This article was meant to come out before Christmas but a nasty virus put paid to that. Instead of wishing you all a Merry Christmas, or Winter Solstice (for those of a non-Christmassy persuasion), I shall instead wish everyone a Very Happy 2019. After this tale of Jurassic obscurity I’ve a couple more things to share from December’s trip to Arbois – a visit to Domaine des Bodines, and a little bit of an update for people heading to the region this year.
In my last article I mentioned the grape variety Melon à Queue Rouge. Although it is quite rare and little heard of outside of Jura, it is merely a variant of Chardonnay. However, there is a whole string of indigenous and quite ancient grape varieties in the region, some in tiny scattered plots, and others co-planted with the better known varieties, as was once the way, a great insurance policy against some varieties falling foul of disease or the weather in times past.
It is interesting to speculate as to why this might be the case. You don’t see a host of ancient varieties in regions like Bordeaux, nor Burgundy. The other locations which come to mind where a similar number of obscure, occasionally unidentified, varieties exist in France is in Gascony, and in the Provençal vineyards of Palette (Château Simone). Outside France, we see a similar profusion of obscure varieties in Vienna, where they form a small part of the blend for Wiener Gemischter Satz.
Surely these old varieties have survived because no one has thought it worth grubbing them up and replacing them with a more fashionable variety. Bordeaux was not always the land of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and the viticultural face of Burgundy has changed dramatically since the 1880s and phylloxera. Vienna’s vineyards produced an under appreciated wine that, until quite recently, was seen more as part of the city’s culture than its gastronomic patrimony.
That said, the ancient varieties were once very much more abundant than today. After phylloxera devastated the Jura vignoble in the late nineteenth century, the area under vine shrank rather dramatically. When replanting took place, on American root stocks, the old varieties were either no longer wanted, or no one had any cuttings. Of course, when the AOCs were granted nearly everyone wanted to replant with the five permitted varieties. After all, why would you want anything else, thinking about the financial side of things?
Jura has always been seen as a backwater by the arbiters of taste in Paris, that is, until the wines of this small and obscure region became the darlings of the natural wine bars in the capital. Even then, it has taken some decades for the region to show outward signs of a greater prosperity. If you had visited Arbois in the 1980s and 1990s you would have experienced a very different place.
Today Arbois is beginning to thrive, as is its sister town, Poligny, yet among all the new wine shops and restaurants there are still dozens of eighteenth century buildings crying out for renovation and occupation. This is why tradition dies hard. Lack of progress seems to have had one very minor benefit…the old varieties have, in some cases, survived.
If you want to see some of these old cépages anciens the place to go is Château-Chalon. Down a steep path behind the church, which eventually leads you to the most spectacular vineyards of the village, you will see on your left a rusty gate in a lowish wall. The gate’s twisted ironwork vine tendrils barely bar your way, but do open it and go in. Just to the right of the gate a sign reads “Cépages Comtois Vigne Conservatoire”. It is one of three sites where a long list of ancient varieties are planted.
If you wish to taste the old varieties it is not as difficult as it might seem. Most producers who have the old vines (Geuche, Mézy, Béclan, Argant, Rèze and, yes, Enfariné are a few examples) will have them co-planted among their other vines. I remember that Jacques Puffeney had old vine varieties in with his nobler cépages, and that they were just blended into other cuvées. Their tiny proportion fell well within the rules for AOC labelling.
Some producers do experiment with new plantings. The Pignier family down in Montaigu, south of Lons-Le-Saunier, has planted Rèze, according to Wink Lorch, along with other varieties. Rèze is, I presume, the same grape as that which is famous for Vin de Glacier in Switzerland’s Valais. There is also evidence that the Savoie red variety, Mondeuse, was planted here in Jura, probably arriving via Bugey (the compliment is returned in that there is Poulsard in Bugey).
The champion of the cépages anciens is Jean-François Ganevat. He claims to have more than forty varieties planted in his thirteen hectares of Sud Revermont vineyards. Several of his long list of wines contain a number of these treasures, although unfortunately he isn’t usually specific about which ones on his back labels. The other difficulty at Ganevat is that the cuvées change. But at least he is keeping the varieties alive.
J’En Veux used to be the one to go for. Does he still make it? Depending on who you read, it is made from either seven or seventeen different varieties. Y’a Bon The Canon is relatively easy to find, at least for metropolitans. That is a blend of Gamay from Beaujolais and old indigenous Jura varieties, as is De Toute Beauté Nature with its opinion-splitting “naked lady” labels. Poulprix is another one to go for now. Okay, it contains 80% Gamay from Beaujolais in this case (these are all consequently bottled under J-F and Anne Ganevat’s negoce label), but 20% comes from 40-year-old Enfariné Noir.
For most people it remains the case that the way to taste these varieties is in a blend. But I have a friend just outside of Arbois who is just starting out as a winemaker. It’s really hard for an outsider to get established in the region because, quite naturally, the locals are desperate to get more vines for themselves (hard, that is, unless you are a rich Burgundian estate that wants to diversify into Jura).
One way to go is to rent vines, which Marcel has done. If you rent them long enough you do get an option to purchase should the owner want to sell. Another way is to pay over the odds, and Marcel was able to purchase a small plot of old vines which were attached to some terrain whose classification had been changed from agricultural to building land. This meant a slightly higher price, but Marcel thought it worth it to get a decent plot of his own.
The recently acquired plot showing the Enfariné Noir vines on the right
Among the Chardonnay, Savagnin and Poulsard vines were a couple of rows (just 2 are – 100 are = 1 hectare so one are is 100 square metres) of Enfariné vines, 50 to 55 years of age. The grape variety gets its name from the fact that its thick red skins become covered in a white, flour-like, yeast bloom quite unlike any other grape. Enfariné had a reputation as being very acidic, and I’m not sure it was ever popular. Today there is supposed to be merely a single hectare panted in the whole region. Genevat almost certainly has the most, but Marcel has gone one step further and made a single varietal wine from it.
The wine in question is a 2017 crémant. It’s not AOC (hence my lower case), nor is it for sale (Marcel doesn’t, at least as yet, commercialise the wines of the nascent Domaine Marcelon). Although this is a very dark skinned variety, the wine is quite pale, a rosé, the result of a gentle pressing (just one single rotation in the small rotary press with no destemming). After experimenting with dosage, Marcel decided on just 1 g/litre. It only saw nine months on lees because of the desire to try the finished, experimental, product, but the 2018 will probably get twelve months.
I was quite shocked at how good I thought the result was. It had a blend of lovely red fruits with a grapefruit finish (but not bitter). The bead was superb. It is quite linear, all held together by a nice firm backbone. The acidity seems perfect for a sparkling wine, but was less pronounced than I expected. It was easily of commercial quality, and I’ve tasted quite a few far less attractive AOP Crémant du Jura. Marcel only managed to make 130 bottles of this in 2017. Yields were a lot higher in 2018, but he carried out a green harvest and estimates he may just manage around 150 bottles.
I know, it doesn’t look pink, a trick of the light, I suppose
Marcel also makes several other wines, including a lovely cherry, prune and liquorice flavoured, deeply fruity, Pinot Noir and Trousseau (30:70) blend from rented vines in Vadans (50-y-o planted on own roots). We tried some 2015, and then the 2014 single varietal Trousseau, which I’d previously tried before bottling (sour cherry, more acidity).
He produces a wonderful white Macvin made from Chardonnay which spent two years in oak. The marc used to fortify it (to 17%) is Marcel’s own, taken to a local alembic, and aged for 12 months before using to mute the wine. The spirit is there in the background and smells refined. It’s very nice, and probably better than the somewhat sweeter red Macvin made from Poulsard (though the latter was a hazy bottle from the end of bottling).
The strong walnut liqueur was probably a step too far on a cold morning before lunch with the empty stomach rumbling, very strong in flavour and alcohol, but interesting. There’s also a glass bonbon of Vin de Paille slowly bubbling away in the warmth of the hallway, which I shall be very interested to taste one day.
We then adjourned to the cellar, in actual fact the garage, to taste the 2018s. Best of the whites was a very attractive co-fermented Chardonnay (40%) and Savagnin (60%) blend from limestone vineyards (more common than Jura’s usual clay marnes around Vadans and Saint-Pierre/Mathenay). The wine is nicely spicy and shows some class from more old vine stock.
Best of the reds was another Pinot Noir/Trousseau blend. It had ten days on skins, and the press wine has been blended back in, though the wine is still pale, with nice cherry fruit.
We tasted the 2018 Enfariné but it has not yet undergone its malolactic and is still a little yeasty. The next day Marcel intended to rack it off its dead yeast cells and return it to a clean tank.
Not all of Marcel’s experiments and cuvées are equally successful. This is the problem for someone just starting to make wine. Marcel doesn’t have a wine diploma so he’s reliant on the advice of neighbours and local wine producers, though their advice is frequent and given generously. But Marcel does seem to have a certain knack. I’m biased, of course. He has become a friend over the past few years and I hope one day to be able to say of his wines “here is where you read it first”.
I only wish there was a case of that sparkling Enfariné I could spread around. I think some folks would be sure I’d got hold of some unlabelled Tissot and was pulling their leg.
Marcel uncorking the crémant