Every year since 1997, a merry band of winemakers and faithful volunteers have staged a Bacchanalian winter wine festival in the heart of France’s Jura region. Known as La Percée du Vin Jaune, it’s the moment when the new vintage of the Jura’s famous Vin Jaune (literally “yellow wine”) is unveiled.
Made from the distinctive Savagnin grape using a process akin to that used for making sherry, protected from spoilage by a shroud of yeast and tucked away in cellar corners throughout the Jura, the wine slumbers in its barrel for more than six years. When ready to be bottled, the precious wine is drawn off from beneath its yeasty layer, transferred into stout little bottles called clavelins, labeled and released onto the market. At the opening of La Percée, a barrel full of wine is hoisted onto the shoulders of strapping young vignerons and carried through the streets. After a series of florid speeches in honor of the famous wine, the barrel is ceremonially broached, the golden liquid bursts forth, glasses are waved wildly in the air and the festival is declared open.
Better with age
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Some of the year’s Vin Jaune will be squirreled away in cellars where it will live to a grand old age. A 1928 bottle went under the hammer at $800 (€720) at last year’s traditional auction of old bottles. Much, though, will be uncorked as soon as released. The best and most typical way to enjoy this distinctive wine is alongside a pungent hunk of aged, salt-speckled Comté. In the Jura, they splash it liberally into the legendary dish Poulet au Vin Jaune et aux Morilles, a triumph of local cuisine in which a Bresse chicken is bathed in a delectable creamy, mushroomy sauce, which is enlivened with the famous yellow wine.
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 flavors and praise its structure, complexity and longevity. Vin Jaune virgins are more likely to pull a funny face, like the apocryphal Yorkshireman on holiday on Spain’s 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.
A festive celebration of Vin Jaune
For stores that stock Vin Jaune in your neighborhood, consult www.winesearcher.com.
While the Percée is a (fairly) serious affair in which the new season’s wine is honored first by the local bishop and then introduced to an expectant audience, this is chiefly a pretext for a joyous winter street party. Throngs of people are bused in from all over the Jura; many more make the trek from Lyon, France, or neighboring Switzerland. There’s even a handful of visitors from the United Kingdom, United States, Japan and China, curious to sample this extraordinary wine.
Because the Percée is held on either the last weekend in January or the first in February, the weather is always freezing, so everyone is swaddled in warm clothes. Some wear full fancy dress, others have mad hats. All are bent on having a good time, sampling and buying wine from the 70 wine growers whose stands are dotted liberally around the town.
A modest entrance fee buys a 4-ounce glass and a booklet of 10 tasting tickets. Thus, it’s quite possible to down an impressive quantity of wine between midday, when the festival opens, and 6 p.m., 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 neighboring 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) and partly to keep well-lubricated merrymakers from taking the wheel afterward.
It would be an exaggeration to say sobriety is the order of the day. Yet the Percée is famously good-humored rather than rowdy, a popular festival in every sense (drawing 40,000 visitors this year). After this year’s event, held Feb. 6 and 7, in Lons-le-Saunier, the extraordinary festival that takes months of planning and countless hours of volunteer labor will take a two-year break. This will allow the organizers and winemakers to regroup, take stock and consider whether the festival in its current format best serves the reputation of the unique wines of the Jura region. One thing is for sure: If and when the show returns in 2017, it will be wearing new clothes.
Main photo: A barrel of Vin Jaune is carried through the streets at the opening of La Percée. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style