Friday morning: We start by visiting two vineyards in Jurançon proper, both with spectacularly steep vineyards. At Clos Lapeyre, Jean-Bernard Larrieu is in the middle of replanting one of his vineyards, so we have a relatively brief tasting. We decide not to follow the GPS which tries to direct us to continue down the one track road past the winery, but retrace our steps to get to the Jardins des Babylone, created by Didier Dagueneau in 2003, a tiny operation with a dramatic 2 ha terraced 2 ha vineyard of Petit Manseng for sweet wines, and another hectare nearby that Didier planted with old varieties to make a dry wine. Resident winemaker Guy Pautrat explains that there was nothing here but the vineyard when Didier purchased the property—the grapes had been sold to the cooperative—so everything had to be constructed from scratch. Great concentration in the wines here.
On to Monein on the other side of the appellation—before the AOC was created it was in fact regarded as a separate area—where the difference could hardly be greater between two top producers, located just on either side of the town.
Domaine Guirardel has been in Françoise Casaubieilh’s family for generations. It lies at the end of a single track road running along the edge of an escarpment. Some of the buildings are four centuries old, including the original single room family residence, which later became a vinification cellar, and today is used as a tasting room to show the wines that Pierre Coulomb & Françoise Casaubieilh are making. A plot of 5 ha runs from the buildings steeply down to the bottom of valley, and there’s another hectare on the hill on the other side.
Buildings at Domaine Guirardel go back 400 years.
Domaine Cauhapé was created in 1980 by Henri Ramonteu with a single hectare. Today its modern buildings are at the center of a farm with 50 ha of corn and a few vineyards, with other vineyard parcels spread out all over Jurançon, the farthest being 22 km away. Driving in through the rather splendid gates (which have occasioned some local attention), you feel you are at the center of a major domain.
Domaine Cauhape has a splendid entrance.
Lunchtime: Over lunch with Pierre & Françoise we talk about the history of the domain, which they took over from Françoise’s father six years ago. Coming from a background in IT, Pierre has a lively, enquiring mind, and his winemaking is informed by various experiments. Today there are six cuvées, three traditional, and three introduced by Pierre and Françoise according to their taste.
Pierre discusses the traditional cuvée, which was originally the only cuvée of the domain. “Originally all the grapes (20% Petit Manseng and 80% Gros Manseng) were picked and fermented together. We still do that for Tradiciou. We did an experiment in which we separated the grapes and vinified them separately for a later assemblage, or kept them mixed. This produced two different wines. The Bi de Casau which is a 50:50 assemblage is done by later assemblage because it keeps more freshness. It’s been made since 2008 on the basis of selecting 3-4 barrels of Gros Manseng that have kept the most freshness. They don’t necessarily come from the same place each year. We want a half dry effect in the wine, which isn’t allowed in Jurançon, but this is our false half dry wine,” says Pierre.
The single dry Jurançon cuvée is unusual for the appellation. Pierre describes it as a “moelleux sans sucre.” “You can see it’s not a typical dry wine, it’s the same color as the moelleux,” he says. “It’s harvested at the same time as the moelleux. Usually people pick the grapes for the dry wine earlier and a few weeks later they pick the grapes for the sweet. When I tried to discuss this, people told me it would be impossible to pick later, especially because we use indigenous yeasts, not yeast that have been selected to convert sugar to alcohol at the speed of light. But then one barrel fermented very quickly, we left it alone, and it fermented to dryness. The wine was different but people liked it! So in 2011 I tried to reproduce this by watching carefully. Every year there is at least one barrel that starts much faster. I take some juice from the champion barrel, make a levain, and add it the other barrels.” The flavor spectrum is closer to the sweet wines, where there are five cuvées, ranging from Bi de Casau to the very late harvest Petit Mansengs. Made exclusively by passerillage (there is no botrytis in Jurançon), the sweet wines are redolant with piquant apricots and exotic fruits, and after about three years begin to develop a savory counterpoise of black truffles. I liked them very much.
Afternoon: after a very late end to lunch, we head over to Domaine Cauhapé, which Henri Ramonteu built mostly by buying land and planting vineyards. “I’m not typical, I’m an autodictate (self taught). It’s difficult to find vineyards so I have always planted (on new land) although I doubled my vineyards by buying one existing domain. Initially I had to master moelleux, in 1982 I started a Sec cuvee. I achieved a certain success because of the aromatic style, then I slowly developed new cuvees. In 2014 for the first time we made more dry wine than sweet. For me, with 40 ha, the future of Jurançon lies with the Sec. We can make very good dry wine. There’s less consumption of sweet wine and more of dry today. It’s difficult in Bordeaux to build a range of dry wines like we have,” he says.
Style for both dry and sweet wines is determined by harvest date. The first two wines, Chant des Vignes and Geyser, are harvested early. Seve d’Automne is harvested in mid October and has significantly more flavor depth and texture. La Canopée (100% Petit Manseng) is harvested in November at the same time as the moelleux, and has something of the same flavor spectrum as the sweet wines, although it’s also noticeably more alcoholic. The sweet wines have names reflecting dates of harvest: Ballet d’Octobre (70% Gros and 30% Petit Manseng), Symphonie de Novembre (100% Petit Manseng) , and then Noblesse du Temps and Quintessence, followed by Folie de Janvier (all last three are 100% Petit Manseng, and are only made some years). The top cuvees here don’t seem to increase in sweetness, just in complexity.