Our focus here will be on Domaine de la Pinte Savagnin 2006, but before describing the wine we will discuss the Jura in general and various wine making factors that influence the final product. First, a brief summary of the method used in making this wine…
Made from 50 year old vines, the must is allowed to settle for 18-24 hours after crushing before racking off the wine (also known using the French term debourbage, this reduces the need for filtration or fining), then undergoing malolactic fermentation in temperature controlled cement vats using indigenous yeast. The wine then spends 18 months on the lees and five years in large old French oak barrels, allowing only a restrained level of oxidisation.
In eastern France’s Franche-Comté, the Jura is a small region scattered amongst woodland and meadow in the foothills between Burgundy and Switzerland, 50 minutes from Burgundy’s historic wine capital Beaune. Between Burgundy and the Jura is la Bresse, flat land lying either side of the river Saône. The vines start when the ground begins to rise towards large limestone plateau in the east.
The Jura vignoble (vinyards) were decimated by a combination of mildew and phylloxera at the end of the 19th century, the first world war, then the railways which opened the Languedoc as an alternative source of wine to the city dwellers of northern France. Less than 1000 hectares of vines remained by the 1960’s, which had been 10 times the size before phylloxera, and even today there are less than 2000 hectares, making it one of the smallest wine regions in France.
The Jura known for unusual grape varieties vinified in distinctive styles, and it’s wines have become increasingly fashionable, not least because of their often organic and natural credentials. It is a land of lush green farmland, heavily influenced by the food, soils and weather of Burgundy to the west, and is home to fantastic selection of cheeses.
Soils and Climate
Like Burgundy, Jurassic limestone soils overlayed with clay are characteristic of Jura, but there is enormous variation in aspect, elevation and soil types, suiting different grape varieties – the Jura’s signature Savagnin grape excels on marl soils but does not do so well on limestone.
Marl soils contain a crumbly mixture of clay sediments, mixed with calcium and magnesium carbonates, and fossilised sea shells, collected at the bottom of the ocean during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Marl soils are rich in mineral and organic content, although this is not easily absorbed by the vine. They are cold soils giving slow regular growth, holding back ripening, and giving wines with high acidity. The different colour marl soils result from varying organic and mineral content (including blue, white, black and red).
Limestone is a sedimentary rock dating from same period as marl, predominantly composed of fossilised sea shells. Limestone itself is hard and not easily penetrated by plant roots except through cracks. Soils formed from on broken up limestone are rich in calcium carbonate, easily absorbed by plants. These soils have good drainage capabilities, and unlike clay do not stick together when it rains, and reheat quickly in the spring. Wines from limestone soils are typically structured and mineral, but can be very dry on the palate.
The Jura has a continental climate, with long cold winters and hot summers, but in its jumbled terrain there is more rain and the winters can be much more severe than Burgundy. Continentality is the temperature difference between the hottest and coldest months. Continental climates have a wide temperature range, and are typical of the interior of large continents. Maritime climates have a narrow temperature range, and usually occur near oceans or other large water bodies, which provide a moderating influence. Continental climates are characterised by short summers, then a large rapid temperature drop in the autumn. They usually have little rainfall and wide diurnal temperature variation (difference between day and night) during the growing season.
As in the Côte-d’Or, the best vineyards slope, sometimes steeply, south and south-east, maximising exposure to sunlight and heat. This helps ripen the grapes, with steep slopes increasing the affect further. The vines are trained high to avoid spring frosts, and the harvest is late and can often extend into November.
Five grape varieties are widely planted, including the two main Burgundy grapes. Some Pinot Noir is grown, traditionally blended but now more often single varietal, making wines of pale colour that are fragrant and earthy.
Chardonnay is well suited to the heavy clay soils and is widely planted, increasingly vinified in the non oxidative Burgundian style called floral by some locals. Acidity is higher than in Burgundy, consequently the wine is generally oak aged for longer, at its best giving rich and complex wines. Chardonnay can also make a Vin Jaune like wine when aged under flor, and is also used as the base for the traditional method sparkling wine Crémant du Jura.
The Jura is best known for its three distinctive native varieties. Poulsard (also known as Ploussard, especially in village of Pupillin) is a large oval black grape variety which has very thin skins with little colour pigment and low in tannin. Poulsard is often blended with Pinot Noir as it can have little colour even when macerated for several weeks, making light bodied red wines that are fragrant and delicate, and can be good served slightly chilled.
Trousseau (also known as Bastardo, a variety used in making port) is an ancient variety that buds late avoiding the spring frosts, producing irregular yields. Trousseau produces deeper but still pale coloured wine, full flavoured and bodied, often gamey and earthy, with hints of strawberry.
The Jura’s most famous variety Savagnin Blanc (also known as Naturé or Fromentin) is identical to Traminer from the Alto Adige, therefore related to its aromatic, pink-skinned variant, Gewürztraminer. Savagnin is well adapted to the climate, ripening slowly, with picking as late as December in some years. However it is difficult to grow, producing irregular yields of small pale berries, sometimes almost nothing. Savagnin produces long lived, full bodied dry white wines, often deliberately exposed to oxygen during ageing. Some non oxidative wines are made, either single varietal or blended with Chardonnay, producing fresh, full bodied wines, with a hint of spice and bone dry.
Savagnin is used to produce the famous Vin Jaune ‘yellow wine’ of the Jura. Savagnin grapes are picked late, usually late October but often November, when the grapes are as ripe as possible, with potential alcohol between 13% and 15%. The grapes are fermented slowly, then transferred to age in 228 litre old oak Burgundy barrels, which are never topped up. The wine becomes partially protected from oxidation by thin veil of yeast, locally called ‘voile’, very similar to the flor on sherry. To qualify as Vin Jaune, the wine must be aged in the barrel for at least six years and three months, after which time only about 62% of the wine remains after evaporation. The wine bottled in the unusual stubby clavelin bottle holding 62cl, supposedly the volume left of an original litre put into barrel.
Malolactic fermentation (commonly referred to as MLF or malo) is the conversion of sharper (tart, unripe apple) malic acid to softer (milk like) lactic acid through the action of naturally occurring or added bacteria (Oenococcus oeni and various species of Lactobactillus and Pediococcus). Carbon dioxide is also produced during this process, hence the term fermentation. The reduction in acidity is because malic acid has two acid radicals, whereas lactic acid only has one.
Primary fruit aromas are lost during malolactic fermentation, but by-products such as diacetyl are formed, which gives the wine a buttery richness (but in excess can give strong caramel and rancid butter character). Malolactic fermentation is considered to give the wine a rounder, fuller mouthfeel.
Malolactic fermentation usually takes place shortly after the end of primary fermentation (when grape sugar is converted to alcohol by yeast). It is almost always used in red wine making, but only for some white wines (generally lighter bodied, fruit driven wines with crisp acidity do not benefit). Winemakers can can alter various factors to encourage or discourage malolactic fermentation from occurring. Leaving the wine on the yeast lees after primary fermentation, as early racking clarification reduces nutrient and bacterial levels. Using low levels of sulphur dioxide before fermentation, and not adding any sulphur dioxide post fermentation until malolactic fermentation is complete, as levels greater than 25 mg/l will inhibit bacterial growth. Maintaining wine temperature between 17-20°C and increasing the pH to above 3.1. Adding freeze dried MLF bacteria or lees from tank already undergoing MLF (during or after alcoholic fermentation) will also kick start the process. Malolactic fermentation should never be allowed to occur in bottle, as the wine will appear to still be fermenting (carbon dioxide being produced), this can be prevented by sterile filtration at bottling.
Oxidative versus Reductive Winemaking
Wines can be made in an oxidative or reductive style. Because yeasts ferment wine mostly under anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions they generate lots of smelly volatile sulphur compounds including hydrogen sulphide and mercaptans which would otherwise be neutralised by oxygen. If wines were made and bottled without any contact with oxygen these compounds would remain in the wine and be noticeable once the bottle was opened.
Therefore wines are generally given some exposure to oxygen during fermentation and élevage (French term for progression of wine between fermentation and bottling), for example in open top fermentors or during racking. Conversely by using stainless steel tanks and inert gasses, the level of exposure to oxygen can be greatly decreased. Most wine making lies somewhere on between, neither totally totally reductive or oxdative, avoiding the risks of either extreme, preserving the fruit character whilst adding complexity.
Generally modern making tends towards the reductive wine making style, which emphasises primary fruit flavours and aromas, typically giving wines fresher and paler in colour. However in overtly reduced wines, volatile sulphur compounds can develop, giving the wine a burnt matchstick, sewage, or rotten egg aroma. Sometimes these characteristics will diminish with decanting or vigorous swirling. Towards the oxidative end of the spectrum, the risk of oxidation is increased, where wine has had too much uncontrolled exposure to oxygen, turning the wine brown and flat, with faded fruit flavours and taking on a nutty, bruised apple character.
Oxidative wine making is a style still practiced in many Jura wines, along with Sherry, Madeira, and others. Wines made in this style are generally more stable, being less vulnerable to the negative effects of later oxygen exposure. Oxidative versus reductive wine making is also an important factor in determining Champagne style.
Domaine de la Pinte
Domaine de la Pinte was bought by Arbois native Roger Martin in 1953 and replanted with 20 hectares of mostly Savagnin vines, with the first harvest was in 1959. The vineyards now cover 34 hectares in the Arbois and Arbois-Pupillin appellations (17 hectares of Savagnin), situated on a band of blue marl running between Arbois and Château Chalon at an altitude of 400 metres. The estate has been organically farmed since 1999 and biodynamically since 2009, when viticulturist Bruno Ciofi was hired to take over winemaking. The wines typically have fresh acidity and mineral characteristics, and mostly avoid the extremes associated with the region.
Domaine de la Pinte Savagnin 2006
The wine is a rich, golden, honeyed amber colour in the glass.
Pronounced on the nose, distinctively oxidative, nutty and sherry like, with beeswax polished hard wood furniture and worn belt leather. There’s wildflower heather honey, sweet vanilla spice, nutmeg and cinamon. Sour apple, ripe apricot stone fruit, and brighter yellow apple and grapey notes give the wine some freshness, and there’s a yeasty, biscuity character.
A creamy, leesy, full bodied mouth feel on the palate, umptuous and glossy, but still dry, with eye watering high acidity and definite salinity. Feels warm, with medium plus alcohol and pronounced intensity. Spicy white pepper and nutmeg, with green fruit again on palate, granny smith apple and pear. More citrus than on the nose, bitter dry orange peel.
Outstanding and distinctive, showing definite age. However there’s still plenty of acidity with potential for more tertiary character and further integration, interesting to try again and see how this has developed in a few years time.
Somewhere between a Fino sherry and aged white Rioja!