09 June 2011

jura bike trip: domaine macle, château-chalon

In Donald Barthelme's short story "The Glass Mountain," the narrator scales the face of a mountain, enduring bitter winds and the taunts and jibes of skeptical acquaintances below, only to be disillusioned upon attaining the summit, where the enchanted symbol he's been seeking turns into an "ordinary princess." The unspecified symbol, with its "layers of meaning," had been worth the narrator risking his life for, whereas a princess, quantified and familiar from fairy tales like the one that inspired "The Glass Mountain," can be discarded without remorse.

After our picnic among the vines below the village of Château-Chalon, we climbed a mountain to reach the cellars and tasting room of Domaine Macle, whose little-seen, essentially undistributed wines remain the enchanted symbol of the whole strange appellation.

From where we had picnicked to the village proper was either a long circuitous bike ride, or one Fitzcarraldo-like triage up a cliff. J suggested we leave the bikes amid the vines and return for them after the tasting. In typical fashion I lobbied for the Fitzcarraldo option, dreaming already of the killer descent from the village. To my surprise, my friends went for it, and we hauled up the mountainside like idiots, sweating landslides.

When we arrived, I noticed my back brakes were no longer working. Something had popped off. J promised to check it out before we left the village.

It didn't take us long to find Domaine Macle's premises. Château-Chalon, the town, is about the size of a hawk's nest. The Château-Chalon the AOC, decreed in 1958, comprises three other villages in addition to its more melodious sounding namesake: Ménétru-le-Vignoble, Domblans, and Nevy-sur-Seille. It covers Savagnin wines made in the Vin Jaune style, only slightly more rigorously controlled: where grapes destined for ordinary Vin Jaune must be harvested at brix (sugar level) allowing for a minumum potential alcoholic degree of 11.5%, the AOC of Château-Chalon stipulates 12%. Both Vin Jaune and Château-Chalon must then be aged for 6 years and three months after the harvest, during which time the wines age sous-voile, or beneath of veil of flor, a yeast which, as in Jerez, allows for a beneficial, slow-ripening process of controlled oxidation.

Considering that the painstaking, labor-intensive, nigh-on profitless production of ordinary Vin Jaune is so deeply market-disoriented, it's almost laughable to think that the producers of Château-Chalon got together to brand their wines apart on the basis of better sites and a commitment to 0.5% higher minimum alcohol content. It's not like Vin Jaune itself is some overextended commercial supermarket wine à la Marsala. Vin Jaune is still, wherever you look, wincingly expensive - such that I truly cannot fathom who is making all the ubiquitous French Bresse chicken recipes calling for it. The whole situation is headscratchingly perverse, and somewhat wonderful.

The idiosyncrasy of Château-Chalon reaches an apotheosis of sorts in Domaine Macle, who self-distribute their wines and implicitly insist that eager buyers make the pilgrimage out to remote Château-Chalon to be individually screened before purchases will be allowed. The real punchline? The wines are worth the journey, and they're very inexpensive.

Domaine Macle was founded in 1850, and practiced mixed agriculture until the 1960's. They work 12ha of vines total, 8ha of Chardonnay and 4 of Savagnin. Current winemakers Jean Macle is the 6th generation of the family ownership. He was busy in the vines the day we passed by, and we were received by his mother, the tiny beehived-coiffed Mme Macle, who was very kind about having four sweating Americans in biking gear grill her about her family's wines.

We began with the 2007 vintage of their Côtes du Jura blanc, a blend of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Savagnin, aged two years sous-voile in ex-Meursault oak.

Well, it's stunning. The Jura in general can be a challenging wine region, with quality being defined in markedly different terms to elsewhere in France and the world at large - but it takes about one sniff of a wine like Macle's Côtes du Jura to understand that this is the style of wine that has enraptured sommeliers from Paris to San Francisco for decades. It could be an ambassador for the region, presenting as it does an index of all that is graceful about oxidative winemaking. Vivid flavors of roasted brazil nut, curry, and green olive; a precision-engineered palate as patient and persistent as the processes that created it.

I'd compare it to that Grizzly Bear song "Knife," in which all the divisive elements that make that band unique - eerie falsettos, swooning tempos, dynamic orchestration - are corralled into a single, unimpeachable pop classic.

(J, who'd made the tasting appointment in the first place, doesn't actually like oxidative wines. He's cool on Marsala and unthrilled by Manzanilla. But he digs Macle, which says something about the persuasiveness of these wines.)

We then tasted two of the estate's flagship wines, the Château-Chalon vin jaune, from 2003 and 1976.

Surprisingly, the wine from 1976 showed significantly fresher fruit. I'd expected softer, but fresher was a surprise. Fresh apricot, tamarind, curry and toffee. I suspect that 2003, the current vintage, is wearing it's 6 years 3 months in oak a little primly. It was still an impressive wine, but hard, impenetrable, all drawbridges raised. (I was unable to bring myself to purchase a bottle after the tasting, because it depressed me too much to think how old I'd be when it was finally ready to drink.)

Finally we tasted Domaine Macle's Macvin, which tasted a lot like a fine Macvin. It is hard for me to get excited about Macvin, sort of the billy-club of fortified dessert wines. Macle's gets points for a nice bright flavor coherence and crisp candy-apple finish.  

Mme. Macle then took us down into the 16th-century cave, where the Côtes du Jura and Château-Chalon age in barrels with little spouts attached beneath the surface, so the wines can be sampled by a winemaker without disturbing the veil of flor.

As we passed stores of ancient vintages of Château-Chalon, Mme. Macle was quick to point out, without provocation, that they were absolutely under no circumstances for sale. I gather it's a question she hears a lot. She explained that they keep a library of their wines and usually have recourse to open them only in the event that a longtime client voices a complaint about an older bottle; in such a way the Macles are able to verify themselves whether there was something wrong with the vintage, or even the storage conditions of a particular lot.*

In the cave, J thought to ask Mme. Macle a very interesting question, to which she gave a very interesting response. He asked if they produced any Côtes du Jura ouillé, or topped-up. (Ordinarily wines in barrel are periodically topped up with the same wine, to prevent oxidation as the wine slowly evaporates and the level in the barrel decreases. This is of course not done for wines intended to age sous-voile, as the oxygen contact is critical for the veil to form.) Mme. Macle grinned and said that yes, her son Jean had made some wine that way as an experiment, but that his father was very much against the idea for reasons of tradition and typicity.

And needless to say, under no circumstances could we purchase any. Also produced at Macle, but unavailable, are negligible quantities of Crémant du Jura blanc and rosé (both sold out during our visit), and a whisper of still rosé, which Mme. Macle assured us was really just for their family and the friends who came to harvest with them.

Crémant du Jura: perfect for any occasion.

We thanked Mme. Macle for her welcome, and were about to set off on the screaming downhill plunge out of the village, when I remembered that my brakes weren't working. I was in luck, however: Jean Laurent Macle happened to be passing by just then, and from his toolshed he kindly donated the screw and the washer J needed to fix my brakes.

* I can already envision the likely results of such verifications. 'Well, ours is showing fine. You must have stored yours beside a radiator or something. Merci!'

Related Links:

Jura Bike Trip: Excuses
Jura Bike Trip: Saline Royale d'Arc et Senans
Jura Bike Trip: Anecdotes from a brocante in Arbois
Jura Bike Trip: Overnoy Oversight
Jura Bike Trip: Chez Bindernagel: Les Jardins Sur Glantine
Jura Bike Trip: Marmara Kebab, Poligny
Jura Bike Trip: Picnic Dans les Vignes, Château-Chalon

An awestruck 2008 visit to Domaine Macle @ L'OeilSurLeVin
An extremely informative 2005 visit to Domaine Macle @ LeBlogd'Olif


  1. Only just discovered your blog by chance (thanks Google) and so coming across these Jura posts a little late in the day (and yet to read the others). Congratulations!

    However, I wanted to post a small correction here: the father (husband of Mme Macle who you met) is Jean, now mainly retired, and son, who I guess you met at the end is Laurent. They are fabulous wines indeed and Jean always says that his Ch-Chalon should not be touched before it has been in bottle for ten years. I can't wait to taste Laurent's Savagnin Ouillé that I've only recently heard about.

  2. hi wink! thanks so much for reading, and for the corrections! i'll make them now... with regards to the cotes de jura ouillé, i have a few bottles here in paris, would be happy to crack one open if ever you pass through. (although, to be honest, the one we opened the other night had kind of a squashed, dense character. i imagine it will improve with time.)