Below my feet, deep under the French village of Arlay, lie 30,000 bottles of Caves Jean Bourdy’s vintages, stretching all the way back to 1781.
That 230-year-old wine is a vin jaune, or “yellow wine,” from the tiny Jura region’s most prestigious appellation, Chateau-Chalon.
I’m sipping the tangy 1969 vintage in the cellar of Jean-Francois Bourdy, the fifteenth generation at this family domaine, who waves around a cigarette as he says, “These old wines are worth a fortune, and they’re still completely drinkable.”
Its nutty, oxidative character reminds me a bit of dry sherry, but the savory saltiness, zing of acidity, and spice-toffee-and-curry powder aromas and flavors are unique, as is the way the wine is made.
Be warned. Vin jaune challenges palate expectations and harkens back to an earlier era. The wine once had illustrious admirers -- Prince von Metternich, Napoleon, Rabelais. A winemaker tells me Henry IV used bottles of it to seduce women.
Now the Jura’s most famous wine is finding new fans among old-wine aficionados, adventurous geeks looking for different tastes, and edgy sommeliers at places like New York’s Ma Peche and Gramercy Tavern.
I fell in love with it -- but not with all the examples I tried -- on a recent visit.
Nestled in a valley between Burgundy and Switzerland, the Jura is one of France’s smallest wine regions, a quiet, green, bucolic place of obscure grape varieties, eccentric wines, Comte cheese, and the ubiquitous dish, creamy coq au vin jaune. In Arbois, Louis Pasteur’s home lab, now a museum, displays test tubes filled with old Jura wines.
A few fast facts: there are four geographic appellations (Chateau-Chalon, Cotes du Jura, Arbois, and L’Etoile) and five main grapes -- savagnin (no, not sauvignon blanc) and chardonnay for whites; poulsard, trousseau, and pinot noir for reds.
In addition to vin jaune, made from 100 percent savagnin, most domaines make a half dozen reds, roses, and whites, plus sparkling Cremant du Jura. There are sweet oddities like Vin de Paille, made from air-dried grapes, and weird, potent Macvin, a liqueur-like blend of late-harvest wine fortified with marc, a grape-based eau de vie. Many reds and whites last for decades.
Vin jaune, though, is the classic. It’s made in all geographic appellations, but terroir counts. Savagnin grown on rocky blue marl, like that in the steep 50-hectare Chateau-Chalon vineyard, produces finer wines with more elegance.
Surrounded by cobwebbed bottles and barrels, Bourdy explains that after the juice ferments, he stores the wine in oak barrels. As it evaporates, he doesn’t keep topping up to avoid exposure to air.
A foamy layer of yeast cells (the voile) forms on top of the liquid wine, protecting it from extreme oxidation. Aging lasts at least six years and three months, but Bourdy waits seven or more, tasting twice a year for quality.
When a barrel survives, it seems to be nearly indestructible. Which is why two old-wine specialists ping-ponged the price for a 237-year-old bottle to 57,000 euros (then $77,270) earlier this year at the annual La Percee du Vin Jaune festival auction in Arbois. Swiss collector Pierre Chevrier, author of the poetically titled “Le Vin d’Hier,” (“Yesterday’s Wine”) a book about historic wines, won out over Francois Audouze, retired chief executive officer of Arus SA, the French steel company, who is famed for staging dinners with ancient wines for aficionados at Paris restaurants.
Wine and Walnuts
Afterwards, Audouze consoled himself with a visit to Bourdy’s cellars to snap up a few old vintages. Three weeks ago, at his 149th dinner, he poured the producer’s 1911 Chateau-Chalon alongside vin jaune’s best food partners -- Comte cheese and walnuts.
Still, this wine isn’t for everybody, and young vignerons are pushing the boundaries of tradition. A decade ago, producers started making non-oxidative savagnin, labeled ouille, and many (including Bourdy) have embraced organic and biodynamic viticulture.
One is talented Stephane Tissot, who took over his family’s Domaine Tissot in the 1990s. Sunburned from a day in the vineyards, his pink-and-white checked shirt casually untucked, he arrives at Domaine du Val de Sorne’s restaurant in Vernantois with saggy cardboard boxes filled with some of his 35 different wines.
An enthusiastic experimenter, he pours several provocative takes on the savagnin grape.
A 2009 Savagnin with an orangey color was vinified in clay anforas. I don’t think he has this one quite right yet, but his flowery, citrusy 2010 Traminer ($26), labeled to underline savagnin’s cousin relationship to the traminer grape, is wonderfully bright, yet powerful.
Tissot aged his complex, smoky 2004 “W” Vin Jaune ($60) in whisky casks to reinforce the wine’s peaty flavor. It’s way too young now, and I wonder how it will age.
“I like renovating old styles,” he says, “I have lots of original wines coming out shortly.”
The next night, in Paris, I stop by just-opened wine bar La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels. On the list are three Jura wines from Stephane Tissot. France’s capital is paying attention. Wake up collectors!
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)