Sophie's Glass

Aside from reminding me vaguely of a Talib Kweli album from the late nineties that I listened to over and over for about a month, this is a concept I’ve been thinking about in wine. I visualize it as a sort of mothership of deliciousness, a giant zeppelin with wines tapping into it at various frequencies (or not at all). It overarches all of our palates and unites us in collective, subconscious, gut-level knowledge of what tastes good. Does that make sense?

We tend to speak about taste as highly subjective, but informed by objective greatness (DRC, Selosse, Overnoy Vin Jaune?). We put lots of emphasis on the individual: tearing apart the wine, chambering it in the mouth’s holding cell, spitting it out after an interrogation of its assets and flaws. But I’m starting to believe that delicious wine is primal-y appealing, and in fact eludes this type of interrogation. I wrote a post a few months ago in which I encouraged wine pros to go back to answering the basic question: “do I like this,” which I feel can be more valuable than intense scrutiny and analysis.

One of the positive side effects of schnooking is that you get to taste the same few bottles of wine through out the day alongside different palates. I like to open my sample bottles in the morning to see how they’re showing and whether they need air; I like to formulate my own opinion before tasting with other humans. When something is showing well, I enjoy a little inner smile imagining how various buyers will receive it; if something is not showing well I leave it behind (because, frankly, there’s no point carrying a bottle around all day that has no hope of ever connecting to the mothership); if something is on the fence, deliberating whether to clam up or become more open over the course of the day, I look forward to following its progress.

I’ve observed that if I’ve got a really delicious bottle open, every person who tastes, likes it, which leads me to think that deliciousness isn’t as subjective as we sometimes construe. (My sense is that “on the fence” bottles call up deep subjectivity, but that delicious bottles tap into a greater objectivity: chocolate, sex, 18 month Comte … sure, occasionally someone will say they don’t like chocolate, but they’re lying.)

I’ve been out twice now with Bruno Debize 2011 Beaujolais Cambertiers, and watched every single taster descend into a moment of non-carbonic maceration, dark, brambly, granitic Gamay revery. When a wine stands out, a particular glaze comes over the eye of the taster, analysis fades to the background as the drinker is momentary transported to the mothership via the wine. You’re still with me?photo-37

I began to think about Universal Delicious while in Arbois. My Aussie flat-mate’s first glass of Jura white wine was 2011 Buronfosse Savagnin L’Hôpital. (I don’t have a picture of this bottle.) With no preparation for the style whatsoever, she dove straight into the wine with gusto and pleasure. With no background for the oxidative flavors of naturally made, virtually sulfur free, high-acid Savagnin, she loved the wine, its balance of rich, lactic flavors and succulent, mouth-watering green apple and quince. For a few hours, or however long it took us to drain the bottle, there was vocal and high-frequency connection to the mothership.

When I started this post I didn’t intent to speak about 1) the mothership 2) Debize Cambertiers, or 3) Buronfosse L’Hôpital. The original plan was to site several examples of deliciousness from the past couple of weeks, and leave it at that. I’ve been sacrificing my liver to this new portfolio of wines, so Selection Massale is certainly represented here. But there are also pleasant surprises that have nothing to do with (#?) schnook life.

This Trousseau for example, from Pont de Breux.photo-38

My former boss David Lillie had been trying to get these wines to New York for about 1.5 years. As those of us who have struggled with Jura growers know, there’s generally a gestation period of about a year and a half before wine arrives on our shores. It’s a great mystery why it takes these guys so long … but happily it’s almost always worth the wait. At any rate, David tasted these at a trade show in Colmar and loved them. While waiting for them, we spoke about P de B weekly, and I became very excited to try the wines. At long last, while I was in Europe, they turned up! I grabbed the Trousseau first, and one by one the topped up and sous voile white wines, and Vin Jaune. A number of my former customers and friends asked my opinion, which is that all were excellent.

Pont de Breux is a four hectare Domaine in Salins-les-Bains, which is a few kilometers from Arbois, and known for its salty, poor, Kimmeridgean soil. Historically Salins was a salt-mining town, and it’s known for the high quality of its Trousseau. Jean-Charles Maire of P de B has the same unfortunate last name as Henri Maire, the biggest négociant in the region. Jean-Charles is no relation, and P de B is minuscule, off the radar even by Jura standards. I asked Stéphane Tissot how he felt about P de B, and he said he wasn’t crazy about the style. Then again Stef’s a bit of a modernist in some ways, and Jean-Charles Maire’s wines are about as traditional as they come. Good thing we have room for both!

I drank Pont de Breux’s Trousseu with my friend Evan, who solves my tech problems as I bribe him with Jura wine and Champagne. (It’s a beautiful relationship.) At the onset the bottle was a bit tightly coiled and reductive, but the reduction departed almost immediately to reveal delicate, dark-fruited, floral and aromatic, crunchy, limestone-y Trousseau that was quintessentially Jurassic (and I should mention a fabulous deal at $21.99). A few weeks later, I found myself in Evan’s digs again (this time bribing him with Loirette), and he brought up Pont de Breux’s Trousseau. “You know, Sophie, after you left, I drank the last little bit in the bottle, and that is a Serious Wine!” He was right. It’s a wine that toys with delicacy and substantiality in a gorgeous way. I’m thrilled for David that the wines made it to New York safe, sound, and communicating with the mothership.

Another instance of “everyone who tasted it, loved it” was this Bordeaux:photo-39

 

I’ll spare the line about how I don’t drink Bordeaux. I’ve actually drunk a number of them over the past few months, and while it’s not my favorite kind of wine, being generally a little too “red” for my taste, I’m happy to say I’m more open to Bordeaux at this moment than I’ve been in years. I took out the Selection Massale Haut-Médoc because I needed something classic and high quality to taste with my friend Raj who buys the wine at restaurant Daniel. (For some reason Pet Nat just didn’t seem like the thing to show Raj.) Without food, after having pounded some green apple tictacs, and on an unfavorable day according to the biodynamic calendar, this bottle was outstanding. I’ll refer here to what Cory said in a mailer about Jaugueyron:

“Michel Theron isn’t a chateau owner, nor does he employ a cellar master and vineyard manager to actually make the wine, as most Chateau owners do.  He isn’t even from Bordeaux, having been transplanted from the Languedoc years before.  He owns a small house tucked away in the forest outside Margaux and makes wine in his big garage.  He isn’t however a new naturalist, he doesn’t believe in zero sulfur or cold carbonic maceration to tame the wines.  He is, as I learned tasting with him and driving through the vineyards, a great believer in the old style of Bordeaux.  Ageworthy, restrained, terroir driven neither the terroir obliterating modernism that has come to sadly typify the region, nor the wild naturalism that seeks immediacy and fruit in the bottle.  Just old school bordeaux.”

It’s worth going back and reading the mailer, which is heartfelt, informative, and funny. Anyway, after meeting with Raj, I took the wine home to find Susannah (friend, roommate, and Italian wine buyer at Flatiron) finishing a late dinner with another friend Theo (formerly of Milk and Honey, now the cocktail coordinator of all the New York airports). In its sixth hour open, the wine was in its element, showing graphite and a bit of barnyard, gravelly depth like the voice of singer/songwriter Mark Lanegan, firm yet well-inegrapted tannins on the finish, and a core of intense, ballsy dark fruit. Never ones to mince words and thus in polar opposition to yours truly, Raj and Susannah made identical utterances in response to this wine: “That’s delicious.” Did more need to be said? I’m not sure, we left it at that …

I’ll finish with this bottle: photo-40

Be forewarned, I’ll be getting cheesy. In my mind, this is always Puffeney’s top wine, but my first few sips of this bottle gave me pause. It showed the sweet, cherry cordial aromas that have marked some of The Pope’s recent releases. All the minerality and firmness and balance were there, but that hint of cherry cordial was off-putting. This is a wine that has historically been right up next to the mothership, but in this case I wasn’t sure. As I sipped my glass, however, I remembered a number of things: the fact that Puffeney harvests later than everyone else. He waits for the last days of fall sun to ripen his grapes. By extension I remembered running into Benoït and Valérie Lahaye at Hirsinger in downtown Arbois. They were there to pick with Puffeney because 2014 was his last harvest; it was a gesture of fondness and respect for this man whose wines have won the hearts of so many. I remembered going to the Jura for the first time years ago, with Clarke, leaning out of the car window in Montigny to ask a woman my grandmother’s age “Pardon madame; je cherche la maison de Jacques Puffeney … ” I remembered picking in the Bérangères vineyard, which is behind Stef’s winery, on a little side road. It’s a beautiful spot, a steep sun-drenched slope that is perfect for this dark, wild grape with its bizarre Iberian origin.  Most American Jura purists will tell you they prefer Poulsard, but Trousseau attains very high heights in the hands of Jacques Puffeney; there’s no denying it. All these thoughts crowded in as I was drinking, and at the end of the glass I loved the wine as one loves a classic, well-wrought thing soon to be no more.

When the glass was empty, I indulged in a last memory of wandering up a hill late at night in the midst of our raucous end of harvest party, standing on the edge of the Bérangères vineyard looking up at the stars, reveling in the absolute silence of the place, the thought looping cracked-vinyl-style “Sophie, when you get back to New York, when you get back to your life, you’ll think of this time, and it’ll seem so distant and magical, you’ll hardly believe it happened … ”

 

Nov
9

The Hustle.

Be forewarned that this is going to be a discombobulated post, verging on steam of consciousness, about life in the fast lane of wine sales womanship. Before I get started, however, I’d like to give a shout out to a friend.

Of late I’ve been really enjoying Lauren Gitlin’s blog. (I’ve put a link in the right hand sidebar; take a look!) Lauren used to be a manager and buyer at Uva wines in Williamsburg, and she left New York at the same time I did. I left for two months to wander around Europe; she left indefinitely to make cheese in Vermont. We both looked to agriculture and the countryside to sooth a malaise brought about by long term habitation in New York. Yet I imagined Lauren would come back to the infectious energy of the city after a few months of roughing it. She’s not coming back. Sigh. It shows a lot of strength to embrace a totally new career in spite of various hardships: early mornings, bone-chilling weather, and the lack of local entertainment aside from contra dancing. I admire Lauren, and I miss her. She’s someone who puts a lot of joy into drinking and talking about wine among many things. Her writing is heartfelt and hilarious … and there are sweet goat photos.

Back to the fast lane. A friend who does not use Facebook recently gently complained that she didn’t know what I’d been doing since coming back from Europe. She’d heard I’d become a schnook (the local vernacular for a wine sales person), but I hadn’t posted an update on my blog about my professional life, and thus she didn’t know what I was up to. Well, the rumors are true. I am now a wholesale seller of wine, pending my alcohol solicitor’s license, which requires a longish stint at the department of motor vehicles to obtain a New York driver’s license. Oh and I’ve got to get finger printed.

Anyway, here’s how I arrived at schnookery:

Upon deciding I needed to try my hand at something other than retail, I thought extensively about what my ideal job would be, which aspects of the wine business I enjoy most, who I am as a person, as a professional, what my skills and strengths are, what I want the next few years of my life to be like. You know: all that soul searching that precedes any deliberate major decision. As a notorious waffler without a five-year plan, I was thrilled to discover that I could answer these internally posed questions. (Big ups to the head shrinker; she helped me a lot.)

At the end of the day, I knew that I could only sell a portfolio of wine that I truly loved, that my sympathies lay more with small companies than big ones, that I wanted to be involved in the creative process of importing wine, not just the selling of it … and that hands down my favorite aspect of this job is traveling to meet farmers in Europe. As luck and circumstance would have it, I started to talk to Guilhaume Gérard of Selection Massale, a growing company with an impeccable portfolio of wine that I’d loved since Guilhaume arrived in New York about three years ago. When I went to Europe, I had a sense I’d come back a member of Selection Massale, but I didn’t want to finalize the decision because I wanted to take my sabbatical, and I wanted to work with Stéphane, and Gernot, without feeling obligated to another employer. I needed respite from the New York wine business.

Now I’m back, and the head shrinker would doubtless have suggested taking more than a couple of days to digest the experience before diving into the next thing, but the truth is that I’m absolutely excited about working for this company in various capacities. According to my palate, the wines are outstanding, and I want to shout it to the world.

In reality, this means becoming a sales person, which I have mixed feelings about having always been on the other side of the wholesale buying arrangement. I’m fortunate that at Chambers Street I dealt with some top notch sales people, and I have them in mind as I delve into this new enterprise: Mike Foulk of MFW, Ryan Looper  of T. Edward Wines, Alex Miranda of David Bowler, the list goes on. I’ll probably never be a proper schnook; the expression “price point” makes me cringe, but I’ll give it my all … while trying not to sacrifice my integrity or annoy my friends, many of whom are buyers. (At Selection Massale, we like to deflect discussion of price points by wearing hot dog outfits. It’s very professional.) image

Yesterday I went out for my first day of attempting to sell wine on the street. Seems as though it should be perfectly easy to carry a bag of wine around pouring tastes for people and getting their feedback, hoping they’ll order something while trying not to take it personally if they don’t. However … Here are some observations:

1) What if a wine isn’t showing well? Channeling my ex-boyfriend Clarke Boehling, a highly talented schnook for Rosenthal, I opened my bottles in the morning, tasted them, and formulated my own opinions before taking them out. I wasn’t satisfied by one, so I left it at home. However I was thrilled by two, and I couldn’t wait to share them.

2) The bag is heavy, unwieldy, and a pain in the ass.

3) Sometimes the buyer isn’t there, and then you feel silly, and you leave her some tastes, which you hope she’ll actually taste.

4) No matter how much time you spend cramming, you are going to occasionally forget important details like the size of the Domaine and the cépage. If you forget the cépage, you feel very silly.

5) When the hell do you tell the buyer the prices of the wines? When there’s a lull in conversation? While he is contemplatively sucking and mulling over the wine while scribbling or typing away?

6) As the day goes on, the bag gets heavier, though in theory as you pour tastes the bag should be getting lighter, which leaves you both fatigued and mystified. (I chose this bag to begin my career as a schnook. My mom found it in Mexico; she was the first person to suggested that I work in the wine business. She died at the dawn of my career; the bag is a bit of an homage.) photo-36

7) It’s totally different, and inherently a bit humiliating walking into a shop where you know everyone … as a schnook, even if all you intended to do was to say “hello,” you have no intention of trying to sell them anything, and in truth *you’re more likely to buy something from them than they are to buy something from you* (this happened to me yesterday when Christy Frank sold me a bottle of L’Anglore Chemin de la Brune, which officially means that I’ve bought more wine than I’ve sold as a sales rep.)

8) Am I becoming a solider? I’ve always been put off by schnooks who became soldiers for their companies, sales reps who lost all objectivity, believing that their wines are hands down God’s gift to the wine drinking world. That said, as I tasted these wines over the course of the day, I became increasingly proud of them; I believed in what was in my make-shift shook bag.

There was much more that I observed yesterday, but I’ll end with one thing I kept coming back to as I meandered around lower Manhattan with my bag. It’s something I’ve been pondering heavily for the past few months. While it’s certainly true that the majority of people in our trade don’t actually know much about the reality of making wine, it’s also true that generally the people who make wine don’t understand the reality of selling it in a busy city with a million venues and ample competition. The wine business has myriad layers, and those layers make up the rich fabric of our industry. There were certainly moments yesterday when I hearkened back to Gernot Kollmann’s cellar at Immich-Batterieberg, its stark cleanliness and dank aromas, the constant, lush burbling of the fermentations, the cellar floor damp from sterilizing tanks, sensations of inner peace as the mind floated two thousand miles away while the hands reached for a hose and a nozzle … I know I can’t become a vigneron. My work is here, spreading the gospel of good wine in one way or another.

With the Germany chronicles, I’m going to start with a visit to Jochen Beurer in the town of Stetten, and work backwards in time to trailing behind prince-among-men Gernot Kollmann in the Immich-Batterieberg cellar. Anyone who’s obsessed with wine will tell you that at a certain point it’s rare to encounter anything truly new, much less *new* and exceptionally good. Well, it happened to me in Swabia. It sounds cheesy, but the Rieslings of Jochen Beurer in south western Germany made me want to live. They made me want to dive into an ad hoc picnic on a hill in the sunset, or go for a fast, chilly run on a fall morning. They made me want to come home and tell everyone about them; they made me think “this is why I do what I do.” Of course there was the sheen of novelty, also a distinct whiff of what I call “that which can’t be said,” a vague nod to the philosopher Wittgenstein, whose work I used to love to read as a younger and brighter person. And it’s funny because of the Swabian juice I’d tried in New York (Knauss, Holger Koch, and Beurer), I’d found Beurer’s the hardest to fathom … until going there when it all began to make sense. photo-31

I guess Swabia is normally defined as the area around Württemberg, however it’s clear that Swabians were present — in varying numbers and at various times in history — in Alsace, Hungary and Croatia, Switzerland, parts of Baden, parts of Bavaria, the list goes on. Charlemagne was apparently of Swabian descent. The salient point for wine lovers is that Swabia specializes in dry Riesling grown on predominantly limestone soil, and red wine: Spätburgunder, Trollinger, Lemberger, and a small slew of fabricated, crossed varieties that might be fun to chuck in the Tuesday night steak blend. In landscape, Swabia reminded me of the Jura: rolling hills with intermittently dramatic slopes, greenery and woodlands. Swabia is practically next to the Jura; all you’ve got to do is drive through the Black Forrest to reach one from the other. They were both geologically impacted by the slow shifting of the Alps pressing up against their surfaces to create patchwork-y crenelations. I believe that on Jochen’s website, which I’ve linked to in the right hand margin, the terraces that resulted from soft ground and hard limestone coming into contact are called “bear noses.” It’s questionable to attempt to make a connection between the wines of Jura and the wines of Swabia, which may only share Jurassic limestone; at the same time, Andi Knauss’s Trollinger is not unlike Poulsard from Fabrice Dodane of Domaine Saint-Pierre … I’m just saying. photo-32

But at Beurer I was smote by Riesling, and I thought back to a lengthy, drunken argument with my original New York wine friends about which white grape variety is the most terroir expressive. Historically I argued against Riesling because of obnoxious (in my mind — it’s a personal prejudice) residual sugar and added yeast. That was before I’d tasted the best renditions of the filigreed, tangy slate of the Mosel; “slate custard” I call it. I think the truth is that like all grapes that are conduits for great terroir, Riesling as Riesling is fairly neutral, obtaining its complexity from good vineyards worked well. Jochen’s were an entirely different species of Riesling from the Mosel Rieslings I was used to: broad and full-bodied even in their lightest expression, with base-y, stony flavors, and an almost total lack of fruitiness. They were ripe wines that ranged from the lees-y Muscadet-like Schilfsandstein to the sexy, lush, Alpine Junges Schwaben Grosses Gewächs. There are different types of soil here: the porous, chunky Gipskeuper, and the chalky Stubensandstein of the area’s best vineyards. In a way it’s downright unsettling for Riesling to taste like this, but as Jochen — a thick, strong, BMX cyclist — would say, smiling, resolute: “I like it.” Best just to heed the first responses of one’s own inner voice in this case murmuring “delicious.” There was something brilliant and alluring about these Rieslings that I couldn’t quite put my finger on or find words to describe. photo-33

Beurer farms ten hectares of vines, and he’s biodynamically certified. He farms some vines with a horse, and he uses homeopathic treatments in the vineyard, including a charming little innovation for fighting the dreaded drosophila suzukii, which plagued many European wine regions in 2014 from the Loire Valley to Swabia. Jochen burned and scattered the ashes of drosophila insects in the vineyards. In the cellar, Jochen works almost entirely with native yeast, very long, slow fermentations on lees, and barrels for most of the wines save the ones that are intended for young quaffing. The white wines see one light filtration. photo-34

First, there was 2013 Riesling “Gipskeuper” a name for the soil beneath the limestone in some of Jochen’s vineyards. The translation is “gypsum.” It’s a waxy, porous soil found at the lowest level of the terraces that gives a medium bodied, totally dry Riesling with a salty, mouth-watering finish. The exposition is southeast, with an elevation of around 300 meters. If you didn’t move on to the Riesling Schilfsandstein, you’d think you’d arrived at a very good dry Riesling with Gips, but the intensely linear, limestone-y, Schilf made Gips seem positively frivolous in comparison. Schilf comes from 35 year old vines planted in windy conditions on finely particled and mineral rich soil. Schilf was quite Muscadet-like, and, frankly, I’ve not encountered many Rieslings I’d like to drink with oysters, which I suddenly found myself craving. The 2013 Riesling Kieselsandstein has a half a degree more alcohol than Gips and Schilf at 12%, and it’s a fuller, more mouth-filling wine with mellow blue tones, yellow fruits, and hints of leaf and flower petal. The vines here are also 35 years old, and the soil is gravely and poor, with very little topsoil. Kiesel comes from the area’s most well-known vineyard called Pulvermächer. Made in foudre, the wine takes an exceptionally long time to ferment and has lovely phenolics. As I look at my notes on these wines, I see many scribbled details: tones and shades, impressions and expletives, but literally no fruit flavors. They were resoundingly ripe, extremely high acid from the zippy 2013 vintage, and yet I couldn’t conjure an accurate fruit salad description to save my life.

Jochen’s top wine highlights the Stubensandstein you can (sort of) see in the  lowest level of the box above: breakable chunks of white limestone (“sandstein” means limestone). The old vine cuvée of Stubensandstein is labelled Grosses Gewächs (I literally cannot go into detail about German wine labeling because I don’t understand it, and the more the Germans emulate the French in designating Villages, 1er, and Grand Cru wines, the more confused I become). At any rate, both the 2012 and the 2013 of this wine were exceptional. In 2013, the wine has a lighter frame, a 14 day maceration on skins and stems, and a racy, fennel-y profile. Bottled on September 12th, the 2013 was jubilantly open for business. 2012 Junges Schwaben was the subject of some dissension in our team ranks. Initially closed, it was a chunkier wine than the 2013, and wanting a bit of acid. After 20 minutes, it came resoundingly into its own, transformed into an animal, sexy wine with layer upon layer of flavor, and an exotic, creamy finish of coconut flesh and meadow flowers. photo-35

In the end, I paid this wine the ultimate compliment by asking to buy one to stuff into my suitcase. I put some money on the table and Jochen told a joke the punchline of which revolved around Swabians’ love of money. I recall it as: “How do you dig a hole in the ground?” “Tell a Swabian there’s a penny buried where you want the hole dug.” He made a digging gesture and grinned a friendly, toothy smile. It was approximately my 24th hour in Swabia; I was already smitten, and we’d barely gotten into the reds …

I met Renaud Bruyère at Le Nez Dans Le Vert in 2012. He and his wife, Adeline Houillon, had with them two bottles of excellent Arbois-Pupillin wine: one red and one white. After tasting, I asked them if they had some to sell, if they were excited by the prospect of representation in New York. Ha! No wine. Desolé!

Renaud is a dude I saw every day (except the week he was harvesting his own vines) while working for Stéphane Tissot. He’s the guy you’d most want to have in your cellar: laid back yet motivated, able to bestow order upon a team of able-bodied yet occasionally directionless cellar hands, at ease behind a forklift and a tractor, naturally inclined to see what needs to be done and to do it. He reminded me of the best sous chefs I’d known. I went to see him the day before I left Arbois: I didn’t take any pictures; it felt like stopping by a friend’s house. Renaud – in an apron – was kneading a lump of pizza dough.

A native of Tain-Hermitage, at the beginning (2004), Renaud worked for other people, for Overnoy, and for Tissot. He collected four hectares of vines around Arbois, Pupillin, and Montigny. His winemaking is completely natural, with organic certification, no chemicals in the vines, no added yeast, and no sulfur whatsoever. Renaud doesn’t strike me as particularly earnest or philosophically driven when it comes to winemaking; he just doesn’t need that shit.

Renaud likes barrels for his white wines, and he tops them up; the fermentations are long. He makes wonderful Montigny Savagnin; the 2013 balances on a tightrope of succulent white stone fruits and razor sharp acidity. Renaud’s astonishingly good 2013 Chardonnay/Savagnin blend from the higher altitude “Tourillon” vineyard has crunchy acidity, and more saline character than his pure Savagnin; the wine is 80% Chardonnay and 20% Savagnin blended before pressing. Another 2013 blend of 60% Savagnin and 40% Chardonnay comes from old vines in a clay-heavy vineyard in Pupillin. It’s fatter than Renaud’s Tourillon with sweet green fruit, and lush lemon cream on the nose. Even in the compromised state that followed our end of harvest party, it was virtually impossible to spit out this wine.

Renaud’s wines are coming to New York with my friend Zev, and Renaud thought there would be a shipment this fall. With this shipment will be Renaud’s 2013 Pupillin Trousseau/Ploussard blend. With equal parts the two grapes, this wine shows spicy, sanguine notes, animal character from Trousseau, and forward, red fruit from Ploussard. It’s superbly structured and bloody for a red wine from a catastrophic vintage. I mentioned to Renaud Pierre Overnoy’s childhood memory of a Poulsard and Trousseau blend, and he replied: “I don’t see the point of growing Pinot here. The best red wines of this region … they are not made from Pinot Noir.” D’accord.photo-30

Renaud is the dude in the green sweater, illustrating a point to our friend Gigi.

Lounging in the Chitenay hotel a year and a half ago, a group of us were enjoying late night after Valaire (the annual winter vigneron’s convention put on by the Dressners in the Loire) when erudite wine scholar and great friend Joe Dougherty brought out a bottle of 2011 white wine from Jean-François Ganevat. He’d purchased a small collection of Ganevat wines while in Paris, had been disappointed by them, and wanted to hear how the rest of us felt. And I’d say for the most part we were mildly disappointed. Then again we’d drunk a fair amount, and undoubtedly our palates were not as fresh as they could’ve been. Then again we didn’t shell out for the bottles, which command quite high prices these days. This was the first, but certainly not the only time I heard the words: “Ganevat has jumped the shark.”

The name stirs a range of emotions within me. The first Ganevat wine I drank about five years ago was a 2007 Pinot Noir Cuvée Jullien; it cost $35 (retail), and tasted like Morey-Saint-Denis from a light-handed producer. Working as a retailer, Ganevat’s wines became a colossal pain in my ass, and by the time I left Chambers, I’d begun to dread their arrival. It’s not just that they have virtually tripled in price, and that everybody wants them now that they’ve gone from unsellable to incredibly scarce. It’s not just that I had to harangue the supplier for an allocation despite a loyalty to the wines dating back to a time when no one knew what they were. Without spending my own precious salary, or hunting down Fan-fan in Rotalier, I never got to try the wines. Of course there was plenty of pricey stuff that I never got to try, and it didn’t matter, but with Ganevat, I was obliged to provide commentary on wines I literally could not afford to drink. (To be  clear, the scarcity, the allocations, and the prices are hardly his fault. He’s an excellent and big-hearted winemaker; I adore the guy.) I consume maybe 4 bottles of Ganevat a year, not bad given what a rock star the man has become, and of those bottles, two are utterly disappointing and overpriced, and two are glorious, soaring expressions of old vines on the marly, calcarious soil of the southern Jura.photo-25

Having seen Stéphane and Fan-Fan hugging one another’s hairless heads at Le Nez Dans Le Vert, I knew they were mates: the king of the north Jura, and the king of the south Jura, two top producers in the region making beautiful, Burgundian wines of terroir. Stéphane had it in his mind that we needed to go see Fan-fan, so last week Friday, five of us piled into the minivan for a field trip down to the wilds of south Jura (by which I mean the villages south of Lons-le-Saunier).photo-26

The first arresting thing about our visit to Fan-fan was that there was Gewürztraminer in the pressoir; it made good breakfast juice. (Note: this is Ganevat’s press after evicting the Gewürztraminer seeds and stems. If you look beyond our friend Pierre you can see Fan-fan’s very distinct head in the background.) Apparently Fan-fan has several négociant projects going on in Alsace, Beaujolais, and Côte-Rôtie, but since the wines are made in Rotalier, he can’t necessarily label them with the appellation. Now, some of my favorite winemakers (such as Eric Texier and Bruno Debize) are négociants; it’s a perfectly legitimate way to make a dime, but one wonders if it’s absolutely necessary to make Fleurie in Rotalier. In fact I liked Fan-fan’s 2014 whole bunch Syrah quite a bit, but I draw the line at blending Trousseau and Poulsard with Gamay from Fleurie and Morgon (this falls within a large category of things including *elaborate carrot flower garnishes* and *that’s what she said jokes* that I think of as “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”). I also liked Fan-fan’s 2014 Morgon, sourced from folks in the Descombes family, but I couldn’t swear which members. These wines had barely fermented, and who knows when they’ll make it to the US (if ever), so better to focus Fan-fan’s “Jurassic” offerings.photo-27

Of the red wines from 2014, I believe Ganevat’s Pinots will be the most successful. Poulsard is challenging in the south Jura, with its abundance of limestone and marl, its humidity, clouds, and cool climate. And in 2014, even the hallowed vineyards of Pupillin struggled with Poulsard, the finicky, thin-skinned grapes coming in with too much rot for comfort. The PlouPlous we tasted at Ganevat were extremely reductive, herbal and bright on the nose, but almost painfully delicate on the palate. They had not gone through malolocatic fermentation yet so, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they where in an odd spot. Trousseau Plein Sud tasted more like finished wine with darker fruit and more substance on the palate. Ganevat’s 2014 Pinots lived in a different chamber of the winery, a chamber in which all the reds had completed malo. The first cuvée of Pinot, a blend of grapes from the Grandes Teppes, La Combe, and Grusse en Brillat vineyards was deliciously herbal with notes of gentian and fruit seed. Pinot Noir Cuvée Jullien from vines planted in 1962 was darker, with graphite notes, and more tannins and structure on the finish. Personally, I’d be more inclined to attack a bottle of 2012 Saint Pierre Pinot “Saint Pierre” from Fabrice Dodane at half the price … but these were good Pinots.photo-28

We tasted three red wines from 2013, and they progressed from unpleasant to solid-though-unremarkable. 2013 Poulsard was strangely grilled and toasty, yet underripe on the nose — as though a few leaves of grilled kale had been dropped in the tank. The palate was light to the point of insubstantiality, and the finish had an off, plastic-y quality. Again, 2013 was a rough year.  Trousseau was a more successful wine, more tannic and reductive than the Poulsard, but with fun peppery spice. Again, Pinot was the winner according to my palate, with the same graphite-y nose as 2014, only lightly reductive, and with good structure and balance. I hope these wines come together; I really do. After all, we drank two magnums of red wine at lunch: 2010 Poulsard and 2008 Trousseau, and they were gorgeous examples of the ethereal heights Fan-fan is capable of in red wine.photo-29

For all that the 2014 and 2013 reds we tried at Ganevat were lackluster, the 2012 white wines were astonishingly good. There are so many of them that I’ll restrict my notes to the wines that stood out, and why. In my opinion, Ganevat’s white wines put either their full, honeyed, lactic, sexy foot first, or they put their high-acid, structured, tooth-enamel-shattering foot first. (Apologies if that doesn’t make sense.) On the one hand they are big, warm, open, and generous; on the other hand they are icy, stern, and rocky. In general it’s the tension between these two extremes that makes them so pleasurable. If you prefer the stern side of Ganevat, go for the Chardonnay Florine, from vines planted on limestone in 1986. This wine is a seashell-y wine with high-acid and mineral expression in the foreground. Or perhaps the Chardonnay Chamois du Paradis, from vines planted on red marl soil that Ganevat purchased in 2009. While not as expressive on the nose as some of Fan-fan’s whites, it shows mouth-watering, salty minerals. If you prefer Ganevat in a more mellow mood, look to the 2012 Chardonnay Grusse En Brillat, from Triassic era clay and limestone soil. This wine has abundant white, orchard fruit, and honey, with pillar-like structure and zesty bitter flavors of citrus pith on the finish. A favorite of mine, I found this cuvée to resonate with bass-y, ripe Chardonnay notes balanced by a shrill pitch in the background.

Of course the best was saved for last! Ganevat’s Melon-Queue-Rouge “Cuvée Marguerite,” from calcarious soil in the chalasses vineyard, was as good as it’s ever been if not better: dense and stony, yet showing sweet citrus fruit and velvety lemon curd, it’s a wine worth eschewing the spit bucket (or in this case the ground) for, a wine that highlights what very old vines on superb terroir (and in the hands of the right vigneron) can give. You’re going to kill me, dear reader; you really are … the last wine we tasted before lunch in middle earth was a bottle of Savagnin Vert from 2004 that had been kept ouillé for ten years. My notes read “awesome.”

Lots of things have happened since my last efforts at blogging: end of harvest celebrations, visits to Fabrice Dodane, Jean-Baptiste Menigoz, Renaud Bruyère, Fan-fan Ganevat, and more, but most significantly, between working and the tourism office of Arbois (read: only reliable source of wifi in town) starting to close on Sundays, I’m behind on news sharing and will need to catch up. However, the wines I tasted Tuesday morning with Lillian Duplessis left such an impression that I need to put the rest on hold to write about them. You’ll excuse the lack of pictures, and the absence of extensive lists of fruit flavors in the tasting notes. It’s hard to note furiously while listening to a language you only halfway speak, and somehow words like “apple” and “preserved lemon” don’t touch the core of these wines.

I don’t think I’ve visited a winemaker in my life who was more attentive to expressing subtleties of terroir than Lillian Duplessis. In essence, this is exactly what we want in our Burgundy winemakers (at least I’m told), people who do the bare minimum in the cellar, in order to express the identity of the parcels, while recognizing (of course) that “doing the minimum” requires hard work in the soil, extensive monitoring of the juice, and an understanding of how to capture fleeting flavors of rock and grape … without imposing one’s own taste or personality (note: this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a personality, just keep it out of the wine). In my experience, these are fairly modest winemakers at the end of the day. Many (like Lillian) come from old family Domaines, and they take their work of carrying on the tradition of winemaking seriously. Yet imagine the temptation in a world in which winemakers do flashy things like travel the world selling their image like rock stars, start négociant projects in other regions in order to play around out of their comfort zone, while slapping a name on the bottle that will guarantee sales. The winemaker who embraces a life of letting the soil speak without personal performance is like that old friend we all have who facilitates brilliant social gatherings, yet seems to melt into the background.photo-22

Domaine Gérard Duplessis comprises 9 hectares of superb vineyard land in Chablis. I neglected to ask Lillian which generation he is, but I gather there have been quite a few Duplessis making wine there before him. He’s fortunate that he and his father share the desire to keep the Domaine small, and to work the soil. Lillian applied for organic certification in 2010, and 2013 will be his first vintage organically certified. During his winemaking studies, Lillian elected to stay in Burgundy, working in both Gevrey and Vergisson. This surprised me given that typically winemaking school affords great opportunity to travel the globe taking in exotic cépages and winemaking techniques. When I asked Lillian about this choice he said “but I wanted to learn how to make Chardonnay.” Well … fair enough. He began working at the Domaine in 2000, and he worked with his father until 2007.

In the cellar, the winemaking is natural — not in the sense of ‘Natural Wine’ — but rather in the sense of natural fermentation, and a long period of lees-aging that takes full advantage of the reductive properties of lees, yet ends before they begin to impart off aromas and flavors to the wine. In an ideal world, Lillian’s Petit Chablis, Chablis, and Vaugirault (a cuvée from 10-year-old vines I gather Lillian is still getting to know) would mature for 18 months in cuve (big stainless steel tank), and the 1er and Grand Crus would mature for 12 months in cuve, followed by six months in neutral barrel. That’s it. Done. Finished. Nothing flashy, just good, clean, old-fashioned winemaking. Unfortunately sometimes nature gets in the way, as in 2012 and 2013, which were both low-yeilding, concentrated vintages in which the quality was good, but the quantity was miniscule. This means that Lillian is obligated to abbreviate the process a bit to keep paying the bills, but he’ll never shorten the barrel aging regimen; safe to say aging is now 6-12 months in cuve, six months in barrel.photo-24

We talked about oak for a few minutes. Apparently it’s a rather hot debate in Chablis! Lillian told me in a somewhat confessional tone as though there were something dirty or wrong about liking a bit of wood, that he wouldn’t mind seeing a touch more oak influence in some of the wines, but that clients had told him they prefer reserved oak presence. I guess there’s no accounting for taste. When I tried to probe further it came out that he’s actually pretty happy with the wines as they are … as he should be!

At this point in the visit we were stuck into the 2013s out of tank; they tasted great. We began with Vaillons, which I gather is always open right out of the gate (or in this case: one of those strange stainless steel nozzles). Then we tasted Fourchaume from vines high up on the slope. This wine was also generous but more serious, less fruity, and more calcarious on the palate. I asked Lillian why the parcels present themselves differently, and I don’t think he knows exactly, or cares to know, or maybe he just didn’t feel like explaining, but the answer was effectively: “it’s always like that.” This is a response I love; it’s a response that takes into consideration the great mysteries of the human condition; it’s a response startles those of us born into cultures that demand explanation. And in fact the more wine Lillian and I tasted together, the more I had the impression that he was there to observe the evolution of juice from great terroir, rather than to force it into any set pattern of development.

2013 Montée de Tonnerre was dark, brooding and mysterious, structured and smoky. Lillian described it as “complicated” and I knew what he meant. It wasn’t a wine that coddled the taster, yet there was a sense of anticipation, of curiosity about what it would deliver down the road. 2013 Montmains, on the other hand, was gorgeous, offering almost Riesling-like aromas of sweet lime, apple, and white stone fruits with the same textured yet incredible straight, mineral-drenched palate. Predictably, I lost it and resorted to expletives when we got to Le Clos. From a mid-slope parcel, the wine was subtle, closed a bit aromatically, but incredibly dense and powerful on the palate offering sweet, ripe fruit and concentration, but also sapid, shelly notes, and long, saline character. Duplessis recently received points from the Wine Advocate!

I took a moment to congratulate Lillian (read: try to figure out how he felt about it). He (charmingly) didn’t seem to remember exactly what had brought the wine journalist Neal Martin to his door, but quickly recalled the tasting saying “we don’t normally invite the press, but when he called me I thought ‘why not?'” I explained the standard fear that high scores in the Wine Advocate are quickly followed by lack of supply, especially after vintages in which yields were low … “It’s true that I did receive some calls from Americans asking to buy wine after the review.” I bet.

After tasting across a number of vineyards in a single vintage (2013), we tasted one terroir over the course of several vintages. This is a righteous way to explore terroirs planted to a single grape variety, which allows the taster to attune herself to shades of difference and similarity.photo-23

2012 Montée de Tonnerre showed the round, concentration of the vintage, as well as how six months in oak changes the wine, giving it breadth on the palate, fleshing out the textures. The wine had the same smoky, limestone-y notes I’d found in the 2013 out of tank, but was more adult, in my opinion ready to lie down for a few years to emerge a more open wine. 2011 Montée de Tonnerre was radically different, showing the lightly herbal and vegetal character Chablis can have in cooler, higher-yielding vintages but with the same swath of calcaire on the palate. Lillian explained that while 2012 is a big, round, supple vintage, 2011 is a more classic vintage, simpler, more typical, and more in need of a decanter. I liked both wines. Tasting them reminded me of tasting Pépière’s Clos des Briords 2013, while remembering the powerhouse Briords of 2012. Ripe, concentrated vintages are obvious and sexy; cooler years are mysteriously charming.

Personally digressing for a moment, I told Lillian about my first Burgundy vintage, 2004. “Ah! That was complicated. The yields were very high. It’s the last year we did a green harvest. It was a year that depended completely on whether or not you controlled the yields.” Crucial choices in winemaking are not limited to the cellar: wood, tank, malolactic, native yeast, etc … but extend well into the vines. Lillian mentioned that 2003 was also a learning experience. This was at the very beginning of his tenure working with his father at the Domaine; a vintage like 2003 had never been seen before, but in the end it wasn’t so bad. After all, in the north of France there’s still acidity to be found, even in scorching summers.

2010 Montée de Tonnerre was absolutely stunning. It was the best wine I tasted that day in terms of how it’s drinking right now, a wine that got to the heart of what we look for in (young) Chablis: an amazing nose of rocks and sweet lemon curd, good structure, impeccable balance, mouth-filling presence on the palate, depth, length, and whiffs of sea shell on the finish. I attempted a French superlative. “Ah! But the wine was closed until this spring. It has just begun to open up.” These wines go through phases, sometimes closed and hard after racking and bottling, sometimes open, and really the only way to know is to taste. There are, allegedly, some bottles of 2010 Vaugirault coming to our market. I’ll certainly be looking out for them. Lillian told me with some hesitation that he thinks 2014 is going to be like 2010 (yippee!); the early signs are similar, the structure, the balance, telltale signs during the harvest. Again, Lillian is more of an observer than a proclaimer “it’s really too soon to say, right after harvest, but I think … maybe … 2014 will be like 2010.”

2009 was a good vintage, but “surprising.” Why? Lillian imagined it would be like 2003 and 2006, hot, giving wines that lack acidity. It was a vintage that was reviewed well. I hearkened back to the 2009 Beaujolais vintage: a great year! Unless of course you love Beaujolais, in which case the 2009s taste like murky Châteauneuf-du-Papes. (Okay, maybe not that bad.) Unlike 2010 Montée, which was closed after bottling, 2009 was open in youth, and has since settled to become a dense, pillar-like wine. It was somewhat clunky after the previous wines we’d tasted, and I wanted a touch less alcohol and more acidity, but it was very nice nonetheless.

We finished our tasting with 1999 Vaillons, a wine Lillian’s father made. The aromas were burnished and evolved, showing according to my nose and brain, the mocha and brulée character Chardonnay can have with a bit of age, but with abundant green fruit as well. Some earth and mineral-driven Chablis take the drinker in a cheesy, savory direction aromatically; this one offered more dessert characteristics. Yet the palate was strikingly saline, high acid, and seashell-y. The intense contrast of nose and palate seemed to steer the taster to a place of contemplation.

I wanted to take a picture of Lillian, but I didn’t know how to ask, and it somehow didn’t seem right. I got in the car and started to drive, thoughts churning along to an epic U2 ballad on the radio. The man is delightful, understated, but for those who’d like to listen, for those who like subtle, old school wine, for those with patience to wait, the wines are almost thunderously loud.

For the benefit of a journalist writing an article for GQ magazine on something called “emerging wine regions,” we did a comprehensive tasting of the Tissot lineup. Everything about this (save the wines, which were great) made my skin crawl. With some exceptions, I’m not much of a fan of wine journalism; I find it so often puts relatively rare wines on the radar of exactly the wrong people for the sake of what? A story, I suppose. Perhaps I’m a hypocrite, having been a fairly vocal force behind Jura sales in New York for some years now, but retail is not journalism. Retail talks the customer through the profile of the wine, prepares them for the experience they’ll have. Retail assesses the consumer and tries to discover their story as a wine drinker, what’s on their dinner menu. Wine journalism obsesses over what fruit flavors can be found in the wine, tells a souped-up version of the story and says: “this is the next cool thing!” I worry for the Jura, mauled by the dirty hands of GQ magazine. However, Stephane is my host, and if he says “come make small talk, be pleasant, and taste wine with a New York journalist,” I say “okay!” (Apologies to a handful of very good friends who are wine journalists – I have a bit of a bad taste in my mouth at the moment, but I’ll get over it. Thanks for tolerating my rant, and please don’t hate me.)

We began with a brief tour of the vines, and a discussion of the history of the region. (For more information, I suggest perusing Wink Lorch’s book on the Jura, and while doing so, consider that she is one a handful of true, independent wine writers, and is a national treasure rather than a hack.) I’ll make a brief summation of Stephane’s points: the Jura has very old soil, of which Triassic clay is the oldest. Like Burgundy, the Jura also has an abundance of Jurassic limestone. Unlike Burgundy, which is pretty much one continuous slope, Jura is a mosaic of hills and soils that were created when the Alps pressed against the Jura Mountains, pushing ancient soils close to the surface of the earth. (I strongly dislike comparing the Jura to Burgundy, but in this case it helps to make a point about the distinct development of the terroir here.)

The two major soil types in the Jura are clay and limestone, with lots of marl in various colors. Limestone works especially well for Chardonnay, Pinot, and Trousseau, while Chardonnay, Savagnin, and Poulsard do particularly well on clay. Why? I gather Chardonnay can grow anywhere, that clay promotes higher potential alcohol and higher acidity, which are helpful when making wines through processes that are more oxidative than reductive (Savagnin), and that (at least according to Stephane) Poulsard on limestone would be a catastrophe. I’ll have to be sure to ask a couple of other Jurassian vignerons about this for verification.

As to the history of the grapes planted here, Pinot Noir arrived in the 15th century; Chardonnay arrived in the 14th century. It’s unclear what’s up with Savagnin but it’s been in the Jura forever, and is widely considered to be part of the Traminer family, perhaps even the parent of all Traminers. Happily for us, someone brought Trousseau (also known as Bastardo) to the Jura from Iberia, and Poulsard? Well … Poulsard has been haunting the vineyards, barrels, bottles, and palates of the Jura since the dawn of time …photo-21

We went to a vineyard called “Curvees sous Curon,” situated between the Curvees and the Curon vineyards en route from Arbois to Montigny. Corvees is a limestone-heavy site with western exposition that gives us beautiful examples of Trousseau including those from Alice and Charles of Octavin, and Pascal and Evelyne of Tournelle. Curon faces full south, and I’ve most often found rich Chardonnays coming from Curon. Facing south and southwest, Curvees sous Curon has both Trosseau and Chardonnay, and looks up at the lovely Tour de Curon. Around this little rhomboidal tower with its commanding view of Arbois, is a tiny, pure limestone clos planted to very nice vines of Chardonnay. From this clos comes Stephane’s top single vineyard Chardonnay: Clos de la Tour de Curon. If Arbois someday succeeds in formally establishing “crus,” this will be its Montrachet (or whatever). I vividly remember visiting this place over three years ago with my good friend Zev, jostling around in the back of Steph’s SUV, listening to his incredibly fast-paced patois of English and French.

Because it abuts the chamber where four huge barrels of DD were furiously fermenting, connected by tubes exchanging run-off juice and carbon dioxide, Steph’s normal tasting room exuded strong smells of reduction and yeast. So, we tasted outside at a picnic table in the sun.

We began with Cremants, which I will skim quickly. For the most part the grapes for Cremant come from a vineyard called “Les Tourillons,” the highest Steph farms at 440 ish meters about sea level (high elevation –> high acidity –> superior sparkling wine). Steph’s Cremants generally contain 50% Chardonnay with the rest a blend of red grapes in percentages that vary from year to year. The 2014 Cremant, for example, will contain quite a bit of Trousseau, because not all the Trousseau we harvested was up to snuff for his Trousseau “Singulier.” In my opinion Stephane makes some of the best sparkling wines in the Jura, and I’m a particular fan of the “Indigene” wines (pink and white), which are made using all indigenous yeast, the second fermentation started by vin de paille. For fans of more Champagne-like Cremant, there’s BBF (Blanc de Blancs en Fut), a barrel-matured, long lees aged Cremant that is toasty, apply, mushroom-y, oxidative, and Brut Nature. I love BBF, but it’s not for everyone, and the last batch we sold at Chambers Street was perhaps more oxidative in character than we’d have liked.

Of particular interest at this tasting was a Cremant Stephane calls “Nature,” which has not been seen before in the US, but will (I think) arrive shortly. Under capsule rather than cork, this is Cremant, undisgorged. Now here’s something new! Apparently when the second fermentation takes place with native yeast rather than cultured yeast, the lees are cleaner, less bitter, and can be drunk as part of the wine rather than popped out as a frozen nugget of “depot” at the time of disgorgement. (Pascal Agrapart had recently been to visit Stephane, and they’d had a lengthy conversation about the quality of the lees in sparkling wine fermented with native yeast. No surprises here. These are two of the most masterful winemakers I’m aware of when it comes to making “pur jus” Champagne method wines.) Sure enough, there were lees suspended in the wine, making it slightly cloudy and textured, but with fine character and minerality. With 7 grams of sugar, the wine was nicely balanced and delicious, with faint notes of reduction that dissipated within about five minutes. Our GQ journalist friend flipped for this wine. It’s likely he was getting a bit drunk as he hadn’t been spitting, and his enthusiasm was really quite touching: “Am I crazy or is this really good? I mean … I love this. It’s really good, right? I’d drink this every day. I’m going to order a case, etc … etc … “

A few months ago, longer, even, I listened to my good friend Raj’s interview on the notable and entertaining podcast: “I’ll Drink to That.” Raj had recently been to the Jura for the first time, and he’d tasted with Stephane. Raj absolutely raved about the incredible terroir expression found in Steph’s single vineyard Chardonnays. Though I’d tasted through these wines on a number of occasions, both at the winery and in New York, with Raj’s enthusiasm in mind, I applied my mind and palate afresh.photo-18

Les Bruyeres features clay soil from the Triassic era. The nose was mossy, leafy, and spicy, with a prominent note of black pepper. Aromatically the wine was open and gorgeous, but the palate was somewhat closed down, though intensely structured and high acid. All of Steph’s single vineyard Chardonnays see essentially the same elevage: a quarter new, fine-grained wood, a mixture of oxygen and lees aging, and sulfur only at bottling. It’s a style of winemaking that – to my palate –truly brings the character of the vineyard to the forefront.photo-19

Les Graviers is a limestone vineyard, and sure enough the wine was markedly different than Les Bruyeres, with notes of citrus and lemon curd on the nose. Less exuberant aromatically, yet more open and with ever-so-slightly lower acidity on the palate, the wine was drinking beautifully, and finished with a mouth-coating smack of limestone (I’m a total sucker for that).

Sursis (meaning “reprieve”) comes from Chardonnay planted in Chateau Chalon. Apparently the original intention upon purchasing land in this famed cru of the Jura was to uproot and replant the plot to Savagnin. However Stephane and Benedicte chose to give these 35-year-old vines “a reprieve,” and they now have a wine that shows the character of Chardonnay on the Liassic-era clay of Chateau Chalon. We had recently opened a 2011 rendition of this wine at our gite, and it was an odd, funky bottle. The 2012 Sursis was clean, citrusy, and spicy with white grapefruit on the nose and glorious, soaring acidity on the palate.photo-20

2009 Clos de la Tour de Curon was an impressive bottle of wine, powerful, rich, mouth-coating, with the lemon curd notes of Graviers, but with more intensity, and an even longer finish. To my palate, this was the wine that most resembled a sensational white Burgundy, but I didn’t like to say so, because Stephane had already rebelled (and rightly so) against attempts to pit his wines against Burgundies. (To be honest, I think he was provoked by our journalist friend, who seemingly couldn’t resist doing so in spite of Stephane’s most sincere attempts to illustrate why and how the Jura is not like Burgundy.)

The next wine arrived at the table with no label, which presented a beautiful opportunity to taste blind. “What do you think, girls? Argile or calcaire?” Stephane turned to us expectantly. I nosed the wine. It was leafy and mossy, spicy and mellow, deeper in the glass and more resolved on the palate than the wines we’d been tasting, and clearly more mature. Looking back half a page in my notes, I found these descriptors to fit more closely with the profile of clay than the profile of limestone. “Argile!” Bingo. It was a 2006 Chardonnay from the degraded clay soils of the La Mailloche vineyard.photo-17

By this point, our journalist friend was almost certainly drunk. “These are just great Chardonnays!” To our consternation, he’d become absolutely obsessed with comparing Stephane’s wines to white Burgundies. He wanted to know if the wines would age “like” white Burgundies. By this, I wasn’t sure if he meant “as well as” or “in the same way as.” Stephane left the table, and I gave our journalist my impressions of the way white wines from the Jura age, telling him that their savory character comes to the forefront, that their incredible, bracing acidity remains, that they often develop an aroma I’m hard pressed to describe as anything other than “chicken stock.” Stephane returned with a dusty bottle in his hand. “Don’t talk about it; just enjoy it.” The wine offered notes of mocha and clove; it was cheesy and a bit lactic in character. Underneath these notes of soft spice, there was the telltale aroma of celery seed and a caldron of stock burbling on the stove. Mossy and broad on the palate, with a hint of preserved lemon and absolutely riveting acidity, it was a 1975 Chardonnay from Les Bruyeres and Les Graviers. It was a beautiful bottle, and for about a minute, it even silenced our dear journalist.

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to know a handful of European winemakers fairly personally, and I’ve on occasion observed that the majority seem to know very little about how the wine business works in American markets. (Why would they? It’s not their job.) Of course, the winemakers I’ve gotten to know are producing on quite a small scale in the grand scheme of things (I imagine corporate wineries are a bit more savvy), and several of them do understand a fair amount about the US market, but I maintain that most of these guys don’t have much of an idea of what happens to their wine once label approval is done, the trucker picks it up to take it to port, and the bill is paid. (This is part of the reason – for example – that some great winemakers stick it out with mediocre importers regardless of the sub-par representation they receive in the US.)

By extension, I began to wonder if my impressions of how wine is made were as theoretical and off base as my winemaker friends’ impressions of the process of importing, distributing, and selling wine in markets abroad. After all, there are so many complex links that bring the grape to the consumer’s glass, and one could hardly be expected to be intimately familiar with all of them. Still, I wanted first hand knowledge of how wine is made, and so the notion of going to the Jura to work in the vines and winery for a few weeks was born. (As an aside, lots of people here ask me why the heck I chose Arbois, and my response is generally that Jura wines are quite fashionable at the moment, that for me they’re a personal specialty, also that quite a few styles of wine are made here; I wanted to observe the decision making of an expert vigneron in a place I love.)

Like many in my particular circle, I believe that great wine is born in the vineyard through organic farming, working the soil, and essentially treating your vineyards as you’d treat your garden. Unfortunately since I’m here for harvest, I’m not seeing such crucial aspects of vineyard work as pruning, plowing, vine-training, etc … What I’ll say, however, is that having now spent a few days picking grapes, I’m incredibly happy I’m working for someone (Stephane “la vie est belle!” Tissot) who farms without chemicals. Harvesting brings you very close to the soil, the vines, the leaves, the grapes; there’s ample opportunity to cut yourself or someone across from you with the clippers, and frankly I wouldn’t want to do the job if it meant putting myself in close contact with herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, etc …

So far, I’ve found that picking grapes is fairly mindless, though physically strenuous work. I’d say the greatest lesson I’ve learned about picking is that it’s best to start early since the day’s recolte has to be dealt with before the folks in the winery can go home for the day. Everyone starts promptly at 7am; there’s a coffee break at 9, lunch at noon, and by 5pm the pickers are drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in the courtyard, while the winery workers are going until 7 or later dealing with the last tractor load of grapes to come in.

While you always harvest with a particular wine in mind, some wines require sorting in the vineyard, such as vin de paille, which requires perfect bunches of grapes, and you’ve got to make a selection. I was both touched and humbled when Steph’s father Andre came to give me a lesson on picking for vin de paille “touch them gently; turn the bunch before clipping it; look for rot; leave all but the best.” As always, it helps to take care and pride in the work.photo-15

Working in the cellar is certainly more interesting than harvesting grapes, though since I’m not an oenologist, I tend to hover waiting for the tasks that don’t require much skill or knowledge such as scrubbing the de-stemmer with Marc du Jura to disinfect it, or holding a fat hose in the tray under the press to siphon the juice into its proper tank. (Incidentally, the winery is full of tubes, hoses, buckets, and brushes.) A few days ago Tonio, Steph’s Portuguese right-hand man in the cellar, thought he’d give me the easy job of climbing into a fiberglass vessel to clean it. He realized his mistake when he couldn’t get me out and had to turn the tank upside down to allow my escape. (Everybody laughed a lot.)photo-9

I got the hang of being helpful relatively quickly when grapes started to come in to be pressed for Cremant. This is an exciting time. A masterful forklift driver named Florian lifts giant crates full of grapes from the tractor’s barge and dumps them into the press, which looks like a huge cylindrical tube with a funnel on top and a tray beneath. Two people stand on a platform behind the press guiding the bunches into its cavity and pressing them into the sides and corners of the cylinder. When the press starts to get full, the two people manning the press close it up and turn it a few times to make room for more. There are two presses at Steph’s winery. I don’t know the exact sizes, but one seems to accommodate about six crates of grapes, and the other about ten. Pressing takes three hours, and when time’s up, juice is in the tray beneath, and stems, seeds, and skins are in the cylinder. Here’s a moment to add some sulfur (or not), and sulfur additions, which are extremely minimal chez Tissot, are carefully documented on a dry erase board by the presses. The juice goes into a vessel (generally a massive stainless steal tank), and the stems, seeds, and skins are packed away to send to the distillery. Then you rinse everything, and do it again!photo-12

Of course many of the operations we’re performing are distinct to Steph’s winery. I’m reminded of this quite often while in conversation with my new friend Katherine, who is a third generation oenologist and business woman working for her family’s winery, Brown Brothers, in south Australia. Brown Brothers owns 480 hectares (Tissot has – I believe – just shy of 50). Though Katherine’s an oenologist, at this stage she works in marketing for her family. Last year she released a Moscato and Sauvignon Blanc blend, which is available in a handbag bag-in-box for easy toting. (Really. She showed me a picture.) She drank her first Jura wine about a week ago. We have lots to learn from each other, and I’m as amazed by her knowledge of winemaking processes as she is by my familiarity with Jura growers, vineyards, and terroirs. At any rate her explanation of how a particular thing might be done radically differently in her family’s winery, or in one of the various other places she’s worked in Bordeaux and Champagne, leads me to understand that we are in a very low tech, “natural,” and unique winery, despite its large size relative to other Jura Domaines.photo-11

Yesterday we began to make the cuvee called “DD” named after Andre “DD” Tissot. Grapes started to come in at around 3pm. We dished them out onto a sorting table and began to pick through them for grapes affected by the “picure lactique,” a nasty little flaw that comes along in wet vintages. Though the team had sorted quite well in the vines, Stephane wanted to do another sorting at the winery. From the sorting table, the grapes went to a hand de-stemmer, where bunches are rolled around until all the grapes have fallen into a crate below. Trust me when I say that if you’ve – say – given your fingers some little nicks while wielding the clippers, you’ll feel them as soon as you start sorting and de-stemming. The crate is periodically dosed with carbonic gas, and I had fun listening as Toto, an old winery buff who disapproves categorically of Poulsard vinified using carbonic maceration as he dosed the crate. “It’s not good the Poulsard made using carbonic – Trousseau, maybe – but never Poulsard. The only French cepages that should be made using carbonic are Syrah and Gamay Noir. That one we had at lunch (2013 Tissot Poulsard Sans Soufre) was not good.” As we’ve noted before, French people have intensely strong opinions, and often don’t harbor the concept of subjectivity. However in spite of his strong opinions, Toto is a gem; he remembers the weather in every single vintage since around 1970.photo-13

Once the crate was full, we covered it and Steph fork-lifted it over to its destination, a little old chamber on one side of the cellar. “Now! You’re really going to see the bordel!” We formed an assembly line and began to heave buckets full of whole berries and juice up to the top of an ancient foudre. All in all we made about five trips from the de-stemmer to the foudre, and at one point I had the pleasure of straddling the foudre and dumping the grapes in through a funnel, legs, arms, hands totally drenched in sweet Poulsard juice. “It’s archaic!” Steph shouted as he pushed the final few buckets of grapes into the foudre. More carbonic gas was injected into the barrel, and then it was sealed up for three to six months to ferment. What can I say? I first read about carbonic maceration about eight years ago, and it’s always had a technical ring. I’ve probably tasted hundreds of wines that are made along these lines (without – bien sur – the prehistoric foudre), and yet I was absolutely tickled to take part in my own demystification.photo-14

Tomorrow I think we’re going to make some Trousseau in Amphora, though maybe not. Steph doesn’t seem to plan more than a day in advance. It’s supposed to rain, and we may have the day off to sleep in past 5:45 am. We’ll see …

Pierre Overnoy has a great sense of humor, and he smiles all the time. Steph Tissot dropped me at his house in Pupillin on Saturday morning; they hugged and kissed each other’s bald heads, and Steph said something to the effect of “see, Pierre; I’ve brought you a pretty young woman,” to which Pierre replied “yes, with a bad old man!” There was much laughter. He’s a flirt, Pierre, and a good-natured gentleman. You never know what you’ll taste, and you never know what he’ll talk about, but his statements are pearls of wisdom, and you can fill your basket at your leisure.

We went into Pierre’s house, an ancient, low-ceilinged stone building that smells wonderful, of wood smoke and old things. There’s stuff everywhere: pictures and papers, the only evidence of technology a cordless phone that rang numerous times during our visit. There is nothing cold or modern about this domicile. It feels lived-in; it reminds me of houses I knew as a child including the one I grew up in. I could’ve stayed a long time in that house, basking in its warmth, clutter, and tranquility.

This was the second time I’d met Pierre, and it was again unclear to me whether he knows what a global hero he is amongst certain groups of wine lovers. At the same time, it would never have occurred to me to inquire; after all, there was more important business at hand. (Also, I’ve tried to chat with Jurassian heroes before about their renown in the US and, rather charmingly, they don’t care at all.)

When the group was assembled, Pierre poured us a 2012 Ploussard, bottled in September 2013. The 2012 vintage was small (though not as catastrophically tiny as 2013) and there was only one bottling of Ploussard. I mention this because Overnoy connoisseurs seem to like to distinguish between bottling dates. Pierre told us that he’d learned from Jules Chauvet that you’re supposed to sniff the glass within the first .08 seconds of the wine being poured, because the best wines are the ones that take the least time to open up aromatically. Well … I didn’t want to disagree, but having tasted a fair amount of excellent old Barolo that took eight hours to come around, I wasn’t quite in accordance. On the other hand, reduction is a huge issue with Jura wine, especially with Ploussard, and I do take it as a sign of quality when the wine is fresh as a daisy (and not smelling of farts) when it exists the bottle. The aromas were lovely right out of the gate, and even better after a few minutes.

With wine in our glasses, we began to chat about the date of harvest for the 2014 vintage. The harvest takes place 100 days after flowing, and the 2014 vintage will be not unlike 2012. The wine began to get spicy and herbal with the telltale pomegranate and orange rind notes of Ploussard. From five or six different plots of vines of different ages all in and around Pupillin, Pierre explained that there was a very nice plot on the road to Arbois, but they had to replant it. “How soon after pulling up the vines can you replant?” My good friend and Jura wine writer, Wink Lorch, asked Pierre. Answer: “you should wait 20 years!” The soil needs that long to decompose and rebuild itself, but in reality, five or six years is a reasonable amount of time to wait to replant. On the palate the wine was at once silky and crunchy, with the zesty flavor of fruits seeds. Ploussard is a (relatively) big, thin-skinned variety that packs a serious punch of mouth-watering acidity, and seems to absorb and give back the limestone and marl soils of the Jura. It’s the ultimate expression of Pupillin, and – even if not every bottle you drink is perfect – there’s no better rendition than Overnoy’s.

We spoke about cultural differences in the way tasters receive wine. Pierre recounted a story of a Japanese visitor who pointed out not the details of aroma and flavor, but rather the way the wine made him feel, and the sensations in his body as he swallowed the wine, alive and energetic. Clearly, Pierre liked this approach. Wine is nourishing, like food. (Consider the French word: “digeste!”) I can tell you that having watched – on the plane on the way to France – the documentary ‘Somm’ about Master Sommelier candidates, I reveled in Pierre’s intensely spiritual rather than fiercely analytic (and in my humble opinion totally soul-less and ridiculous) approach to wine tasting.

We came to one of Pierre’s controversial beliefs: namely that the alcoholic effects of wines without sulfur are less than the alcoholic effects of wines with sulfur. “Sure! That’s what we’ll tell the officer when he stops us on the road back to Arbois!” He recounted a tale of a friend who had been to lunch with about eight sulfur-free wines. Apparently Pierre’s crony was stopped on his way home, and when tested showed no evidence of alcohol whatsoever! If we doubted the veracity of this tale, we certainly didn’t say so.

Next we tasted 2009 Chardonnay. “This wine is just beginning to get really interesting” Wink pointed out. “All the Chardonnays,” Pierre responded “are better in 10-15 years.” For the uninitiated, it’s a more difficult wine than the 2012 Ploussard, though this is an apples-to-oranges comparison. The wine has a bit of funk and VA, but a glorious, soaring, high acid palate, and a lightly tannic finish. Changing constantly in the glass, its light oxidation and deep earthiness mean that it won’t be for everyone, but for lovers of the style (and perhaps with a roast chicken), it’s superb.

“How do you know whether it’s Chardonnay or Savagnin?” One taster inquired. It’s the color of the wax. White wax is for Chardo; yellow wax is for Savagnin; green wax is for a blend of the two. “Do you make the blend every year?” I asked Pierre. In fact they rarely make the blend, and only in vintages when the Chardonnay is a bit heavy. Savagnin brings acid and freshness. “Of course there’s a choice” Pierre pointed out “between blending at the harvest or in the winery.” When the grapes are co-fermented, it takes much less time for them to integrate; when they are blended after fermentation, they will take much longer to marry, and Pierre thinks that after some time, no matter the ratio of Chardonnay to Savagnin, the Chardo will assert itself more strongly.photo-3

Every wine at Overnoy (except for Vin Jaune, which we did not taste) is made topped up, or ouille, we were reminded in advance of tasting 2004 Savagnin out of a 500 ml bottle, which is the typical size for this wine. The wine was absolutely gorgeous, with aromas of cashew and hazelnut, ripe yellow orchard fruits, spice, Comte and chicken stock. Delicious oxidation on the nose and creamy texture on the palate were balanced by razor sharp, mouth-watering, acidity, length, and firm structure. I’d tasted this wine once before, the general policy each time our allocation arrived at Chambers Street having been “family hold back,” and this bottle was far better than the last I’d tried. I was pleasantly stunned; we all were. It was a beautiful showing.photo-6

Pierre told us that he was going to lead us through the chemical process of Vin Jaune-making with the aid of a cardboard box. He brought over a deconstructed cardboard box with an extensive diagram drawn on one side. As Wink wisely pointed out, it’s better to relay less information correctly than to relay more information incorrectly, so I’ll limit my recounting of this lecture on the development of the molecules Ethanol and Sotolon. (You can consult Wink’s book if you’d like to learn more.) Suffice it to say, there’s a major difference between Vin Jaune that matures in an above ground cellar, and Vin Jaune that matures in a below ground cellar. As any Sherry aficionado will confirm, climate conditions have a huge impact on the development of flor – or voile as they call it in the Jura. Overnoy prefers the below ground cellar, where the maturation process takes much longer (Overnoy’s Vin Jaune ages for up to 14 years; the current release is 1999). He believes that long, slow aging helps the wine develop finesse, more spice and curry aromas, versus the apply, nutty qualities of Vin Jaunes that age more quickly above ground. I’m already afraid I’ve said something wrong, so I’ll stop here. If you should be so lucky as to find a bottle of Overnoy Vin Jaune, you’ll have no shortage of drinkers willing to share it with you.

We spoke about natural winemaking. Pierre reiterated something I’ve known for years, namely that natural winemaking begins with absolutely impeccable vineyard work: living soils, and healthy yeast populations. Under these conditions, with a clean winery and temperature control, you can make very good chemical-free wine. Working without chemicals is not, he said “the birds are singing and we’re going on holiday.” Too many people think they can do nothing in the vineyard and make wine without chemicals, and the result is bad wine that is sullying the reputation of the category. Well, I may not share Pierre’s conviction regarding sulfur and the effects of alcohol, but I whole-heartedly agree with him on this fine point.

We loitered around the door and tasted some of Pierre’s legendary bread, which was absurdly good. We snapped a quick photo of the group. He invited me to come back on Thursday and make some bread with him, but alas for me the harvest is starting that day. The birds may be singing, but I’m not really on holiday …

I am not a cheesy person. Well. There’s the annual sob to Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’ while remembering that dude you thought you loved 15 years ago who now has several kids, dogs, and a house and garden somewhere outside of Nashville (for example). But in my family growing up, you got mocked for being cheesy, so I never learned the art. That said, if there were a day to be cheesy, it would have been Friday. It was my last day at Chambers Street Wines, the incredible wine store I’ve worked in for the past five years. In the grand scheme of things, five years is nothing, but in fact it’s a pretty long time. Lots of things have happened since I started at Chambers: relationships have come and gone, apartments changed, my dad died, my cat moved to Oakland, the list goes on. The people at Chambers are my family; the partners who own the store gave me the proverbial keys to the kingdom so that now I can go on and do something new, not necessarily something better, but something different.

 

It was a touching day, yesterday, largely because of the vast gray zone of humans consisting of friends, colleagues, customers, and industry movers and shakers, all united by the deep love of wine. Throughout the day, they stopped in to the shop; they sent me notes; they gave me shout outs on Twitter (which I hate) and Facebook (which I grudgingly confess I love). My friend Arnold wrote a post on his blog framing my departure as a colossal loss for TriBeCa. What a kind, generous overstatement. When I arrived at work, there was a bottle of this wine waiting for me on my desk:2008 Marguet Crayeres

 

It was a present from a long-time customer and friend in Atlanta. He wanted to say “thanks, and best of luck.” I almost cried. Really I did. The point is, I felt great. I felt confident, and I felt so completely taken care of by my community, a community I still can hardly believe exists, because in my heart of hearts I’m the nervous 20-something year old moving to the big city from rural North Carolina to pursue a lofty dream. That was almost seven years ago!

 

Throughout the day, I spoke to my boss and my colleagues as though nothing was different, as though I’d be back the next morning to bitch about clutter on the sales desk, to look at the internet orders and face the Champagne bottles. It’s funny how we do what we’re programed to do, always. If it was the last day of my life, I’d probably still start the morning with an egg on toast and a cup of coffee from Yirgacheffe.

 

It was kind of hard to work, but I like to think I tried. In fact I did the kind of work I’d largely lost sight of in my tenure as store manager: I helped the customers, and threw myself into it heart and soul, because, frankly, all the other crap is now someone else’s responsibility. I had about as much fun as I’ve ever had picking bottles of wine for people, talking them into Riffault Sancerre rather than the more standard issue Sauvignon Blanc in the fridge, telling stories about Benoit Lahaye’s donkeys and the magic Pascal and Evelyne Clairet of Domaine de la Tournelle worked in the 2012 vintage. On my last day of wine retail, it was pretty nice to reconnect with my first day of wine retail, eight years ago now, when I didn’t know what an Amarone was, and made flash cards to remember the difference between Vouvray and Pouilly-Fume.

 

We opened Champagne at about 6:30, which seemed like a reasonable time to begin getting cheesy. My coworker who goes by the handle “Gabbro Gabbro He-ey” made some incredible pimento cheese, which is a heavenly smash of shredded cheddar, mustard, mayo, smoked paprika, and pimentos. With pimento cheese, we had 2006 Pierre Peters “Les Chetillons,” a brilliantly saline, oyster shell-y, profound Champagne from Le Mesnil. My first bottle of this was last year, and it was the 2007 vintage, which was more forward and pilar-like. 2006 had begun to mellow, and was perfectly laser-like, dry, and balanced, the kind of Champagne that leaves a coating of chalk in the mouth.

photo

 

Next we opened 2009 Marguet Rose, a wine I’d been waiting for since April when I first tasted it at the Domaine. Marguet Rose is an unusual wine, and it will not be for everyone due to the natural style, by which I mean light oxidation, unusually iron-y minerality, and really full, bold, unique flavors and textures on the palate. I absolutely love this bottle of wine. It smells like rose petals, and the length on the palate is incredible, undoubtedly partly due to the fact that (unlike almost all Champagne) the finish isn’t clipped by sulfur. As it opened up, it came into its own, and I causally sipped it throughout the evening, each time marveling at its depth and complexity.

 

The in-store tasting for the evening was poured by an old school liquor business schnook named Jimmy Capone. He was pouring heftily) the Bruichladdich single malts, and everyone was getting wasted.  There was an incredible amount of loud, smoky camaraderie in the room, and I couldn’t remember the last time the shop felt so good.

 

It was fitting that we drank Champagne on my last evening at Chambers Street. It’s true that Champagne is celebratory, and should be drunk all the time and whenever possible (according to the Joe Beef cookbook, because “life is short, hard, and can often suck”), but more importantly (at least for me) because the row of Champagne bottles you see as you walk in the door of the shop is like my child and my legacy. I really, really love Champagne; it’s been my pet project for years now to find the best Champagnes according to a certain style: made by growers who are farming organically, wines made with little manipulation, to put on the shelf at Chambers. It’s one of my few accomplishments in life, the Champagne section, and when I look at those bottles, I’m proud. When I ponder my relationships in Champagne, I’m proud; dusting and facing the Champagne bottles gives me pleasure. For sure it’s going to be hard turning it over to someone else, but I have to, and those who come after me will undoubtedly do a fabulous job.  photo-2

 

 

When Susannah and I got back to our place, we opened this bottle from Pascal Doquet in Vertus. Pascal is one of the nicest people I have ever met, and he’s coming to New York in October; look out for a wine dinner on October 20th at Racines, featuring the better part of Pascal’s lineup. This wine provided an interesting contrast to the Chetillons from Pierre Peters. It’s a softer wine, with prettier, creamier notes, and less of the intense, earthy mineral core the Chetillons. That said, the finish was very long and delivered a certain chalkiness that made a lovely counterpart to the creaminess of the palate. For me the wine showed the difference between Mesnil and Vertus, the Doquet offering a feminine counterpart to the muscular Chetillons. Doquet’s wines are classic for my palate, which leans toward the avant-garde in Champagne, but I love the wines; they are warm and comforting, but also nervy, like the man. I could have imagined this wine coexisting with a late night Mariah Carey retrospective, for which something like Ulysses Collin would be totally inappropriate. There’s nothing wrong with getting cheesy every once in awhile.

 

All in all, it was a special day for me, full of goodwill toward my fellow man, full of pride, and that strange blend of happiness, sadness, and nostalgia that we all know well from our most poignant moments in life. A huge thank you for the kind words, and for supporting me as I get cheesy and drink Champagne.