If you have read my wideworldofwine blog since I began posting you will know I visit the Jura Region every year, usually around harvest time, but you will also know that my focus is generally on the newer producers, the up-and-coming stars of the region, so to speak. And it’s fair to say that these, often younger, winemakers provide a good half of my Jura drinking throughout the year, supplemented by some of the international stars this region has produced: Stéphane Tissot, Ganevat, Puffeney, Labet and so on.
There is, of course, another side of the coin. A large group of domaines who are not such new kids on the block, who are not always experimenting with zero sulphur or amphorae. It is largely these producers who are brought to London by the Comité Interprofessionnel des Vins du Jura, in conjunction with the Comté Cheese producers, for what may become known as the Chandos House Tasting. It is perhaps ironic that the younger producers who usually attend the Nez dans le Vert tasting in spring each year, were actually exhibiting in Paris the day before this tasting. A shame I couldn’t be at both. The 2016 London tasting took place in the attractive, neo-classical, Robert Adam designed 18th Century Chandos House, once owned by the Royal Society of Medicine, and now a small hotel close to Oxford Circus.
There were seventeen producers showing their wines, with what appeared to be a maximum of six wines each. I think one or two sneaked in a few extras, something I can sympathise with because this is a region known for multiple cuvées. In a small room, perhaps a little cramped with the number of visitors, it was too difficult to taste all the wines. That was a shame. I’d particularly have liked to taste the wines of the region’s historically pre-eminent negociant, Henri Maire, because I haven’t done so for a long while, and not since the change of ownership. I only managed to taste one wine from Domaine Rolet too, generally one of the most reliable of the large family domaines in Arbois, with a wine shop in the centre of town. But I did taste the ranges of twelve out of seventeen, and those which appear below are my personal pick of the bunch. I will admit that as a seasoned Jura veteran (since the 1980s), I’m probably looking for some spark of something new, beyond “tradition”. Other tasters may well prefer other producers.
Domaine Pignier, Montaigu
Pignier is based in the lovely village of Montaigu, just a few kilometres from Lons-le-Saunier. It’s one of the old Jura family estates, making wine here since the late 18th Century (their property used to belong to Carthusian monks up until the Revolution, when it was purchased by the ancestors of the same family as run the domaine today). They have been certified biodynamic by Demeter since 2002, so no standing still. Only a little sulphur is used and, for the past eight years, they have been producing a sulphur-free cuvée, their Trousseau “Les Gauthières”. The 2015, a deliciously fruity wine, was possibly my favourite of those on show on the Pignier table, though I loved their fresh, topped-up, Côtes du Jura Savagnin, “Sauvageon” 2014, made in a cement egg. The Chardonnay “La Percenette” 2014, which has twelve months in barrique, shows signs of complexity to come with the 2015 (from 25-year-old vines). This is one of an ever widening group of the best ouillé (non-oxidative) Chardonnays in the region. There’s also nice Crémant du Jura, 100% Chardonnay, which has ripe, almost sweet, fruit. The Vin Jaune 2009, the new vintage in the region, is good too.
Jean-Etienne Pignier was pouring the wines, assisted by Grant Butcher from their importer, Raeburn Fine Wines, in Edinburgh. Raeburn’s other domaine was at the Paris tasting the day before, the exceptional Domaine Buronfosse. Raeburn has bagged a couple of gems in the seemingly frantic fight of nearly every British importer of French wines to finally get in on the Jura act this year. But there are still gems to be dug up and polished.
Domaine Berthet-Bondet, Château-Chalon
This is a domaine you may have heard of? Their Château-Chalon has a very high reputation in the region, and so it might come as something of a surprise that they have no UK importer. Surely that will soon change? Château-Chalon is a stunningly situated village, perched high on a rocky outcrop near the centre of the region, its best vineyards on a cliff-topped steep slope falling away below it. It is not only for this reason that photos of it appear in so much of the publicity you’ll see about the Jura. It is also, arguably, Jura’s most prestigious, and often most expensive, wine. For this reason, it can be difficult to enter that tiny world of vin jaune production here, but Jean and Chantal Berthet-Bondet have always had a reputation as two of the village’s most open producers. Their wines were poured by their daughter, Hélène.
If I were to attempt to describe the Berthet-Bondet range, I’d probably say “classic”, but in the best possible sense. The wines are correct, and perhaps risk free, but they go much further, with perfect balance, structure and elegance. From the light, pale, “Trio” 2015, which blends all three red varieties (Trousseau, Poulsard and Pinot Noir), through the Chardonnay “Balanoz” 2015 (1 year in mixed age oak), and the Savagnin “Savagnier” 2015, there’s a real line of freshness.
I ought to say something of the 2015 vintage. Throughout the region 2015 has been described in glowing terms. Some of the younger vignerons say it’s the best they’ve made, and as they are bottled one can’t help but agree – an exceptional year. But there is richness in 2015, and without attention to this, the wines do risk being out of balance. Jura wines are not blockbusters and even though it’s a vintage which should not be missed, a fill your boots opportunity, do beware of wines which may have sacrificed that all important freshness, which perhaps in 2014 was less easy to lose than in 2015. There are no such issues at this address.
There were two oxidatively aged whites on show, the lovely blend of 70% Chardonnay/30% Savagnin (“Tradition” 2013), and the varietal Savagnin 2011. This has real depth. When Vin Jaune or Château-Chalon is made, the individual barrels are checked over the long period (some 60 months) of ageing. Some Savagnin is kept aside from harvest for this cuvée, but to it are added barrels from the Château-Chalon cellar which may not go the distance to be included in the rigorous selection for the senior wine. This wine has real depth, and a long “flor” aged Savagnin can actually be almost a kind of mini Vin Jaune/Château-Chalon at a bargain price. Puffeney’s version is one of the classic examples. This is a very impressive wine, without quite the weight and complexity of the Château-Chalon.
The big brother wine is, as I intimated, one of the finest in the AOC in my view. The 2009 is a strapping youth, but even now you can see the potential for complexity which, in time, will go way beyond the lemon acidity and the hazelnuts and walnuts of a young version, destined to be consumed in some Michelin-starred restaurant before its time. Here, if you are patient, you will get more earthy notes of funghi and exotic spice, with a smokiness on the nose, but you will not lose that elegance.
Most Vin Jaune wines are indeed consumed way too young. Some don’t mind being consumed soon after release. Their freshness entices the drinker. But if you are going to pay €50 for a clavelin containing 62 precious centilitres of wine, it’s worth ageing it properly, as you would any other wine of that price. Releasing a wine close to seven years from the vintage in which it was made can confuse consumers. There are almost no 2009 (the current vintage as I write) Vin Jaune styles I would open now.
Good luck Hélène in finding an importer. It is remarkable that you don’t have one for the UK, and I hope someone appreciated your wines as much as I did. Having admired this Château-Chalon on several occasions over the years, it was nice to try this and the newer cuvées all together.
Vins Rijckaert, Villette-les-Arbois
Jean Rijckaert is a Belgian national, famous for his partnership with Jean-Marie Guffens in Domaine Verget in Southern Burgundy in the 1990s. He diversified into Jura and made a name as a white wine only producer, but in 2013 he made over the business to his partner, Florent Rouve who, it appears on the evidence of this tasting, is taking the domaine to new heights.
Florent is not a proponent of organic and biodynamic viticulture, but he does believe in intervening as little as he can in vineyard and winery, in order to express the main philosophy of the domaine, that terroir must shine through. So much so that all his wines undergo the same regime: a long, slow and gentle, press as in Champagne; seeking a low ph level in the must, ageing in inert wood (5-8 year old barrels); a natural and spontaneous malolactic; with all wines spending 23 months on their lees.
The six wines on show included one refreshing blended 2014 Chardonnay and five more single site whites. You could not fail to spot the terroir differences in these quite exceptionally pure and open cuvées. Of the five terroir-specific wines, “En Paradis” is a Chardonnay from old vines on a cold and wet northwest facing slope which is always the last site to be harvested. It contrasts with the weightier “Vignes des Voises” made from 55 year old vines on a warmer, south facing, slope. “Les Sarres” produces a complex Chardonnay and a pure, fruity, ouillé Savagnin. Finally, the “Grand Elevage” is a more complex Savagnin from three plots where the vines average 65 years, topping up the barrels every 3-4 weeks.
So these are not natural wines, and neither biodynamic nor organic. Yet they are some of the purest expressions of topped-up Jura whites I’ve tried all year, and I was very pleasantly surprised. I’ve never visited Rijckaert, and I’ve only had the wines in isolation before. As well as the freshness and directness of these wines, some have a lovely salinity which one occasionally finds in other producers, but it’s very marked here. I must try to drive out to Villette, just off the Route de Dôle, when I’m next in Arbois. This domaine impressed me, and also gained a mention from pretty much everyone I spoke to at the event.
The remaining domaines listed here, I would maybe rank just a little below the three I have described above, but don’t view that as in any way negative. They are all looking for a UK importer and they would all sit well with any number of those agencies looking for a Jura domaine, perhaps one without the commercial risk for an importer who perhaps lacks a clientelle which might appreciate one of the natural wine domaines.
Domaine Baud, Le Vernois
This domaine is quite large, at a little over 20 hectares, based close to Château-Chalon, where their holding includes between two and three hectares which are “sustainably” farmed (certified by Terra Vitis) for Château-Chalon itself. My favourite wines were a Chardonnay “Cuvée Flor” which was quite steely-fresh of its type, though young (2015), and a very good sous voile blend of 50:50 Chardonnay and Savagnin, “Tradition”. The former is perhaps misleadingly named for an English speaking market. “Flor” here means “floral”. The wine is topped -up, or ouillé, and a wine aged under flor in French is, of course, described as sous voile…but you knew that…
Baud’s Château-Chalon is perhaps lighter, and maybe a little softer than some. It might not impress me quite as much as that of, say, Berthet-Bondet, but it’s certainly a nice one to try if you are new to the style. At around €20 ex-cellars, it’s also a relative bargain. I also liked the Crémant very much. It blends 70% Chardonnay with 30% Pinot Noir. Usually my own taste turns out to be for the pure Chardonnays in this category (and I’m a sucker for BdeB Champagne), but this is labelled Brut Sauvage, so a much drier style. I think the blend suits it. It’s very good indeed, and €7.60 ex-cellars, which deserves at least one of these…!
Domaine Daniel Dugois, Les Arsures
Les Arsures, not to be confused with the more famous Montigny-les-Arsures, lies in the northeastern section of the Arbois AOC. Beyond Les Arsures you move into the tiny enclave of vines which remain near Salins-les-Bains, and the up-and-coming sub-region towards Mouchard and Port-Lesney. There are ten hectares, located in Les Arsures, and near the more southerly Montigny-les-Arsures, which are farmed “sustainably”. Philippe, who was on hand to pour, has worked in Burgundy, South Africa and Australia, and seems to want to combine new ideas with the traditional approach of his parents.
Standouts include a very nice old vine Trousseau from the “Grévillière” vineyard, where many of the vines reach 70 years of age. This is, perhaps as a result of the old vine material, a wine with the potential to age. Young, it is already distinctive, showing quality potential, but it’s pretty tannic right now, even from 2013. The Arbois Savagnin has a gentle “Savagnin-sous voile” nose, and quite a bit of acidity but with a gentle nutty note on the palate. The Vin Jaune 2009 is very good indeed. Mushrooms and umami in evidence here as a complex addition to the usual notes.
Perhaps the labels here suggest that the wines are a little old fashioned. You may like them or you may not, but these bottles contain some nice wines.
Domaine Grand, Passenans
Passenans is another of those attractive Jura villages which I would say just scream out “La France Profonde”, except perhaps they are far too quiet to scream. I only know of two producers in the village. One is Les Dolomies, the tiny 4ha estate of the elusive Céline Gormally, whose wines I’ve been trying to track down for two years, without success. The other is the somewhat larger Domaine Grand, whose wines from a much larger holding had, until yesterday, also eluded me.
Unlike Céline, who has only been around for eight years, there have been Grands growing grapes in Passenans since 1692. Again, viticulture is “traditional”, but the use of chemicals in the vineyard, and also of SO2 in the winery, are being decreased bit by bit. My favourite two wines here were the Savagnin “Floral Expression” 2014 and the Trousseau from the same vintage. The Savagnin is in a pure and fruity style. Those who know wines like Stéphane Tissot’s “Traminer” will know what I mean. There’s almost no telltale Savagnin nuttiness on the nose, and I really liked it. I didn’t see the alcohol content, but it tasted nice and refreshingly light.
The yield on the Trousseau is around 30 hl/ha, and the wine seems to blend a nice fruitiness with an already developing, attractive, sous bois note. They also make a single site Château-Chalon from the “En Beaumont” vineyard, in the sector towards Menétru-le-Vignoble (not all of the Château-Chalon vines lie on the slope below that village). The 2009, whilst not hitting quite the heights of a couple I tasted yesterday, is well above the average. I’ve no idea of the prices from Domaine Grand, so I can’t say whether they represent good value, but I can say that this is another domaine I can add to my list of wines to try again when I see them in a restaurant in the region. And if I can ever gain admittance at Les Dolomies, I’ll pay the Grands a visit as well.
And now for something completely different…
Some of you know, from reading this blog, that I spent an evening with Brad Hickey recently. Brad is one half of the married partnership behind the increasingly talked about McLaren Vale producer, Brash Higgins. Brad gave me a few wines to try, and his Riesling/Semillon was downed some days ago. I’d promised to take along a rare bottle of his “Bloom” on Tuesday. Where better than a Jura tasting to pour what I believe to be Australia’s only sous voile wine (the name Bloom is clever because, of course, the flor under which it ages is a bloom).
There’s plenty of Savagnin in Australia, most of which was actually thought to be, and labelled as, Albarino, the Spanish grape synonymous with Galicia and the Rias Baixas. But that is pretty much made as a normal table wine. Bloom is made from Chardonnay. It’s aged for a little longer under flor than a Vin Jaune (eight years for Bloom), so this first release is actually from the 2008 vintage.
What’s it like and what did they think? Well, to be fair it isn’t a copy of a Jura Vin Jaune. Where it differs most is in the richness of the ripe Chardonnay fruit, and the evident oak. I’d also say that, for whatever reason, the oxidative influence of the flor is less manifest. Perhaps the layer was thin (although in Jura it’s always much, much thinner than in Jerez and Sanlucar)? Perhaps the flor was not persistent throughout the whole ageing period? Perhaps a year less under flor might have actually produced, counter-intuitively, a more intensive flor effect, and perhaps that was not the intention anyway. But I’m digressing. This is a fantastic wine in its own right, and pretty complex when you get under the oak and fruit. With only 35 cases made from this inaugural vintage, it was a genuine privilege to be able to have a squat, not quite but almost clavelin-like, 700ml bottle. I won’t deny that a tiny part of me was jealous of sharing it with so many.
I ended up pouring samples for at least twenty people, a mix of a few wine journalists and MWs, some UK trade professionals and the Jura producers themselves. When one or two producers tasted it their friends were soon queuing up for a slug. I’d say a good 85% were really impressed. The producers could see it was not a faux Vin Jaune. They were thrilled to try it, seeing it as a compliment to their region that someone should make this experiment out of a love for a unique wine style. Those few who were not so keen were without exception of a slightly older generation. One Frenchman (not a producer) let out the sort of characteristic pouf! that you hear when you pop a quality English sparkler, or a great Californian Chardonnay. The sound of unassailable prejudice. It’s no challenge to Vin Jaune, it’s simply a brilliant attempt to create something purely Australian in the oxidative, flor-aged, style and the wine world is richer for Brad Hickey’s adventure down this path, one which I, and a good number of London wine folk, are hoping he continues to pursue. Thanks again Brad for giving us a taste of yet one more of the world’s unicorn wines.
I probably should not go without mentioning that the Tasting was also jointly held with the producers of Jura’s best known cheese, Comté. A stall giving us all the opportunity to sample three ages of Comté provided a nice nibble with which to exit into the cold London late afternoon. I admit being extremely partial to Comté, and it is the perfect match for so many of the region’s wines, perhaps a coincidence, I’m not sure. In particular, one of life’s great pleasures is to have the time to sit with a bottle of Vin Jaune or Château-Chalon, a bowl of fresh walnuts, and a spread of three ages of Comté – a fruity young 8 month old, a middle aged 24 monther, and a venerable, crystal packed, 36 month version. Perfect to lower the heart rate after all the excitement of the second half of the year.