[A shorter version of this article appeared in FT Weekend, 14th February 2015]
The diocesan bishop of Saint-Claude in France’s Jura region stands facing his flock, which is packed sardine-style into the tiny twelfth-century church of Montigny-les-Arsures. Arrayed in a semi-circle behind him are members of the honourable company of Les Ambassadeurs des Vins Jaunes, resplendent in primrose-yellow robes and floppy fur-edged hats. In front of the altar sits a small wine barrel, awaiting benediction.
After a spirited sermon in which he draws elegant parallels between the qualities needed to make good wine and those required of a fine upstanding Christian, the bishop blesses the barrel. It is then hoisted onto the shoulders of some strapping young vignerons and carried through the streets to the chateau of Montigny, where beneath fluttering snowflakes a huge crowd huddled under hoods and umbrellas listens – with only occasional heckling – to a series of lengthy speeches. Finally the barrel is ceremonially broached, the wine bursts forth, glasses are waved wildly in the air and the festival is declared open.
This is the annual Percée du Vin Jaune, when the Jura, one of France’s smallest wine regions, proudly unveils the new vintage of vin jaune, its most celebrated wine. Made from the distinctive Savagnin grape according to a process akin to that used for making sherry, the wine has slumbered in a barrel in the corner of the cellar beneath a protective veil of yeast for over six years. Once ready to be bottled, it is drawn off from beneath its veil, transferred into stubby little pint-sized bottles called clavelins, labelled and released onto the market.
Some vin jaune will be squirrelled away in cellars where it can live to a grand old age (a 1928 bottle went under the hammer at €720 at this year’s traditional auction of old bottles) but much will be uncorked as soon as released. Typically the wine is sipped alongside a pungent hunk of aged, salt-speckled Comté, or used to enrich the legendary sauce au vin jaune et aux morilles in which Bresse chickens are wont to bathe.
Many people expect vin jaune to be sweet. In fact it is shockingly dry – think manzanilla sherry rather than tawny port. Seasoned tasters invoke spicy, nutty flavours and praise its structure, complexity and longevity. Vin jaune virgins are more likely to pull a funny face, like the Yorkshireman on holiday on the Costa del Sol upon meeting his first olive. They are caught off guard by its dryness, and find disconcerting hints of curry, resin or boot polish. It’s definitely an acquired taste.
While the Percée is a (fairly) serious affair in which the new season’s wine is honoured by the bishop and introduced to an expectant audience, it is chiefly a pretext for a joyous winter street party. I joined milling crowds bussed in from all over the Jura, plus many more who had made the trek from Lyon, neighbouring Switzerland, Belgium, with a handful from the UK, the US, Japan, and China. Everyone was swaddled in warm clothes (“how about holding the Percée in summer?” suggested one festivalgoer), some wore full fancy dress, others had mad hats, all were bent on having fun, sampling and buying wine from the 70 wine growers whose cellars and stands were dotted liberally around the village.
The 14-euro entrance fee buys a 120-ml glass and a booklet of 10 tasting tickets (3 of which may be used for vin jaune, the rest for sundry whites, reds or Crémant) so it’s quite possible to put away 1.2 litres of wine between midday when the festival opens and 6 p.m. at closing time (and many do). Happily, leaving the event under your own steam is not just discouraged, it’s impossible. Fleets of shuttle buses ferry people in from neighbouring villages and towns, a precaution designed partly to keep cars out of the small towns and tiny villages that play host to the festival (the venue changes every year), partly to keep well-lubricated merrymakers from taking the wheel afterwards.
While it would be an exaggeration to say sobriety is the order of the day, the Percée is good-humoured rather than rowdy, a popular festival in every sense (33,000 visitors this year). As I set off back to the car park in search of my bus, arms wrapped around a precious carton of wine, a band of unsteady revellers proffered me their – by now – empty glasses. “Sorry”, I grinned, “no corkscrew.” “Pas de problème”, they reassured me, gave me their benediction and waved me cheerfully on my way.
The next Percée du Vin Jaune will be held 6-7 February 2016 in Lons-le-Saunier, www.percee-du-vin-jaune.com
Sue Style was a guest of Les Ambassadeurs des Vins Jaunes