It was quite fortuitous that, with a trip to Arbois imminent, we (that’s three couples with a passion for all things Jura) had the chance to take over the private room at The Pig, near Brockenhurst in the New Forest last Wednesday, for a Jura evening. Five, I must say, exquisite courses, including the chef’s first attempt at Poulet au Vin Jaune, and eight wines, several of which were exceptional.
The aperitif slot was taken by what remains my favourite Crémant du Jura, Stéphane and Bénédicte Tissot Crémant du Jura Indigène. This majestic bottle-fermented sparkler is unusual in two respects. First, most Crémant from the region will be 100% Chardonnay, or at least predominantly so. This wine is comprised of 50% Chardonnay, along with 40% Pinot Noir and 5% each of Poulsard and Trousseau, the red grapes all vinified en blanc and partially aged in wood.
The second unusual aspect of this wine lies in its production. The prise de mousse (the second fermentation in bottle) is initiated by the addition of a liqueur de tirage made from the must of fermenting Vin de Paille. This liqueur is 100% natural grape juice with natural/indigenous yeasts. The second fermentation is much longer than the Jura norm with industrial yeasts, in this case around nine months. The wine then ages on lees for a further 13 months before disgorging (nowadays this has become a zero-dosage wine, so it’s quite dry).
It’s easy to latch onto this wine’s outstanding trait, that of pure elegance. But alongside this, the wine also has a strong influence from its liqueur de tirage, which gives it a slight oxidative edge in an otherwise pure and fresh wine with a fantastic bead of fine bubbles. Head above the parapet time here, but it is almost “Krug-like” (ducks), at least in its style. But this bottle was disgorged in April 2017 and purchased later that same year. I’d say that generally speaking this is better cellared for two years before it hits its peak, but it performed brilliantly to set the tone on the night.
Our first course of Wild Boar Salami with purple sprouting broccoli, goat’s curd and hazelnuts saw us open Jacques Puffeney Arbois Savagnin 2011, a classic from the now-retired “Pope of Arbois”. It is made in the sous voile style (under the region’s thin layer of flor), aged in an array of old wood (largely foudres) after fermenting with natural yeasts and no additives.
Puffeney has a reputation of being quite reticent to open up, and his wines can be like that as well. They seem on the one hand a little old fashioned, yet they have that same quality as the wines of Pierre Overnoy and Emmanuel Houillon, unbelievable purity. This 2011 had that characteristic nutty tang that comes from flor-aged Savagnin, but which can become pronounced at this address. I often recommend Puffeney’s sous voile Savagnin (the topped-up/ouillé version, if released, is labelled Naturé to distinguish it) as a Vin Jaune alternative. In fact quite a few well-aged Savagnins can rightly be called “a mini Vin Jaune”.
This is a classy wine, although it has some years ahead of it before full maturity. Such wines can live a long time, and have a relatively long plateau of delicious drinkability, changing in style with age but yet not really increasing or diminishing in quality terms.
The next wine straddled this first course and the second (most of the wines were sampled across several dishes), cider-cured trout, apple, garden mizuna and celery leaf. Indeed we returned to it until the last sip of the evening: Stéphane and Bénédicte Tissot Tour de Curon Chardonnay “Le Clos” 2005. It’s a bit of a shame that I posted my review of the year early, because I’d now put this on the pedestal as my wine of the year, and at least one other person at the table felt so too.
The tower in question is not grand, but it does dominate the view on the route through the vines from Arbois to Stéphane’s winery in Montigny-les-Arsures. Stéphane and Bénédicte purchased the clos from the old negociant, Henri Maire, in 2001. The Chardonnay vines planted here, each on a single stake, face southwest on limestone. Limestone gives a very different style of wine to the more common marnes of the region, as those who read my recent comments on Fabrice Dodane’s Saint-Pierre Chardonnay will have noted.
The vineyard is steep and terraced, but is still able to be worked by horse. Stéphane now has nine hectares around the Tour (along with one or two of my other favourite growers), but “Le Clos” remains the core, with its densely planted vines now reaching maturity. The most pathetically used, and often downright lazy, description of Chardonnay like this is “Burgundian”, so I will refrain from using it. Yet in terms of proximity and soil composition, you could clearly be forgiven in thinking that you are drinking something fine from the Côte de Beaune. It certainly fools many, blind, on a regular basis. I wonder whether I could spot it?
Buttery-smooth, rich, yet with balancing citrus-fresh acidity, and a hazelnut note as it finishes, adding a very slight bitterness, is what you get. The length here is, needless to say, pretty amazing. However, it doesn’t come cheap at all. I’ve no idea where my fellow diner sourced this 2005, the 2015 was €70 at the domaine last year. But cheap at twice the price, dare I say.
The next wine started out as something of a mystery. I bought this bottle of Overnoy 2012 at Plateau in Brighton, from, well, not exactly the take away list, but I think they were being very kind to me. It was, as is the way of these wines, anonymous as to its contents from the label, but you can usually tell by the colour of the wax seal. So, although this wine had been sold as Savagnin, we thought from the seal that it could be a Chardonnay. In the end it turned out to be a ouillé Savagnin.
Pierre Overnoy has now handed over winemaking to his protegé, Manu Houillon, who has been at the domaine for nearly thirty years, but Pierre’s wine passion goes back to the wartime years, when he began helping his father. It’s easy to see him as one of the great old timers with a history like this, and indeed he is, but this belies his intuitive understanding of what makes for fine wine, not least the scrupulous attention to hygiene at Domaine Overnoy-Houillon. It is this which allows them to forego sulphur additions and other additives, making them original natural winemakers, alongside Beaujolais’ famous “gang of four”. Viticulture here is also biodynamic, Ecocert certified.
This Savagnin, from Pupillin’s finest soils, is much more a product of that terroir than any method of winemaking. The Savagnin variety is always topped up here, although they very occasionally make a foray into Vin Jaune (I’ve never tasted one). The flavours really seem to be drawn out in an elegant smoothness. The impression is overall of a very fine wine which lingers on the senses for an age, rather than being capable of micro-analysis. Ethereal perhaps sums it up better than any fruit or spice descriptors.
One facet of winemaking at the Overnoy domaine is long ageing. Wines are aged a few years before release (sometimes much more than a few if the vintage deems it necessary). It’s all about the wine, not the money, or that at least is the impression I’ve always had, and I don’t think it’s cultivated. In this respect, the wine resembles the Puffeney – it would prefer more time. Although I think in this case it doesn’t need it, the wine certainly improved considerably in the glass from its initial shyness, opening out through the meal. It finished up quite magnificent in such company. Don’t judge it until you hit the bottom of the bottle – sound advice with Overnoy.
The main course was a Hampshire take on the Jura classic, Poulet au Vin Jaune, this time with oyster mushrooms, garden greens and steamed rice. It might offend the purists, but apparently no morilles were to be found. The sauce, as (let’s be honest) with most versions of this dish, was actually made from a base of Savagnin (from the Arbois co-operative). Anyway, it was pretty good. A serious “well done” for a chef who’d never attempted this before.
The cheese course was titled “The Pig’s British “Jura” Board” and was made up of a delicious, ripe, Hampshire Winslade, Somerset Ogleshield and Cornish Gouda (sic). Okay, not exactly three ages of Comté, but very nice cheeses.
We managed not one but two exceptional Vin Jaune. In any other company Jacques Puffeney Vin Jaune 1988 would have been a wine of the night. In a very nutty, quite flor-affected, style. There’s a nice element of age here, but there’s no doubt this will improve for a long time. 1988 is generally thought to be one of the finest Vin Jaune vintages from the 20th Century.
The next wine does not come from one of those “finest” vintages, but it makes up for that with age. Domaine de La Pinte Vin Jaune 1973 in fact comes from a vintage that was not rated all that highly in the region. But La Pinte goes back a long way, their first vintage being in 1959. They were one of the first in Arbois-Pupillin to convert to biodynamics, although that was in the 1990s, long after this particular wine was made.
There’s a lot of experience here, and it shows in the winemaking. Indeed, I’ve often argued that Domaine de la Pinte gets too little recognition, both for the wines (these days there’s plenty of innovation and looking to the future), as well as for their mentoring of so many young talents (including through their hosting, every second year, of the “Nez dans le Vert” tasting of organic producers’ wines).
What can I say about this 1973? It is all too easy to be in awe of old wines, but what they may lack in power, and in “quality” in its purest technical sense, you gain in other qualities. I tasted this before we headed off to the restaurant and it had an astonishing nose of caramel/toffee, but by the time we got round to drinking it (both Vin Jaune were decanted), that had dissipated. What remained was something in between walnut and almost truffley fungus (that fresh truffle smell, albeit faint). A gentle wine sinking back into the old, well worn, armchair, its work done, yet expecting a long and restful retirement.
There are sometimes older bottles available to buy at La Pinte, occasionally. The price of older Vin Jaune has gone up considerably over the past decade, but compared to most other wine styles, they are not unreasonable. Especially as this is a wine style where considerable age is almost always a plus. We see so many current release VJs on restaurant lists, and people pay top whack without having the chance to savour what this unique wine is all about. After all, we know that the Vercel 1774 sold at auction a few years ago was evidently perfectly drinkable!
We had a few wines which didn’t get opened (what kind of people end up taking home a bottle of Ganevat Chardonnay?), but we did open Berthet-Bondet Côtes du Jura 2002, an aged version of a Savagnin-based white from one of my favourite producers at Château-Chalon. In such company, following those VJs, this could not really compare, except to add a nice palate-cleansing freshness to the end of our savoury courses. But that does miss the point, because I share with the couple who brought this an appreciation of Jean and Chantal Berthet-Bondet’s wines. It was nice to try a bottle with more than fifteen years age on it, and to see how it still managed to retain genuine freshness and purity.
For dessert we were served poached pear and almond frangipane tart which we paired with Julien Labet Vin de Paille 2003. Wink Lorch, in Jura Wine (2014), calls Alain and Josie Labet “perhaps the greatest unsung heroes of the Jura wine region”, and I could not agree more. They retired in 2012, leaving the domaine in the hands of sons Julien and Romain, and daughter Charline. As a figurehead for the domaine, Julien has certainly brought fame to this corner of the Sud Revermont, and most connoisseurs would hold equal affection for the Labet wines today as for those of near-neighbour, Jean-François Ganevat.
Alain and Josie were right there at the beginning of my Jura wine journey. After a few initial bottles from Henri Maire, it was Labet, along with André and Mireille Tissot (Stéphane’s parents) and the Rolet family, who were the catalysts for my lifelong passion for the region, in the Labets’ case with a Vin Jaune. I have a good few Labet wines in my cellar, but none which go back to the parents’ era. Julien did start helping with winemaking in 1999, and for a while also worked separate vines on his own, so it was a thrill to taste his Julien Labet Vin de Paille 2003.
Vin de Paille translates, of course, as “straw wine”. It is only made in miniscule quantities (estimated at less than 1% of the region’s output each vintage). Even of those who make it, it is not always thrilling, and the regulations are quite strict (including a stipulation for 14% alcohol, which has led Stéphane Tissot and others to make dessert wines outside of the Vin de Paille AOP, and Julien Labet did start making a non-AOC wine called La Paille Perdu but ran into problems over that name with the authorities). In this respect some modern growers seem to view it as rather old fashioned, yet when it is good (have you ever tried an old Chave or Chapoutier Vin de Paille from the Northern Rhône?) it is luscious and so concentrated.
One thing you find with Vin de Paille, and that can be said of this particular wine, is that it is rarely very complex, at least to my palate. I think that is down to the alcohol (which in this case is labelled as 14.5%). That rather luscious sweetness is bound up in honey and lemon, and perhaps something herby or savoury underneath. The concentration does give it length, and this, rather than any pronounced acidity, allows it to linger on the palate longer than the sweet flavours of the pear tart. The Labet Vin de Paille, at least in this era, was usually either 100% Poulsard, or predominently from that grape variety.
That wasn’t quite the end of proceedings. We were sadly (only on account of the time) unable to whip off the table top in The Pig’s private room (which would reveal a billiard table), and of course the law would not have permitted us to enjoy a cigar as we played. But we were allowed a small glass of Macvin du Jura from the Fruitière Vinicole d’Arbois.
Macvin is a kind of liqueur wine made from the must of Jura grapes, to which is added eau de vie from the marc of Jura grapes. In France this type of wine is known as a mistelle, and the method of stopping the must from fermenting by the addition of spirit is called mûtage. What you get can be an acquired taste, largely because the marc used by some producers can grate a little, to my palate (the spirit must come from the marc of the producer’s own grapes, but need not be made by them…quite a few of the best producers now make, and age, their own, with often stunning results).
The result here is a drink which comes in at 17.5% alcohol, with a certain spirit note but also genuine fruitiness from the fortified, unfermented, grape must…you really get a lovely rounded flavour of mirabelle plums, as the back label suggests. I rarely buy Macvin, despite attempts, occasionally successful, by my favourite producers to make me do so. But it’s a big meal like this where it comes into its own, as a small digestif at the end of the evening. So I’m grateful that one of our company thought to bring one along. We didn’t finish the bottle, but you don’t need to. Like other liqueur wines of this type, it will keep, twenty years as the back label states is a perfectly reasonable suggestion, though I doubt many bottles see a fraction of that.
An amazing evening of wines, the like of which I probably won’t see for a long time, even in Arbois, that is until we repeat it all next year (which I’m assured we shall). The Pig, I must say, did us proud. You can always guarantee that you will be looked after really well here, but on this visit I felt all the stops had been pulled out.
I think that, as I’ve said before, the New Forest has become one of rural England’s premier destinations for dining, with several fine restaurants to choose from (Chewton Glen and Lime Wood down to the East End Arms and several more), but The Pig has probably established itself as the place I want to dine at most regularly in the forest. It has an attractive location, and in winter the country house cosiness, with the fires all lit, makes it feel extremely comfortable, though if you plan to stay there try to bag a deal – it’s not cheap.