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.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Savagnin: Two Traditional Expressions - Jura, France

Yesterday we explored the family history of the Savagnin grape and took a look at two bottlings from the Jura that were made in a more modern style.  Today I'd like to talk a bit about some of the more traditional wine-making methods in the Jura, especially the methods used in the vinification and maturation of the Savagnin grape.

The word that sums the Jura up for most wine enthusiasts is "oxidation."  In almost no other wine region on earth is the production of wines (white wines, in any case) that have been excessively exposed to oxygen considered a good thing, but in the Jura, it's the most defining characteristic.  Is it because they just love the unusual flavor compounds that are created when their wines are exposed to oxygen during maturation?  Well, kind of.  In order to understand the oxidized white wines of the Jura, it's necessary to first understand something about the signature wine of the region, Vin Jaune.

To make Vin Jaune, first you need really ripe Savagnin grapes, which sometimes go by the name Naturé in the Jura.  You vinify these grapes like you would any white wine and then you pour the wine into 60 gallon neutral oak barrels.  It's at this point that things start to go a little off the rails for Vin Jaune.  For most wines, when you pour them into a barrel for maturation, you try to fill the barrel as close to the top as you can so that there is virtually no air in the barrel.  Since wood is porous and the barrel is curved, some air is introduced to the wine anyway either through the small amount of headspace (air in the top of the barrel) or through the pores of the wood, but you try to limit that contact as much as you can.  Some of the wine evaporates and the barrels have to be continuously refilled to keep the headspace in the barrel as small as possible.  This is the method that the two wines I wrote about yesterday were made with and is the method that most barrel-aged wines all over the world are made with as well.

With Vin Jaune, the process is different.  The wine is poured off into the neutral oak barrels and a larger than usual amount of headspace is left to expose as much of the surface of the wine to the air as possible..  As the wine evaporates, the barrel is not topped up and, with a bit of luck, a film of yeast called voile forms on the top of the wine.  Those of you who are Sherry aficionados will no doubt be reminded of the flor that forms during the maturation of Sherry.  The voile of the Jura is similar to the flor of the Sherry region, but it is a different strain of yeast which thrives in the lower alcohol base wine of Vin Jaune and is better suited to the colder winters of the Jura.  The film can take between two and three years to fully develop and it never gets as thick as the flor of Spain.  The voile imparts its own nutty, tangy flavors to the wine while also serving to protect it from bacterial spoilage and from excessive exposure to oxygen.  In order to be bottled as Vin Jaune, the wine may not be bottled until six years and three months after the harvest and while the wine doesn't need to stay in barrel for that long to be eligible for the Vin Jaune label, it often stays in for the overwhelming majority of this time period.

Sometimes the process goes awry.  For one reason or another, the voile may die off prematurely before the wine has developed sufficiently to meet the standards of the producer for Vin Jaune.  Six years is a long time and everything really needs to go exactly right for a barrel to make it to the finish line, especially since many, if not all, of the estates in the Jura rely on nature to see the voile process through the end.  Very few producers inoculate their barrels with yeast culture so the formation of the voile is always something of a gamble and when it's gone, it's gone and not coming back.  When something does go awry, what happens to the wine?  Well, it is often bottled as-is, provided that whatever went wrong in the barrel didn't spoil the wine or make it undrinkable.  A large number of the bottles that you see marked as Naturé du Jura or Savagnin are wines that didn't complete the full Vin Jaune maturation process.  These wines show a bit of the tang and oxidative nuttiness that marks full blown Vin Jaune, but are not nearly as deep or complex as those wines can be.

I do have some bottles of Vin Jaune at home, and I will open them and write about them once they've properly matured, but they do require some time in bottle to reach their peak and mine aren't quite there yet.  What I do have, though, are a few Savagnin based table wines from the Jura made in the more traditional, oxidative style.  The first bottle I tried was from Domaine Rolet Pere et Fils (who longtime readers might recognize from my Crémant de Jura post).  I picked up a bottle of their 2007 Naturé du Jura for about $17 from my friends at the Wine Bottega.  In the glass, the wine was a medium gold color with nutty aromatics of pine nuts and hazelnuts.  There was a touch of appley fruit and a kind of a buttered popcorn kind of smell to it. On the palate, the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of pine nuts, sesame seeds, dried apples and again that buttered popcorn flavor.  The wine was savory and incredibly interesting.  It was just screaming out for some nutty salty cheese and since I didn't have any Comté cheese, a specialty of the Jura, I made do with some Parmigiano-Reggiano slivers that really hit the spot.

The second wine I tried was something that Matt at the Wine Bottega found especially for me.  It was a bottle of the 1998 Domaine Berthet-Bondet Cotes du Jura Savagnin bottling which he sold to me for $25.  In the glass, the wine was a medium gold color with an attractively aromatic nose filled with toasted almonds, hazelnuts, and toasted pecans.  The fruit was mostly gone from this wine, but it was still kicking with those savory, nutty smells.  The palate followed the nose pretty closely with buttered nut flavors and a kind of sawdust/old barn kind of taste that doesn't sound particularly appetizing, but hear me out for a second.  When I was a little kid growing up in rural Georgia, my grandparents used to have these massive pecan trees in their yard.  When we'd visit, we'd go out and pick the pecans off the ground and then go out to my grandfather's old barn to crack them open with an old vise and eat them.  Drinking this wine brought me right back to that place and to the smell of the fresh nuts especially the shells of those nuts and the smell of the old wood and the sawdust in that old barn that my grandfather built.  He passed away over ten years ago, but I still miss him quite a bit and drinking this wine was such a nice way to go back to that time in my life.  It's difficult for me to tease out the parts of me that enjoyed this wine on its technical merits and the part of me that enjoyed it for the emotional resonance it had with me.  Frankly, I'm not all that interested in the question and will just submit that it was a deeply pleasurable and rewarding experience to drink this wine and my hat is off to the winemaker and to the shop that enable me to have that experience.

I'm writing this post and a related Savagnin post (which was published yesterday) 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.

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