Andrew Jefford compares and contrasts winemaking methods in the Jura, Jerez and Tokaji.
Everything about the Jura is astonishing – and improbable. Not least the fact that its wine festival, the Percée du Vin Jaune, has (since its founding in 1997) become French wine’s closest equivalent to Glastonbury or Woodstock: a legendary event, attendance at which is subsequently flaunted as a badge of pride for a wine-drinking lifetime.
Somehow or other, up to 60,000 people have communally decided over the last 20 years that the best way to spend the first weekend in February every year is to court pneumonia by queuing in the cold for up to an hour outside a series of cellars in the chilly sub-Alpine hills in order to taste a succession of small samples of sharp, tangy whites and pale reds. So popular has the event become (it’s been France’s number one wine festival for some years) that numbers had to be limited to a mere 25,000 this year, and the event made ticket-only. The catastrophic spring frosts of 2017, at the end of which some Jura growers had lost 90% of a normal crop and the region as a whole 50%, means that this new, slimmer-but-sexier Percée is likely to endure.
There was another innovation, too. Alongside this year’s Percée (which took place in the village of Etoile), the region decided to organise a Symposium on ‘Vins de Voile’ – the ‘veiled’ wines of which vin jaune itself is such a notable example. I was lucky enough to attend the Symposium, which in addition to Jura speakers also featured Jesús Barquín and Eduardo Ojeda of Equipo Navazos, Paola Medina of Williams & Humbert and Samuel Tinon, founder of the Tokaji company of the same name.
What do they all have in common? Peer into a butt of Fino or Manzanilla Sherry, gawp into a cask of Vin Jaune or squint down into a cask of certain dry Szamorodni Tokaji wines (and, in former times, Aszú wines too), and you’ll see a film of yeast floating on the liquid, resembled everything from a thick blanket (in Sanlúcar) to thin pond scum (in Tokaji and the Jura). That yeast film, and the biochemical changes it brings about in the wines themselves, will condition their eventual flavour – exquisitely, for those who have acquired the taste for each. Hence the Percée queues.
After we’ve identified that basic similarity of method, though, the questions come thick and fast. Are the constituents of the yeast always the same? Are the biochemical changes in the wine always the same? Why these regions and not others? Does the similarity of method mean that these wines are kith and kin?
The Symposium marked a first, tentative step in answering some of these questions, and helped Jura producers understand the practicalities of Sherry and Tokaji winemaking a little better – but not much more than that. I can see the delicious potential for many future Symposia to come (remember that this word in Ancient Greek – symposion — meant ‘drinking party’).
Flor, or voile
Let’s take flor or voile It’s composed of Saccharomyces yeast strains, but that’s not very useful or precise. Four strains have been identified in Jerez (S. beticus, S. montuliensis, S. cheresiensis and S. rouxii), though the last of these has now been reclassified, and there are taxonomic debates as to whether the first three are actually separate species. The Symposium was told by researcher Jocelyn Broncard of the Jura’s departmental Laboratoire d’Analyses that ten Saccharomyces strains are implicated, at least initially, in the voile on Vin Jaune, and that this spectrum is different from that found in Spain. If this research has been carried out in Tokaji, we didn’t learn about it – though Samuel Tinon was at great pains to point out the importance of Cladosporium cellare (the cellar fungus so prominent in damp, cold Tokaji cellars) in the evolution of all Tokaji wines: a factor absent in both Jerez and the Jura.
What about the biochemical changes brought about by flor or voile in the wines themselves? In Jerez, the flor is anti-oxidative: it both physically protects the wine from oxidation and consumes oxygen in the cask. That’s why Fino and Manzanilla are pale and fresh. Vin Jaune, as its name suggests, is yellow (jaune) and most tasters would agree that some oxidative complexity is a part of its appeal. The same is still more true of dry Szamorodni wines. Perhaps that’s what you would expect, given that the layer of flor is generally thicker in Jerez and thinner in the Jura and Tokaji. (The sensual analogy with Pasada versions of Manzanilla or Fino-Amontillado in Jerez is marginally better.)
In all three locations, the action of the flor raises the levels of acetaldehyde (or ethanal) in the wines, and this is a vital part of their character (acetaldehyde is a volatile component in the aromas of many attractive natural substances, including tobacco leaf, ripe fruit, coffee and fresh bread): “the more, the better” according to Jocelyn Broncard. What I am unsure about is whether the umami character which can be exhibited by all three wines is related to acetaldehyde or not; chemically the substances seem quite different. Can any reader help?
Volatile acidity (VA), by contast, is a constant threat, and according to data presented by Vincent Gerbaux of the Institut Français de la Vigne et du Vin, the level of VA drops as the acetaldehyde level rises in Vin Jaune, something that is also seen in Jerez.
Glycerol levels also drop in Jerez and Sanlúcar under the influence of flor, increasing the effect of pungency and freshness in what are in fact quite strong (thus normally ‘glycerous’ wines) and it may be that this is a factor in the Jura, too. However there is a difference regarding alcohol levels. These tend to drop from their lightly fortified 15% under flor-ageing in Jerez. In the Jura, by contrast, no fortification is used and alcohol levels rise during the six years of Vin Jaune ageing, which is why Vin Jaune tends to have 14.5% or 15% whereas younger vines aged under voile are often bottled at 13% or 13.5%.
Kith and kin
Perhaps we should move on to the ‘kith and kin’ question The urge to classify these wines as cousins if not siblings is almost irresistible – but does this really help consumers? There is, after all, one colossal difference between them. Anyone expecting them to taste similar to each other is in for a rude shock.
Wines made from Savagnin aged under voile in the Jura have high levels of acidity; indeed one reason why Vin Jaune is superior to younger voile-aged Savagnin is that the extra alcohol in Vin Jaune helps balance out those often disconcerting acid levels. Tokaji’s Furmint, too, is a high-acid grape.
Palomino, by contrast, is extraordinarily low in acidity, and so, too, are Fino and Manzanilla. It is only once chemical ageing takes over the relay from biological flor in Jerez and Sanlúcar, and older Finos and Manzanilla Pasada wines become true Amontillados, that acidity as such begins to register on the sherry palate.
When we are talking about the fundamental elements of balance, then, Fino and Manzanilla are quite different from Vin Jaune. Most of the balance to alcohol and flavour architecture in the former is delivered by flor and its effects. These are multi-vintage carnivals of flor, and festivals of acetaldehyde and umami.
Vin Jaune, by contrast, is a single-vintage wine whose alcohol is balanced by pronounced, lively acidity and an oxidative nuttiness. Its flavour interest comes from a subtle and intriguing blend of mature or secondary fruit flavours, brisk and quivering with acidity, which are then infused, qualified and nuanced by the further effects of the voile. In Tokaji, moreover, botrytis is added to this mix.
Why these regions in particular?
Here, we are nowhere near answer. It is possible to make vins de voile or flor-aged wines in other regions, as producers such as the Plageoles family in Gaillac and producers in Montilla-Moriles prove in Spain. Maybe, indeed, you could do it everywhere — if only you were prepared to try. But in no location does this yeast film grow with the profusion which it achieves in Jerez and, particular, Sanlúcar, on casks of lightly fortified wine based on Palomino Fino. In the Jura its acquisition is always a more difficult process, and the wastage rate is higher.
The Symposium provided splendid tasting opportunities, and I will provide tasting notes next week, including for a range of recently released 2010 Vins Jaunes.