France’s Jura region has developed a reputation as Burgundy’s “country cousin” to the east, with strikingly similar soils in which to grow age-worthy Chardonnay. Jura’s contributions to the French Chardonnay lineup tend to be wilder and earthier than most of their Burgundian counterparts, but neither should they be equated with the oxidative, Sherry-like vins jaunes that once defined the region. The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all; wines like Les Chais du Vieux Bourg’s “l’Etoile” Chardonnay prove that all paths lead to great wine if walked with integrity.
Winemaker Ludwig Bindernagel is as offbeat and unique as his surname might suggest. This man once told Jancis Robinson, “I have no merit as a winemaker, I just have some good terroir.” Ludwig began his domaine with no prior knowledge of the Jura or winemaking, and instead of deciding to make the wine he was familiar with, he went out to make the wine he felt his land demanded. His is an ouillé, or topped-up, style, bursting with energy and texture even eight years after its initial release. With only a few bottles left in existence, it’s a near-miracle that we can share these with you today. The price is ridiculously fair, the quality is unparalleled, and the story is one of the best we’ve ever heard. It’s almost too much that this textured, deeply mineral Chardonnay is also life-affirmingly delicious and perfectly aged.
Les Chais de Vieux Bourg has an unusual origin story. Ludwig Bindernagel (or Lulu, as his friends call him) started a love affair with wine while working as a successful architect in Paris. Both he and partner Nathalie Eigenschenck had no formal training in winemaking, just a love of natural wine and a haunting feeling that their path lay through the vineyard. Lulu began studying viticulture remotely, but ultimately felt compelled to dive in headfirst and purchase a vineyard. They searched in Burgundy, but the sticker shock nudged them in the direction of the Jura, where they settled on two-and-a-half acres in Arlay, right at the center of the region. Since, their vineyard holdings have expanded to Poligny, Etoile, and even the vaunted Chȃteau-Chalon. The domaine is currently teetering on the cusp of a Demeter biodynamic certification. Their first vintage was 2002, and every year since has seen an increase in quality, expertise, but not quantity. No more than 1,500 bottles are produced in any single vintage—a truly infinitesimal quantity when you consider the breadth of their international acclaim.
This small estate has become an important point of reference for what I like to call the “New Jura.” Their wines combine the best of the region’s ancient traditions with a more modern attitude towards oxidation. While they do also make gorgeous, salty, oxidized wines, today’s Chardonnay is pure of fruit, finessed and even a little reductive (oxygen-starved). There’s electricity in the tension between the old and the new, and each bottle comes alive as a result. Their philosophy of winemaking cuts no corners. In fact, their motto is le vin se fait dans la vigne, meaning “wine is made on the vine.” Every tiny chore, from pruning to minimal tilling, is done by hand. No machinery is allowed in the vineyard, for fear that their weight will impact the soil—an interesting mix of two marly layers and a calcareous stratus, rich in fossilized oysters. As entirely organic farmers there are no pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers on property, and a strong emphasis on the biodiversity and health of the surrounding forest and the natural cover crops that it provides. Vines are anywhere from 40 to 50 years of age. Their vineyard crew is comprised of enthusiastic friends and family, who, like Nathalie and Lulu have become experts through trial and error. This is wine made by people who love each other, love their home, love the vines that provide their livelihood. Les Chais du Vieux Bourg is undoubtedly one of the most holistic and authentic wineries in the world.
Since most of the work is done in the vineyard, the primary philosophy in the winery is “let the grapes work their magic and don’t mess things up.” Fruit is processed in an old wooden basket press before fermenting and maturing slowly in neutral oak barrels. Nathalie and Lulu are fim non-interventionists, to the point that some of their natural yeast fermentations last two years before they’re satisfied with the results. “L’Etoile” is the name of a Jura village as well as the appellation (AOC) that surrounds it, and this bottling typically contains about 90% Chardonnay and 10% of the local Savagnin, which lends brisk acidity and minerality.
In the glass, today’s 2011 wine displays a luminous golden core and leads with a highly aromatic nose—a beguiling mix of minerals, herbs, spices, and fruit. There is ripe yellow apple, tangerine, and lemon shortbread. It’s remarkably complex, and deserves to be served in big Burgundy stems at 55-60 degrees of temperature to unravel those tantalizing layers of smokiness and verbena. The palate is equally hard to describe: salted lemon, oyster shell, and white peaches take precedence. Firm acidity imparts length and tension, but this really is the perfect balance between voluptuous and refined.
I can’t get enough of this wine, and neither can you because there’s almost none of it in existence. But it’s worth trying. 2011 is aged to perfection and on the verge of disappearing. This wine can stay in your cellar for the next two or three years, but really should be enjoyed right now, tonight, with tea-smoked scallops and someone who will appreciate what a rare and exquisite bottle this is.
Chardonnay 90%, Savagnin 10%
Limestone & Clay