Not all wines are created equal. In 1990, Jean-Michel Petit tasted his first vin jaune in Pupillin, located in the Jura region of eastern France. By 1997, he had bottled his first barrel at Domaine de la Renardière, located on rue du Chardonnay. Today, he has 65 barrels filled with the grape of the region: savignin. To make vin jaune, these grapes are plucked late harvest to transform their structure in a unique process to the appellations of Arbois, ultimately producing a deep yellow wine aged anywhere from 5 to 50 years in old oak barrels.
Siting a vineyard on a slope offers better sun exposure, Jean-Michel explains, but as I stand on the highest point looking down at the bowl of vineyards in the Jura region of France, my thoughts connect the past to the present. In fact, this land was once underwater and has left behind fossils we easily find among a pile of rocks near the vineyards. Oyster shell imprints are indicative of the soil structure similar to that of the fine wines of Chablis and even some areas of Champagne, but with added limestone instead of chalk.
With both flat vineyards and sloping, Jean-Michel, owner of Domaine de la Renardière, has the best of both worlds: New World and Old World. He gets to grow grapes and make wine in the old tradition, but incorporate modernity at his will.
“If you know good basics, you can grow grapes,” he states during a tour of his property that has been in existence since the 13th century. He grows five grapes on his land: the original chardonnay and pinot noir, and the regional ploussard, trousseau, savignin, the latter to make the Jura’s unique savignin jaune.
In the last year, Jean Michel’s vineyard has been utilizing biodynamic methods, partly dictated by the lunar calendar. There are certain days when, he says, “it is best to stay indoors all day.” On these off-lunar days, work on the vineyard is on hold. At this time, the buds are about to break open.
Savignin jaune intrigued and distracted me from Jean Michel’s introduction to his white and red wines our group tasted straight from the used oak barrels. I wanted him to get to the point, which was the process of making yellow wine that can be grown only in this Jurassic soil. This wine is not aged in a cellar, but in an attic inside barrels never topped off. In a strange development that has not yet been scientifically explained (nor will it ever be to protect its AOC status), a veil of yeast forms on the wine, which protects it from oxidizing and adds intense aromas and flavors. Forty percent is lost in the barrels, and once in its unique-shaped bottle called a “clavelin,” vin jaune will keep for 6.5 years. Once the process is over, Jean-Michel sells his used barrels to a whisky producer; the whiskey will then acquire some vin jaune to its recipe.
Finally, we are offered a pour of vin jaune. Its aroma of sherry and walnuts surprises me, and sipping it surprises me even more so, as this wine tastes nothing like sherry. It offers intense acidity and tastes like a deeply concentrated 15-percent alcohol white wine best enjoyed following a meal with a plate of Comté cheese and some walnuts. It also pairs well with curry, dark chocolate and sausages, or so I am told. In fact, it was suggested to add a little in an omelet, and to make a recipe that includes chicken, mushrooms (morrels) and cream, with, of course – some vin jaune.