An Ode to Vin Jaune

Posted on Posted in Domaine de Montbourgeau, Domaine Joseph Dorbon, Domaine Overnoy-Crinquand, Domaine Pecheur, Les Matheny, Rosenthal Wine Merchant News, RWM Contributor

… A hunched figure, barely visible in the twilight, barred the great subterranean cellar’s modest entrance. Ragged and weary from their journey, the five sommeliers looked at one another with surprise; the old book had mentioned nothing of a gatekeeper. They had followed the map with great care, the promise of long-buried vinous spoils, theirs for the taking, having sustained them through the endless Krug-less days—but it seemed a final challenge awaited. The sentinel scowled at them from beneath his large hood.

“Before I grant entrance, you must solve a riddle,” he rasped:

Dry as the desert
Salty as the sea
From mountains low I’ve traveled far
Yet few have savored me.

The group muttered among themselves, mentally combing in vain through reams of accumulated notes, textbooks, seminars, tasting sessions. Many minutes passed; frustration mounted.

“Your silence speaks for you,” the guardian intoned at last, pulling back his cowl to reveal kind, rheumy eyes and a robust white beard. Why does he look so familiar?… “Far and wide I have dined, in Brooklyn and in Portland, from Vail to Venice Beach. I have perused your lists, witnessed Musigny and mencía side by side, marveled at the macerated aligoté, sampled your sans-soufre syrahs. Yet nowhere in all my travels did I encounter a single exemplar of that most majestic, most inscrutable, most miraculous of wines: the VIN JAUNE of my homeland! It is no surprise you could not answer my riddle, though I must say I am profoundly disappointed. And I am afraid none of you shall cross this threshold today. However, I present you this, in the hopes it will make your arduous journey home more tolerable and stimulating.”

The guardian passed to the sommeliers a squat bottle, capped with yellow wax and so coated in cellar grime that its label was barely visible. He retreated without a word into the cave’s darkness, and the group slumped away, heavy-shouldered and dejected. Shortly down the road, they registered their intense thirst and contemplated their new gift.

“When is the last time any of you guys even had a Vin Jaune anyway?”

“I almost forgot it existed… I mean, I have a decent amount of Jura stuff on my list, but most people order topped-up Chardonnay or Poulsard. I haven’t carried one in years.”

“We went through a bunch of it to cook with at my last spot.”

“Isn’t it hard to pair with?”

The bottle emitted a faint glow in the weak light of the crescent moon. Their curiosity growing, the sommeliers came upon a roadside clearing and sat down to slake their thirst.

“Um, does anyone have a corkscrew?…”

* * * * * * * * * *

That Vin Jaune exists is indeed miraculous. A local grape variety, left to its own devices, gradually develops a greyish veil of living, evolving yeasts which nourish it, protect it, and contribute a spectrum of aromas and flavors shocking in their singular intensity; rarely is even fiction so strange. While much of the Jura’s explosion in popularity over the past decade was sparked by the region’s delectably vivacious and light-bodied red wines, and while many growers are experimenting with more conventionally produced white wines in the topped-up (ouillé) style, Vin Jaune remains the Jura’s most towering achievement—a link to its pre-technological past and an emblem of its relative isolation from the rest of France’s winemaking traditions.

Vin Jaune is produced exclusively from Savagnin, an ancient, thick-skinned, late-ripening variety particularly well-suited to the Jura’s marl soils and mountainous terrain. Whereas clunkily produced traditional Jura white wine can often be overwhelmed by oxidative notes, great Vin Jaune is a universe unto itself, with oxidation playing a minor supporting role. Local tradition, codified by strict appellation rules, stipulates a minimum of five years aging under the veil (sous-voile), and the wine cannot be marketed until six years and three months after the harvest. During this extended elevage, the wine is carefully monitored for volatile acidity (the level of which cannot be too high) and acetaldehyde (the level of which must be rising, as it is a vital component of the veil and thus a major contributing factor to the wine’s ultimate profile). Vin Jaune production is a Darwinian endeavor, and many barrels fail to go the distance; when the above levels go off the rails, or the veil simply dies and falls into the wine, the ill-fated cask must be bottled simply as Savagnin or blended elsewhere.

More than perhaps any other wine, Vin Jaune is a testament to courageous non-interventionism in the cellar. Furthermore, it offers an extra dimension of terroir expression: not only is the finished wine informed by the type of marl in which the vines grow, the slope and exposition of the vineyard, and other more conventionally understood geological-meteorological elements; it vividly manifests the microbiological uniqueness of the cellar whose yeasts quite literally shape its development over its many years of elevage. Cellar temperature, barrel size and arrangement, airflow, seasonal temperature fluctuations; all profoundly affect the final character of a given producer’s Vin Jaune.

Vin Jaune’s ability to reflect both vineyard and cellar is amplified by its long aging, wherein years of water evaporation in barrel concentrate all its other elements, including alcohol; Savagnin destined for Vin Jaune is typically harvested at around 13% potential alcohol, but the bottled wine often ends up at 14.5% alcohol or higher. Vin Jaune is also unfailingly bone-dry, often almost aggressively so, as the veil devours every last molecule of sugar during the elevage. The result is a wine of extremes—ripping, cerebellum-goosing acidity; a helix of excoriating dryness and blatantly saline minerality; fruit both murmuringly deep and energetic; and explosive curry-like spice—that still manages to be delicious, highly drinkable, and remarkably versatile at the table despite the limited roles into which it is regrettably too often shoehorned.

Rosenthal Wine Merchant’s boundless love of the Jura is well known; we were the first importer to engage seriously with a producer from this formerly unsung region—the legendary Jacques Puffeney, whose retirement has left us with an unfillable void—and today we work with half a dozen growers here whose wines we sell with relative ease to an eager market. Even amidst this formidable arsenal, however, Vin Jaune remains somewhat under the radar. Perhaps that is due in part to its tiny production levels, and certainly its completely bulletproof nature gives us no reason to rush these rarities out of the warehouse doors. However, we currently have the luxury of a surprising range of Vin Jaune from our partners in the region, and we firmly believe that every serious shop and restaurant should offer at least one example of this singular wine—by any metric, one of the greatest and most special wines in the world.

The New-York-based RWM team recently gathered at the iconic Roberta’s in Brooklyn to taste through an array of in-stock Vin Jaune; perhaps unsurprisingly, it ended up being one of the most impressive lineups of wines any of us had encountered in recent memory. Furthermore, these bottles proved phenomenal partners with a huge variety of vegetable dishes, pastas, and pizzas, proving that—far from being suitable only for chicken and morels or Comté cheese—great Vin Jaune can handle pretty much anything you care to throw its way.

 

2012 Montbourgeau L’Étoile Vin Jaune
Hailing as it does from the elegance-enhancing soils of L’Étoile—the appellation in which Nicole Deriaux is the undisputed superstar—Domaine Montbourgeau’s Vin Jaune displays a precision and lift rare in the genre. Its briny voile thwomp is sheathed in fruit less rich than that of its cousins in the RWM stable, and it punches all the more devastatingly for it. Quince paste, freshly polished brass, and pink salt coat the palate completely, provoking salivation and building to a full-bore, tunneling finish of great tension.

 

2012 Les Matheny Arbois Vin Jaune
Having worked for nearly a decade alongside the iconic Jacques Puffeney, Emeric Foléat produces staunchly low-tech Jura wines of preternatural intuition and immense local flair. His Vin Jaune, bottled a full seven years after harvest, is a focused effort of remarkable complexity. Exuberant but controlled on the nose, it laser-beams preserved lemons, freshly tanned leather, and marzipan at the taster, ratcheting up the intensity with its agile, built-for-speed palate. It is a wine both weighty and brisk, with decades of upside potential.

 

2009 Joseph Dorbon Arbois Vin Jaune
Joseph Dorbon’s setup is simple: four hectares of organically tended vines on prime slopes above his home village of Vadans; a horse to help him plow; and a subterranean 17th-century cellar in which his soulful wines slowly take shape. Joseph rushes nothing, and even his Macvin du Jura spends over a decade in decrepit barrels before bottling. Flagrantly exceeding the appellation’s six-years-and-three-months minimum, he releases his Vin Jaune only after a full ten years under the veil, and only in certain vintages. The result is an oceanic wine of seemingly impossible power, with raging acidity wed to luscious, salt-caked yellow fruits, and given additional complexity by a raw-almond character that stops short of overt oxidation.

 

2008 Pêcheur Château-Chalon
The Vin-Jaune-only appellation of Château-Chalon is the Jura’s grand cru in all but name, its ultra-steep slopes of grey marl producing wines of greater finesse and more pronounced minerality than its peers in Arbois. The lovably warm and funny Christian and Patricia Pêcheur farm eight hectares of vines in the Côtes du Jura, with a mere third of a hectare in the Gaillardon vineyard in Château-Chalon, which they acquired in 2006. Aged in a phenomenally rustic above-ground barrel cellar with wide temperature fluctuations, theirs is a Vin Jaune of terrific precision, with a smoky mezcal-like note emerging from beneath intensely saline minerality and taut green fruits.

 

2007 Overnoy-Crinquand Arbois-Pupillin Vin Jaune
No domaine with whom we work embodies the Jura’s pre-technological agrarian past as wholeheartedly as Overnoy-Crinquand, headed today by the infectiously kind Mickael Crinquand. Although the family still derives twice as much income from their Comté cows as their wines, Mickael’s 5.5 hectares in the prized hills of Pupillin yield wines of tremendous character and staggering authenticity. He produces a Vin Jaune only in certain vintages, releasing it after an extended period both in barrel and in bottle, and in minute quantities; in fact, he has only offered us the wine once—all of twelve bottles for the entire country. His is the most ostentatiously ripe, brazenly full-on Vin Jaune in our portfolio, produced from extremely late-harvested, botrytis-affected Savagnin, and its cascading waves of warm, dizzyingly savory fruit are almost overwhelming in their intensity; a true tour de force.

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