like the previous wine, the palate is savoury, but it is both smooth and textured at the same time. The initial impact is of smooth cherries, then the texture gets picked up.
A delicious wine, yet again from a producer whose whites have crossed my palate far more than their reds. I don’t think P&V have stock of this, probably from Mike’s personal stash.
Philippe Chatillon « Vice et Vertus » Pinot Noir 2020 (Vin de France) ($125)
I hadn’t drunk a wine from Philippe’s own label before, but I have drunk wines which he had a hand in making. This is because this vigneron, in his seventies now, used to work at Domaine de la Pinte. It was Philippe, in the 1990s, who began the conversion here to organic farming whilst the Estate Director for the Martin family, before Bruno Ciofi (ex-Pierre Frick in Alsace) finished the job in the following decade by making La Pinte the Jura Region’s first fully biodynamic estate.
I said above that Pinot doesn’t often reach the heights of fine Red Burgundy, but this is an exception. Mike called this a “fine wine paradigm Pinot Noir”. For sure, it is a very complex wine, and with the capacity to age. Australia’s Winefront website says this, a tasting note which I cannot better. “Sappy, savoury, earthy and yet clean as a whistle”. It has the elegance of exceptional Pinot Noir but it doesn’t taste like a so-called natural wine. Superb.
Michel Gahier Arbois Chardonnay «Les Follasses» 2020 ($83)
This always feels like one of the older established producers, whose wines I came across many years ago, yet which until recently have not been all that easy to find in the UK, although they seem finally to have gained due respect. The Gahier cellar is close to the church in Montigny-les-Arsures, well known to me because I could count the number of times I stayed in or near Arbois and didn’t walk or drive to Montigny on the fingers of a chicken’s foot.
This is a resolutely uncertified organic domaine making natural wines without fanfare. Wink Lorch (Jura Wine, 2014, again…you know you need a copy) tells us that Michel’s father didn’t like using sulphur and so Michel, when he created his own vineyard, naturally followed suit. Here we have an example of classic, bright, Jura Chardonnay. It does have a nuttiness, for sure, but is also full of peach and apricot, and more exotic notes in the bouquet. This is matched by a streak of salinity in with the fresh acidity. The cuvée comes off a more chalky terroir, rather than more typical Jura marls, which may account for it missing what some tasters assume, sometimes incorrectly, to be the oxidative note they seem to expect, even from Chardonnay, in the region.
I would say that if you want to taste peerless fresh Chardonnay around Arbois, then along with some of Stéphane Tissot’s bottlings, this is a good one to try. It is certainly the most “vibrant” of Gahier’s Chardonnays, and maybe the one requiring less age in bottle. It’s none the worse for that.
Domaine A&M Tissot Arbois Savagnin Ouillé, Traminer 2018 ($161)
Domaine A&M Tissot Arbois Savagnin 2018 ($162)
We tasted these two wines from Stéphane and Bénédicte Tissot together because they exemplify the two styles of Jura’s signature Savagnin. Ouillé signifies that the barrels have been topped-up, so without air in the vessel the wine will not age oxidatively. These wines are named “Traminer” by many producers, not all, but it does give the consumer a heads-up as to what to expect. Traminer is an alternative name/synonym for Savagnin, being related to the pink-skinned Gewurztraminer. This wine has freshness, quite zippy acids and overt salinity. The nose is high-toned and it has a lightness. It’s a dry wine but the fruit has a kind of ripe sweetness to it. There is no hint of oxidation.
The Savagnin tout-court is a different beast. The vintage was nicely selected to show off the classic nutty, deliberately oxidative, bouquet with its salty yet deeper flor influence, where the space above the wine in barrel allows the oxygen to do its thing in the void.
Tissot’s oxidatively aged Savagnin is a lovely wine. It still shows real freshness and is not heavy. Some oxidatively aged Savagnin cuvées can almost feel like a “baby Vin Jaune” (as some describe them). It’s true that many Savagnins are originally earmarked as Vin Jaunes, but for a string of reasons maybe didn’t quite make the cut for the six years plus ageing required. Those can be genuine bargains.
It’s good to taste both wines together in a room full of people who, I think, in most cases had not tasted overtly oxidative wines before. Many were quite shocked by the Savagnin, although I myself found it ultimately the most rewarding of the two. But it was a valuable lesson about consumer expectation.
Domaine de Montbourgeau L’Etoile Cuvée Spéciale 2017 ($107)
This second wine from L’Etoile’s most highly regarded producer is labelled as the classic village appellation wine but it has a twist: it showcases a Jura tradition which I seem to see less and less these days, a blend of Chardonnay and Savagnin. This was originally a Chardonnay estate, in an appellation probably created to showcase Jura Chardonnay. The domaine does make a wine labelled L’Etoile from only that variety, but Nicole, when she took over, wanted to make Vin Jaune so she planted Savagnin. Now her top L’Etoile is a blend of the two varieties, although with considerably more Chardonnay than Savagnin.
The terroir for this cuvée is very rocky and the Chardonnay vines are said to be very old. The ageing regime for Cuvée Spéciale is very interesting. It starts out being fermented in oak, where it remains with classic, almost Burgundian, bâtonnage through the colder months (to keep the lees in suspension), then undergoing the malolactic. All very much classic Chardonnay élèvage. However, thereafter the wine is not topped up. During four years in old wood a thin voile of yeast/flor forms. I’d not really liken it to Vin Jaune for a myriad of reasons. It’s something different altogether, and in my experience unique. It’s a complex wine which I’d very much like to taste with a decade or more in bottle, if only. It’s a little-known Jura gem.
Frédéric Lambert Château-Chalon “En Beaumont” 2013 ($156)
I’m sure most readers know, but for anyone who doesn’t, Château-Chalon is not only a very attractive village perched on a cliff above the River Seille, half way between Poligny (north) and Lons-le-Saunier (south), but it is also a special appellation for Vin Jaune-style wines from the vineyards surrounding the village and nearby Voiteur, Domblans, Nevy-sur-Seille and Menétru-le-Vignoble.
Altogether it’s a vignoble of around fifty hectares. With well over 150 vine owners there are really just a handful who make genuinely fine wines, those as good as the finest in France. These include old-established village names like Macle and Berthet-Bondet. Also of note here is Alexandra Mossu, whose father François was known, I can assure you with good reason, as the “Pope of Vin de Paille”, Jura’s sweet wine made from partially-dried grapes. Whilst a limited number of hundred point wines are made, there are still a great many worthy of our cellars.
I know little about Frédéric Lambert and have never tasted his wines. I can glean from Wink Lorch that this is an emerging family estate, a husband-and-wife team having established it in Toulouse-le-Château in 2003, with one son preparing to join (very probably already has by now) after viticultural studies. This is an estate within, if at the periphery of, the Poligny sector of the Côtes du Jura, but Frédéric has some plots at Château-Chalon and released his first wine from there in (thank you again, Wink) 2014 (the 2007 vintage).
I would call this an easy going sous-voile wine, perhaps lacking the complexity of some, even at a decade old, but certainly very nice. If we are spoilt for choice in Europe, I’d not turn down the chance to buy a bottle of this if presumably well-priced. More expensive in Australia than in the region of production, it looks remarkable value when you compare it to, for example, the cost of Stéphane Tissot’s yellow wines down under.
Domaine A&M Tissot Macvin du Jura Blanc NV ($130)
Take me back a decade or so and I would have told you I’m not a big fan of Macvin. That was rather a shame because several Jura producers back in the day had given us a bottle as a gift (as indeed had one noted Champagne producer, though in that case, Champagne’s version of Macvin, Ratafia).
Macvin is a Vin de Liqueur, Vin Doux, or technically a Mistelle. It blends unfermented grape juice with a distilled spirit which is rather like Grappa. There are versions all over France (other notable examples include Pineau des Charentes and Floc de Gascogne), and now more widely (even Australia makes some). The Jura version used to occasionally be of dubious quality, but a wine labelled Macvin du Jura (a special stamped bottle may be used) must be made from a distillate (brandy) derived from the marc (skins) of the producer’s own grapes. The rule is that the spirit is aged a minimum of 14 months (often longer). The spirit usually hits around 60% abv, with the finished Macvin weighing in at between 16% and 17% abv..
I’m not sure whether any producers have their own still (with micro-distilleries for gin all the rage in the UK and Australia, I’d not discount the possibility), but there is one famous mobile distillery which does the rounds in Jura. It’s the same tradition which stretches back a couple of centuries, except that this one is somewhat more modern and less prone to blow up.
My feelings about Macvin have softened. It can be a lovely aperitif. Although it keeps in the fridge for a long time, I think the thought of getting through a whole bottle often felt daunting. The one which most turned me onto enjoying it was made by Patrice Beguet, but Stéphane’s version is, as you’d expect, exemplary. No alcohol burn, I believe that fermentation is allowed to start briefly, creating less than 1% alcohol but helping the spirit to mix with the grape juice. This was patently not what happened in the past. Expect a sweet and quite grapey drink with a certain viscosity and a whack of alcohol. Don’t glug it from the bottle.
My only issue is that if I had $130 to spend at P&V I’d probably buy that Montbourgeau L’Etoile and spend the change on one of the their nice, cheap, Aussie petnats. At least P&V offer a 10% discount on purchases made on the night, which in the case of these lovely imports would have been worth having. No free shipping to the UK though.
This was a brilliant tasting. Mike Bennie is someone I could listen to all night, a man with not a bit of pomposity, very down to earth, and a man who thrives on sharing his knowledge. We have a lot in common, except that he has the benefit of being younger than me. It was instructive to see what Australia can get hold of from the region, and I would challenge anyone to find a better range of Jura wines on the continent. As the photos below show, the eagle-eyed will spot at least a couple of wines they would have a real job finding in the UK.