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Australian Winemakers Lifting the Veil on ‘Sous Voile’ Wines

Wines Of Now
3 June 2021. Words by Olivia Evans.

In this edition of New Voices in Wine, Brisbane-based sommelier Olivia Evans tells us about a few Australian winemakers freewheeling with a unique biological method of maturing wine in barrel, inspired by some of the wines of Jura in France and Jerez in Spain, to bring a whole new flavour profile to wine. But the conditions have to be just right in the cellar for this little wonder of nature…

The ‘sous voile’ wines of the Jura are one of the most talked about styles of modern times. The technique of using flor yeast during ageing, while uncommon among New World wine producers, is being explored by Australian winemakers.

France’s ancient Jura region has long been enticing wine drinkers with its speciality, vin jaune. From that first waft from a freshly opened bottle, vin jaune lovers can revel in memories of fistfuls of popcorn, jersey caramels, the indescribable smell of winter and mum’s roast chicken. Then throw in a jar of Hugh Grant’s apricots soaked in honey from his fridge in Notting Hill. This is a wine of deep expression that encapsulates what it means to be complex. It has caused many drinkers to raise a curious eyebrow over their glass. There are layers, there is savouriness; there is so much to sit and wonder about. In an era of experimentation, when winemakers at home are comfortable in their freedom of choice and drinkers are becoming open to adventure, what better technique to challenge us than the use of flor?

Opposite and above: wine ageing in barrel under a layer of flor.

The Jura is a region of forested mountains and marvellous soil intricacy. The Jurassic era was named after these mountains, as it was here that the geological soil formations of the age were first studied. Vin jaune (‘yellow wine’) is a distinctive local offering made strictly from 100% savagnin grapes using only flor yeast, and is aged ‘sous voile’ (‘under a veil’) for a minimum of six years. It is a process that involves not-quite filling barrels with wine, leaving a pocket of air. The yeast forms a film over the ageing juice in the barrel, through a process known as biological ageing. The yeast protects the wine by acting as a barrier against oxygen. It causes a much slower development of characters, while also slowly imparting flavours from the yeast itself that, when compared with a regular barrel-aged wine, creates flavours that parallel the sensation of eating the pooled salt at the bottom of a chip packet, or the singed corners of toast that make butter taste like caramel. The bits you ‘shouldn’t’ have, but you relish anyway. It’s not just about the body, rather about the layers underneath; the ringing acid, the deeply coating texture, the golden-hour hue in the glass.

“Temperature is also important, and don’t ever feed it after midnight… no wait, that’s Gremlins!”

Flor can be likened to a physical blanket that forms, one yeast particle at a time, until it completely covers the juice. It smells like a sourdough starter, and almost looks as though an inch-thick layer of dust has settled on the surface, but although its form appears solid, its cotton-wool texture would dissipate if disturbed, like a ripple in still water. Flor yeast thrives in parts of the world where humidity is high and temperatures are cool, as they are in a cellar. Fino Sherry from Jerez in Spain is another example of flor-aged wine – but unlike vin jaune, Sherry undergoes fortification and is saline and bright, the perfect way to start a meal.

After many visits to Jerez, Belinda Thomson, second-generation winemaker of the esteemed Crawford River Wines in Victoria’s Henty region, decided to grow her own flor yeast, trying to coax it into some of her barrels for a number of years before finding the right balance of ambient humidity, acidity in the wine and an alcohol level below 15%, as the flor will die at a higher alcohol percentage. The wine is bottled under her own name, Belinda Thomson ‘Sea Party’, and is a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, aged under flor. Tasting of crunchy peach and sea salt, it is unfiltered and carried by a vibrant acidity that makes for a wine where texture is perfectly woven into richness and freshness. Flor is a temperamental yeast that needs favourable conditions to survive, and Thomson suggests that growing flor using indigenous yeasts will create a stronger strain, making it more resilient to its given environment. “It needs a good level of humidity to succeed, but is also very much connected to natural soil, pH and acidity conditions,” she says. While she has grown flor successfully in two other vintages, she has found she does not have the right cellar conditions to sustain it during the hot part of summer.

Above: Belinda Thomson at Crawford River. After many visits to Jerez, she decided to grow her own flor yeast, and has made a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, aged under flor, which she's bottled under her own name. Opposite: Bryan Martyn at Ravensworth. “Flor yeast is very sensitive. It can’t compete with other yeast strains, wines that are too acidic, or wines that aren’t acidic enough,” he explains. “Temperature is also important, and don’t ever feed it after midnight… no wait, that’s Gremlins!”

This is a proverbial bump in the road that Bryan Martin is all too familiar with. “Flor yeast is very sensitive. It can’t compete with other yeast strains, wines that are too acidic, or wines that aren’t acidic enough,” he explains. “Temperature is also important, and don’t ever feed it after midnight… no wait, that’s Gremlins!” His Ravensworth cellar is in Murrumbateman, the cool-climate heart of the Canberra wine district, where Martin ventured down an alternative path to bring flor into his cellar. Flor yeasts rarely live in newer wineries, so Martin sourced a strain from the Australian Wine Research Institute that was extracted in 1947 and reinoculated in his winery. His inspiration came from a wine he had tasted by a producer in the Côtes de Provence, of all places, where flor ageing is completely untraditional. The Clos Cibonne winery made a rosé and left it ‘ullaged’ (with air between the wine and the top of the barrel) so it developed a light flor – or ‘florette’, as Martin calls it. For Martin’s own wine, the flor was left to age over two years without it ever being tasted, partly because the yeasts may have died if it was disturbed, and partly because the flor looked so cool. His wine, only made once in the 2017 vintage, is called ‘Rosé de Florete’ and was produced from nebbiolo grapes. It is remarkable, savoury and unique – a wattleseed Turkish delight. Hunt one down, if you can. If not, beg him to make it again.

There is such versatility within flor-aged wines that one can start and finish a meal while sipping from the same bottle. There is a place for them with snacks, through both delicate and unctuous dishes, and with dessert, if you could possibly string the bottle out for that long. For instance, you could bake a lasagne and notice the béchamel characters oozing out of the wine in the same way the cheesy white sauce pours over layers of mince and pasta. This comes from a powerful aroma compound called sotolon, which is a lactone commonly found in flor sherry and vin jaune. So this wine will slip very comfortably alongside any dish where we might find elements of caramelisation or burnt sugars. It could also be glugged down with oysters, providing a saline lick to each sip. You could sit with a noodle soup, spicy or not, and find that the rich viscosity of each liquid is intensified by the other. They don’t compete; rather, they create a generous wash of fatty textures that finish with an unexpected freshness, forcing you to dive in again.

The great ones are balanced. Take Brash Higgins ‘Bloom’ Chardonnay (McLaren Vale, South Australia), BK Wines ‘Yellow Wines Blue Sky’ Savagnin (Adelaide Hills, South Australia), La Petite Mort ‘Sous Voile’ Marsanne (Granite Belt, Queensland) or Brave New Wine ‘Bouche’ Riesling (Denmark, Western Australia) as a selection of avant garde producers who have produced delicious examples. James Halliday hailed the 2015 Crittenden Estate flor-aged savagnin (Mornington Peninsula, Victoria) as “quite possibly the most exciting white wine in the country”. Exciting indeed, given that the Australian drinks community has become so much more open to exploring lesser-known varietals.

With the use of flor yeast enchanting a curious group of Australian winemakers, we can expect to see some more gems appear – when conditions allow for it, of course. They won’t be limited to the traditional use of savagnin grapes, but an array of varietals that will create an individual expression of flor, along with the intricacies that each chosen grape has to offer. That’s the beauty of experimentation. Try as many as you can, for their rarity and individuality are bound to take you on a profound and flavoursome journey.

Bryan Martin's 2017 Ravensworth Rosé de Florete.

 

About New Voices in Wine:
Applications are now open for New Voices in Wine – our mentoring program to fast track the development of aspiring wine writers and publish their works at younggunofwine.com. The process includes mentoring sessions designed to help develop a piece of writing, as well as provide the opportunity to tap into the broader wisdom of some of Australia’s very best food and wine writers, such as Pat Nourse and Sophie Otton, who were the mentors for this article. We want to find new voices to join the more familiar ones, to give new writers and communicators a chance to provide their own unique take on the world of wine. New Voices, we want you – apply now!

About Olivia Evans:
Olivia Evans is a certified sommelier and drinks advocate based in Brisbane, previously of Fleet Restaurant in Brunswick Heads. She is currently responsible for the sales of Lo-Fi Wines in Queensland. As well as a budding storyteller, she finds importance in those making meaningful contributions to the environment through wine, farming, food and community.