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Jurancon - Questioning in the Pyrenees

I last visited the royal town of Pau and the next-door wine town of Jurancon twenty-five years ago, and a lot has changed since. First of all, I find it takes a lot more huffing and puffing to stroll around the vineyards (to be classified as Jurancon you have to be on a slope facing the Pyrenees, and slopes here mean a lot of hairpins in the car and heaven help those would be Tour de France cyclists). The second is the questioning. There seems to be somewhat of an identity crisis going on, as the current vogue is all for dry and not for sweet. Not great in an area whose renown was made firmly on the back of its vins liquoreux.

As a foretaste, we’d driven down the A10 through the flat vineyards of Sauternes/Barsac (etc) where the same conundrum arises, indeed I just read an article all about it. The grand cru chateaux, famed the world over for their sweet, botrytised wines made from horrible looking rotten gapes thick with furry pourriture, are in significant part being converted to vins secs. No need to roll the dice on whether the autumnal morning fogs will bring on the much-awaited noble rot (as opposed to the ruinous grey rot), no need to pick grape by grape to separate the sweetly rotten from the unsuitably clean, no need to try to invent sauternes cocktails to stimulate the younger generations to drink the stuff. No, pick it earlier, avoid the rot, the low yields, the chance of bad weather and, above all, the risk – almost a guarantee now – of undervalued, underpriced bottles sitting on the shelves dusty and unwanted. It’s so sad to see bottles of sauternes picked at 20hl per hectare sell for less than their dry white or red equivalents at 50hl/ha. So much for so little.

But it seems nobody wants to drink ‘sweet wine’. I guess it’s too much after dinner and these days too politically incorrect (and heavy) with foie gras as an aperitif. Thus the market for these rare wines has just vanished. Hence the grand cru chateaux all converting part of their crop to dry white. I’ve not drunk an of them as it seems to me a contradiction to drink dry sauternes, especially when the prices are not cheap and frankly, I can probably get better value from the dry white specialists in neighbouring Pessac-Leognan (with the same grape varieties and a lot more experience in making dry white wines and, perhaps, more suitable terroir).

The one thing that has not changed in Jurancon is the view. Stand on top of the right vineyard and you have unparalleled views over the rolling countryside to the sharp ridge of the Pyrenees, the triangular peaks jutting out like sharks’ teeth.

I was here for a family holiday not a wine tour, but by coincidence (honestly, my wife found the place and booked it, not me!), our house for the week overlooked a vineyard and had a glorious view of the Pic du Midi, nine thousand feet of rock and ice.

So, if for nothing other than nostalgia, I thought we could go visit one of the standard bearers and I think the biggest domain (at 54 hectares) in the region.

Domaine Cauhape, child of Henri Ramonteu, a site where they claim vines were planted back in 1558, situated on gently sloping hillsides up to 400 metres high, mainly on clay/silex soils. When I visited last time, it was all about the sweet music of autumn into winter – the ‘Ballet of October’, ‘Symphony of November’, ‘Noblesse du Temps’ (picked in December) and ‘Quintessence’ (at Christmas or even later). I presume Mr Henri likes his classical orchestras. There was some dry white, but it was cheap and frankly not very cheerful, the searing acidity of the Petit Manseng grape being dangerous for the tooth enamel unless tamed by very late harvested and raisined grapes with their abundant sucrosity. Certainly, for us back then, it was all about the vins moelleux, wines that differed from the botrytised sweet wines of Sauternes/Barsac (and the Loire or Germany), as here the sugar comes from the season, pushing the grapes into the first frosts of winter, shrivelling up the fruit and thus concentrating the sugars. Hopefully no rot in sight. Over the years I’ve enjoyed a lot of Noblesse and, when feeling flush, the occasional slurp of Quintessence.

But, as said, the world has sadly moved on, and the demand for these lovely, unique wines become as shrivelled as the grapes themselves. And hence the desire to re-invent or as any winemaker would doubtless say, to give ‘another expression to the terroir’. Basically, to try to find a market. I was pretty shocked to find the 2017 Noblesse at 15 euros a half bottle at the domaine, a sorry recompense for the work and risks involved in waiting until December before picking, and quite frankly sad to see it even cheaper in the local supermarket (and yes, I did, the shelf is now empty, I thought the least I could do was buy it). Even the Quintessence retailed at the same price as it did two decades ago. How on earth can anyone make a half decent living out of that, with such low yields (Noblesse is at 20hl/ha, a third of normal dry whites)?

The winemaking at Cauhape is a juggling act, with inoculated yeasts to get thing started, and a barrage of stainless-steel tanks and a few oak barrels for the more serious wines. When you have about 15 different wines to make, it can’t be easy, especially with such a long harvest season of 3 months plus.

I was a little bemused to see the breadth of wines on display - just starting with the dry selection there were six. The young intern who kindly served us commented that they had held a tasting of dry whites across the appellation recently and found that there was no signature theme or taste or profile that ran through. He saw that as a positive proof of diversity, but I’m not so sure. If I buy a Chablis, Sancerre, Condrieu or Bordeaux Blanc, I know pretty much the grapes involved and the style of wine, the nuances being down to geography, climate, viticulture and winemaking, but they remain shades of the same colour palette, and the essential is predictable. Here it’s not. The grape varieties differ, and the maturities can be anywhere up or down the scale. Mozart to Shostakovich.

I guess the only thing I could say is that Jurancon sec is inexpensive, the highest prices seeming to peak at about 30 euros and most of it in the teens. But what exactly can you expect for that, other that a lot of questions?

Some are thin and a bit sharp, reminding me of the old school. Others seem to mirror the sweet wines but in more dilute form. Some carry a definite taste of the richness, but also a cutting acidity, a bit sweet and sour, not really knit together. Complicated. Some are ponderous, some too light.

Of the Cauhape range, price was not a good indicator either, as in the main the 6 of us who were tasting tended to plump for the Geysir, a mix of the 5 permitted grape varieties of Jurancon, (Gros Manseng 30%/Petit Manseng 30%/Camaralet 30%/Lauzet 5%/Courbu 5%), which at 14 euros was only halfway up the range. The Canopee was the flagship of purely Petit Manseng (the sole grape usually for the sweetest wines), and it certainly carried a richness of fruit, but at 15% it was not exactly elegant and I wonder how many glasses of it you could happily drink. It was served to the G7 meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, so I bought one just to see how it would taste with a bit of age and with suitably powerful food.

There was even one last ‘fun’ wine which was an experiment, matured on the skins like an orange wine and, well, the spittoon was useful. Perhaps an acquired taste, but not ours for sure. I was left with the impression of a lot of grape varieties, maturities and wine styles all searching for a market, but I could not really say my knowledge of Jurancon sec had advanced much.

As an aside, the new modern high priest of dry wines here seems to be Jean-Marc Grussaute of Camin Larredya and though I received no response to my request to visit, I did manage to find their two dry cuvees for sale (Le Part Davant and La Virada) and the former (the eastern flank and the cheaper of the two) was the most compelling dry wine we tasted, a softened grapefruit richness without the tartness.

Time for the main event, the stickies back at Cauhape, but here there seem to be no fewer than 6 plus the two ‘prestige cuvees’. As usual, you climb the calendar ladder of concentration from October to December, though I was then surprised to see a ‘Quatuor’ which was an assemblage of the best of the 4 sweet cuvees – an odd concept in that by so doing it would seem to deplete each individual wine and I am not quite sure what the logic is in adding say the best of October to the best of December? Surely it downgrades the December and yet it cost more. Again, the 6 of us all preferred the classic December ‘Noblesse’. Sometimes I think too many choices just detracts rather than adds.

Indeed, we were kindly served the Quintessence after the Quatuor, but though I was excited by distant memories of its intense almost tropical fruit richness cut by that wonderful piercing citrus acidity, I was, to be honest, struggling, and I suspected the rather odd Quatuor was still lingering on in the glass. I did wonder if it was corked or somehow off, but our hist tried it and pronounced it good. As such I only bought one half which we drank en famille that night with my old wine friend from Pau and, of course, I deeply regretted not buying more. I could, literally, still recall the taste next morning. Truly a special wine that somehow manages to stay just within reason. I don’t like the ultra-sweet, syrupy Canada ice wines as they are too cloying and frankly one mouthful is impressive, but enough. Here, despite the barrage of apricots, quince, even pineapple, it’s all cleaned up by the grapefruit finish which leaves your palate dry and salivating for more. An excessive wine that keeps just this side of good taste. Wonderful and rare, with a truly unique flavour.

But at over three times the price of Noblesse, an indulgence. The Folie de Janvier is aptly named (January madness) as it’s 75 euros a half and, I presume, even more ratcheted up on the scale, though I’m not sure if that’s really needed. As for Noblesse, it’s been a favourite of mine for years, that easy balance between the tropically ripe and the bitingly tart, a wine that is never cloying which makes it so easy to drink. The other great sweet wines of France can all be truly grand, but they can also be heavy in the lesser years, and none of them have that refreshing, mouthwatering acidity of petit manseng, Jurancon’s calling card and pride. It also helps them age with seeming impunity.

Perhaps I should be glad that the great sweet wines of Jurancon are so out of fashion as it makes them more affordable to buy, but that’s a selfish attitude. I need to understand the dry wines better and try more, and given the glorious scenery, the royal Navarre history, the duck oriented Bearnais gastronomy, the well-trodden Camino (of Saint Jacques de Compostelle) and the weather in the Pays Basque, well, I suspect we’ll be back.

And next time I’ll visit the supermarket but make sure that I don’t leave the region without at least a bottle or two of the quintessential.

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