No, I can assure you that Flor is not the first name of a new friend of mine.
I have just returned from a brief stay in France’s Jura region to participate in a symposium about « flor » wines: in other words wines that develop their specific style through ageing under a veil of yeast on the surface of barrels which have not been fully topped up to compensate natural evaporation. The word « flor » is Spanish for flower, as, in the case of sherries at least, the surface of the wine in the part-filled barrels looks as if flowers have grown on it. The yeast strains bloom on the surface which take on a whitish-grey veil of variable thickness. Some refer to this process as « biological ageing », as opposed to reductive or oxidative ways of ageing wines that require modification before they are fit for consumption on account of an overtly intensive structural profile of some description.
This opportunity arose thanks to an excellent initiative on the part of the Jura producers, who, like those in Cahors, consider that collaboration with producers from other countries who produce similar styles of wine to theirs can bring many positive results, rather than looking on others as just competitors to be shunned at all costs. I hope that such mentalities and ideas will gain ground in the future. In any case, judging by the numbers of specialist journalists who came especially for this symposium (English, French, Belgians and Swiss were there), one could say that the organisers have marked some points. The symposium was preceeded by a tasting which brought together quite a large number of vins jaunes, the local flor wine, as well as a couple of very good producers of Sherry and an excellent producer of a Tokay Szamorodni made also under a yeast veil. The timing was set to coincide with the annual festivities surrounding the traditional Percée du Vin Jaune, some of whose more folklore-filled aspects I witnessed. I was also able to participate in the annual Vin Jaune competition called clavelinage, which serves to awards medals to the vins jaunes that the jury members esteem to be the best representatives of the latest vintages of this very singular style of wine.
Flor in a Sherry butt
I say singular, because these wines produce aromas and flavours that not everyone likes, at least spontaneously and without a form of apprenticeship that few are prepared to undertake. After all, put simply, why should one suffer in order to learn to appreciate something? I would beg to differ from this postulate, but, in our individualistic world of instant gratification, efforts to overcome a natural resistance, whether physical or mental, are not always welcomed with open arms. I can clearly testify to the aversion that the vast majority of wine drinkers have for this style of wine since, whenever I serve a Vin Jaune or a dry Sherry to students in one of my classes, almost all of them wrinkle their noses in an expression of distaste and sometimes even ask if all is right with the wine! The appreciation of the aromas and flavours of a dry Sherry or a Vin Jaune are clearly acquired by a certain amount of practice, which obviously favours natives of the Jura region in France, as well as Spanish or even English people, the latter two having traditionally consumed large quantities of Sherry. Conversions to these flavours are rare, it must be said, but those who become converted are often fanatical, as befits such patterns. According to Samuel Tinon, who showed his Tokay Szamorodnis at this symposium, Brooklyn NYC is the latest terre d’accueil for his wines.
Some other countries and regions produce tiny amounts of wines of this type, but they are rare. What was particularly interesting in the presentations that each country or producer gave after the morning’s tasting session was to learn how local climatic conditions, constraints and production techniques have produced differences in the wines and the way in which they evolve. The Sherry production region is dry and hot, with a strong oceanic influence from the Atlantic. Its bodegas are above the ground with very high ceilings to allow the air to circulate. The flor here is usually quite thick and helps to slow down evaporation. Unlike the other two regions for flor wines, Sherries are fortified, even if lightly, after the fermentation, but from a wine with lower alcohol levels than that of the savagnin in the Jura. The Jura has high rainfall and generally cool temperatures, and its cellars are smaller. The flor is much thinner on the whole. Partly through concentration over time, and partly through the character of the late-ripening Savagnin grape, the alcohol levels of the finished vin jaune are usually very close to those of a Fino or Manzanilla Sherry (I saw 14,5 and even 15% on some labels). The Tokay region is very humid and warmer, but the cellars are underground and low. And so on. The intensity and thickness of the flor is different in each case, as are the results of the ageing process, and these differences have multiple causes, including market pressures and production habits.
Now for some notes on my favourite wines in the tasting on the day of the symposium.
1). Vin Jaune
For those unfamiliar with the wines of the Jura region, several appellations may produce this type of wine in the region: Côtes de Jura, Arbois, Etoile and Château Chalon. The latter appellation only produces Vin Jaune. In all cases it has to be made from 100% Savagnin blanc (sometimes called Traminer) and cannot be bottled before December, six years after the harvest date, having spent at least five years in small barrels. It must not then be sold before January 1st seven years after the harvest, and can only be bottled in a bottle of a special shape and size (62 cl), called a clavelin.
Vins Jaunes vintage 2010
André & Jean-François Michel, Côtes du Jura
Very old-style label, for those who like that sort of thing, complete with coat of arms and gothic script titles. Yet the wine is anything but dusty: on the contrary, it seems fresh and alert, still showing some fruit-based flavours and is not over-dry on the finish. Very pleasant in this style. This wine did not appear in the catalogue and thus I cannot provide its retail price, which is probably around 25 euros.
Fruitière Vinicole d’Arbois, Arbois
Another local feature in the Jura region is the role and the quality of the cooperative wineries, known curiously as « fruitières ». Lots of complexity on the nose with aromas of dried fruit and nuts. Very nicely balanced, very fresh and with some lingering fruit flavours. Excellent. (30 euros)
Rolet Père et Fils, Arbois
Very nutty on the nose. Lots of freshness on the palate and a general impression of controlled power. This producer is one of the most regular in the region and for all styles of white wines. (30 euros)
Fruitière de Voiteur, Château Chalon
Nice level of complexity on the nose. Good substance and balance between fruit, acidity and a slightly phenological character that one often finds in such wines. This has plenty of power and length without the alcohol showing too much. Another excellent cooperative producer. (29,50 euros)
Domaine Baud, Côtes de Jura
A pleasant nose in a style rather similar to that of a Fino Sherry. Lots of freshness for this dynamic wine and a slighty chewy texture that shows a touch of bitterness on the finish. (29 euros)
Château d’Arlay, Côtes de Jura
This fine historical domain is another regular top performer of the region. This particular wine will need a bit of time to express itself fully but it has all the necessary qualities, with good freshness and balance (38 euros).
Although not all producers from the region were showing their wines here, some other producers showed decent wines in this 2010 vintage that some tasters might prefer to my pick: Fruitière Pupillin (Arbois), Domaine de Savagny (Côtes de Jura), and Domaine de la Renardière (Arbois). The others I liked much less or had some defects.
There were also some other flor wines from the Jura on show, which were younger and so do not qualify for the Vin Jaune appellation. My favourite wines from this group were those of Jean-Louis Tissot (Arbois Savagnin 2014), of Domaine Montbourgeau (Etoile, cuvée spéciale 2014) and of André Bonnot (Côtes de Jura Savagnin 2014).
Next week I will tell you about the Sherries and the Tokay Szamorodnis and give you some more technical information from the conferences as well as mentioning the excellent ageing potential of these wines as there were some examples of older Vins Jaunes that I tasted.