The cult of natural wine elicits raw emotion among wine lovers, deeply polarising opinion between those who with one broad stroke dismiss the wines labelled as such as flawed by imperfections, and its disciples who evangelise over the vibrancy of such wines, embracing their unpredictability and funkiness as one would an unpasteurised farmhouse cheese. Jean-François Ganevat is an indisputable star of the natural wine movement, whose wines have an unpredictable and exciting wildness that sometimes needs a little taming, whence they become elemental and quite charming.
The cult of natural wine elicits raw emotion among wine lovers, deeply polarising opinion between its disciples and those who with one broad stroke dismiss the wines labelled as such as flawed by imperfections. They argue that natural wines inherently suffer from innate faults masking varietal character, terroir and vintage, highly unstable with no one bottle the same, their flaws only becoming amplified given time. Citing these same characteristics, aficionados evangelise over the vibrancy of such wines, embracing their unpredictability and funkiness as one would an unpasteurised farmhouse cheese.
For me the inherent problem with natural wines is not the wines themselves, but the label. What exactly natural wine is is a little hazy, what is definitely isn’t is easier to pin down. Science has been applied to make every aspect of conventional wine making predictable, from vineyard through cellar to bottling, using methods such as acidification, chaptalization, commercial yeast strains and sulphur dioxide. Many remain permissible under organic and biodynamic regimes, which are predominantly concerned with practices in the vineyard. Under the natural philosophy only sulphur dioxide is sparingly used by some vignerons, some eschewing it completely. But to cast aside these aides necessitates meticulous and careful winemaking if the wine is not to become indisputably faulty, while flirtation with fault may sometimes be considered an attribute, the tolerance of which is personal to the drinker. Who is it to say whether and at what level cloudiness or oxidative characteristics should be considered faults? Undoubtedly many wines brushed under this natural rug are indeed downright faulty, but to undiscerningly classify all of them as such is unhelpful and an injustice to the many vignerons producing superb wines under a natural idiom that they themselves may or not be chasing.
Jean-François Ganevat is an indisputable star of the natural wine movement. The Ganevat family have been making wine in the Jura since 1650, Jean-François representing the fourteenth generation, though until 1976 the family also ran a dairy producing milk for the famous local Comté cheese. He began learning his craft working alongside his father, continuing on to study at wine school in Beaune, before spending 9 years as the Maitre de Chai at the prestigious Domaine Jean-Marc Morey in Chassagne-Montrachet.
Jean-François returned to the Jura in 1998 to take over the family domaine, his home and winery made up of a number of houses sitting at the foot of a deeply forested hill in the picturesque hamlet of La Combe-Rotalier, in the green foothills nestled between Burgundy and Switzerland. He has built up the estate to 13 hectares under vine, which he’s fortunate to include 17 of the 40 traditional varieties that despite being outlawed by the appellation system in favour of international varieties, were preserved by his father. The vineyards are spread over several terroirs, the biggest Les Chalasses has 4 hectares, followed by the 2 hectare Les Grands Teppes, then Grusse en Billat, a 1.8 hectare vineyard with lots of schists. The traditional varieties include Petit Béclan, Gros Béclan, Gueuche (white and red), Seyve-Villard, Corbeau, Portugais Bleu, Enfariné, Argant and Poulsard Blanc, scattered throughout the vineyards. Many are inter-planted in the traditional way, and Jean-François is happiest this way, as it makes the prohibited varieties a little harder for the appellation authorities to discover. While his father vinified them as table wine for local consumption, Jean-François has learnt how they can produce easily drinkable, low alcohol wines. Ganevat, known as ‘Fanfan’ by his friends, is helped around the winery by his loyal dog Schist, a lean and eager Weimaraner, also a lover of Jean-François’ wines when he gets the opportunity.
Jean-François gravitates towards the Burgundian school of winemaking, aiming to lend his wines greater lightness and elegance that typical in the Jura, using ouillage to top off barrels. A stunning number of cuvées are produced every year, between 35 and 40, with each calling for highly individual élevage, bewildering from such a small estate, although there’s not much of each cuvée to go round, sometimes as little as one barrel.
He farms the vineyards biodynamically, and has a meticulous approach, destemming all the vines by hand, each cluster trimmed with scissors. Winemaking is as natural as possible, with no sulphur dioxide used during vinification since 2006, and only small doses for the cuvées Florine and Les Billats at bottling. Only used oak is to be found in Ganevat’s winery, and fermentation is using in large volume containers, giving slow fermentation that takes several weeks, then settling for a month before racking.
Élevage takes place in a variety of vessels including large 600 litre demi-muids, which have up to twice the surface area of Burgundy barrels, larger tronconic casks, and unlined clay amphora from Italy. Élevage lasts at least one year for Ganevat’s reds, two for the whites, up to an incredible eleven years for the cuvée “les Vignes de Mon Père”. While no special precautions are taken for these additive free wines, Jean-François finds that the long élevages on the lees in changeable cellar conditions help the wines cope well after bottling.
Jean-François also buys from 10 trusted friends, two of them former employees who worked for him for many years, who all share his philosophy and farming practices, whom he visits to participate in the harvest. These negociant wines bottled typically blend together wines from different regions. The Jura was hit by frost in 2017, with Ganevat suffered badly, losing 95% of his vines. Not to be defeated, he’s made many more negociant wines, including Mâcon Gamay, Grenache, Alsace Riesling, and 10 day skin maceration Pinot Gris.
Wines tasted here are classified Vin de France, though both are from the 2014 vintage.
Y’a bon the Canon 14.01
Y’a bon, “It’s good”, blends Gamay grapes from Château de Grand Pré in the Beaujolais with old indigenous varieties Petit Béclan, Gros Béclan, Geusche, Argant, Peurion, Portugais Bleu, Isabelle and Enfariné, grown in Jean-François’ own vineyards. 30 to 40 year old vines.
Appearance Medium ruby, fading a little towards garnet on the rim.
Nose Notes of wild strawberry, red cherry and loganberry, with perfumed potpourri and dried flowers.
Palate First impressions seem a little lively, even a little pétillance, but decanting for an hour or so to allow this to breath worked wonders, opening and softening out the wine. There’s a touch of volatile acidity and slightly bitter green tannins on the finish. Redcurrant, wild strawberry and bright raspberry, with lightly crushed peppercorn spice and a slightly bitter woody edge of potpourri and dried flowers.
Conclusions A wild girl who needs a little taming, whence she becomes elemental and quite charming.
J’en Veux Encore 14.05
Grapes from some of Jean-François’ oldest vines, ageing over 80 years, go into J’en Veux Encore, “I still want”, which blends indigenous Jurassian varieties from ungrafted “franc de pied” vines with Trousseau and Beaujolais Gamay from Morgon. The grapes undergo 5 weeks carbonic maceration à l’ancienne in cuves tronconiques, conical vooden vats, before élevage of 10 months in conical wooden tanks.
Appearance Pale ruby, slight garnet hues on the rim.
Nose Quite poised and Burgundian initially, elegant raspberries, wild strawberries, perfumed violet and lilac, giving a pollen like sensation. A little teasing brings out bitter potpourri, dried cherries and marcona almond softness.
Palate Needed time to relax, though less so than “Y’a bon the Canon”, decanted for an hour. Lovely parma violet and pink peppercorn meld with wild strawberry and overripe soft raspberry, giving an implied sweetness. There’s a touch of potpourri bitterness, with black peppercorn, and hints of green almond and sea salted lime zest. Slight lively effervescent vibrancy on the otherwise silky palate, medium plus acidity, great length.
Conclusions An elegant and feminine lady, though with an unpredictable and exciting wildness that sometimes surprises.