Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Technique and Terroir in the Jura

One of the confusing and intriguing things about Jura wines is the distinction between technique and terroir. By technique I mean sous-voile, or under-the-veil wine making, a style in which wine is intentionally oxidized. The barrels are not entirely filled to begin with, and then are not topped up as the wine evaporates and seeps into the wood. A beneficial layer of yeast (the veil) is encouraged, somewhat akin to the flor in Sherry. In the hands of a good producer, sous-voile wines are completely delicious. I wonder, though, whether they are more an expression of technique or of terroir. Not that it matters in order to appreciate the wines - they taste and feel good, and they makes great company for fresh seafood, cheeses, and other foods. But I am curious, especially because most producers make only tiny quantities of sous-voile wines, the bulk of their production is "regular" non-oxidized wine. And the good producers are quite interested in and adept at making wines that showcase terroir over grape character.

I recently went to Vins du Jura, a tasting featuring 20 producers from the Jura region of France. It was a great opportunity to taste a lot of Jura wine and to think about and compare terroir and technique. This tasting was mostly about helping producers connect with potential importers, it was not a survey of one importer's or distributor's portfolio. Well known (if there really are any well known Jura producers in the US) producers like Houillon, Puffeney, and Montbourgeau already have rather illustrious representation, and were not present at this tasting. Yet Tissot was there, as were a few others that are already imported, so I don't really know how this was organized. No matter...Prices were not given, so I cannot discuss the wines that interested me in terms of value. I can, however, discuss them in terms of interest, and there were some great wines.

My favorite sous-voile wines of the tasting, in no particular order, were the 2005 Domaine Andre and Mirielle Tissot Arbois Savagnin, 2005 Domaine Labet Savagnin Vin de Voile from Côtes du Jura, and the 2004 Domaine de la Pinte Arbois Savagnin. Pinte's 2002 Vin Jaune was also promising, but the enamel-stripping acidity and tightly wound youth of the wine made it hard to evaluate for a Vin Jaune neophyte like myself. These are all wonderful wines that I would eagerly purchase, especially if they are priced in the $20-30 range. And they are quite different from one another. Tissot's wine is ultra clean and light, and redolent of nuts and salt. Labet's is also very clean and bright with nuts and salt, but with greater richness and depth, or so I thought. My notes say "mahogany depth," whatever that means. And Pinte's Savagnin is salty and nutty and exceptionally pure, with curry spice notes, feeling quite lean on the nose, but full and rich in the mouth. Are these differences about technique in the barrel room? About work in the vineyards? About soil and place? I will continue to enjoy these wines and other like them whether or not I learn the answer to those questions, but don't you want to know? I want to know. One day I will have the good fortune to drink a group of sous-voile wines with someone who can lead me through and describe them in terms of technique and terroir.

Tasting through the lineup of wines by Domaine Labet in Côtes du Jura was a great lesson in Jura terroir. Julien Labet explained that the Jura is incredibly diverse in terms of soils, because the formation of the Jura Mountains moved (and are still moving) layers of ground in random ways. Chardonnay in his hands is really just a vehicle for expressing soil. His 2007 Fleur de Chardonnay comes from 45 year old vines on chalky, rocky soil. It is fermented using indigenous yeasts and aged for almost 18 months in barrel. The wine is intensely mineral and a bit smokey, with what could plausibly be described as a total absence of fruit. But the wine has a broad mouth feel and is delicious. 2006 Chardonnay Les Varrons is also from chalky ground but the layer of topsoil is very thick, and the wine is round and intense with summer fruits and nuts, much less mineral than the Fleur de Chardonnay. 2006 Chardonnay La Reine is from deep red clay soils and is the most citric of the lineup, with clean grapefruit flavors. 2006 Chardonnay La Beaumette has a fruit profile that is similar to Les Varrons, but the wine is much racier and leaner - and I didn't note the soil type, I'm sorry to say. La Beaumette was perhaps my favorite of the bunch, although they were all delicious and interesting wines. If they are in the $20-30 range, I will most certainly be a good customer, potential importers. Honestly, potential importers, you're crazy if you don't bring in this guy's wines.

I sense more Jura wine in my (immediate) future.


Joe Manekin said...

Jura wine post...very nice Neil. I enjoyed reading. And wished that I could have been at that event!

As an aside, one of the producers I recently visited in champagne, Benoit Marguet, is a huge Jura wine fan. More on that one later...I just find it fascinating to learn what winemakers enjoy drinking, especially as it relates to wines from different countries or unexpected regions.

Do Bianchi said...

This post is really important. Terroir isn't just the earth and the sky. It's also technology and people. I've read about Jacques Confuron cask diving naked to punch down the cap. Is his BO part of the terroir? It most certainly is! Great post, BrooklynGuy.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I recently had a discussion about terroir and wine producers and the impossibility of separating them, and the ridiculousness of talking about producers and terroir as separate entities.
I have enjoyed Labet's stuff (especially for the price) for a while now and it is nice to see them get written up.

fillay said...

I'll point you towards my friend Jeremy Quinn's thoughts on the exact same topic - he argues that the voile is terroir, and to isolate it as technique ends up essentializing the soil (http://websterwinebar.com/site/soapbox).

I would take it farther, along the lines that Do Bianchi and saignee suggest (and Braudel, if you want the source) - there is no terroir without labor...

Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Arjun said...

Nice post. I think this issue (tension, perhaps?) exists everywhere, but it is amplified in the Jura because the sous-voile technique yields particularly distinctive results.

Incidentally, I had my first experience with Labet just the other day, an incredibly delicious Cremant du Jura, displaying a peculiar combination of creaminess and precision. A bit of Poulsard gives it a gorgeous color as well.

The more Jurassic wine I drink, the more I wonder why it isn't more widely known.