I promised (I’d had a glass or three at the time) to start a thread on Jurancon (and for properness, it’s sister appellation of Jurancon Sec), and here it is in all it’s glory. I’ve been advised before never to start on an apology, but I must admit to searching through the forum for mentions of the Appellations in the area, just to see what the collective experience is. I apologise for the length of this post, but you all made me do it…
As @Inbar said, the key watch words to understanding the South West wine areas are ‘Orthodoxy’ and ‘Hegemony’. And not positively. The Gascons and Basques have been growing grapes there for centuries, possibly millennia. Yet unfairly, the region always gets compared to Bordeaux, which seems to only suit the Bordelaise, because it keeps them in its thrall and in its shadow. The best way to understand the region is to see as somewhere more akin to Piedmont in Italy – small family growers going back generations, producing small volumes, generally for their own, and their neighbour’s consumption and satisfaction. Indeed, in the area of Jurancon (including Madiran, PdVB/Sec/Irouleguy/Tursan/Bearnaise/Cote de Gascon) there has been a concerted effort over the last decade(ish) to rebrand the sub-region as ‘Piemont-Pyrenees’. I think it suits.
I’m sure you’ll all be skimming over the potted history part, so save for its claims to being the first attempt at an AOC (a claim shared with Tokaji) in the 1300’s, it isn’t really until 1936 that things get interesting. By some minor miracle, and showing the whimsical, mystical regard for the wines in it’s homeland, it was included in the first round of AOC’s (alongside Chateau Grillet, Clos de la Roche, La Tache and La Romanee, you get the picture…). The miracle part is that phylloxera absolutely devastated the South West vineyards. In 1936 there really wasn’t much of an area to apply rules to – the only estate that has deep roots is Clos Joliette, and that doesn’t apply itself to the AOC rules anyway. Though, caveat, Lionel Osmin has concocted some nonsense story about the Clos being the first Jurancon producer. They only started in 1929, but sweet wine has been made here for centuries. It’s just that everyone else had pretty much given up commercially by then – apart from for private consumption. And despite the prices, they aren’t considered the best in the area by any French wine critic anyway (but more of that later…). Jurancon Sec, a technically different appellation, wasn’t granted AOC status until 1975.
The South West is crammed full of ancient vineyards (the only vineyard certified as an historical monument in France is in St. Mont, I have a bottle ), and ancient varieties – there are plenty of parents and grandparents of current favourites hiding in corners of many a vineyard across the region. Petit Manseng is posited to be a relation to Riesling (Oz Clarke et al), but more recent studies by Producteurs Plaimont suggest it’s the variety in commercial use closest to wild vines. It also bears comparison to Nebbiolo, in that it flowers very early, March, is thick skinned and ripens very late -sometimes as late as November. It is a wickedly difficult variety to master, has ferociously high acidity, even at extreme sugar ripeness, and according to Henri Ramonteau, it is nigh on impossible to vinify as quality wine below 14.5% ABV. The cluster of high-quality producers around the Chapelle de Rousse would heartily disagree with him. And did I mention Noble Rot? The web, and several notable wine-guides, are full of claims that there is loads/some/a little bit in Jurancon. According to the between 20 and 30 producers I’ve asked directly, it simply isn’t possible with Petit Manseng, because it is so thick-skinned, and Gros Manseng, because it is highly rot resistant. Make your own minds up, but I’ve yet to taste Saffron (like I get in Coutet) and very rarely crystallised ginger in a Jurancon or PdVB. Besides, trying to compare Jurancon to Sauternes is like comparing Bordeaux to Burgundy. It’s a fools errand. And just as Sauternes needs the early morning fog with hot sunshine, Jurancon relies on the Foehn effect off the Pyrenees producing beautiful Indian Summers that mean grapes can leisurely undergo Paserillage for extended periods. They don’t really compare.
Gros Manseng is actually the work horse of the Appellations – about 75% of plantings - mostly for dry, but also for the first tier ‘sweet’ wines (usually October harvest, I think there’s an economic imperative here, because of the late ripening of Petit Manseng, but haven’t any concrete evidence).
Then there are the mental varieties. Lauzet, another South Western geriatric, and Camarelet – an even more ridiculously ancient variety that is a female-only vine, so has to be planted in very close proximity to other vines just for it to function to that which it is planted. Their total area planted amount to about 3 square metres total. So, we’ll skim them for now, though for true vinous adventurers, Domaine Bellegarde produces a single-varietal. I haven’t tried it, but I will attest to it’s brilliance simply because last time I was there the proprietor gifted me 6 lovely cut-glass tasting glasses as a souvenir. Great guy.
The most interesting, and I think the key to the future, is Petit Courbu (although toss a coin on which article you believe, in that it may be Courbu Blanc that is part of the Appellation rules). When blended roughly equally with both the Mansengs (one for richness and the other for freshness) it produces amazing results in dry whites. As far as I’m aware, very few are trying this approach. A pity.
One of the most notable features of Jurancon is the dispersed nature of the various plots – this is no Bordeaux or Burgundy with oceans of vines - they are small islands clustered in natural, steep amphitheatres created by the local geology. They are difficult to plant, difficult to maintain, the vines don’t grow particularly deep roots, give low yields and are almost impossible (and expensive) to harvest, except by hand. The link below shows the one at Clos Mirabel (for illustrative purposes!). It isn’t the steepest, or best, but I can pick it on a map. As it happens, the vineyard is now the property of the cooperative in Gan, and the B&B above is owned by a lovely Anglo-French couple. Just don’t try driving along the road there in a storm at night. Not good for the nerves. The hospitality and local restaurant are great. The wine is so-so. (you may have to zoom in on satellite, I’m not that tech-savvy!)
There are 3 distinct geological areas in Jurancon - to the North West oligo-Miocene molasse (no less) around Monein, Cenozoic calcareous pudding stone to the East in Gan (and Jurancon itself) and Cretaceous flysch to the south (but of course). The first two are most important, producing vastly different wine styles in the two most important areas of the appellation…
Monein is the Rockstar of the appellation, the good-looking lead singer who is always front and centre at the photo-shoot. The band member who all the girls flock to. Monein is Robbie Williams. It produces lush, voluptuous, easy-to-like, and yes good, wines. But they can tend to high alcohol, and fatness in the wrong hands, or in the increasingly frequent hot vintages. Monein is where Didier Daguenau rocked up at Jardins de Babylone and tried to ride on the coat-tails of Henri Ramonteau (along with Charles Hours et al), who had majestically put Jurancon back at the top-of-the-charts.
Much as Alain Brumont resurrected Madiran, Ramonteau deserves statues to be erected all over the appellation in his honour. I have a cellar full of his wines and have bought cases. But, and I’m sorry to say this (and I’m not alone in this opinion), he’s either taken his eye off the ball, become complacent, or otherwise an incendiary mixture of economics and climate change have caught up with him in the last few years. His cellar-door prices haven’t increased in eleven (that’s 11) years. Not a cent. And whilst I still buy his wines, I now tend to buy less. They lack the je-ne-sais-quoi of only a few years ago. As for general wine-styles, grapes are much easier to ripen on this side of the appellation, will show all those tropical fruit flavours, and can have large frames, both moelleux and sec. Theres some really nice people, producing some really nice wines – Domaine de Bellegard, Charles Hours, Domaine Bru-Bache. Just remember, they’ll never be Sauternes.
Gan is Gary Barlow. Gan is also the home of the Jurancon cooperative, who produce some of the most insane value-for-money dry white wines that can stand a bit of age in the world (any TWS buyers still reading this far?). The sweet wines are nothing to write home about. Gan is also home to a cluster of producers around the Route de Chappelle de Rousse who are pushing ahead of the big hitters in Monein. This is partly because that different soil type and geology produces quite a different wine – they are more minerally driven, are usually 1 – 1.5% lower in ABV, are not as overtly sweet and the best will last twice as long as the best Monein can offer. Chateau Jolys, for years a Waitrose staple, employ malolactic fermentation on their whites to tame the sometime rawness of them (so they say).
The undisputed King of Gan, according to the critics, is Jean-Marc Grussaute of Camin Larredya. But he has quite a Peloton of competition on his shoulder. @Brocklehurstj mentioned Domaine de Souch, but also a favourite of mine, Clos Lapeyre (who share a couple of amphitheatres with Camin Larredya) , Clos Thou and Clos Joliette. The future of Jurancon Sec is most certainly held here, undoubtedly. They need investment, because these are not wealthy producers, but I just hope that Jurancon doesn’t go the same way as Cahors, where the majority have given in to pressure to simply ape the wine style found down the road in Bordeaux, and has lost its soul in the process.