The Jura, located between Burgundy and Switzerland, has come to represent France’s last enclave of untarnished, unadulterated, old-fashioned farming in the minds of modern-day drinkers here in the U.S. While some of the limelight can be chalked up to a curious counterculture narrative, one can’t discount the fact that an overwhelming percentage of its wines are downright delicious. So much so that outsiders like Burgundy’s Marquis D’Angerville – with their now four-year-old Domaine du Pélican – have moved in to try to unlock its mysteries. The Jura’s recent and rapid propulsion into wine geek stardom, though, has largely been based on its sous voile whites – aged under a veil of yeast, recalling Sherry’s exotic, warming, nutty characteristics, but with a trademark all their own. It makes sense. The wines share a whole vocabulary of flavors with the other famous local product – Comté – as though the conversion to cheese by coagulation and the conversion to wine by fermentation both magnify some distinct gustatory component that coats everything in the region but is undetectable to the naked senses. There is little else like them in all the rest of the winemaking world. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to say that “yellow wine” is the Jura’s schtick. But the vignerons have another darling – something barely richer in color, temperamental yet so beguiling that it lured winemaker Bruno Ciofi away from his home region of Alsace: Poulsard. Ciofi, in turn, has managed to tame the beast. He’s now turning out some of the most beautiful renditions of the variety that even the natives have encountered.
Ciofi discovered the elusive Jura red while working for Domaine Pierre Frick in Pfaffenheim. Frick drew inspiration from Jura legend Pierre Overnoy to go au naturel; sampling Overnoy’s first ‘sans-soufre’ (made without the addition of sulfur) bottlings convinced him that the benefits of nixing the safeguarding preservative allowed for greater intensity of the wine’s expression in the glass, and outweighed the risk of increased sensitivity to poor storage conditions. But those exploratory tastings produced one unexpected side effect: Ciofi was hooked. He started amassing bottles of Poulsard for further study. Fast-forward to 2006, Pierre Martin, owner of Arbois’s Domaine de la Pinte, was on a hunting trip in the Vosges when he ran into a vintner neighbor of Frick’s – one Ginglinger. He mentioned to the vigneron that he had a domaine in the Jura and that he was looking for a viticulturist. “Ginglinger mentioned my name,” says Ciofi. “He must have said something along the lines of, ‘I know a crazy guy who is always making us taste that Poulsard stuff you guys make.’” Within two years, he relocated to Arbois – not as a viticulturist but to run the whole estate.
The Poulsard variety has larger, plumper berries than its Jurassien red compatriots Pinot Noir and Trousseau. Its color on the vine is slightly lighter – a ruby sheen to pinot’s violet. Its berries are also so succulent they could easily make table grapes – fine skin, lush pulp and a small but ripe pip lacking any harsh, bitter notes. At harvest time, Poulsard is the preferred snack. The other reds, if sampled straight from the bunch, are quicker to tend to bitterness from woodier, crunchier seeds and more obvious skin tannins. The finished wine is not for those that require heft from their reds; it lands far left on the spectrum of yogi to body-builder. Like painting in watercolor rather than oil – still as layered and complex but without the thickness of excess material on the canvas to create obvious texture. It is often able to show more fine detail as a result – inflections of spice, flowers, or tea… ferrous tones from the ribbons of blue marl that run all throughout the region. Ciofi claims to always have had an affinity for light reds, adding that he dislikes that the term ‘light’ has a negative connotation. “It’s better to say ‘digeste’,” he says, throwing out the French descriptor that has no equivalent in English but ought to, if only for the facility of talking about wines like poulsard. (It means easy to absorb or digest – a capacity to deliver pleasure without feeling rich.) But of all the digeste reds out there, Poulsard speaks to him the most.
Perhaps it’s the fact that the variety is difficult to work with, posing a challenge through its tendency to reduce. Reduction is a state of starving for oxygen and can produce aromas of sulfur compounds like burnt matches. If not as closely monitored as a baby and fed enough oxygen in its early stages of fermentation, a whole tank of Poulsard can begin to smell funky. François Duvivier, who makes the wine at D’Angerville in Volnay and is now also running the show at Pélican, just recently vatted his first cuvée of 100 percent Poulsard from parcels acquired from Jacques Puffeney. He admits that making Poulsard has proven trickier than making Pinot Noir due to reduction and to fermentations that take longer to complete, which can also contribute reductive odors. “But if you give it a lot of attention and care, such as pump-overs that sufficiently aerate the wine and making certain that the temperature of the tank is warm enough,” he says, “it becomes easier,” adding, “it has been very exciting to vinify a wine that I love.” And, as notes Jean-Michel Petit of Domaine de la Renardière, reduction is the very reason Poulsard can age gracefully in bottle over ten, twenty, even thirty years. He opened a couple of bottles from the ‘90s to prove his point. Ciofi went one step further and pulled out a 1983 and a 1971. Blind, the 1971 tasted like it could easily have been twenty years younger – its evolutionary flavors of dried fruit and leather just framing a core of still fresh red fruit. I also overheard the two affectionately refer to the variety as “pou-pou”.
So, in part because of all that fuss, there is something magical about well-made Poulsard, and Ciofi seems to have found the recipe not long after taking the reins at Domaine de la Pinte in late 2008. He made changes in order to simplify the winemaking – to boil it back down to the basics. After hand-harvesting, he destems, but not thoroughly, so that when the fruit has filled the cement tanks, some stems and leaves remain in the mix. “I like having a little bit of that imperfection in there,” he says. “I like what it adds to the finished wine.” He lets the juice ferment naturally, without any cultured yeasts or other additives, giving the must a lot of air via pump-over like Duvivier describes – twice daily once the fermentations have started (this year, they started just hours after the tanks were filled). After cuvaison, the wine ages for around nine months in wooden foudres that have seen many vintages. It comes out every so slightly nervy – a bundle of energy and vibrant redcurrant fruit, with a finish long enough to suggest it has a future ahead of it like that 1971.
Ciofi likes for his team to taste and share wines from other regions – a sort of continuous education that I suspect reveals to them how special their own work actually is. Despite constant exposure to wines from Burgundy, the Loire, and beyond, the harvesters this year took particular pleasure in sampling local Poulsard, even from the anonymous, unmarked bottles that were passed around. It didn’t matter who had made it or what the vintage was; the wine was just easy-drinking and spirit-lifting. Ciofi could be heard from his seat at the head of the table, preaching on the wine’s versatility, “Like I always say, you can start with a Poulsard and end with a Poulsard!” Towards the end of harvest, as the daily schlep into the vines seemed to wear more cumbersome on the group, and the mid-day family meals grew more and more lubricated, his mantra morphed, more impassioned, from statement into mandate: “Like I always say, you must start with a Poulsard and end with a Poulsard…” Domaine de la Pinte is truly a sleeper estate – not widely known on the international scene save for the few in the know. And Poulsard has become its hallmark, with other Jura talents calling the transplant winemaker for advice on their own production. The craftsman, after years of working with other varieties, has finally found his medium. Ciofi loves Poulsard. Poulsard loves Ciofi.