I’m sure that most readers will know by now that this year has already seen the loss of too many winemakers. The death of one who meant a lot to me happened in tragic circumstances on 5th May, Pascal Clairet of Domaine de la Tournelle. Then, just a few days ago I learned of the death, on 17th June, of another of natural wine’s brightest lights, Dominique Belluard, in similarly sad circumstances. Pascal was only fifty-eight, Dominique a few years younger.
I had wanted to write something about Pascal earlier, but I know his family had requested that people left it a little while. I’m not really sure how much readers really want to read about the circumstances around the deaths of these undoubtedly great men, and in fact I don’t propose to go there. Yet these two deaths, especially coming so close together, have genuinely affected me, even more so than I imagined they would.
As a way of showing my enormous respect for these two individuals, I want to write something about what they, their domaines and their wines, have meant to me over the years. This is in no way meant to lessen the passing of others. Merely that Pascal and Dominique’s wines were always up there among my very favourite, and will continue to be so as long as they are available for me to drink. Opening a bottle now will have a special meaning.
Pascal Clairet ran Domaine de la Tournelle in Arbois with his wife, Evelyne. He had worked for the Jura Region’s Comité Interprofessionel before properly starting the domaine in 1995. Although the winery is outside of Arbois now, the Tournelle HQ is a rather attractive town house right on the bank of the River Cuissance in the centre of Arbois (at 5 Petit Place). It is here that the couple’s fans would head to the tasting room, beside the incredibly popular summer-opening Bistrot de la Tournelle, effectively in their garden by the water. Nowhere in France reminds me of a Viennese summer Heuriger quite so much.
I can’t exactly pinpoint when I first got to know the wines made by Pascal and Evelyne, but on reflection it must have been quite early on. I do know that the first wine I bought from them was their zero added sulphur Poulsard, L’Uva Arbosiana. It’s a delightful wine with amazing fruit plus a savoury edge, glouglou before I knew the term existed.
I can remember those first bottles, transported home in a cool box for fear that they might spoil in transit. I’d been visiting Arbois pretty much every year since the late 1980s, either to stay a week, or simply on the way home from visiting close friends in Geneva via the more scenic route. I always bought plenty of wine but these were some of the first edgy natural wines subjected to my overloaded boot in the height of summer. They didn’t spoil, and in fact nor did bottles I subsequently bought at Antidote Wine Bar, off London’s Carnaby Street, in even hotter summer temperatures, either (the Clairets are partners in this lovely Central London bar and restaurant with a wine shop now upstairs).
One occasion I drank L’Uva was particularly notable. It was on the final day of the Crowdfunding project for Wink Lorch’s Jura Wine book (published 2014), and a group of fellow Jura addicts (not quite so numerous back then, but definitely growing) got together at the sadly now closed Terroirs wine bar, near Trafalgar Square. The plan: to take to social media in what was a successful attempt to generate more pledges.
Wink taught me a valuable lesson that night and with that very wine…that when a natural wine shows signs of some reductive notes on opening, just splash it into a carafe to give it some air. Wink shook the carafe, duly covered, pretty vigorously as well. I don’t recall an occasion since where this hasn’t worked.
Of course, Domaine de la Tournelle produces many other lovely wines which perhaps one would say even surpass “L’Uva”. As with most Jura producers, even the relatively small ones, lots of different wines are made. Savagnin here is exceptional, with both “Savagnin de Voile” and a magnificent and complex Vin Jaune being as good as anyone’s. The Trousseau from “Les Corvées”, a wine that goes down easily yet ages well, gaining complexity over the years (always worth grabbing in magnum from the tasting room) should always be on the purchase list.
The last Tournelle wine I drank (back in April) was the “Cul de Brey” red. This is a blend of three varieties in more or less equal parts: Trousseau, Syrah, and the rare Petit Béclan. Glorious juice from happier, pre-Covid days.
The last time I saw Pascal was at the Dynamic Vines tasting in February 2020. I told him we were planning a trip to Arbois that summer and that I was hoping to visit them. “Of course, give us a call” he said in his distinctive French. Of course, it never happened.
Domaine de la Tournelle is imported into the UK by Dynamic Vines.
Although I would say that I got to know Domaine de la Tournelle first, Domaine Belluard followed close, and after coming across what was the nearest natural wine producer to where I was staying on a summer holiday in the Alps, I quickly discovered that some of their wines were being imported back home by the great catalysts for natural wine in the UK, Les Caves de Pyrene. Les Caves’s Doug Wregg has written about Dominique eloquently on the “Les Caves” blog, and I know he shares a deep passion for the estate. We both believe these wines have been personally transformative, and always transfixing.
Dominique, unlike Pascal, came from a wine family. He joined his father, Albert, and brother Patrick in the mid-1980s. His father died in 2011, after which he parted ways with his brother, buying out his share in the domaine.
Although Dominique grew other varieties (Mondeuse, some Altesse, and at one time some Petite Arvine), the variety here is Gringet. This autochthonous grape is certainly used by other producers in the Savoie sub-region of Ayze, but mostly for traditional method sparkling wine under the Crémant de Savoie appellation.
Dominique became a star on the basis of his still wines made from the grape. “Les Alpes” is a fine wine by any stretch of the imagination, but it is clearly surpassed by “Le Feu”. This is Gringet grown on a steep (in places very steep) two-hectare site strewn with glacial sediments. The grapes are fermented (since 2004) in concrete eggs, some in rather unusual eggs encased in diamond-shaped concrete tanks according to Wink Lorch (Wines of the French Alps, 2019). Like many other biodynamic vignerons, he believed in the value of the motion created by these ovoid vessels during fermentation, dispersing the lees throughout the juice.
I admired Dominique so much. I know he had to face a litany of problems and issues over the years, none of them that I know of his own making. Same with Pascal. As with the wines of Domaine de la Tournelle, I’ve enjoyed these wines on so many wonderful and special occasions over the years. One cuvée which I have perhaps drunk more than the others is the gentle, low dosage, “Les Perles du Mont Blanc”.
“Perles” usually shows a very characteristic flavour and bouquet of ever so slightly bruised apple, whilst retaining a mouth-watering freshness. It contrasts nicely with the stricter “Brut Zéro” (off limestone). With two-years on lees (six months more than “Perles”) it is formidably ageworthy, but I’ve a soft spot for the younger “Perles” cuvée. There would rarely be an occasion when I saw it in a restaurant in France and didn’t select it as the first bottle.
“Perles du Mont Blanc” was the last wine I drank in France, although I’ve drunk Belluard at home since the Lockdowns began. That last trip to France was to stay at an apartment owned by friends in Oberkampf (Paris 11th). We were there to see the last date on our son-in-law’s short tour of France but after we bade the band goodbye as they headed off to Prague, we had scheduled in a day for ourselves.
We spent the late afternoon and early evening sipping several wines at Septime La Cave but we had booked a meal at a new restaurant near to The Bataclan which we’d never noticed before. We had planned on a quiet dinner with maybe just one more glass each, but there on the list was “Perles”, irresistible juice with which to sign off from the City of Lights. Little were we to know that, having visited France every year for it must be decades, I would be writing this almost two years later, bereft of French culture on several levels.
If we love wine, we have many passions. However, some of those passions become something more. These wines and their producers become a meaningful, almost constant, part of our lives. For me, Gut Oggau and Rennersistas in Burgenland would be described thus, as would Alice Bouvot and Domaine des Bodines in Arbois. And indeed, there are others in other places. The wines of Pascal Clairet and Dominique Belluard occupied that pedestal as well.
As I write, I don’t know what will happen to these two domaines. At La Tournelle, Pascal’s wife Evelyne was his equal partner in the winery, both having enological qualifications, although Pascal was the man in the vines. Although he had mentored some of today’s younger stars of the northern Jura, he was not one for delegating a lot of the work…work which made the fruit which enabled the wines to sing with such joy.
Dominique had taken on some help a few years ago, Yann Pernuit. Yann has been seen as a bit of a rising star in his own right, but I am not sure the extent of his involvement in Domaine Belluard. Dominique’s partner, Valérie, was behind the domaine’s administration.
Whatever happens, and I sincerely hope both estates find a way to move forward, both of these men will be missed. Genius is certainly an over-used word, but both Pascal and Dominique made remarkable contributions to their respective appellations. They will be missed by wine and they will be very much missed by me.
In many ways it seems as if there have been an almost overwhelming number of changes in natural wine in both of these regions of Eastern France in the past few years. As Alsace’s low intervention wines seem to thrive, Savoie and Jura have been unusually hit by frost and hail, domaine sales at the highest level, and indeed vignerons passing on. The post-Brexit, Covid, era has not been kind to we lovers of these two regions. One can only hope for better times ahead.