Saturday, November 26, 2016

Starving in the Jura and Sipping Vin Jaune in Chateau Chalon

(October 2016) Reminder to self: do not visit the Jura wine region on a Saturday at the end of October. It was Halloween weekend when I decided to visit the Jura wine region, one-hour drive south of Burgundy. For years I’ve wanted to travel here to taste the famous “yellow wines” or Vin Jaune of Jura. In addition, I’ve read repeatedly of the miraculous match of this wine to the Bresse chicken cooked in a cream and mushroom sauce. Little did I know that the week of All Saints Eve is a time when many restaurants and domains decide to take a short vacation in the Jura.

Jura Wine Ad on Back of Van

With tantalizing thoughts of a decadent meal of Bresse chicken and Vin Jaune on my mind, I started one week in advance to attempt to book reservations at wineries and restaurants. I was successful in booking a restaurant in Arbois for lunch – I thought – only to have them cancel the morning I departed. In terms of domains, all were closed with the exception of the tourist wine shops in Arbois. Thankfully Stephane Tissot invited me to visit their tasting room, where I had a fabulous experience.

Beautiful Vineyards of the Jura

Starving in Arbois

Departing my gite in Vosne-Romanee around 9:30 that morning in a hopeful mood that all would work out, I arrived in the small village of Arbois (the capital of the Jura wine region) just before 11am. My first stop was the Tourist Office to obtain a map and some recommendations for lunch. They were very friendly and gave me two suggestions for local restaurants. Therefore, I happily completed my tasting at Tissot (see below), and then went in search of the restaurants around noon.  Alas both were closed, and the few that were open in town were completely booked.

“Desole, desole – I’m sorry,” I heard repeatedly, until I began to hate the phrase.  Eventually I remembered that my friends had suggested I stop at Hirsinger chocolate shop. So feeling faint from lack of food and hiking what seemed miles around Arbois in search of an open restaurant, I stumbled into the shop around 1:30 and ordered a quiche and piece of chocolate for lunch.  The dream of chicken with mushrooms and Vin Jaune is still that – a dream.

Hirsinger Chocolate Shop Where I Had Lunch in Arbois

About the Jura Wine Region and Its Famous “Yellow Wine”

Nestled in the hills between Burgundy and Switzerland, the Jura is 80 kilometers in length, with six wine appellations (AOCs). They specialize in five grape varietals: Savagnin, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Poulsard and Trousseau – the later three which made a lighter style red wine.

The most famous wine is called Vin Jaune, or “yellow wine” because of its yellow color due to long aging. This wine must be made from Savignon grapes – a rather neutral grape with notes of straw and lemon. After fermentation, it must be aged 6 years and 3 months in oak with no topping. While in barrel it develops a white mold on top to create a unique, fresh oxidized wine similar to sherry. It is sold in a shorter squat 62 ml bottle, because 38% of wine disappears in barrel so there is not enough to fill 750 ml bottle – or at least that is what I was told.

Vin Jaune is a unique tasting wine that I really enjoy.  It is said to pair best with the local Comte cheese (hard cheese similar to Swiss, but with a lighter more nutty taste – can be young or aged).  It is also delicious with nuts, and the famous Bresse chicken with mushrooms and cream sauce (sigh!).

Castle with Wine Museum in Arbois

In addition to still wines, the region also produces sparkling cremants, Vin Paille - a dessert wine made by drying grapes on straw, and Marc Vin - grape juice blended with marc.

Most of the producers are very small and it is necessary to book appointments in advance to visit the domains. However, the main town of Arbois now has some open tasting rooms for tourists, including the very famous Stephane Tissot. The other legendary domaine is Macle, located in the village of Chateau Chalon.

Visiting Stephane Tissot in Arbois

Stephane Tissot is considered to be one of the top winemakers in the Jura, and was on the list of all three people that I asked for recommendations on where to visit.  The domain is known for producing very natural wines, using organic farming practices, and unique winemaking methods such as amphorae. In addition to their winery outside of town, they have an open tasting room for tourists on the main street of Arbois, which makes it quite easy to visit them – even on an off weekend when most wineries are closed.

Stephane Tissot Wines in Arbois, Jura

They were expecting me when I arrived, and I was welcomed warmly and treated to a tasting of 8 wines. All were extremely well made and showed distinctive personalities. In general, the reds were quite light, so I found myself favoring the whites. Top scoring wines for me included:

NV Blanc de Blanc Cremant – 52 months on lees, no dosage. Biscuity nose, lemon and yeasty brioche on palate. Full, textured, and long. Delicious. 17 euros.

2015 Chardonnay Patchwork – toasty nose, lemon and tart apple on palate with a sweet edge. Refreshing with high acid, clean and zesty. Saw one year in oak. From clay and limestone soil.  After spending 3 months in Burgundy, I thought this wine was very well made and a great value for only 14 euros.  I immediately bought a bottle.

2015 Trousseau in Amphora – fermented in amphora with skins for 4 months. No filtration or sulfur. Fresh, light bodied red wine with earth and cranberry notes, grippy tannins.  Fascinating.  27 euros.

2009 Seis Savagnin – named “Seis” for 6 in Spanish, the wine spent 6 years in oak and is designed to be similar to a Spanish manzanilla – not a Vin Jaune.  Lighter style but smells like Vin Jaune with apple, mineral, mushroom nose and a slight cheesy note.  A bit of sauerkraut on finish.  Seemed like a cross of an amontillado and fino.

2009 Chateau Chalon – nutty, cheesy, fresh apple cider, with complex spice and herb notes.  Very high acid, medium body, and very long finish. Extremely satisfying. 54 euros. Purchased this one.

2012 Vin Paille – made with chardonnay and sauvignon grapes that are dried on straw mats for 3 months so they become like sweet raisons before being pressed.  Next they are aged for 2 years in small oak barrels.  They produce a very sweet, light bodied wine that tastes like honey and dried pear with a refreshingly high acid.

Church in the Hilltop Village of Chateau Chalon, Jura Wine Region

Scaling the Heights to Chateau Chalon and Sipping Vin Jaune

The drive from Arbois to Chateau Chalon takes about 30 minutes, and the scenery is charming as you wind your way between small villages and pastures with cows grazing in green grass. Every once in a while you pass a small vineyard. As you get closer to Chateau Chalon the elevation begins to climb and the road twists and turns until you see an ancient castle ruin, which is Chateau Chalon – the name of the small village that is famous for producing Vin Jaune.

No one had told me that it was situated on the top of a cliff with a breathtaking view of the valley and vineyards below. It reminded me a Montalcino in Italy, with very steep cliffs plunging down to the valley, which was a patchwork of golden yellow vineyards and tiny villages with church steeples – truly magical.

View of Vineyards in the Valley Far Below from Hilltop Village of Chateau Chalon

I wandered around the narrow streets and was disappointed to discover that they have several very good restaurants set on the edge of the cliff with view of the valley below. If I only had known in advance, I would have driven to Chateau Chalon first!  Alas, the lunch hour was over, and all of the restaurants were closed. I had to beg one restaurant to let me order a cup of espresso, while I stood at the bar for five minutes.

Continuing to wander around, I saw the sign for the famous Macle winery, and decided to ring the doorbell. Eventually a woman came out and told me they were closed. I asked if there was a possibility to purchase a bottle of Vin Jaune, and she nodded yes and invited me inside a small warehouse area. Disappearing for a minute, she came back with a bottle of Macle Vin Jaune in her hand and charged me 42 euros. Even though I did not get to taste there, and was not received in a warm manner, I was still pleased to be able to purchase a bottle of the famous wine.

Domaine Macle - One of Most Famous Wineries in the Jura for Vin Jaune

Eventually I stumbled upon the tourism office that sells glasses of local wine for only 3 euros, including a presentation. I was greeted by a smiling girl, who served me a glass of Vin Jaune, while I sat at a table on a balcony overlooking the valley far below. She provided a perfect explanation of how the wine was made and why the Jura is so special. So even though I did not get to enjoy the lunch I was dreaming of, the afternoon still ended with a relaxing pause and a glass of yellow wine that I sipped with delight while overlooking the golden vineyards far below.

My Delicious Glass of Vin Jaune Overlooking the Vineyards Far Below


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Last Day in Alsace – A Castle, Palace and Restaurant Staeffele

(October 2016) During my time in Alsace I was kindly invited to stay with my Great Aunt at her house near Saverne. When I wasn’t visiting wineries, we had a chance to talk and she told me some of the family history.

She grew up in both Alsace and Ulm, Germany, just over the border.  I was surprised to learn that Alsace has changed governance five times in the last 150 years – being traded back and forth between France and Germany.  She told me she learned not only to speak both French and German, but also the local dialect called Alsatian.

Old Alsatian House in Saverne

A Visit to the Ruins of Chateau Le Grand Geroldseck

During her free time she helps restore old castles as part of a volunteer program around France.  She took me to visit Chateau Le Grand Geroldseck, an amazing ruin from the 12th century that they are starting to put back together stone by stone.  We hiked through the forest to arrive at the old chateau and found a group of volunteers pulling weeds from around the huge stones that had fallen from the castle walls.  It was a beautiful peaceful place, high on a hill, and was known as a center for courtly love.

See great Youtube video about this castle here. 

My Aunt Helping to Renovate the Chateau Le Grand Geroldseck

A Visit to the Palace of Rohan

Later in the afternoon we drove to Saverne to visit the Palace of Rohan, a large palace that was the former house of the Bishops of Strasbourg. It is a huge stately place started in 1728, which looks like a small darker version of Versailles.  Today it houses a museum and hostel, and has a large garden that sweeps down to the canal circling the city. Saverne, located in northern Alsace, is known as the city of unicorns, because apparently a unicorn horn was found in one of the castles nearby.

The Imposing Facade of Palace Rohan in Saverne, Alsace

Amazing Dinner at Restaurant Staeffele

After wandering around the charming town of Saverne, we headed to the Restaurant Staeffele where we had made dinner reservations for 7:30.  It ended up being one of the best meals I had in France during this three-month period.  The service was warm, friendly, and professional; the setting was elegant with white table clothes and flowers; the wine list was affordable; and the food was absolutely stunning in the beauty of its presentation and taste.  We ordered the 3-course dinner menu that came with around 6 amuse-bouches.  This restaurant was much better than several of the 1 star Michelin restaurants I have visited on this trip.  Not sure why they don’t have their star yet.

Fish Dish at Restaurant Staeffele in Saverne, Alsace

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Visit to Marcel Deiss – King of Alsatian Field Blends

(October 2016) The day I visited Domaine Marcel Deiss in Alsace turned out to be a very busy but delicious day. It started with a tour and presentation at the University of Strasbourg in the morning, followed by a lunch with my professor friend, Coralie. She booked a reservation at Restaurant A La Couronne in Scherwiller, where we started with the traditional Alsatian dish of tart flambĂ©e (similar to a thin crust pizza with cheese and onions – delicious), and then had three more courses plus a glass of riesling.

It was difficult to move afterwards, especially since I had the pork with mustard sauce and she ordered a mammoth plate of roasted lamb shank.  This was followed by dessert of a berry pie with ice cream.

Pork in Mustard Sauce at La Couronne Restaurant

Marcel Deiss – Harvest in Full Swing

After that lunch it was not surprising that we were one hour late to our appointment at Marcel Deiss, but owners, Jean-Michel and his wife Marie-Helene, were very kind and welcomed us immediately to tour the winery when we arrived.

Domaine Marcel Deiss is located in the fairytale Alsatian village of Bergheim, and is fittingly bedecked with flowers as is almost every other building in town. There is a modern tasting room and a winery located on the back of the property.  Harvest was in full swing when we entered, and we watched fascinated as large plastic bins of riesling, muscat, pinot noir, and other local grapes were moved from a wagon attached to the back of a large tractor and positioned close to the press.

Field Blend of Mixed Grape Varietals at Marcel Deiss (Burg Vineyard)

Walking up to look inside the bins I was shocked to see that there was a mix of white and red grapes. “Why are red and white grapes mixed together here?” I asked.

Marie-Helene smiled.  “Because we specialize in old field blends.  We are a bit like Chateaneuf de Pape in that we include a large number of different varietals in our wines, and like Burgundy, we name them after the vineyard.  This is actually the ancient process of winemaking that was used in Alsace, and we are just reviving it.”

I was amazed to learn this because I hadn’t heard of the practice in Alsace before, but was excited to taste the resulting wine.

As we watched, Marcel’s son, Mathew, who is in training to take over the operation, deftly picked up the bins using a forklift and dumped them into a large bladder press to be crushed as whole clusters. Once finished the juice would be transported to large oak foudres to ferment naturally.

Loading Field Blend of Grapes into Presss

Winemaking – Very Natural with Wines Designed for Long Aging

The large oak barrels are filled with the juice, leaving only 20 centimeters of air on top for fermentation. There is no battonage. The fermentation can last anywhere from 1 month to 1 year – depending on the vineyard, yeast, and vintage.

Once finished, the wine is topped up and left on the gross leaves until ready to bottle. For bottling there is a light filtration and minimum SO2 used – ranging from 10 to 100 ppm. Most wines are designed to age for many years before drinking.

Large Oak Fermentation Barrels at Marcel Deiss 

About Marcel Deiss Winery – “Going Back to the Old Ways”

We continued to tour the winery, and Marie-Helene told us more about the domaine.  Michel-Jean’s ancestors have been making wine in the area since 1744, but he worked in several other professions before settling down to take over the domaine.  Now they have 30 hectares of vineyards and produce around 10,000 cases per year.  They are biodynamic and have 17 employees.

The main philosophy is to “go back to the old ways of making wine in Alsace. “ Marie-Helene told us that they had found some old papers in a building when they purchased the property. The papers described some of the wines that were made in the 1800’s, as being very long lasting and that they traveled well. She explained that this was due to the high acid and tannins that came from the old field blends. It became their desire to recreate and honor the past traditions of winemaking in the region. Therefore they focus on field blends, with up to 13 different varietals, made in the most natural way possible.

Some of the Single Vineyard Field Blend Wines of Marcel Deiss

Tasting the Unique Field Blends of Marcel Deiss

Back in the tasting room, we were treated once another to over twenty wines  (this must be an Alsatian thing!). The wine ranged from exquisite to complex, with a few bordering on bizarre – but they all clearly communicated the unique personality of the vineyard from which they came.

Each wine was name for the vineyard, and the varietal was not listed on the bottle, since they were field blends. A few of my favorites included:

Langenberg 2014 – Delicate white flower nose. Melon and kiwi on palate. Lovely! Vineyard on granite base.

Grasberg 2011 – Hint of diesel on nose.  Palate with nuts, apricot, and hint of curry. Great acidity, complex. Vineyard on red limestone.

Burg 2011 – Very complex nose of herbs, nuts, muted fruit.  Refreshing acid.  Very long.  Made from 13 different grape varietals. Purchased this one!

Altenberg de Bergheim 2004 – tight with racy acidity.  Complex herbs, mineral and honey spice finish. Wow!

Schoenenbourg 2011 – Floral and mineral nose.  Follows through on palate with salty edge. Great texture, Elegant, mesmerizing. 100% riesling. We were told that this wine will last for 3 weeks after opening!