“I’m waiting for some Japanese” Fabrice told me when I arrived in Mathenay at the winery (late, of course). I kissed Fabrice, patted the cat, scratched the old dog behind the ears. “They said they were coming at noon, then two, then four, now it’s five and they still aren’t here. They’re taking the train from Lons.” This made absolutely no sense to me. Lons-le-Saunier is a small city about an hour south by car. That anyone would spend an entire day waiting for a train from Lons to Arbois boggled the mind, but I immediately felt better about my own 1.5 hour tardiness for our meeting. Taking in this familiar room, I label-checked an array of dead soldiers making a frieze around the upper reaches, and gawked at two jeroboams of Chartreuse in yellow and green (as-yet-unopened). A magazine photo of a naked women with gigantic breasts and washboard flat abs rested against Fabrice’s computer. I imagined her giving him inspiration as he waded through customs paperwork. The phone rang. It was Fabrice’s tardy Japanese. He tried to put me on the phone, but more confusion ensued. “They won’t be here for at least another hour. Let’s go look at the vines?” I loaded into the passenger’s side, notebook in hand.
Looking at vineyards (on voit les vignes?) is a crucial aspect of what we do in the wine trade, and when a winemaker asks if you want do it, the answer should always be “yes.” Most of the magic happens in the vines. It’s here that we see what kind of farming the vigneron prefers (organic, biodynamic, herbicide free, plowed with tractor, plowed with horse, grass between the rows, no grass between the rows, pragmatic use of chemicals here and there when necessary, etc … there are a multitude of legitimate choices, and some illegitimate ones, such as loading the ground up with chemicals to make the work easier. When a vineyard is worked this way, there is no life between the rows, and vines stick out from dead earth like gnarled shoots on the face of the moon. If — while looking at a chemically farmed vineyard — you can’t imagine good wine being produced from it, that’s because good wine is rarely made from chemically farmed vineyards. Healthy soil makes healthy grapes, which make delicious wine.)
It’s in the vines that we see what kind of pruning the vigneron prefers: Chablis, Cordon du Royat, one cane, two canes, pergola, again a multitude of choices, all producing a calculated effect. It’s in the vines that we see the exposition and the soil type, the overall vibe of the vineyard, which (yes believe it or not) comes through in the wine provided the vigneron isn’t fucking it up in the cellar. All this to say that an important part of the job is bumping around in dirty farm vehicles, making small talk, and stopping here and there to jump out and survey the ground and the plants.
It’s in the vines that we see the damage done by frost and vine diseases, and to be honest, things were pretty bleak in the vines in Arbois that day. My first note from the visit says “3 hectares “foutu” (“fucked”). Late spring frosts burn the buds, and so rather than tiny green shoots along the branch, you see browned nubs where the bud once was (if I were really worth a shit, I’d have snapped a photo, but I’m terrible at photos, and prefer to paint the picture with words). Fabrice will be lucky if he gets 40% of a normal crop in 2017. He makes these early days calculations by counting the number of burnt buds versus the number of healthy ones along a branch. Everything between Arbois and Pupillin (Gaudrettes for example) was frost damaged to the extent there was hardly a green shoot to be found. It was the worst I saw the entire trip. But on a positive note, the Saint Pierre vineyard is higher up, on the other side of Arbois, and looked to be in pretty good shape. Frost descends the slope, and so upper slope parcels are generally less touched than lower slope ones.
We returned to the cellar to taste — or rather to drink. It was apéro hour, and Fabrice has a dynamite slicer that allows him to make wafer thin shavings of saussiçon to snack on. Vegetarianism was out the window, at least for the evening. It was interesting to taste the 2015 Chardonnays Château Renard and Chapon next to each other. The Renard comes from more limestone heavy soils, versus marl for the Chapon. The Renard is made in tank, 12 months sur lie. The Chapon is made in barrel (both fermentation and élèvage). There’s more minerality and tension in the Chapon, but lots of immediate pleasure in the Renard, like a Maconnais wine with more cut.
Fabrice and his lady friend Yannick took me to dinner at a classic French restaurant called “Le Bistronome”. I’d been there once before, and the setting brought back memories of a conversation I’d had about natural wine in the Jura. I believe that to be truly invested in wines of the Jura, one must be at least interested in and open to natural wine. Organic farming and natural winemaking (by which I mean minimal intervention in the vines and cellar) are a mindset and a way of life here. Wink Lorch will have to stop me if I’m wrong, but I have the impression that chemical farming and cellar spoofilation never really became the norm here as they did in other places. I find the local vignerons proud of this fact, proud of their respect for the earth and its bounty, engaged in conversation with one another about how best to let the wine make itself. It’s one thing to express (as I often do) a preference for the traditional styles of the region: sous voile whites and crunchy, crystaline, high-toned reds, but to be closed off to natural wine is to be closed off to the Jura.