Tell him to buy me an acre of land, Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
To the east and south of Burgundy, the Jura is an old but little known wine growing region where the wines are a mix of the familiar (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) and unfamiliar grape varieties (Savagnin for whites, Poulsard and Trousseau for reds), and familiar and unfamiliar styles. White wines made in a conventional style are called ouillé locally, meaning that the casks are topped up during élevage; the word comes from ouillage, meaning topping up. But the traditional style here is oxidized, when a voile of yeast is allowed to grow on the surface of the wine in the barrique. The wine matures under the layer of yeast, giving a result resembling fino sherry.
The ultimate expression of this style is Vin Jaune, which is matured for six years in the barrique, and comes only from Savagnin (a subvariety of Gewürztraminer but usually showing a savory rather than perfumed impression). Other oxidized wines can come from either Savagnin or Chardonnay; even after only a year or two under voile, the wines in oxidized style are quite savory. Ouillé whites may come from either Chardonnay or from Savagnin. The conventional Chardonnays have a minerality that sometimes resembles Chablis or Puligny Montrachet, but which tends to have savory overtones resembling the Savagnin. In fact, those savory overtones somewhat resemble the flavor spectrum of the Vin Jaune. Jancis Robinson remarked on the similarity between Chardonnay and Savagnin and suggested to me that one possible explanation might be use of the same containers for fermentation and élevage.
Although the layer of yeasts that forms on the surface of the maturing wine has different species in Sherry and in the Jura, one common feature is the formation of Sotolon, a compound with an aromatic, spicy, aroma. Sotolon is also formed naturally in the plant fenugrec, whose seeds have a curry-like aroma. In fact, fenugrec is a component of Madras curry. I have been wondering if fenugrec might be making an unsuspected contribution to the aroma spectrum of whites wines in the Jura (much as eucalyptus makes a contribution to some New World Cabernet Sauvignons).
When I visited Stéphane Tissot in Arbois recently, we went out to see his vineyards, and the air was redolent with a savory aroma, hard to pin down, but somewhere between rosemary, tarragon, and curry. It had a noticeable resemblance to the characteristic aroma of Vin Jaune and the common savory element of Savagnin and Chardonnay. I’m wondering whether this could be the result of fenugrec growing in the vineyards.
There are some difficulties with this idea: the aroma of fenugrec is usually attributed to its seeds, so it’s not obvious how it would influence the grapes. And it’s usually considered to be a Mediterranean plant. On the other hand, they produce a fromage “aux graines de fenugrec” in the Jura.
The idea that fenugrec might give an interesting aroma to wine is scarcely new. Writing in the first century in Rome, Columella proposed a formula for adding fenugrec to wine: he recommended a spoonful or two per urn. This very likely produced a wine with a similar flavor spectrum to today’s Vin Jaune or Fino Sherry.
At the end of the day, cross contamination in the winery may be the most likely explanation of Chardonnay’s resemblance with Savagnin, but next time I visit the Jura I shall take a careful look for fenugrec in the vineyards (especially among cover crops in organic vineyards) to see whether it might be common enough to contribute to the profile of the wine.
Two of Tissot’s wines give a perfect demonstration of the difference and resemblance between the two styles. The conventional style is labeled Traminer and the oxidized style is labeled Savagnin.
Arbois Traminer, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot, 2011 This is a Savagnin matured without any oxidation. It’s quite savory at first impression, with the aromatics showing slightly after. Savory suggestions extend to texture as well as flavor. It’s hard to disentangle savory and aromatic influences on the finish. Lots of character here. 88 Drink now-2018.
Arbois Savagnin, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot, 2011 This spent 30 months under voile. Medium gold color. Powerful nose in which savory notes mingle with oxidative notes like Fino Sherry. The finish seems quite manzanilla-like. Very nice balance of influences. 89 Drink now-2023.