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Discovering Jurançon Wine

Discovering Jurançon Wine

Discovering Jurançon Wine - In France’s Hidden Corner

Discovering Jurançon Wine - In France’s Hidden Corner

The other day while walking through the airport in Paris I was drawn into the wine section for a quick perusal - as you do. Needless to say all the wines were French and the selection of Champagnes immense as only it should be in France’s capitol. There was a huge selection of good wine from all over the country but one stood out among the others for me. Right next to the €100 Sauternes, in the sweet section, was a €40 bottle of Jurançon Doux.

Why it stood out for me was the fact that it was featured right next to one of the most renowned sweet white wines in the world, Sauternes. Other than knowing it existed I had little knowledge of Jurançon wine but more to the point I had no idea what gave it the right to be placed where it was.

I live just an hour away from Jurançon and use their wines in a tasting called Discover Southwest France, my most popular tasting. I thought it pretty hypocritical for someone serving their wines not to know much about them.

It was time for some re-education and a road trip!

Discovering Jurançon Wine - In France’s Hidden Corner

Where, When, What?

The small wine region of Jurançon lies in a beautiful hidden corner of South West France in the department of the Pyrenees Atlantic. To the west is the Biarritz and the Atlantic Ocean, Bordeaux lies to the north, Toulouse to the east and the Pyrenees mountains to the south. From the city of Pau a 15 minute drive southwest will take you directly into the foothills of the Pyrenees and Jurançon wine region.

The area under vine is really small, only 1200 hectares - just under 5 square miles. Vineyards are tiny parcels of land interspersed with agricultural or livestock farmers. There are 25 communes making up the wine region, ⅔ of vineyards belong to cooperatives and the other ⅓ belong to small vignerons who enjoy artisan status - both produce great wines.

It’s hilly in the foothills of the Pyrenees and much of the vineyard land is steep and terraced with vines trellised high in dramatic amphitheatre style arrangements that face south or southeast for maximum sun exposure. By law the only way allowed to harvest is by hand so you can imagine that harvesting is incredibly physical and only for those with a high fitness level. Note to self: Don't buy gym pass, work harvest in Jurançon instead!

Weather wise, the area has a mixture of oceanic (wet and windy) and mountain (cool and wet) climates with cool winters and snow in the higher elevations. The key to Jurançon however, comes from a warm wind called the Foehn which blows south to north and along with warm summer temperatures helps with ventilation throughout the vineyard and ultimately a longer season for grape ripening.

The scenery is incredible with steep rolling hills, verdant green trees and a view from every corner. Add this to the beautiful Pyrenean mountain backdrop and it makes for quite a stunning wine region. The roads are very narrow and winding so driving in Jurançon is not for the faint-hearted. Locals, who know the roads, drive like racers  - but then again isn’t that all French drivers. 

Keep your wits about you and take your time, it’s well worth it.

Discovering Jurançon Wine - In France’s Hidden Corner

History

The Romans settled in southern SW France when they were trying to conquer Spain in the late 8 - 900’s (possibly incorrect, apologies if it is!). Vines were planted and cultivated during this time by the Romans as they did in many other parts of Europe.

Much later in the 14th Century the area became quite prosperous among the noble and Henry II of Navarre (the King of Navarre, Spain) bought land with a vineyard on it in 1552 - remember that during this time country borders and land borders were constantly changing so it was normal for a Spaniard to live there. Vineyards were also seen as a sign of wealth. He grew Gros and Petit Manseng and the vineyard became well known for it’s quality wine.

It is rumored that the well connected Henry II of Navarre moistened the lips of the newborn future king of France (Henri IV) with Jurançon wine at his baptism in 1553. It was thanks to this (and King Henri IV) that Jurançon wine became the wine used in major ceremonies of the house of France.

SO, that is why it is so famous - ah ha now I get it, but are the wines actually any good?

Discovering Jurançon Wine - In France’s Hidden Corner

In terms of wine, the main reason for the visit was to check what all the fuss was about and I wasn’t disappointed.

The area’s production is 99% white wine made from the indigenous varieties called Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng. There are other varieties but i’ll just focus on the two that are predominant. 70% are sweet whites and the rest dry whites. There is a tiny portion of red made from the Tannat grape but must be labeled AOC Bearn so i’m not even going to mention it.

Harvesting is late in Jurançon. It doesn’t start until the end of September for the Sec wines and can go through until the end of November, early December for the sweeter Vendage Tartive wines.

It’s the sweeties that have made a name for themselves so i’ll start with them.

Discovering Jurançon Wine - In France’s Hidden Corner

Gros Manseng Grapes - almost ready for picking!

Discovering Jurancon Wine

The Wines

In true SW France fashion the wines of Jurançon are produced with pride, passion and with a strong sense of heritage and history. To produce wines of quality from such small areas and with a fraction of the funding available compared to larger, more well known wine regions requires that there is more that just grapes and a press. The vignerons of the SW (well most of them) embrace their heritage and history and are passionate that their wines have the personality which portrays not only where it comes from but how it was made and why it is in the style it is. They are also very proud (some may say stubborn) people.

All wines (that I have tasted) speak of the grape variety (especially the indigenous ones) and terroir that they are produced from. In Jurançon it’s as if you can taste the calcareous soil, taste the tropical sunshine in the grapes and feel the warmth that the Foehn brings to the ripeness especially in the sweeties.

This can sometimes mean that wines taste different and unique from mainstream varieties causing some wine drinkers to dislike them, a shame and hopefully short-lived.

Take a closer look though and begin trying wines from different Jurançon producers and you will soon find out that most Jurançon wines are similar (although never the same) and are unique to the SW. They are incredibly drinkable and a bit of a find in my opinion!

Discovering Jurançon Wine - In France’s Hidden Corner

There are 3 styles of whites in Jurançon:

Dry 

Made mostly from Gros Manseng. There are many variations from young and fruity Sec to aged Special Cuvee’s depending on the vineyard. Some examples are oak aged, although lightly, and complex, others steel aged light and crisp. All wines are light, dry and have good acidity with an underlying minerality and crispness. Depending on whether you’re drinking a Sec or Cuvee there will be fruity flavours like grapefruit, lemon and pears. Sometimes there will be underlying honey although definitely not sweet and spice although never hot. Fruity Jurançon Sec is a great aperitif wine with food (as is most French wine) - in particular dried ham, fish - trout or seafood and cheese - especially goats cheese The Jurançon Sec Cuvee’s or aged versions are perfect with simple grilled white meats, grilled seafood, mushrooms when in season or aged cheeses.

Discovering Jurançon Wine - In France’s Hidden Corner

Sweeties

Made mostly from Petit Manseng although often mixed with a small portion of Gros Manseng. Just like the dry versions sweet Jurançon comes in many forms and there is a sweet wine for all occasions not just for dessert. A lot of sweeties from Jurançon have an underlying acidity that takes some of the stickiness away allowing to to be drunk both as an aperitif or as a dessert accompaniment.

For the base level Jurançon sweetie you can expect a fresh, crisp and fruity nose with fresh tropical fruit and sometimes candied fruit. Although sweet these are incredibly drinkable on their own or with desserts (not too sweet) and are great with fresh fruit. The sweeter or Cuvee versions will be more honeyed and viscous but the acidity is never lost and that is what the wines are famous for.

Of course the classic food pairing is Foie Gras with sweet wine and there is no surprise that Jurançon is the perfect partner for it. The other perfect partner is the salty blue cheese Roquefort, and any dessert with cooked fruits - especially stone fruits or tropical fruits.

Discovering Jurançon Wine - In France’s Hidden Corner

Vendage Tartive

Also known as Late Harvest Wine Mostly from Petit Manseng although sometimes mixed with Gros Manseng. These are the “vintage specific” wines that are often not made every year as they are weather dependent.

The process for these wines is to leave the grapes on the vines for a long time allowing the weather and Foehn wind to shrivel them to raisins and therefore concentrating the sugars. This process is called “Passerillage” and as you can imagine it takes a lot of grapes to make a small amount of wine (aka nectar).

Obviously the grapes need a long time to ripen and are often not harvested until late November. In fact there is a law in place that determines that the start date for Vendage Tartive grapes must be after Nov 2 every year.

The resulting wines only need a small pour for them to show their incredible concentration. Think candied exotic fruits or candied apricots and honey just to start. One thing for sure is that these wines are a flavour explosion in the mouth and well worth the treat.

Perfect with Foie Gras (of course!), strong blue cheese, dark chocolate and for those dessert people out there - steamed sticky puddings!

Discovering Jurançon Wine - In France’s Hidden Corner

My Picks:

I wanted to see the 2 different faces of Jurançon so I went to a large cooperative and a small independent organic producer. Both have a range of wines that included dry, light and fruity Jurançon wines through to high end sweet and late harvest wines. Both producers have user friendly informative websites and both ship nationally and internationally. (I am not affiliated with either producer and do not receive payment for sales or referrals)

Discovering Jurançon Wine - In France’s Hidden Corner

Cave de Gan 

The cooperative called the Cave de Gan has over 220 members that work 750ha of vines in Jurançon, that is around 60% of the total area under vine in the region. In my opinion there is a place for both the cooperative and independent grower in Jurançon and there seems to be a market for both especially since the region needs support on both sides for continued growth. For more insight into what a cooperative is see my article here on Understanding Winemaking Cooperatives

Prices here are cheaper than at most small wineries for the obvious reason of quantity but the wines I tried were good. To be honest it did feel like I was in a production line of tasters and I don’t think the seller was particularly interested in whether or not I liked what I was tasting preferring the sale over the correct choice but they have a good range and I found 2 wines that worked for me.

Grain Sauvage - Jurançon Sec 2015 - a great quaffer and a decent price.

Chateau Les Astous - Vin doux de Jurançon 2014 - sweet but with good acidity and fruit. I can’t wait for a wet Sunday so I can have this with steamed syrup pudding!

Discovering Jurançon Wine - In France’s Hidden Corner

Clos Lapeyre

I chose this vineyard for a few reasons. Firstly it is completely independent, secondly it has a great reputation and thirdly because they use organic viticulture meaning they are an Organic Winery.

I have to say I wasn’t disappointed. 

I’ve included a link to their site (above) which has a lot of great information and I was impressed with their honesty and openness when talking about their approach to wine. For a small producer they pack a big punch and the wines are great, I expect to see more great things from them. Slightly more expensive than the run of the mill stuff but worth it. I had a fantastic visit and tasting with someone who took the time to explain everything and who was very patient with my grammatically incorrect French!

Clos Lapeyre Jurançon Sec 2015 - a simple but mouthwateringly good Jurançon Sec

Clos Lapeyre Moelleux La Magendia de Lapeyre 2013 - OMG worth it just for the label!

La Vitatge de Lapeyre Jurancon Sec 2012 - a stunning oaked dry white, one of the best I have tasted for a long time!

Discovering Jurançon Wine - In France’s Hidden Corner

In a nutshell - Jurançon wines are famous in France for a reason and the main reason is history and heritage. The wines on the whole are good quality but there are some great finds that are worthy of a try. Keep your eyes open for the dry whites of the region which are gaining strength and seem to be an area of concentrated growth. The region is definitely worth a road trip as the scenery is stunning - note that the region has an “open doors” fete weekend the 2nd Sunday in December every year which would be a great pre-Christmas trip to anyone interested.

Discovering Jurançon Wine - In France’s Hidden Corner

Beautiful, rustic, rugged and relatively undiscovered - Jurançon should be on everyone's to see and to try list.

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