As I promised at the end of my article of last week,(https://les5duvin.wordpress.com/2018/02/05/different-roads-to-flor-vin-jaune-xeres-and-tokay-szamorodni/) this second article will attempt to provide more details, both technical and historical, about flor wines that were exposed and explained during the recent symposium organized at Lons-le-Saulnier in France’s Jura region.
a). Vin Jaune, Jura
These wines are followed from a technical point of view by the Beaune office of the Institut Français de la Vigne et du Vin (IFV). The grape variety used for Vin Jaune is the savagnin (aka traminer), which has been clearly identified in this region since the 16th century. Some people maintain that this grape variety produces its best results on soils of a specific type known as marnes bleues, but a local geologist gently debunked this theory, saying that Savagnin works well on many types of soil, being particularly hardy; yet other varieties suffer more (notably from hydrous stress) on these dense marnes bleus and so growers have learnt by bitter experience to plant mainly Savagnin there. Currently there are 450 hectares of Savagnin in the Jura, but not all of it is for Vin Jaune. It would also seem that regular production of Vin Jaune here is fairly recent, dating from the late 19th century as previously it happened or not and was often considered as an accident or even a problem, prior to research on the specific forms of yeasts involved in the production of the protective flor veil (voile, as it is called here and in Gaillac where some wines of this type are also produced). The grapes are harvested at a high level of maturity as this variety is capable of maintaining high acidity levels even when producing a dry wine of 14,5 or 15% alcohol. Fermentation temperatures are not particularly low, typically around 20/22°C. Malolactic fermentation is advisable on account of the danger of bacterial infections.
So, we have here a rare and complex wine whose production is still largely based on accumulated experience, even if many things are now known about the conditions necessary for its production. One of the results of the presence and growth of these yeasts of the saccharomyces family (essentially the cerevisae strains) is the production of ethanal, or acetaldehyde, and the ideal quantity of this not always beneficial substance (it is also deemed responsible for hangovers!) is considered to be around 500 mg per litre of Vin Jaune. The voile is thinner than in the case of Sherry, as I mentioned last week. The growth of this voile is also irregular through the ageing process, partially due to the struggle for survival of this particular yeast strain as there may be up to 1200 different strains present and not all of them are good news for the wine. Currently the IFV has just 300 of them isolated in their collection. Although often (usually?) present in the cellars, the yeasts can be introduced from selected strains if needed. These yeasts consume various substances such as oxygen, glycerol, acetic acid and amino acids, while releasing peptides and polysaccharides and producing the above-mentioned ethanal. For this to happen properly, the levels of alcohol need to be above 13% and the levels of SO2 below 12 mg/l, and very small doses of sulfites are required later on. The environment naturally influences the nature of the wine, as higher levels of humidity will reduce evaporation.
To finish this chapter on Vin Jaune, here are a few notes on my preferred wines from some older vintages of these wines that were presented on the day. They go from younger to older without any form of hierarchy. The oldest wines on show went back to 1996, but these wines are renowned for their capacity to age much longer still.
Henri Maire 2000, Arbois
Still seems very young. Nice balance between fruit and the naturally dry austerity that shows on the finish of almost all these wines.
Domaine Philippe Butin 2000, Côtes du Jura
Quite fine, with good balance between fruit and freshness. Complex too.
Grand Frères, En Beaumont 1999, Château-Chalon
A finely toasted edge to the nose that lifts the usual notes of nuts. This added complexity is echoed on the plate with a hint of honey and wax, even if there is no residual sugar. Good complexity.
Château d’Arlay 1998, Côtes du Jura
The aromas are richly warm, combining dried fruits of all kinds as well as the classic touch of walnuts. It also has far more fresh fruit that has persisted amongst the flavours than the others wines in this tasting. A lovely wine, vibrant and complex, that shows that age can also produce beauty.
b). Jerez, Xérès, Sherry
The only appellation in the world that is truly international in its denomination as this is written officially in three languages on each bottle: Spanish, French and English. This fact alone is enough to arouse both my interest and my affection. The region lies at the southern tip of Spain, just north of the port of Cadiz and within a kind of triangle formed by three towns: Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Jerez and et Puerto Real de Santa María. The figure that I found the most impressive was provided at the start of the first presentation of this Andalusian appellation. It is the recent and spectacular drop in the vineyard surface. From the 20,000 hectares planted in 1980, there remain just 7,000 today!
The key grape variety here is the white Palomino, which, well adapted to this hot climate, naturally produces low levels of sugar whilst maintaining good acidity. The soils are essentially of a very white limestone known locally as albariza. This results in dry wines of between 11 and 13% alcohol, the lower levels coming from the sub-regions nearest to the ocean. These dry wines, after fermentation at temperatures between 20 and 23°C, are fairly neutral and are fortified with wine alcohol to 15%. The barrels, which are old and made from American oak, then become naturally infested with flor yeasts which are present in the bodegas and the barrels. They are larger than those used in the Jura for Vin Jaune (228 litres) as they contain 500/600 litres. Another major difference here is the ambient temperature down near the southern tip of Spain. This is tempered by prevailing winds, one of which comes in from the Atlantic, bearing also considerable humidity. In order to adapt to this temperature, the storage buildings are high, enabling the hotter air to rise above the level of the barrels, and the doors and windows are kept shut at the warmest periods and opened to let in cooler air when appropriate. The floor is also watered to maintain humidity, which is not necessary in the Jura or in Tokay.
Flor yeasts are endemic by now in most (all?) cellars as this style of wine has been regularly produced in the area since the early 19th century, following the removal of a ban on storing wines in the Jerez area. Wines of the flor type are called Fino, or Manzanilla for the version produced near the ocean front. If the flor does weaken, then the fortification is increased to a level of 18% alcohol, and the ageing process becomes purely oxidative. These stronger sherries can be called Amontillado, Oloroso or, more rarely, Palo Cortado, according to differences in their characters. These are all totally dry, although sweet or semi-sweet sherries also exist, generally through the blending in of sweet wine made from another, and very different, local grape called the Pedro Ximénez (PX for short). These wines are not flor wines either and so I will not discuss them here.
As the ageing process continues for the Fino styles, the flor diminishes in thickness as the glycerin is consumed. Another specific feature of the vast majority of sherries is that they do not bear a vintage year since they are aged according to the solera system which involves blending wines together from different harvest years. There are some exceptions, that I will mention later. The term solera literally signifies an area on the ground that is occupied by a batch of barrels. The above photos and diagrams show this. The wines are blended by drawing off wine from the bottom layer of barrels and bottling it. This is called the saca (hence the term in English of sack in connection with some sherries: Dry Sack for instance is a brand name used by Williams & Humbert for their Fino). The equivalent volume is replaced by wine from the level above, always leaving air space for the flor to continue its life, and so on up the different levels, known as criaderas. This refilling is done gently in order to avoid disturbing the flor. The process is in fact more complex that this diagram shows, but it gives the general idea. Single vintage sherries also exist with Williams & Humbert since the 1920’s (and some others more recently) and these undergo a static biological ageing that does not involve this dynamic blending process using different criaderas. In this case the flor usually lasts for up to ten years. The more glycerin in the wine, the stronger the flor and both levels of alcohol and of pH also have an influence. I have mentioned the production of ethanal, but it is not the sole by-product of the flor. As to other, less desirable strains of yeasts such as the dreaded brettanomyces, these exist in Jerez as elsewhere but they are discouraged by the fortification process. Maybe all so-called « natural » wines should therefore be fortified? (joke).
Tasting of sherries
1). Williams & Humbert
The English name of this company bears witness to the historical importance of the British market for these wines. When and where I grew up, Sherry, both Fino and Amontillado, was the main aperitif drink at home and in the houses of my parents friends and relations. The owners are now the Medina family and the wines were presented by Paola Medina.
Don Zoilo Fino en Rama
Warm and complex on the nose, full with rich notes of dried fruit. profound and well rounded on the palate. This clearly shows considerable ageing which has helped develop its complexity. In fact at least 8 years for the soleras involved. Loved this wine.
PS. I also tasted recently, on another occasion, the same producer’s more basic Fino, called Dry Sack (11 euros in Nicolas wine shops in France). It was good and true to type, effectively fine in texture and nutty in its flavours. I served it during a course on Spanish wines, proving once again that most people, at least in France, have some trouble getting used to such wines. Only 1 of 12 students that evening said that they liked the wine and the same happens with Vin Jaune. A niche market I believe they call such situations.
Fino, Añada 2010 (saca octubre 2017)
3,5 pH / 4 g/l tartaric acid
This being from a single vintage is not a solera wine, but is aged nonetheless under flor. Quite intense on the nose, herbaceous (hay and straw) in its accents, with a feeling of contained power. Vibrant and very long. Aged statically for 7 years in US oak casks of 600 litres.
Amontillado Añada 2003 (saca noviembre 2017)
2,98 pH, 6.19g/l tartaric acid
A hugely seductive nose, full of hints of honey and beeswax, dried apricots, dried flowers. Very dry but powerful through its alcohol, still maintaining subtle fruit flavours, both dried and fresh. Very complex and very long finish. Loved this!
Aged statically for 14 years in US oak casks (500 and 600 litres)
2). Valdespino and La Guita
Manzanilla La Guita
origin Sanlucar, mainly Pago de Miraflores
4,5 g/l total acidity
I loved the delicacy and the expression of the nose of this but forgot to take full notes.
Valdespino Palo Cortado Viejo C.P.
I took no notes on the smell (too many Jurassiens blocking the tables!), but the palate is sumptuous, powerful and very complex, well rounded out by the alcohol but magnificently harmonious and long. One of my favourite wines in the room!
3). Equipo Navazos
La Bota de Florpower MMXV
This is a non-fortified flor wine, so only has 12% alcohol. Very fresh, delicate and with a very dry finish.
La Bota de Manzanilla 71
Great richness, long fine and powerful. Liked the complexity of this.
La Bota de Manzanilla Pasada 70 (magnum)
Austere but very long. Firmly dry finish
La Bota de Amontillado 69 (magnum)
This was the one I preferred of this series. Has a more tender set of aromas and textures, while remaining very juicy. Lots of inner substance and complexity
c). Tokay Szamorodni
Just one representative from this region of eastern Hungary (and a little bit of Slovakia too), but a very interesting one in the shape of the Frenchman Samuel Tinon, who, with his 5 hectares of vines, produces some very good wines and is perhaps one of the few Tokay producers to be really involved in continuing the flor style of Szamorodni, although he said that this is a niche product that is enjoying somewhat of a revival in some markets. It should be remembered that Tokay is a region, and not only a name for that region’s sweet wines, since these dry wines (and others) also carry the Tokay appellation. In fact, 70% of Tokay’s total production comes from non-botrytised grapes.
There are currently 130 producers of Tokay in Hungary, showing a sharp increase from the situation back when the iron curtain fell and the giant bor kombinat (state cooperative) was dismantled. Most of the initial investors in this legendary region for the production of long-lasting and mostly sweet wines came from outside Hungary (USA, UK, France, Italy and Spain), but now there are also growing numbers of smaller and mostly local producers doing their own thing.
A Szamorodni is an unusual wine as it is one of the very few (only?) affirmed types of dry wine made from botrytised grapes. It can in fact be dry or off-dry whilst including quite a high proportion of botrytised grapes, because the term itself refers to a state of the bunches of grapes that contain a mixture of healthy and botrytis-affected grapes, so the finished wines can vary as to their sugar content. This logic is similar to the one that prevails in German wine legislation with the Pradikat system. The ones that Tinon showed are not only totally dry but also aged under a veil in small barrels. The veil is quite slender, as in the case of Vin Jaune. Alcohol levels for these dry wines start quite high but stand at around 13% on the finished wines with no fortification, having reduced naturally at a rate of about 0,5 degrees per year with little loss of volume. This time factor can mean between 4 and 7 years in small barrels and underground cellars in a humid atmosphere (over 85% humidity). These wines are vintaged systematically, there being no equivalent of the solera system that prevails in Jérèz.
All the three wines tasted come from a blend of Furmint (9o%) and Harsevelu (10%).
Samuel Tinon, Tokay Szamorodni 2003
More tender and aromatic than any of the Vins Jaunes, this shows aromas of ripe white fruit, such as juicy pears. Despite this it finished perfectly dry, with considerable length and a touch that is more delicate than the somewhat rustic feel of many Vins Jaunes.
Samuel Tinon, Tokay Szamorodni 2007
The nose shows whiffs of honey and gingerbread. The texture is silky, barely masking considerable inner power that shows through to the long finish.
Samuel Tinon, Tokay Szaraz Szamorodni 2006
This one has even more concentration and complexity. Great length too.
Hope you enjoyed this two-stage trip into these unusual wines that are, as I have said, very much an acquired taste. I love them personally!