Friday night there was a young guy busking in the Metropolitan stop on the G line. He was by far the best subway musician I’ve ever listened to — a viola and a small keyboard on which he’d recorded an electronic track that provided the background. The melodies were baroque in their detail and mathematic crispness, but also romantic in their soaring, emotional bent; the overall effect reminded me of atmospheric, instrumental Radiohead circa “Ok Computer,” but also of Norwegian producer and musician Lindstrøm. His viola playing was virtuosic, his recorded backdrops creative. Virtually every person on both sides of the platform was transfixed. No one had headphones on, hardly anyone was composing a text or an email. The whole station resonated with this music. At the end of one piece, a tentative clap rang out, then another and another and another until the station was filled with applause. I’ve never experienced anything like it …
There’s no real connection to wine here, except that — although it’s rare — wine occasionally produces the same effect: chills down the spine, a shiver, and the obliteration of all other thought save the wine and its thought-provoking delivery of pleasure. I had these sensations as I drank Tissot’s 2007 Chateau-Chalon, which prompted the honest admission that I have a raging voile addiction.
Like most people, when I started drinking wine from the Jura, I preferred the reds, which are admittedly easier to stomach, also less expensive. When I drank the whites, I preferred them topped up, and I was a big fan of the ouillé Savagnin trend. I now feel completely the opposite. I like the reds; I really like topped up “Burgundian” Chardonnay from great producers, but I crave sous voile Savagnin with a frightening intensity. I also like sherry quite a bit, but I truly believe that Fino and Manzanilla don’t stack up well against yellow wine. Of course save the sherries of Equipo Navazos, sherry is a fraction of the price of yellow wine, and often strikes a similar chord, while not actually tasting the same. Let’s just say: if you have the two next to each other, expect the yellow wine to deliver more nuanced aromas and finer depth of fruit on the palate than the sherry. To me sherry tastes quite rustic next to Vin Jaune.
My raging voile addiction was born in the Jura. I didn’t realize it was happening, but many nights there were open bottles of Vin Jaune and Chateau-Chalon in our apartment, which we drank slowly and over the course of a week (okay let’s be honest: a few days), noting how oxygen rounded the wine’s edges and softened its fruit. Yellow wine was all around me, and I came to heavily associate its distinct aromas and flavors with the region. Yellow wines have a mustardy, mossy, dusty tang that quite simply smells like cellars in the Jura, such that I experience the most tangible nostalgia and connection to the place when I’m drinking yellow wine. But it’s not just memory and nostalgia, it’s genuine love of the wines (or addiction).
At our Tue Chat, the raucous party that follows every harvest (though only called “Tue Chat” in the Jura), there was more yellow wine open than I’ve sold in my entire career in the wine business. It was incredible. This is a picture of four of five members of the Tissot nuclear family opening Vin Jaune and Chateau-Chalon. For probably ten minutes, all they did was pop wax covered corks.
The young lady in the background is Mélodie Tissot, a precocious and bright little person who was regularly included in the tasting process. The elder is Americk; at seventeen, he’s better at cleaving open wax topped bottles than most people in New York. I asked Stef if we’d be drinking anything but yellow wine, and he said something like “oh you know … at the Tue Chat we drink Vin Jaune!” Not only did I not complain, I proceeded to drink my weight in yellow wine.
At one point, yellow wines from the Jura were basically all the same to me. They smelled like voile, were acidic, dense, nutty, and often showed their alcohol in a way I didn’t find especially pleasant. Drinking Tissot’s yellow wines, and before Tissot’s Gahier’s, left me with the notion that some Vins Jaunes are easier drinking, more fruit-forward than others. This in turn raised all sorts of nerdy questions about why that might be: the process, how much actual soil expression is possible in yellow wine, how much the cellar conditions impact there resultant wine, etc …
I’ll put it out there in advance that I’m not going to be solving any mysteries, but I do have some thoughts. In discussion chez Overnoy was the choice to leave Vin Jaune barrels in an above or below ground cellar. Some producers prefer the temperature fluctuations of an above ground cellar, which broaden the palate, soften the edges, and give the wine more apply and nutty qualities. Above ground cellars encourage the development of ethanol. In below ground cellars, voile takes far longer to develop, and the chemical compound Sotolon is more prevalent. Yellow wine from below ground cellars has more curry spice and finesse. Tissot’s yellow wines are made above ground, Overnoy’s below ground.
My boss Guilhaume recently made the point that there’s a connection between how much time it takes for the voile to develop, and how oxidative the resultant wine will be. Yellow wine is the product of a unique combination of oxidative and reductive processes. Savagnin juice goes into barrel; it hangs out until voile develops (this can take up to a few months), either with a small amount of ullage, or the barrel completely full. During the period between the juice going in, and the voile developing, the wine is oxidizing; the development of voile sees the beginning of the wine’s reductive phase as the layer of yeast keeps oxygen at bay. How much more oxidative are yellow wines with a slow developing voile versus yellow wines with a quick developing voile, and is there a connection to other vineyard and cellar practices? For example, if you work without chemicals in your winery, without sulfur, will your voile develop more quickly, and consequently will your wine be less oxidative? Or, if you inoculate for the first fermentation, will your voile develop more slowly, and your wine be more oxidative? As stated, I don’t have the answer, but I’m curious … and I think it’s an interesting conversation if you’re a geek and you love these wines.
The question of terroir expression in yellow wine is another beast entirely. To be honest, the thought of terroir and voile first entered my brain in connection with sherry, because I find my favorite Finos and Manzanillas to be deeply chalky. I knew that yellow wine from Chateau-Chalon presented itself differently than yellow wine from Arbois, and from southern Jura, but I didn’t know why, and I found the differences to be subtle and not particularly nuanced. This was before we tasted a lineup of single-terroir Vin Jaunes from Tissot.
Even though Stef is a master of Burgundian style Jura wine, he harbors an absolute conviction that vineyards sites impact the taste of yellow wine, even after years of sous voile aging. Left to right: En Spois is my favorite Tissot Jaune just to drink. It’s from an east facing site, and it’s a fruit-forward, aperitif style Jaune with lots of apple and mirabelle plum on the palate. If you like to have a little Manzanilla at apero hour, try this as an alternative. It’s delicious. La Vasée is the saltiest and most complex of these wines, with an Islay whisky-like smokiness, and an uncanny ability to pair well with oysters. This is a meditative wine … you’ll want to make it a moment when you sit down with a glass of La Vasée. Les Bruyères, from clay soils, is delicate and spicy, with a long, nutty finish. And Chateau-Chalon is of course slightly riper, with the full, sun-drenched, almost bombastic yellow fruit of Chateau-Chalon. It’s a very smooth, seamless wine, immediately pleasurable, mouth-filling and rich, integrated and more than the sum of its parts. (Tasting notes read “mmmmmmmm.”)
In order to feed this burgeoning addiction, I bought a bottle of Vin Jaune from Pont de Breux, the Domaine outside of Salins-les-Bains that Chambers Street is direct importing. This Vin Jaune is happily about 33% less expensive than most other yellow wines, and is excellent in its own right.
I’m trying to find out whether Pont de Breux’s Jaune is made in above or below ground cellars. It’ll be interesting to see which piece of information I gather more quickly, the identity of my viola-playing G train busker, or the location of Jean-Charles Maire’s Vin Jaune cellar relative to ground level. I’m betting they’re both going to be tough. The greater Arbois area in general prefers above ground, so that’s my guess. The wine doesn’t have the sexy yellow fruit of Tissot’s Chalon or En Spois, rather it has a saline and smoky nose that I imagine speaks to the salty terroir of Salins les Bains. There’s a walnut skin nuttiness to the wine, deep and resonant acidity, granny smith apple and preserved lemon. I enjoyed it in its similarity as well as its contrast to Tissot; it’s more voile-forward to Tissot’s fruit-forward. I went back and begged David Lillie for another.
It’s worth addressing yellow wine’s price tag, if only briefly. These wines are not cheap, and on some level the price tag certainly deters people from drinking them regularly, and perhaps trying them to begin with. For an experience that is yellow wine-like, there’s always sous voile Savagnin (and Chardonnay for that matter) that hasn’t spent the requisite six + years aging under surface yeast. These wines are often great, especially when they are made by Macle, Puffeney, Montbourgeau, the list goes on … in fact Pont de Breux makes a sensational one as well. However, these wines are not quite the same as true yellow wines. While most people can’t afford to make yellow wine drinking a daily experience, it’s well worth it for a special treat. That’s all I wanted to say … drink Vin Jaune! And if you need help picking one, send me a note and I’ll be happy to advise you … then invite me over to drink it; I’ll bring the Comte!