Typically winemaking follows a series of basic rules and processes. Sure, there are infinite decisions and variations a winemaker can make about how to extract flavour and texture from the grapes, technical and, some would say, ethical questions about how much to intervene with the aid of chemicals and new technologies. But, for the most part, the same basic rules apply.
One area of general consensus is that the exposure of wine, or prefermented juice, to air is something to be carefully managed, so as to avoid the oxidation of the wine. In some contemporary approaches to vinification, particularly within the world of natural wine, some oxidation is allowed to encourage wines with a different profile, but these remain relatively small variations from established techniques.
The intentionally oxidized wines of the Jura region are not so much a departure from these techniques as they are a totally different tradition of winemaking.
Vin Jaune takes its name, unsurprisingly, from the yellow hue the wine takes on after six years in oak barrels. Aside from this long élevage, the process of making this wine is also unique in that the barrels are ‘non-ouillé’. Normally when wine is aged in barrels a part of the wine is lost through evaporation and the seepage of the wine into the wood This is known as ’la part des Anges’. ‘Ouillage‘ is the topping-up of the barrel with reserved wine, so as to avoid exposing the wine to oxygen and the wine becoming oxidized. A wine that is ‘non-ouillé’, is left in barrels that are intentionally not topped-up. The exposure of the wine to air not only causes the wine to oxidize, but also allows a veil of fungus to form on top of the wine, hence these wines are also referred to as vin de voile.
In terms of taste the effect of exposure to air, and of direct contact with its veil of mushroom, gives a radically different flavour palate to what you would normally expect in white wines of any other region. In fact a true Vin Jaune (most wine makers will make veiled wines with a shorter élevage alongside the more expensive Vin Jaune, which is kept in barrels for six years and three months) probably resembles most closely a very dry Spanish sherry. The wines are extremely aromatic, and dry, with the most predominant aroma being a rich nuttiness. A few Saturdays ago we were lucky enough to have Jean Berthet-Bondet in store as part of our springtime tasting series, who explained that in different years you can also get more or less citrus fruit expressed in the Vin Jaune. It’s interesting to think that even six years of élevage can not defeat the character of terroir on a finished wine.
The oxidized wines go perfectly with aged compté cheese, also local to the region. Berthet-Bondet’s whites are made exclusively with the Savagnin grape, and their non-oxidised, or vin ouillé, ‘Naturé’ (naturé is an old local name for savagnin), has great acidity and tension, expressing both citrus fruits and minerality. It would be great on its own as an aperitif with all types of fish, lightly spiced vegetable dishes and even a roast chicken with spring greens.
The other great white grape of the Jura is chardonnay. Julien Labet, who will be joining us for the Friday night ‘wine-down’ on April 20th, produces a series of Jura chardonnays, ouillé and non-ouillé, that are unique expressions of both their particular environment and the traditions of Jura winemaking, and at the same time merit comparison with the classic chardonnays of Bourgogne.
It is the unique traditions of the Jura on the one hand, and a spirit of youthful experimentation in pursuit of excellence that make the wines of this mountain region such a joy to discover.