David, Mary and I arrived in Geneva early on a crisp October morning and, after collecting our rental car, set off for the town of Arbois, crossing the border from Switzerland into France. It was a beautiful ride along steep, sinuous mountain roads.
We arrived at around 11am in Arbois, a commune in the Franche-Comté region of France. Some fun facts about Arbois: it is where good ol’ Louis Pasteur was raised. As well, it is one of the top wine-producing areas of the Jura, renowned for its Vin Jaune and Arbois AOC wines.
On arrival in Arbois, our first stop was at Patisserie Hirsinger, a wonderful café and chocolate shop. Our second stop was about one block down from the café: Vinaigres de Vins du Jura. There, we met master vinegar-maker, Philippe Gonet, and his daughter in his shop chock-full of vinegar, wines and condiments.
Monsieur Gonet did not begin his working life making vinegar. Originally, he worked in winemaking but, as he started reading books by Louis Pasteur about vinegar production, he gradually got more interested in the challenges that that process presented. In 1993, he made his first stab at production, buying cheap Vin Jaune wine at the supermarket and turning it into vinegar. His goal was to make a variety of vinegar no one else made – Vin Jaune is a unique, oxidized wine that sits in oak barrels for just over six years.
Telling us about his earliest vinegar-making efforts, Monsieur Gonet had to chuckle when he recalled how bad the first batches were. He quickly realized that he needed good Vin Jaune wine to make good Vin Jaune vinegar. Initially, he had to work very hard to get wine from producers – they were highly skeptical of his efforts. All of them thought that Vin Jaune was too strong to ever yield a successful vinegar. Since then, Monsieur Gonet has come a long way. Today, his vinegars are used in Alain Ducasse’s kitchens and Vin Jaune producers contact him to try to sell their wine.
We visited Monsieur Gonet’s aging cellar which was incredible. Dating from the 17th century, it was full of both oak and chestnut barrels containing vinegar. The barrels were sourced from wine makers in the region.
After touring the cellar, we tasted through Monsieur Gonet’s full range of vinegars. Today, that range includes not only a Vin Jaune vinegar but vinegars based on other wines from the region, ranging from Chardonnay to Poulsard.
As we were tasting, Monsieur Gonet advised us to spit the vinegars out because it would be too much for our stomachs. For the most part, we did as advised. It was only because his vinegars were so good that not everything made it into the spit bucket! We knew immediately that we wanted to import his vinegar and Monsieur Gonet broke out a bottle of Crémant du Jura Rosé (made by his father-in-law, Jacques Tissot) to celebrate our new relationship.
Our first batch of Monsieur Gonet’s vinegar just arrived in the shop – we have his Vinaigre de Poulsard, Vinaigre de Vin Jaune and Jurabalsam Jaune Léger. The Poulsard is aged for two years and is an oaky, acidic vinegar that is light pink in color. It works really well on salads, tempered with a little olive oil. Monsieur Gonet’s flagship vinegar, the Vin Jaune, is well-balanced and not quite as acidic as the Poulsard – it’s recommended served with fish, shellfish, sushi, chicken or a walnut and Comté salad. The Jurabalsam is aged for ten years in oak barrels and has grape must added to it. Its notes of honey, coupled with a refreshing acidity, make it ideal for deglazing shellfish and fish of all sorts.
Stop on by the shop and ask us for a taste – we’ve opened a couple of bottles behind the counter and would be happy to sample out these wonderful vinegars!
Kurt Gurdal is the General Manager and lead cheese buyer at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.