Brad Hickey was making chardonnay but didn’t want to make ‘another’ chardonnay. What he’s ended up with is one of the most exciting wine releases of 2016.
Only just bottled, the 2008 Brash Higgins “Bloom” is a rule-breaking version of Vin Jaune.
“The wine didn’t start out as an eight year project. I realized that I’d rather push the envelope rather than just release something that was going to blend into the landscape. We started to see exciting development in the wine after three years: becoming nutty, oxidized and a bit funkier. We didn’t set out to make a Vin Jaune. We were travelling backwards watching the wine evolve.”
Lifting the veil on Jura
So what is Vin Jaune?
If you hang around wine bars you’ve no doubt heard of Jura. A region of France, about an hour by car from Burgundy towards Switzerland, the wines of Jura come in a range of wine styles – white, pink, red, still, sparkling, sweet – but the most iconic of all is Vin Jaune, which translates to “yellow wine”. It’s a wine that is matured oxidatively in barrel “sous voile”, under a veil of yeast, like Sherry’s “flor”. Vin Jaune wines have savoury characteristics that resemble dry Fino Sherry but, unlike Sherry, they are not fortified.
By French AOC law, Vin Jaune can not be bottled until 75 months after harvest and must be made entirely from the Savagnin (not to be mistaken with Sauvignon) grape. However, other sous voile wines from Jura can be made with Chardonnay.
Randall Pollard began importing wines from Jura just over 10 years ago, and they’ve become an increasingly familiar site on wine lists in recent years.
“I joke with Jon Osbeiston [legendary wine merchant in Sydney], he might have been the first to import it, but I was the first to sell it.” They are confronting and challenging wines that can easily polarize. “We put some time into promotion and it took off quite well.”
Pollard’s business, Heart & Soil, represents the wines of Jura’s leading names: Jean Macle, Jacques Puffeney (just retired), Stephane Tissot and Jean Bourdy. “Bourdy’s got wines going back to early 1900s that I can order now and have in two or three months time.” (Vin Jaune are extremely long living wines.)
The Vins Jaunes Pollard imports retail for around $180-$240. Expensive wines to make, they are released at around eight years of age and around 40% of the volume is lost to the Angel’s Share through barrel maturation. “I don’t think any producers are getting rich making Vin Jaune wines, that’s for sure.”
A very fortunate mistake
Hand in hand with the growing interest from wine hipsters, our local winemaking foray into the style was given a push thanks to a labeling blunder in a Spanish nursery. In 2009 it was discovered that Australia’s grapevine plantings of “Albariño” [inverted commas] from Spain, supplied as propagating material to the CSIRO back in 1989, were in fact Savagnin, the native grape of Jura. Oops.
Rollo Crittenden describes it as “a very fortunate mistake”. Whereas he was initially devastated to discover their Albariño wasn’t Albariño, he’s now employing the sous voile techniques with their Savagnin grapes and says he’s “far more excited than I ever would have been making Albariño.”
“Although we didn’t get what we intended, we got something better.”
After 2009, Crittenden travelled to Jura on an education mission. Their sous voile Savignan is called “Cre de Couer” (cry of the heart), it’s a passion project.
Crittenden has vintage 2013 maturing in barrel under a layer of Sherry flor he’s cultured from AWRI’s library of yeasts. He says he’s not far from bottling the wine. “I’m not looking to replicate the Vin Jaune style per se. We’re not doing the full six years. I don’t want it to be stark and yellow. It’s sort of somewhere in between. It runs that tightrope of characters that would normally be seen as faults but when handled in moderation can really bring benefits to the wine.”
Everything is a remix
Different strains of yeast are going to have different biological effects on a wine, and flavor is the biggest impact of flor on wine. If you’re ever able to taste the layer of whippy white flor that rests on Sherry wine in a solera, you’ll see that the flor in each barrel has a slightly different taste. Brendon Keys of BK Wines is another producer with Savagnin aging under a flor – and he transplanted this flor which had grown naturally on some apple cider vinegar he made.
But flor is by no means essential to a little oxidative handling in the winery. Taking ideas from Jura, Jarad Curwood (Chapter Wine) let his 2013 Sauvignon Blanc oxidise slightly to bring a savoury nut character to the wine as a balance to the intense fruit sweetness that came from a fast and hot vintage.
As New York filmmaker Kirby Ferguson pointed out, everything is a remix: Sugarhill Gang sampled the bass riff from Chic’s “Good Times” in the 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight”, and the same baseline has since been sampled dozens of times from the likes of Grandmaster Flash to Will Smith and beyond.
It’s exciting to think what other Aussie remixes of Jura wines may come.
Hickey, tongue firmly in cheek, reckons, “We’ll probably see a rage of winemakers with older barrels of chardonnay selling wine.”
A version of this article first appeared on Executive Style