A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Savagnin: Two Modern Expressions - Arbois, Jura, France

Savagnin is a tough grape to write about.  It has the difficult double-distinction of being a very old vine and of being genetically unstable.  Put the two together and you get a recipe for widespread mutation over a long period of time which, of course, leads to confusion.  We'll do what we can with it, though, and see what light we can shed.

Savagnin is currently best known for its role in white wines of all sorts in the Jura region of France.  The French ampelographer Pierre Galet, though, had a hunch that the grape known as Savagnin in the Jura might actually be the same as a grape called Traminer from the Südtirol region of Italy despite minor differences between the leaf shapes and chemical makeup of the two plants.  Traminer, named for the town of Tramin in Südtirol, was once widely planted throughout Germany, Alsace, Hungary and Austria, though it is rare to come across a grape by that name today (the grape called Traminer in Austria is actually Roter Veltliner, a totally unrelated grape).  Recent DNA profiling has proven that Traminer and Savagnin are actually one and the same grape.

And that's the end of the easy part.  Somewhere along the line, a Savagnin plant mutated into a vine that grew pink-skinned instead of green-skinned berries.  This pink-skinned version is known as Red Traminer or Savagnin Rose.  At some other point in its history, this pink-skinned version mutated again and picked up a much headier, more muscat-like aroma and spicier flavor profile and thus Gewürztraminer was born.  Over time, people in many places confused the Red Traminer vines and the Gewürztraminer vines, since visually they look nearly identical, to the extent that it is currently theorized that many of the vines known in Germany as Gewürztraminer may actually be Red Traminer and they point to the German Gewürztraminer's tendency to have muted aromatics as proof.  There's also an obscure grape in Alsace called Klevener de Heiligenstein which is also believed to be Red Traminer, though this grape is not related at all to the grape called Klevner in Alsace which is actually Pinot Blanc.

We're not done yet.  There are other grapes grown in eastern Europe that may or may not be Savagnin or a mutation of it.  There's a grape called Frankisch in Austria, one called Heida or Païen in Switzerland, and one called Formentin in Hungary that may be Savagnin or one of its clonal variants.  In the cru of Ayze in the Savoie region of France, a sparkling wine is made from a grape called Gringet that has long been thought to be identical to Savagnin, but which is now believed to be something totally different.  In Australia, much of what had been grown as Albarino is in actuality Savagnin, though the two grapes are not genetically related.  The Savagnin Noir of the Jura is none other than Pinot Noir, which Savagnin is somehow related to somewhere down the line.  Savagnin is also thought to have some link to Viognier, though the exact familial relationship is unclear.

And all that only covers trying to figure out exactly what Savagnin is as a grape.  Once you actually get into the Jura and try to navigate the enormous number of different styles that the grape can be put to, well, then things get really crazy.  I'll get into some of the more traditional styles that Savagnin is put to in a post later this week.  Today, though, I'm going to be looking at two wines that are made in a more modern style in the Jura.

The first is a wine made from 100% Savagnin grapes that are vinified in a more or less straightforward white wine style.  The grapes are picked and selected before being partially fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel.  The partially fermented juice is then moved to neutral oak barrels, where malolactic fermentation also occurs.  Usually in the Jura, when white wines are placed into barrels, as the juice evaporates through the pores in the wood, the barrel is left alone so there is an increasing headspace in the barrel that allows oxygen (and sometimes a yeast film) to come into contact with the wine.  To make this wine, though, the barrels were topped up every 10 days to prevent oxidation and dosed with SO2 to prevent the voile from forming and to preserve the fruit characteristics of the grape. This is a very unusual, very modern way of treating Savagnin grapes in the Jura and this bottling is the only example of that style that I've been able to find (though I know others exist).

The wine that I'm talking about is the 2008 Domaine de la Tournelle "Fleur de Savagnin" which I was able to pick up from my friends at the Wine Bottega for about $33. This is a small, biodynamic estate located in the town of Arbois in northern Jura.  In the glass, the wine was a medium gold color with a very aromatic nose of peaches and apricots, honey, melon, honeysuckle and flowers.  On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with high acidity and flavors of lemon, grapefruit, honeysuckle, apricot, ripe apples, creamy citrus and a touch of nuttiness.  The wine was wonderfully balanced as the creamy mouthfeel was grounded very nicely with a solid, nervy vein of acidity which can be distractingly high as the wine warms towards room temperature.  The flavors and aromas were complex and well-integrated.  Overall, this was an exceptional experience and is definitely something to seek out if the oxidized white wines from the Jura aren't exactly to your liking.  Even if you are a fan of the nutty white wines of the Jura, check this out to get a sense for the grape in a more unadulterated format.

The second wine that I was able to try is the 2007 Philippe Bornard "L'Ivresse de Noé," or, "The Inebriation of Noah."  This wine is made from late-harvested (in November) Savagnin grapes that are also vinified in a non-oxidative style.  I was able to pick up a 500mL bottle from my friends at the Wine Bottega for about $40.  In the glass, the wine is a medium gold color with a powerfully aromatic nose of grapefruit and citrus peel, buttery hazelnuts, honey and ripe apples.  On the palate, the wine was full bodied with high acidity and flavors of apple, pineapple, lemon curd, honey and a touch of nuttiness.  The wine is just off-dry, though it's tough to notice it thanks to the bracing acidity.  This is a decadent experience to drink and is probably one of my favorite wines of the past year.  Intense, ripe, honeyed fruits drape themselves all over your palate and linger for what feels like an eternity.  If I could afford to drink this every day, I would do it in a heartbeat.

I'm writing this post and a related Savagnin post (which you can read here) to celebrate the publication of a bit I wrote on the Jura for the AG Wine team for use in their wine app.  You can check out AG Wine's website here or you can go here to download the app for your iPhone or iPad.  It's definitely one of the most informative and useful wine apps that I've used and I enthusiastically recommend it for people interested in learning more about wine and less about wine scores.  I've also written the section on Alsace and the section for Savoie as well.  Their free Wine News app also syndicates my posts so you can follow Fringe Wine and many other great writers on the go for free.  In the interest of full disclosure, I do not receive any financial compensation from AG Wine for any of the content or promotion that I provide to them.

An additional note, this post has been translated into Ukrainian and that translation can be read here.

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