Before you discuss Chardonnay with Jean-François Bourdy, take a moment to stand back, exhale, and simply admire the visage.
He is an imposing and potent-looking gentleman whose shirt is open a button or two lower than necessary; his eyes are blue as river ice and they dart like dragonflies. His hair is blond and curly (not permed—I asked) and his yellow moustache curls up into points like Dali’s. He looks, for all the world, like one of the Musketeers in comfortable repose, a working man who retains the nobility of his race.
He is Athos in Twenty Years After, or I’m a monkey’s uncle.
The family Bourdy has been a fixture in the French Jura for as long as the Jura has had fixtures; within seconds of moving the conversation from wonder to wine, he informs me that the his people have been vignerons in the region since 1475, when Columbus was still sailing toy boats in the bathtub.
When I ask him if he was born in the Jura, he says, in his rolling French brogue, “Son, I am the Jura.”
And so, to end up with an even rudimentary understanding of this fascinating hinterland in Franc’s multi-faced wine regions, you have to start with people like Jean-François Bourdy—people who are so confident of the superiority of what they produce that any question about technique, terroir-interpretation and subsequent expression is as often as not dismissed with a summary: “Because we have been doing so for five hundred years,”—as though the question is so incontestably rhetorical that the response defies further exploration.
And, much as I appreciate those who experiment, those who seek to improve, those who are open to new ideas, equally must I respect those who remain true to their function. And if the wines I tasted are not always my ideal, they are (I believe) a true portrait of the Jurassian mindset, and hence, wineset.
No Country for Young Men
In his classic satire on modern art The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe postulates that without a concept, some art would not exist.
Or, verbatim: “Without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.”
He was joking, of course. Or was he? In fact, to blind-taste one of Jean-François Bourdy’s Chardonnays, you would not guess the varietal—it is done in classic Jura fashion, spending five years in a neutral barrel with very little topping-off, allowing a certain amount of air contact. This is the goal, and it produces a white wine quite unlike the Chardonnays from Burgundy, two hours to the west. If you are expecting a steely, apple-rich or buttery Chardonnay, you will be disappointed. This is Jura white wine, and that is theory you need to buy into in order to genuinely appreciate it. Like the works of Wolfgang Robert Paalen, you may have to understand ‘viewer-dependant possibility space’ before you can like them.
Caves Jean Bourdy Côtes du Jura ‘Blanc’, 2009, (around $30): The wine is soft and rich, showing mature notes of roasted almonds, citrus peel, butterscotch and a slight tinge of pleasant oxidation, but most of the typical pineapple and green apple flavors one finds in Burgundian Chardonnay have been sopped up by the wood. Bourdy insists that the wine requires hours to fully open up after it’s long wood nap, and indeed, a bit of melony freshness emerged after that, but if it is not love at first sight, it is very much a wine to grasp.
Likewise the red. Unlike most white-to-red wine progressions, Jean Caves Bourdy Côtes du Jura ‘Rouge’, 2010, (around $30), is served at a tasting before the white (and five degrees cooler); it is a blend of the local grape Poulsard along with equal parts Trousseau and Pinot Noir and, like the Chardonnay, is aged for around four years in old oak. But the fruit itself seems to have had less intensity going in, and more acidity, and as such, produces a sharp but delicate wine that focuses on a trail-mix of earthy flavors—dried apricots, walnuts and dried cranberries, with some rhubarb and cherry emerging as the wine aerates.
Both white and reds from Jean Bourdy are, as he explains it, “Essential food wines. We enjoy cuisine and wine together, and both are made for pleasure: You enjoy them, but you do not necessarily need always to speak about them.”
Which is why I expressly avoid recommending a plate of Jurassic pork.
Vin Jaune—Now That You Talk About
Like any self respecting Jurassian, Jean-François introduces his Blanc and Rouge as curtain raisers, along with a lovely, if essentially neutral Crémant du Jura made from slightly under ripe Chardonnay and a strange Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée known as ‘Macvin’. Since it is a blend of late-harvest grape juice and the local liquor known as marc, it makes no sense that they don’t call it ‘Marcvin’, since Macvin sounds like something that requires Golden Arches and a McPlayground. But nobody was asking for my two cents when they were naming stuff, so I report only that, although my on-site notes suggest that it tastes like a blend of cinnamon, prune juice and mercurochrome, I assure you that it is a delightfully blend of the three, a sweet apéritif that Bourdy assures me is exemplary alongside Le Bleu, the local blue cheese. Incidentally, Le Blue also has its own AOC.
It is, of course, Le Yellow that produces Jura’s most prominent waves—it is the quintessential Jurassian answer to fino Sherry.
Like Sherry, it is a product of white wine that is aged in barrels for many years, beneath a protective layer of protective mold, know in Spain as flor and in Jura as voile.
But here, the similarity ends. Unlike Sherry, there is no solera system (Google that if you don’t know what it means): Vin Jaune sits in its lone cask for six years, and three months minimum, during which it develops deep, resonant flavors that resemble—in some strange, nearly indefinable way—the scent of curry powder. I say ‘nearly’, because the odor is the result of the appearance of sotolon, a lactone compound that appears in developing Vin Jaune. That chemical can also be found in curry powder.
Also, in Sherry, there are a number of allowable grape varieties, whereas in Jura, there is only one: Savagnin. It’s a grape that grows nowhere else in France to any measurable extent, but in the Jura, it thrives on the blue marl solid, and is used exclusively in the most famous Vin Jaunes, those of of Château-Chalon and L’Étoile. In a table wine, it is somewhat ‘meh’, but it ripens late, which concentrates sugars, and is resistant to rot.
And in Vin Jaune, Savagnin becomes one of those incredible personalities within the wine pantheon that sears an indelible mark on your memory.
Even the bottle is unique—a stubby, 620 ml ‘clavelin’, sized to account for the wine that evaporates from each liter during aging.
Caves Jean Bourdy ‘Vin Jaune’, Château-Chalon, 2005 (around $110) is a wine so striking on the nose that it defies comparison; it has qualities that resemble Fino, no doubt—the sort of elegant, burnished walnut earthiness that liquefies autumn and slips it into a glass. But the core runs far deeper. Curry notes are there if you look for them, and requisite hints of oxidization, but luscious citrus peel, toasted nuts, fresh yeast, fresh mushroom, dried fruit. More remarkable than the nuance, though, is Vin Jaune’s ability to spread them out like a smorgasbord, then shuffle the deck so that flavors emerge, recede, change, then emerge once again. Sound unlikely? Among the most startling of Vin Jaune’s many faces is its palate length. Whereas most wines, even those superbly made, peter out within sixty seconds or so, Vin Jaune does not fade entirely for two or three minutes.
And that isn’t even the diva of the performance. That spotlight is reserved the Bourdy ‘Vin Jaune’ 1947, which if you could find it (you probably can’t) would set you back around $700. I’m doled out a thimbleful, and even at that Lilliputian lick, it proves its point. It is every bit as lively as the 2005 with additional layers of silken spice, most notably a dusty saffron note that suits the color of the wine and the wine’s name, which is, of course, ‘Yellow Wine’.
This gem is the living embodiment of the concept—so unusual in its depth and breadth that the wine never becomes an afterthought.
Nor in the realm of the physical, should it: Jean-François assures me that within the library of wines a Caves Bourdy, there are Vin Jaunes that are still feisty and developing after two centuries.
He holds to the notion that there are three wines in the world that rank so highly that the others are, in their own way, the true afterthoughts: Pétrus, Romanée-Conti and Vin Jaune.
Far be it from me to argue about the Franco-centric-ness of this declaration; I don’t have the stuff to challenge a Musketeer.
That said, however, the genuine Athos hailed from Pyrénées-Atlantiques, a long way from Jura, and was named Armand de Sillègue d’Athos d’Autevielle.
There is more Demeter than Dumas about Jean-François Bourdy, so I guess you can call me Uncle Grape Ape after all.