Sophie's Glass

In the grand scheme of Jurassian vignerons, Jean-François Ganevat is relatively well-known. He may not have attained the cult level fame (and correlative bottle prices) of Pierre Overnoy, but his wines are highly respected and praised in New York, in Paris, in the Jura (where the line “Demain on va chez Fan-fan “ is met with “Ahhh Fan-fan! Il est super. Il est formidable.” ), undoubtedly in the far east, another thriving market for French natural wine, just to name a few. By all accounts, Fan-fan has made it.

I had conjured up a mental picture of this man before going to see him based on the press, his wines, and photos: brainy (he has an unusual head shape- ideal storage space for a slightly larger than average brain), maybe a touch insolent, brilliant. I was warned by several people to bring a loaf of bread to the tasting because Fan-fan makes *a lot* of different wines given that he farms only six hectares, which is about the maximum for a one man, chemical-free show in the Jura. An integral part of the myth of this man is that he is a specialist in the micro-terroirs of his region, as well as its ancient grape varieties on their way to extinction. An instance of this is “J’En Veux,” a wine that is made from 17 (if you buy it in France) or 7 (if you buy it in New York) “lost” old varieties cultivated on a tiny plot of land behind Fan-fan’s house. He takes the utmost care with this wine, de-stemming every grape individually with a pair of scissors. (Did I mention I also expected him to be fully insane?) Ganevat farms biodynamically and bottles most of his wines without any sulfur at all. The wines are incredibly clean and flawlessly executed. It’s very difficult to attain this level of purity working without sulfur. (The man has skills.)

Fan-fan lives in a miniscule sub-hamlet called “La Combe,” of an already quite small hamlet: Rotalier, in the southern part of the Jura. Keep in mind that Arbois, Arlay, Poligy, Château-Chalon, Étoile , etc… are all within about an hour’s drive of one another, with Arbois in the north and Étoile in the south. Rotalier is yet another hour south of Étoile , on the highway nonetheless, meaning that this is quite different terroir than the terroir expressed by Puffeney’s fabulous Trousseau, for example. As Fan-fan pointed out, he’s as close to Burgundy as he is to Arbois. The climate is warmer; vines that were beginning to flower in Pupillin had finished flowering in La Combe. One views these wines through an ever so slightly different lens, a lens that takes into account that Fan-fan spent ten years working for Jean-Marc Morey in the Côtes-du-Beaune (incidentally one of my favorite Burgundy Domaines of all time). On some level, and despite that this man comes from a 14th century Jurassian family, Fan-fan’s wines are very Burgundian.

At first glance, Fan-fan is a big, charming, boisterous country Frenchman. He smokes Marlboros inside his house, doesn’t know how to use a computer, has posters of race cars and bikes on the walls of his tasting room, won’t travel to New York because he’s afraid to fly, etc… Confident to a point that borders on cocky, one would expect this person to get it right, always; in other words, not ever to get it wrong. Based on his wines, he seems to have the perfect right to this confidence. At the same time, he has such a marked sense of humor and such a genuine joi de vivre, that he’s intensely likeable.

Our tasting began with beer that Fan-fan makes: a crisp, yeasty beer, perfect for a hot day, which it was. We were in the cellar with several of Ganevat’s laborers, dreadlocked hippies who spend several months at a time working for one grower before moving on to the next. As they drank their post-work beer, they passed what looked like a children’s book back and forth between them. Upon closer inspection, this colorful, illustrated pamphlet turned out to be a handbook giving instruction in biodynamic farming. As nice as it was to be catching a buzz in the cool cellar with Fan-fan’s custom designed de-stemmer in the background, I was ready to get on with our tasting.

Our first stop was the red wines out of barrel. These are wines that are immediate and easy to love. Fan-fan’s 2010 Poulsard “l’Enfant Terrible” was a gleaming ruby and rife with the kind of tangy red fruit flavors that make you feel as though you’re drinking fermented fruit rather than wine. Incidentally, I don’t find this kind of vivacity and sense of one-step-away-from-the-fruit in wines that are sulfured. This quality, though it is by no means present in all un-sulfured wines, is unique to them. Next came a Pinot Noir labeled “En Brillat Jus de Presse” (All Fan-fan’s barrels are marked with a masking tape and marker tag with the vintage and wine name). This wine, he told us, came from old vines. This was a pale, fresh Pinot Noir that made a nice contrast to the “Cuvée Jullien,” which comes from younger vines and is ever-so-slightly juicier in character. We also tasted Fan-fan’s Trousseau, “Plein Sud,” (a French expression meaning “full south” and normally indicating that the vines were grown at a full southern exposition), but my tasting note just reads “awesome.” It’s my impression that Fan-fan’s Trousseau is normally under-appreciated within the lineup of his red wines. Newcomers to the world of Jura fall for the seductive light-heartedness of the Poulsard; old school Jura and Burgundy heads love the Pinot, which has been known to taste very much like a Volnay, but the Trousseau gets left behind. My theory is that Trousseau may be an inferior grape variety to Pinot and Poulsard… With the exception of the exceptional Trousseau village of Montigny-les-Arsures, where Puffeney and Gahier make old vine, single vineyard Trousseau with amazing results, this grape seems to have neither the distinction of Poulsard nor the nobility of Pinot Noir. But I’d be happy to be wrong about this.

Then we embarked on a veritable cellar-hop (Fan-fan’s wines spend their élevage in a maze of small cellars, some ancient and gnarly, some squeaky clean and modern) that left my mouth ravaged from tasting and my mind reeling from the notion that one man could make so many great wines. The first room yielded a fresh, minerally 2010 Savagnin from three different terroirs, raised in a massive 200-year-old barrel, as well as Fan-fan’s 2009 Chardonnay “Cuvée Florine,” from vines planted in 1986 on limestone soil. Just this incredibly pretty “basic” wine from Ganevat was a joy to drink with an appealing roundness off-setting its sturdy spine of acid and mineral. Next was the wine of the tasting for me: 2009 Melon-Queue-Rouge “Cuvée Margarite.” Only bottled in magnums, the wine comes from vines planted in 1900 and has mind-bending intensity. My impression that Fan-fan’s white wines, especially the old vine whites, are like pillars of concentrated, sappy, mineral-laden stuff, was confirmed in his cellar. The reds are classically ethereal, but the whites are impressive, rich, and seem as though they would age well. “Cuvée Margarite” was the apotheosis of this; the only fault I could find with this wine was that it would take days to drink a magnum because the sheer sappy character would make me exhausted after a single glass. (Fortunately these wines improve in the fridge for days and are seemingly immune to oxidation.)

After the Melon, I truly began to see what a master of micro-terroir Fan-fan really is. 2010 Chardonnay “En Brillat,” from schist soil, had a totally different mineral core than 2010 Chardonnay “Les Vignes” from red clay and gravel. Both sets of vines were planted in 1965 giving a similar core of dense fruit off-set by laser-like acid; the distinguishing factor between these wines was their minerality. 2009 Chardonnay “Les Grandes Teppes,” from some of Fan-fan’s oldest vines, (planted in 1919) had an incredible mid-palate and very long finish. We dabbled in Fan-fan’s blue marl-y soiled Chardonnays, tasting several cuvées from vines of various ages. These wines, labeled “Les Chalasses Marne Bleu” spoke of their varietal character more loudly than some of Fan-fan’s other wines, wines that whispered their grape but screamed their place of origin: 2009 “Chalasses” from vines planted in 1930 was incredibly pretty, offering white flowers and apples supported by a spine of electric acidity. As is generally the case when meeting someone for the first time and having a language barrier to overcome, the tenseness of the first hour of tasting mellowed into general ease. Fan-fan was used to us and our ill-worded questions about vine age, barrel age, exposition, etc. and answered us tolerantly and more slowly than he had at first, having discovered that we didn’t actually speak French. The almost cartoon-ish quality to Fan-fan’s smile and manner was complemented by his sleek, grey sidekick, Schiste, a Weimaraner who accompanied him everywhere.

We moved on to Savagnin, the thick skinned, high-acid berry that makes the most long-lived wines from the Jura. Fan-fan’s young vine Savagnin from un-grafted vines planted close to his house truly tasted of Savagnin: ripping acidity and a sense of “skinniness” for lack of a better word. Without actually being tannic, the wine had the flavor of grape skins. ’09 Savagnin “Sous la Roche” hailed from a vineyard called “Champs Bernard,” six kilometers from La Combe. This wine, Fan-fan informed us, was made from the Savagnin Vert strain of the variety. (Little did I know there were multiple strains…) The wine had a hint of woodiness that mingled nicely with its quince and citrus core. ’09 Savagnin “En Brillat,” from a high altitude parcel (400 meters) of clay and limestone soil was very different with a crisper, more chiseled character. Finally, ’09 Savagnin “Chalasses de la Marne Bleu” from vines of Savagnin Vert planted in 1930 was a regal wine that dazzled me with its preserved lemon and petrol notes. The wine was extremely complex, even tannic. We concluded the tasting with Fan-fan’s ’02 Vin Jaune, which was as great as one would expect. For this wine, he only uses Savagnin Vert, and the wine had the chicken stock, bouillon quality I have come to love in slightly evolved bottles of Overnoy. The flavors were well delineated with umami notes fading into rich fruit fading into an acidic and even tannic finish. Though Fan-fan seems to gravitate toward ouillé winemaking, his use of the voile was masterful.

Then we were back where we started in the tasting room, Fan-fan leaning on the bar chatting merrily away, opening bottles of Crémant, inviting us to taste his “Selection des Grains Nobles,” a field blend featuring the same grapes as “J’En Veux.” Harvested in the first week of December, the wine contained 300 grams of sugar and was, quite honestly, painful to taste with my mouth, gums, and teeth reeling from acidity. We were joined by several Japanese visitors, a local Renault mechanic who works on Fan-fan’s car in exchange for wine, Fan-fan’s girlfriend, a neighbor and his son. It had reached the hour at which country French people stop working and sit down for une petite verre ( a little glass) of something. And frankly, what better place to stop for a little tipple at the end of the day than the cellar at Domaine Ganevat, where the conversation, which could turn to racing as quickly as it could to biodynamic farming , would always be amusing, and where the drink is positively guaranteed to be top notch?