As you may know, dear reader, I just came back from France, where I spent six days visiting winemakers in Champagne. This was the second time I had been to Champagne and my first visit was just a day and a half. There will be more on Champagne, but I need to process the barrage of information I took in over a short period of time and in a foreign language. At the end of my six days in Champagne, I loaded my bag – heavy with Champagne samples – into my rental car, and headed for the Jura.
It’s about three and a half hours from Champagne to Poligny. This was the third time I’d been to the Jura and it felt fantastic to be back. A smile spread across my face as I sped by the brown highway sign: “Vous êtes dans la Région du Jura” or it might welcome the driver to Franche-Comté; I don’t remember the exact wording. I pondered this particular joy as I hummed along with horrendous club hits issuing forth from the ubiquitous French radio station, Skyrock. I likened the feeling to returning to the Adirondacks, where I went every summer with my parents as a kid, a twinge of familiarity heightening the happiness.
Within minutes of having de-bagged at Ludwig and Nathalie’s (these are the lovely people behind Domaine les Chais de Vieux Bourg), I was back in the car with Ludwig. He wanted to take me to see his vineyards. First we drove up and up to the top of a plateau between Poligny and Château-Chalon. At the top of the plateau, there was green all around us and an icy wind from the north blew steadily. Ludwig told me that the cool, dry wind is a savior for growers who don’t want to use chemicals to fight rot. We stopped at an overlook and stared into the depths, a straight drop down to a tiny cluster of very old houses beneath. As we draw similarities between Burgundy and the Jura, it’s important to note that these breath-taking geological formations that display three distinct types of soil do not occur in Burgundy. It’s true that both regions are characterized by Jurassic limestone soil, but the Jura is more drastic, more marginal. “This is where I come to forage for mushrooms. We will have some with dinner tonight,” said Ludwig as we climbed back into the car.
Our next stop was Château-Chalon, where Ludwig purchased .35 hectares of land last year. I did not bring my camera with me on this vital excursion, so I will have to try to make words do justice to the landscape. Château-Chalon, the village, perches at the top of a steep, south-facing ravine, planted entirely to vines, many of the plots terraced because they are too steep to be worked otherwise. For me, places like this give rise to one specific thought: ‘God came down and said “let’s put vines here.”’ The limestone heavy vineyards are peppered with blue marl and little flat stones like the gallets of Châteauneuf-du-Pape that reflect heat back to the vines at night. We tramped around on Ludwig’s plot, me with my mouth agape, marveling at the incredible beauty of it all, Ludwig telling me what a pain in the ass it had been to remove all the large stones last spring in order to plant vines.
Next we went to see the vineyard that gives us Ludwig’s Chardonnay “Sous les Cerisiers,” “BB1,” a blend of Savagnin and Chardonnay, Poulsard, and Savagnin Noir. Close to Étoile, Château-Chalon, and Arlay, all, it’s a small, basically co-planted vineyard with ancient, calcareous oyster shells in the soil. (I brought home two in my suitcase, but Ludwig confessed that the best calcareous oysters had been snapped up by visiting Japanese clients the week before. Drat.) Ludwig bought the vineyard from an older gentleman looking to retire, who had so much antipathy toward his neighbors that he preferred to sell the vineyard to a foreigner. There have been many fortunate stories in Ludwig’s career as a vigneron, including the circumstances that brought him his tiny piece of Château-Chalon: again, a gentleman looking to sell gave Ludwig a ridiculously low price on the land telling him “I can see that you need to make Château-Chalon.”
This tale of Ludwig’s acquisition of a piece of Château-Chalon brings me to the fact that I really like the people of the Jura. In my (albeit limited) experience, Jurassians are rarely motivated by either money or fame; they live in a beautiful place, capable of yielding remarkable wines; they have un-spoofilated lives; they sell the majority of their production locally; for the most part they don’t care whether their bottles are sold in fancy shops and restaurants; they are often really nice, generous people. In short, they are the antithesis of New Yorkers. And, in fact, I have never spent time in a place as diametrically opposed to New York as the Jura. Now, this is a clear oversimplification, a case of “the Poulsard is always fresher on the other side of the pond,” as well as a window into my feelings about New York. I’m reconciled to New York, but there must be contrast and the Jura as contrast is pretty unparalleled.
I also found the Jura to be a welcome contrast to Champagne, where the evidence of money is all around and it must be a colossal battle for a vigneron to choose making good wine over the often more lucrative alternative: selling grapes to a négociant. Furthermore, and growers in Champagne will tell you this, the soil in Champagne is dead from decades of treatment with herbicides, fertilizers, systemic antibiotic sprays, roundup, etc…, meaning that the region is kind of an agricultural bummer, even though the wines it yeilds are some of my favorites on the planet. Where Champagne is somewhat bleak and desolate, the Jura is green, vibrant, very much alive, full of growers with a deep regard for the earth beneath them and the relationship between its health and the creation of good wine. I digress.
The sun had set chez Bindernagel and Ludwig and I headed to the cellar, a funny, vast old cellar with room for way more wine than Ludwig makes at this point. Often he only harvests about 25 hectoliters/hectare. With a little over two hectares, this makes the production microscopic. We tasted 2010 wines out of barrel. The Poulsard was ethereally light, gleaming orange-y red, tangy, and full of the acidity found in sour plums, blood oranges, and pomegranates. The Savagnin Noir was much richer and darker, very savory, and full of crushed raspberries and flowers on the palate. The wines were compelling, each in its own way. “BB1” was a bit quiet out of the barrel. It was dark and cold and the wine was hard to read.
With dinner we tasted the current releases of Ludwig’s wines out of bottle. We ate shaved fennel dressed in citrus juice and olive oil, garnished with fennel fronds. We tried 2009 “BB1” and 2009 “Sous les Cerisiers.” Both had only been in bottle for a week and were shocked from the turbulence of the bottling process. Both also showed the characteristic lack of acidity of the vintage, but I find one of the most appealing aspects of Ludwig’s wines to be their transparency to vintage. “Cerisiers” was more open than “BB1,” but “BB1” had the stuffing of a good wine lurking below the surface; it would emerge on day two. Ludwig added a touch more sulfur than he usually does at bottling: 2 grams. The reason, he told me, was that it had been remarkably cold and he needed the stability of an extra gram of sulfur to get the wine into bottle successfully in the cold. I would like to make further inquiries on this subject.
We moved on to Ludwig’s Étoile, which we will never see in the states because the demand in France is high and the production is tiny. He owns a third of a hectare in Étoile, a “Grand Cru” of the Jura with only about 15 or so vignerons. This shell-y, lightly oxidative yet chiseled Chardonnay was delicious alongside trout topped with a quenelle of whipped cream, wasabi, and green sesame seeds. Nathalie’s food is experimental yet traditional. She makes heavenly gougères and about twenty types of jam that are served at breakfast. She also works in the vineyards, doing much of the vine training herself. Stop me if I’m painting too idyllic a portrait of life chez Bindernagel.
Ludwig had prepared the entrée: roast chicken with trumpet mushrooms in cream, potatoes (he’s German; there must always be potatoes at the table), and delicately steamed root vegetables. We drank 2009 Savagnin Noir and Poulsard, generally rich because of the vintage, but good partners for the rich food in front of us. Afterward an array of cheese was presented, Comté for the 2004 Vin Jaune, an easy-going rendition of the regional specialty, and blue cheese for the Macvin. Ludwig and Nathalie wanted me to try the Vin Jaune with almond cookies, essentially pulverized nuts with a touch of sugar held together by egg whites. Always anxious to find a new harmony between food and wine, a lively debate ensued between Ludwig and Nathalie about the merits of various sweets with Vin Jaune. (I prefer cheese.) Before I knew it, we were discussing Nature versus Nurture over sips of Gentian, a bracing digestive, and – let me tell you – if you haven’t argued “Nature V. Nurture” in a foreign language at the end of a long meal, you haven’t lived.
I’m obliged to keep many of the details of the following day’s adventure in Franche-Comté to myself for the moment. Suffice it to say, I had the good fortune to see several growers of whom I am quite fond: Alice and Charles of Domaine l’Octavin, whose wines seem to become more and more delicious with each passing vintage, Stéphane Tissot, whose 2011 Poulsards are to die for, Fan-fan Ganevat, one of the region’s stars, Jean-François Bourdy, whose family has been making Château-Chalon since the 16th Century. Then, and for this I must thank Stéphane Tissot, who made it a point to introduce me, I met Pierre Overnoy. Words fail me here. His effect on me was somewhat like Jacques Puffeney’s several years ago: that of provoking a tear of overwhelmed happiness. I told him that I use his interviews to practice my French. It was as much as I could muster.
In the early evening, I joined two new friends for a stroll in the village of Baume-les-Messieurs, a town in which everything is quaint and pretty, from the old Abbey to the babbling brook to the cat sunning herself on a rock staircase. We strolled and chatted and took pictures and sometimes just walked in reflective silence, individually thankful for the place, its people and its wines. A frisky baby goat captivated us and before long we were smitten with the whole goat family. We found ourselves cooing and making inconsequential little observations about the goats, stalling and not returning to our cars. We didn’t want the day to end.