The Telegraph reported recently on an experiment which involved submerging bottles of Arbois wine 60 metres below the surface among the ruins of a sunken 12th century Abbey in Vouglans, in the Jura region of eastern France. The Abbey was built by monks of the order of Saint Bruno and was submerged in 1968, when France’s electricity operator created a huge dam and France’s third largest lake. The wine will be kept at 4ºC, with pressure at 7 bars and between 4 to 8 mg of oxygen per litre. Every 20 years 24 of the bottles will be brought to the surface to test how the wine has changed. I found this fascinating as I had already come across this type of investigation before (see: Wine from the Sea Bed and Weird and Wonderful Wine Cellars).
However the story behind the Henri Maire Domain who are conducting these experiments is even more intriguing. Henri Maire started the craze for such tests in 1955 by walling bottles of vin jaune in the Tour d’Argent, one of Paris’ most famous restaurants. They are due to be removed in 2055. The Henri Maire Domain also sent 20,000 bottles around the world as an experiment last year, while crates of its wine are currently stored in the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, far inside the Arctic circle, in minus 40º temperatures.
The Jura is an ancient wine making region and Arbois is the birthplace of Louis Pasteur who was ordered by Napoleon III to investigate the maturation of wine. Pasteur used wines from his family vineyard and in doing so he discovered the role of yeast during fermentation. From this experiment the science of oenology was born. Today his vineyard is owned by the Henri Maire company. Henri Maire, who died aged 86 in November 2003, was known as the ambassador of Jura wines. He reminds me a lot of George Dubeouf who kick started the rise in Beaujolais Nouveau in the 1970s. Domain Henri Maire makes vin jeaune and vin de paille but it was his vin fou (mad wine) that helped the marketing of wines from the Jura in the 40s and 50s – this cheap and cheerful sparkling wine was advertised on almost every street corner in France.
The Henri Maire Domain dates back to the 1600s and covers 741 acres. Vin de paille is the French for ‘straw wine’ and is made from grapes that have been dried to concentrate their juice. The result is similar to ice wine, but can be made in a warmer climate. The grapes used in Jura are a blend of Chardonnay, Savagnin and the red grape Poulsard. The classic method dries clusters of grapes on mats of straw in the sun, but some regions dry them under cover. The technique dates back to pre-Roman times, and most production of these wines has been in Northern Italy and the French Alps. Straw wines are typically sweet to very sweet white wines, similar in density and sweetness to Sauternes and capable of long life. The low yields and labour-intensive production method means that they are quite expensive. The final wine has 10-20% residual sugar, with flavours of peaches and apricots.
Vin jaune (yellow wine) is similar to dry fino Sherry and gets its character from being matured in a barrel under a film of yeast, known as the voile, on the wine’s surface. Vin jaune is made from the Savagnin grape, a white variety in the Traminer family which is less aromatic than the better-known Gewürztraminer. The grapes are usually harvested in late October when the sugars have developed enough to have a potential alcohol level of 13–15% for the finished wine. The grapes are fermented slowly and then kept in small old oak casks. The wine acquires its characteristic yellow colour and nutty flavours as it ages for the requisite time of 6 years and 3 months. The vin jaune is then bottled in special squat bottles that called clavelins. Yellow wine ages extremely well. It is generally recommended that it not be drunk until ten years after bottling. The wine will keep for a long time and like Sauternes can age from 50 to 100 years.
The wines from the Jura have been rather obscure – and vin jaune is practically unheard of in the USA so I am rather pleased that the Domain Henri Maire are raising the profile of this tiny mountainous appellation . . . albeit in a somewhat unorthodox way . . . and that they are keeping his spirit alive in their exploits.
This may seem like a history lesson but included are some amazing facts don’t you think?
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