To discuss the white wines of the Jura as either “topped up” or “oxidative” is to impose a strict binary on what is in fact a broad continuum. The greatest white wines of the Jura are never monolithically oxidative, even in their most extreme form (the inimitable Vin Jaune), and the skilled vigneron balances oxidative notes with elements derived from the voile (the layer of yeast that develops on the surface of the wines as they rest in barrel unperturbed)—and always with the ultimate aim of enhancing rather than overwhelming fruit-acid-mineral interplay.
Few in the region are as talented in such matters as Emeric Foléat of the tiny Les Matheny domaine in Arbois. Emeric worked for eight years under the legendary Jacques Puffeney, who taught him the ultimate value in embracing risk and trusting the quality of his fruit to do its thing in the cellar without coercion. Emeric farms three hectares in Arbois and raises his wines in a small cinderblock shed devoid of modern gadgetry. Minute additions of sulfur, and only sometimes, are the only adjustments he makes to his bold, assertive, deeply personal creations—wines that embody the exhilarating freedom Jura growers enjoy compared to many of their peers in more buttoned-up regions.
Like a great chef, Emeric brings to bear on his Chardonnay a particular “just-so” touch. Rather than topping up religiously or allowing wine to evaporate and voile to develop by rote, he assesses and treats each barrel on its own, aiming for a final blend that sizzles with acidity and bursts with fruit yet speaks an unmistakably Jurassien patois. Consequently, the dynamic range on a Les Matheny Chardonnay far exceeds 99% of its regional brethren, with notes of marzipan (marzipan is a true voile-derived flavor; if your Jura wine is full of walnuts, it has probably been yeasted for voile—a scary but common practice) vying with bare-knuckled minerality and a soaring acidity that speaks both to the character of the local marne soils and to Emeric’s refusal to control fermentation temperature. Fruit takes a backseat but remains vigorous and well-defined, with notes of yellow plum and green apple complementing the mouthwateringly saline profile.
The 2016, which we just received recently, is perhaps the best vintage of Chardonnay we’ve yet to import from this rising star. Topped-up Jura white wine, though commendable in its attempt to express purely terroir and nothing but, frequently disappoints with its straightforwardness. Its practitioners, perhaps in response to a local tradition that does indeed sometimes obscure vinosity with clumsily handled elevage, mistake that tradition’s inverse for ultimate transparency. But Emeric, a local man who learned from the greatest, understands at his core that Jura wine is most resonant when allowed to sing in its own particular accent. This 2016 Chardonnay is a must-try for Jura enthusiasts, as well as for anyone who prizes risk-taking and extreme non-interventionism in wine.