What a Little Oxygen Can Do

Paul Blow

Of all the vinous delights that come to us from France, one of the least known is vin jaune—yellow wine—from the Jura, the small area in the foothills of the Alps next to Switzerland, home of Comté cheese. The bulbous, wax-sealed bottle looks different than other wine bottles, and what’s inside tastes different, more like sherry than Sancerre or Chablis.

Vin jaune tastes different because it’s made differently: It’s partially oxidized, like fino sherry. In most wines, oxidation is bad—it’s what happens when your wine sits open for a couple of days. But a little oxygen, yeast, and age transform vin jaune into something wholly new.

Good barrels will develop a thin layer of yeast, called the voile. (Sherry develops this yeast too; in Spain it’s called the flor.) In a standard dry table wine, all the yeasts die off, and the wine is filtered and put into barrel, bottle, or tank. But in the Jura, with the correct climatic conditions, one yeast strain survives and flourishes. Its growth is encouraged by not topping up the barrels; evaporation year after year leaves more room for oxygen, normally a no-no in aging wine. The Savagnin wines will remain undisturbed under voile for a minimum of six years, during which time the thin layer of yeast stays alive by feeding on the straggling mites of unfermented sugars, some alcohol molecules, and a few other odd things. The result is a very dry wine that has become deep, golden, and rich.

Vin jaune is made from the obscure grape Savagnin Blanc. The name looks like Sauvignon Blanc, but don’t confuse them: The Jura’s grape tastes different—brighter, less herbaceous—and is only really grown in the Jura. In a good year, the Savagnin will be able to hang on the vines well into November, developing all the flavor and ripeness needed to make good yellow wine.

Unlike its fortified cousin, fino sherry, vin jaune is kept at its natural strength, about 13 to 15 percent alcohol, and is typically drunk after a meal, perhaps with some Comté and nuts. When young (that is, just over six years) the wine can still be quite crisp, with ripe pearlike fruit, that distinct green walnut note, and a meadow flower perfume. Over time—decades, even—it becomes richer and rounder, with the nutty notes joined by sweet green herbal notes, honeysuckle, and elder flower, and a rich caramel or cream note. A whiff of ginger and curry is also not unusual.

Once opened, a vin jaune can last up to two weeks, so there’s no rush to finish it. There are two top producers whose bottles are most readily available. One is Jacques Puffeney; his vin jaune is notably delicate, yet balanced and lovely. Domaine André et Mireille Tissot is another—its vin jaune is richer than the Puffeney but equally delicious.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow Chowhound too, and become a fan on Facebook.

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