Cool climate naturals: pioneers from the Alpes

There is no country I have visited more often than France (not counting the US but I went to New York so often that it felt more like living there). In my early twenties I did several long and adventurous trips around the country earning a little bit of money playing guitar, sleeping in parks and old bunkers, cooking mussels on a gas stove and drinking wine straight out of the bottle. It will be a little more comfortable when we go there for a three week trip this summer – I’m looking forward to it nevertheless! We booked two apartments on AirBnB, one in the Languedoc-Roussillon area, one in the Dordogne. Sun for the baby belly! And a fantastic opportunity to hopefully visit a few growers.

View from the bunker I lived near Port-Vendres

The last months our tasting focus was on French vin naturel. Using the upcoming vacation as an excuse France basically became the theme of our spring. Practicing our language skills using Duolingo and our tongues using our lovely 259 Hackney Road wine shop which is just around the corner. A week ago Milena and Florian sold me a bottle from the rare and hard to get Maison Pierre Overnoy. I went with the more affordable 2010 Chardonnay. I had one of these wines before without knowing too much about natural wine and rated it with 5 out of 5 stars. Now I know a lot more about the Maison Overnoy wines. Let me share some of it with you.

We’re looking at the village of Pupillin in the Jura area, one of the smallest wine regions in France. The climate is cooler here between the Burgundy and Switzerland. There are still old and rare varieties used to create rather unusual wines. And there is some kind of a local specialty: vin jaune. This yellow wine gets its colour and special taste from not topping up the barrels as the juice ferments slowly in oak barrels. Topping up you might ask? Well, every time you taste there is a little less in the barrel. Less liquid. Which means more air. Which means oxidation that is not desirable in conventional winemaking. So from time to time you have to “top up”, filling a little bit of similar wine in the barrel so it is full and free of air. So where does the colour come from – it’s the oxidation. Traditionally vin jaune is made from Savagnin but natural winemakers don’t care about that too much and also use other varieties.

A 2010 Maison Pierre Overnoy Chardonnay and the 2011 Les Alpes from Maison Belluard

What brings us to one of the pioneers of natural wine: Pierre Overnoy. Born in 1937 Pierre took over two and a half hectares of vineyards from his father in 1968. But other than everybody else he was aiming for organic farming and minimal intervention wines. Keep in mind that the majority of winemakers will still tell you that making a good wine without sulphur is pretty much impossible! Pierre Overnoy hasn’t used a gram of sulphur since 1986. In 1990 Overnoy got the 15 year old Emmanuel Houillon as an apprentice and the young man stayed and took over the business in 2001 when Pierre retired. That’s why you find his name on the bottles. Although they don’t use sulphur there aren’t strong tastes of oxidation, “brett” or volatile acidity (all considered as “faults” – I’d call it “unconventional”). Why? This is what Emmanuel says:

There are important guidelines to follow if you don’t want your wine to suffer from these flaws. You can’t just do whatever you want, however you want to do it. You can make sulfur free wine every year, but that means that some vintages you’ll need to be patient. Being meticulous with the grapes you are harvesting is THE most important thing you can do. Especially with the reds, if you’re not sorting through what you’re picking, it’s not even worth attempting.

Another important detail: not letting the grapes reach over-maturity. The best fruit is the one picked and eaten exactly at the right time. If it’s under-ripe, over-ripe or you let it sit for a few days, it’s going to lose some of its purity.

And selecting only the healthy grapes is so important. Watch Pierre Overnoy doing the de-stemming with his own hands:

Emmanuel Houillon has a little less than 7ha today growing Chardonnay, Savagnin and Ploussard. That’s not a lot. So I was lucky to get my tongue on the Chardonnay. Quite frankly Chardonnay is not my favourite variety, specifically when it is as oaky and buttery as many of the new world Chards are. Not surprisingly this one was better. Yellow colour, clearly unfiltered and with a creamy texture. But so incredibly intense and full of minerals. With a fat backbone of acidity and citrus aromas, a little vanilla and a looong finish. Not sure if I’d pay 36 £ again but definitively a delicious wine. As Jamie Goode said:

The result of this oenologist’s nightmare are actually rather wonderful.

And I got another one which Florian strongly recommended to try and I liked it even more. Dominique Belluard is a winemaker in the Savoie area so a little south of Jura. He took over the family business in 1988 specifically working with the variety “Gringet” which is mostly used for sparkling wine. Not by him. Farming bio-dynamically Dominique has been experimenting a lot since he started – not with additives but with the environment you can offer the grapes and the juice to let it become fine wine. Not being happy with oak barrels or steel tanks he ended up with concrete eggs (still quite rare and bloody expensive I suppose – you can see them here).

Vineyard in the Savoie region (source: vincen-t / flickr)

I got the slightly more affordable  2011 Les Alpes version. I love that Dominique clearly says on his website what he did with the juice to make it this wine. Not a lot: alcoholic and malo-lactique fermentation utilising the indigenous yeasts. It’s not crystal clear but “a bit” filtered using white earth. And with regards to sulphur: that’s about 30mg/l.

And it tastes so good. Smells citrusy but in a fruity way. And something sommeliers might call wet stone – it says loudly that it will let you taste the terroir. The acidity is strong as you might expect from this region. The slightly oily consistence helps balancing it beautifully specifically with the peach and lemon flavours, there might be a bit of almonds hidden as well. A long finish extends the pleasure of drinking this wonderful wine.

Both wines benefit from a little air and not being fridge cold. But the 2011 Les Alpes benefits more from air exposure I found. Just having a sip as I write from yesterday’s bottle (not much left over sadly) the acidity is weaker, the viscous fruitiness is more present, I like it even more. It’s generally wise to keep some of a natural wine for the next day and taste it again. Here is a simple trick to make it easier not to finish the bottle as it tastes so good: open two of them.

(Source 3rd image: vincen-t / flickr)

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