Vincent Van Gogh believed that most of his 800 or so paintings were failures (an assessment shared by most of the art world at the time). Today, even “minor” Van Gogh pieces are prized by museums and collectors. Novelist Pearl S. Buck once remarked that “some of the biggest failures I ever had were successes.” If your ambition is something close to perfection, even your relative failures can be very good when considered on their own terms.
This notion occurred to me recently, when Jean-Francois Bourdy, the 15th-generation winemaker at the historic estate Caves Jean Bourdy, visited the shop. The Bourdy estate is in the Jura, the section of eastern France wedged between Burgundy and Switzerland, in the foothills of the Alps. Jean-Francois was good-humored and charmingly rumpled, with a wild shock of graying hair and a curled mustache. He confessed that he is more at home on a tractor than in a suit going to sales meetings. We tasted through Bourdy’s soft, impeccably made red, white, and sparkling wines, and then his vin jaune, the Jura’s signature strong yellow wine made from the indigenous Savagnin grape.
To make vin jaune, late-picked Savagnin is fermented slowly, and the resulting wine is poured into 60-gallon wood casks. Nearly all modern white wines are regularly “topped up” in barrel to avoid contact with oxygen, which would destroy its fresh fruit flavors and eventually turn it to vinegar; but no such topping up is done in the production of vin jaune. Instead, as the wine evaporates and oxygen fills the growing head space at the top of the barrel, something magical occurs: a thin veil (or voile) of yeast spontaneously blooms on the exposed surface of the wine, partially protecting it from oxidation. The wine is aged sous voile for an astonishing six years and three months, and the end result is an intense, concentrated golden wine redolent of salted nuts, dry caramel, sometimes even curry. It is one of the wine world’s true originals.
Not all barrels of Savagnin that set out to become vin jaune succeed. The microbial voile is a delicate thing, and sometimes it simply disappears three or four years into the aging process. Winemakers must carefully monitor their barrels, and if the voile dies, they must quickly bottle the wine before it spoils. But what to do with this not-quite-vin jaune? Many Jura winemakers sell it as simply “Cotes du Jura Savagnin,” usually blended with conventionally made (i.e., non-oxidized) Savagnin wine. They are often cagey about their use of wine that failed to make it to vin jaune status, sometimes insisting that the oxidative note in their Savagnin is just a flavor characteristic of the grape.
When Jean-Francois Bourdy poured us his Jura Savagnin, I made a comment about “failed vin jaune,” and to my surprise he agreed without apology that that’s essentially what his Savagnin is. “For a delicate yeast layer to last for over six years, and for the wine to not spoil in that time, is nearly unthinkable,” he said, and only the Savagnin grape has been shown to be capable of doing it. “So yes, if it only lasts for three or four years, it is in some respect a failure, but it is still a remarkable thing.” The proof was in the glass of Savagnin in my hand: it wasn’t vin jaune, but it was awfully delicious, full of character and backbone. It was just the thing, I thought, for a medium-aged version of Comté, the Jura’s signature cheese.
Appropriately enough, something similar occurs in the development of Comté. We at Formaggio Kitchen have special fondness for Comté, especially those by master affineur Marcel Petit. Unlike most of our cheeses, which we sell at one or perhaps two stages in their develpment, we carry as many as seven different ages of Comte, each distinct from its shelfmates.
At Fromageries Marcel Petit, the cellar masters, led by the chef de cave, constantly monitor each wheel’s development. Some wheels will be sold as young as 7 or 8 months of age, when they have direct fruity flavors and a pliable texture; at this stage, Comté is one of the world’s great melting cheeses, perfectly suited for fondue or baked pasta. Other wheels will be judged suitable for cellaring for another year or two, and a select few will make it to 36 months or even a bit longer.
As Comté ages, it gains complexity, and its flavor profile shifts from fruity to savory. Instead of pears and grass, you will begin to taste onions, beef broth, and perhaps toasted hazelnuts. The texture also changes, from fudgy and pliable to hard and studded with crunchy protein crystals. Well-aged Comte is generally considered the most desirable and commands the highest price in the marketplace, but Petit’s cellar masters would bristle at the suggestion that the wheels sold young or in middle age are failures. Rather, they view each wheel in isolation; some are at their best young, while others are best with age. Like Van Gogh’s paintings, each has its own merits and charms, and even the youngest are excellent examples of the cheesemaker’s art.
Pairing the Jura’s Cheese and Wine
To pair Comté with Jura wines, follow the general rule of youngest to oldest with both:
• Sweet, fruity young Comtés, like Petit’s Trois Sapins, Melodie, and Les Granges, are best paired with wines on the same end of the flavor spectrum. The Jura’s willowy, fruity reds will do nicely, like Bénédicte and Stéphane Tissot’s unsulfured cuvée of Pinot Noir, Poulsard, and Trousseau. 2014 Tissot “DD” rouge, $24.95 (available in our Cambridge and South End locations)
• As Comté ages and becomes more savory in character — Le Fort and Fort St. Antoine are aged between one and two years — so should your choice of wine; this is where Jean Bourdy’s rich, faintly saline Savagnin shines. 2009 Caves Jean Bourdy Côtes du Jura Savagnin, $29.95 (available in our Cambridge location, and in the South End with 24 hours’ notice)
• Petit’s Grand Cru and Extra Grand Cru are aged for three years or longer, developing strong flavors of cocoa, caramelized onion, burnt sugar, and roasted nuts. They are a natural companion to powerful, nutty vin jaune, like Domaine de Tournelles’ version. 2007 Domaine de Tournelles Vin Jaune, $86.95 (available in our Cambridge and South End locations)
Mike Healan is a wine buyer and cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.