I’m a little sad this year. Followers of Wideworldofwine will be well aware that Eastern France’s Jura region is one of my passions. They may well know the story of how we used to stay on the Côte de Beaune each spring, and how we took a chance one year, for one of our day trips, to check out Arbois. This was many, many years ago now, but as others know well, once you smell the wood smoke and sample the cakes (Hirsinger) and Comté, you don’t look back.
Whether it was to stay in a tiny gîte with a stream running through the garden when the children were tiny, or merely passing through on the way to or from Geneva or the Alps, what started out as frequent visits ended up becoming a visit every year. Until now. For the first time in many years we have not set foot in the region during 2018, in fact not since November last year.
We plan to put that right as soon as temperatures become tolerable there in 2019 (February can be worse than bitter), but I continue to drink deep of the wines and follow closely what is going on around Arbois and beyond. We’ve not even had the customary Jura-themed wine dinner in London this year, but last Friday I was pleased to give an introduction to the region and its wines at Lymington’s adventurous wine merchant, Solent Cellar.
Simon and Heather at Solent Cellar have shared my love of the region’s wines for a few years, and after their first visit in 2017 I think they also have the bug for travelling there. They began to widen their Jura range after that visit, and you won’t find many wine shops outside London that can match their ever changing offering, which ranges from well known names like Ganevat and Berthet-Bondet, to the remarkably fashionable Philippe Bornard, and a relatively new name on the block, Fabrice Dodane’s Domaine St-Pierre.
As many independent wine merchants do these days, Solent Cellar has to innovate in order to build a loyal customer base, and one way they have done this is to convert the shop into a restaurant from time to time. They work with a versatile local chef, and they can squeeze twenty-four covers in without discomfort. As with most of their events, it sold out quickly, with people left disappointed.
It’s a testament to the knowledge and astute buying here that such trust is placed in the team by their customers. I began my introduction by asking whether anyone had been to the region, and one couple stuck their hands up. Asking if people knew where the region is, it was by no means universally acknowledged. Yet the audience attacked these sometimes unusual wines with a spirit of adventure. I hope that my descriptions of especially the region’s autochthonous grape varieties, and of the main techniques for making them into wine, gave an accurate enough picture of what to expect.
The food was very well executed. Guests were given a glass of very interesting Crémant du Jura Château Bethanie with canapes on arrival. This is a Chardonnay-based méthode traditionelle sparkler with the twist that a small amount of Vin Jaune is added in the dosage, which gives the wine a very interesting slightly (only slightly) oxidative note. I’m sure that there are certain provocative wine writers who in the past might have called this “Krug for under £20-a-bottle”.
The menu began with a trout starter with delicious saffron-pickled cauliflower, followed by the traditional coq au Vin Jaune et au morilles. The sauce here, in this case, actually made with Vin Jaune rather than a Savagnin substitute, was well executed. Instead of dessert we had a generous cheese platter with young Comté, Morbier and Bleu de Gex.
There was a very wide selection of wines by the glass to choose from, priced keenly, along with some more wines available by the bottle. The ticket included the food and the glass of Crémant, with further drinks purchased through the evening. You can see what was on offer from the photo of the evening’s wine list (above, NB prices are for wines consumed during the meal, not on-the-shelf prices). I tasted all the wines beforehand, but purchased wines throughout the meal, and my brief notes below largely comment on the wines I drank. There was one corked bottle, which we spotted and replaced, but the wines otherwise performed really well.
Michel Gahier Melon “La Fauquette” 2013 – The Melon in this case is not the grape of Muscadet, but Melon à Queue Rouge, a (very) red-stalked Chardonnay mutation/variation. This variety has become very fashionable of late, but there is justification. It hasn’t been much planted for many years so when you find it, the bottle will almost certainly be an old vine cuvée. Jura author Wink Lorch describes it as being softer and with more yellow fruit characteristics than straight Chardonnay, but additionally, all the versions I’ve drunk (at least three or four in recent years) have had a lovely freshness too.
I drank the Gahier with the trout. You don’t see MàQR very often so it seemed a good opportunity to do more than just taste it. My wife went for the Poulsard Sans Souffre “Love” 2017 from the Fruitière d’Arbois (fruitière is the name for a co-operative in Jura). It may be a co-operative wine but it’s a nice, fresh, red-fruited, natural wine with no added sulphur, and slightly cheaper (£22 vs £28) than the Poulsard from Domaine de la Pinte, L’Ami Karl from the same vintage, although the latter wine can age wonderfully (they sometimes have an older vintage at their Arbois shop). The Pinte wine has added nuance and complexity with lots of cranberry fruit.
The main course was, as I said, pretty well handled. Although we naturally didn’t get a Poulet de Bresse (which is what you will commonly get served in Arbois), the chicken was very nice, and a whole breast. We decided to go traditional, drinking the sous voile Savagnin 2013, Daniel Dugois with this course.
Daniel’s son, Philippe, runs the domaine, based in Arsures just to the north of Arbois, these days. This (like Puffeney in Montigny-les-Arsures) has always been a good address for Savagnin aged under flor because they also make one of the best Vin Jaunes around Arbois (a well kept secret). This particular Savagnin wine isn’t released every year, and it sees around five years sous voile, so as you can see, it’s well on its way to being a Vin Jaune when bottled.
It was one of the best performers on the night, and possibly the surprise of the night as well, nutty and complex but fresh too. I’m not sure whether Solent Cellar has any left (I’m also not sure the Jura wines listed on their web site are comprehensive so do inquire what they have if interested), but it comes highly recommended. Flor-aged Savagnin when of a very high quality, is a true bargain, usually retailing at between 50% to 60% of the price of the same estates’ increasingly expensive Vin Jaunes (not to mention the often ignored fact that you get 75cl as opposed to 62cl in the traditional Vin Jaune clavelin).
A few people drank the Trousseau Singulier, a “barrel selection” from Stéphane Tissot, which still has some tannin but is a deliciously sappy red wine, and a few others went for the Berthet-Bondet “Balanoz”. This 2015 Chardonnay is drinking especially well right now, which I made note of (I have some at home). The other Berthet-Bondet listed in the white wine section, the topped-up (ouillé) Savagnin “Savignier”, was also drinking nicely in a lighter but still slightly nutty style.
I thought the cheese platter was generous, considering the miserly cuts you sometimes get in London restaurants. I had counselled everyone to try one of the Vin Jaunes with the cheese course, and almost everyone did (I think some went with the Trousseau).
Domaine Saint-Pierre is near the village of Vadans, which is just a few minutes outside of Arbois, on the road to Dôle. Its Vin Jaune in a slightly lighter style, quite young (2008), but a Vin Jaune that will happily drink young. Some preferred it because the complexity of older Vin Jaune can be a little bit too intense.
Berthet-Bondet Château-Chalon 2009 is even younger, and I was surprised that this was drinking so nicely. The Berthet-Bondet family make what I consider one of my two favourite Vin Jaune styles from the village (Macle being the other). This wine is truly elegant and fine. As much as it is nutty, it is smoky too. You get complex notes of ginger and cumin, and a layer of quite exotic fruit on top, but just a hint. Of course it will keep for a very long time, but it was very good on the night.
There was one truly well aged Vin Jaune on the list, a real cracker. Jacques Puffeney Vin Jaune 1995 for a ridiculous £12-a-glass was irresistible. I guarantee I’ve seen it for double that in one particular London restaurant. Jacques Puffeney, one of the greatest five or six names in the Jura region, retired after the 2014 vintage. He sold his vineyards (to Domaine du Pélican) but kept the wine he’d made, his pension he said. But still, the supply of wine, from this master of an age when Jura wine would be laughed at by Parisians and Burgundians alike (ha! Domaine du Pélican are Burgundians and they’re not laughing now!) is now finite and running low.
Although many would place the rise of Jura, from unknown backwater to one of the most fashionable wine regions in the whole world among younger connoisseurs, on the shoulders of Jean-François Ganevat, Stéphane Tissot, or perhaps Pierre Overnoy, others might point to the impact that Jacques Puffeney’s wines made in America when they were imported by pioneer wine merchant Neal Rosenthal. Rosenthal had become close friends with Puffeney when he began falling in love with the region in the early 1990s (as I had done just a few years earlier).
I’m pretty lucky. Puffeney’s wasn’t the first Jura wine I tasted, but during those early visits I fell in love with the Puffeney wines I bought, along with those of André and Mireille Tissot, whose son Stéphane had just returned to the domaine from overseas and was frightening his father with his determination to convert to biodynamics, now almost ubiquitous around Arbois. The oldest Jura wine I own is a 1989 Vin Jaune special cuvée from Puffeney.
This 1995 Vin Jaune at Solent Cellar was just stunning. If the other two similar wines were a high tenor and a baritone, this was a true, deep, bass. A wine of profound complexity, but despite that depth, and despite the acidity of youth having mellowed significantly, it still drank fresh, alive. You could count the wine’s length in minutes. It was a perfect accompaniment to the three regional cheeses.
As a generous reward for my talk we did get to share a wine of equal profundity with the Solent Cellar team at the end of the evening: Houillon-Overnoy Ploussard 2015 (they spell Poulsard as “Ploussard” in Pupillin, a village just minutes south of Arbois, which claims the title of the “world capital of Ploussard”, and where this domaine is situated). It’s hard to describe a wine like this. Since Emmanuel Houillon, who began working at the estate aged 14, took over more or less completely from Pierre Overnoy at this signature Pupillin domaine things have remained pretty much the same. Ever since Pierre began making wine in the late 1960s he eschewed the use of sulphur at any stage in the winemaking process, and of course the vineyards have been farmed without any synthetic chemicals since at least the 1980s.
The thing which almost literally shines (see the colour) through this wine is its amazing fruit. A host of red fruits with strawberry and raspberry perhaps dominating. Pure concentrated fruit juice. Almost off the scale, yet so simple at the same time. I’m lost for words, really. This was a single bottle from Simon and Heather’s cellar, so not on their shop list, but a privilege to drink, as I know many of you will agree.
A great evening, made even more fun by a nice adventurous crowd in the shop. I think, from the feedback I got, that people really enjoyed it. As Simon told me later, “these things are an effort to put on so we like to make sure what’s on offer are wines we ourselves really like and want to share with our customers”. Admirable!
As I noted, the dinner was sold out, but for customers who couldn’t come, or in at least one case, for those who couldn’t get enough of all things Jura, Solent Cellar laid on some Jura wine flights on the Saturday, accompanied by a slice from a couple of Tartes au Comté left by the chef. The alternative, which we eagerly participated in, was a glass (£6) of Philippe Bornard Ça va Bien petnat served from magnum. This was a treat for me because I’ve seen empty magnums of this wine at the domaine, but never managed to get one for myself. I’m still not sure how Simon managed to, though he is pretty persuasive sometimes. Simply gorgeous, though I’m known to go weak at the knees at the sight of a Jura magnum (Solent cellar even have the odd Ganevat “Kopin” in 150cl if you are extremely swift (£58)).
One final note on Solent Cellar. I have family in Lymington. For a while after they opened I walked past the shop convincing myself that I didn’t need yet another wine supplier in my life. After I cracked I discovered that this is one of the finest wine shops in the country, and I’ve visited a lot of wine shops. The best way to get the measure of them, if you can’t make it in to browse for half an hour, is to go to the web site link (in the third paragraph of this article) and scroll down the Home Page and click on the photo and link to “unique and rare wines”. It’s a lovely three-page snapshot for any wine obsessive to salivate over.