“The perfect vineyard doesn’t exist. That’s why we have different grape varieties - they have adapted to different soils and places along the way."
Etienne Thiebaud is tall and strong, with statuesque bone structure and impressive hair past his waist. He's a real farmer, based in a sleepy village in the Jura. Here, he is creating some of the most sought-after naturally made wines in the world.
There is something magical about this part of the world. It is a tiny wine region, five times smaller than Burgundy - and Burgundy is only small. Here, Etienne makes wine from Savagnin, Chardonnay, Poulsard and Trousseau, as well as a handful of ancient varieties, which Etienne farms with pride. When peering into a glass of his Poulsard de Chemenot, it seems to sparkle, and the aromas are beguiling: enough to convince anyone that magic can exist in a glass of wine.
Etienne cut his winemaking teeth as so many other growers from the Jura do: by going to school in Burgundy, just up the road, to get a wine degree. While studying, he also worked with Roblot-Marchand in Chambolle-Musigny. He shrugs and glances up, saying with a grin,
“Yeah, you know... a few grands crus, etc...”
Next, he found himself back in the Jura, where he was taken under the wings of Evelyne and Pascal Clairet, of the iconic Domaine de la Tournelle in Arbois.
Eventually, he had saved up enough money to buy a vineyard of his own in 2008. The lieu-dit of the parcel is Cavarodes, so he named the domaine in honour of the vineyard.
Since then, he has had the chance to purchase other vineyards scattered around the Jura, turning the grapes he harvests from them into wines of incredible complexity and emotion. He speaks humbly but passionately about his vineyards, as if it is an honour to be able to work with them. As we taste the wines, we start to think it's the same vice versa: the vineyards are pretty lucky to have fallen into Etienne's hands, too.
Since the beginning, Etienne has farmed organically, converting any new parcels, and now he is converting all of his vineyards to biodynamics. Plough work is done manually with his two plough horses, and a cute pet rabbit lives next door to the horses.
This vineyard lies just north of Arbois, in Cramans, just outside of the Côtes-du-Jura appellation, so is labelled as vin de pays de France-Comté, the larger geographical area term. His first parcel is his pride and joy: an ancient vineyard planted to Pinot Noir, Trousseau and around 10% to ancient Jurassic varieties - Enfariné Noir, Mézy, Geuche, Argant, Pinot Meunier and even Mondeuse. When we ask him about Mondeuse, he reveals with a subtle smile that he has also planted some experimentally three years ago.
Now, he works across eight hectares and three different soil types: limestone, clay/marne and pebbly marne with glacial moraine deposits. He says,
"The Kimmeridgian limestone soils give tension and minerality to the wines, whereas the wines from the marne soils tend to be a little broader."
The Lumachelles vineyard is actually named after an old French geologic term for the Kimmeridgian limestone soils. Meanwhile, the Messagelin vineyard sits on marne soils with glacial moraine deposits. It can be a hot site with southwesterly exposure, so is often the first to be harvested, but Etienne explains that the clay-heavy marne soils always give the wines distinct freshness. Guille Bouton is also planted on marne soils (blue and grey), but with more limestone than Messagelin. His Savagnin, "Ostrea Virgula," is named after the fossils found in the limestone soils of the vineyard. It is also a hot site, possibly even hotter than the Messagelin vineyard, he muses, with very little topsoil.
Etienne speaks so eagerly about each vineyard. As he speaks, it is clear that he's completely captivated by his work across different vineyards and varieties. He is constantly trying to learn how best to capture the expression of each site. He explains,
“The perfect vineyard doesn’t exist. That’s why we have different grape varieties - they have adapted to different soils and places along the way.”
Etienne began making his wines without any sulphur in 2014. Just as Jean-Pierre Frick emphasises, making wines without sulphur requires time, particularly the white wines which have less protection against oxidation than red wines naturally do.
This means that all of Etienne’s white wines are aged for 18 months or longer, in old foudres and demi-muids, always spending two winters in the barrel.
For his red wines, the grapes are destemmed by hand, and maceration is done infusion-style, so some carbonic maceration occurs inside the berries. The time with the skins depends on the vintage and is done by sense and taste; in some years just ten days, in others up to 30 days for Trousseau. His red wines are usually bottled after seven to eight months, to preserve fresh, fruity aromas.
They are also made in a very hands-off manner, with little exposure to oxygen:
“When winter arrives, the wines need to be a bit reduced in style. It’s very reassuring.”
This reductive style of winemaking protects the unsulphured wines. The reds are aged in large vessels, as Etienne says,
“Foudres don’t mark the wines at all, and they let the wines breathe.”
He is always playing with the line between reduction and oxidation. He says,
“It’s very interesting. The wines are reductive in barrel, but then always get a bit oxidative when bottled, but then they return to a slightly reductive state when they find their balance again.”
They are very delicate wines that embody the ethereal capacity for red wine. They are so silky that we wonder whether if we were given one blindfolded, if we’d even realise it were red in colour.
He is constantly thinking and experimenting. He disappears for a minute and comes back with his wine thief full of something golden, that shimmers in our glass. It is a new cuvée produced from his young 10-year-old Chardonnay vines, which he macerated on the skins for five days. All of his white wines are usually direct-pressed with whole clusters, but he wanted to try something new. He says,
“2018 was a big harvest, so I had some room to experiment. It was also a ripe year, so I think the maceration brings more of an impression of acidity to the wine.”
He nods to himself and looks happy with the result.
He disappears again and comes back with a bottle under crown cap and pours us a glass. We glance at each other; we didn’t even realise he makes sparkling wine - another mythical creature appears in vinous form.
It is Chardonnay from 2017. Etienne added 10% of fermenting Savagnin into the barrel as the pris de mousse to restart fermentation. It is an incredible wine.
Next, we sip his Ostrea Virgula Savagnin, which is planted on limestone and marne, with very little top soil. It’s a powerful wine, with intoxicating energy. It tastes like salt, wildflowers and wild thyme. He nods, saying,
“Yes. It’s quite vegetal today. It’s not always like that - just two weeks ago it was very fruity. We don’t know why, but the wines change all the time.”
From time to time, the change isn't always positive, and it can include some awkward phases for the wines. He speaks openly about mouse taint; a bacterial hindrance that many natural winemakers struggle with in some years. He explains,
“When it happens, it seems to happen at bottling. I took a few barrel samples to La Dive [a wine festival] and they were fine. But sometimes when they’re bottled they might suffer for a month or two. After six months, it seems to go away.”
As we taste through his wines, there is one in particular that blows us away: a 2016 Poulsard. Etienne laughs and tells us that it was mousey for six months. Now, the wine isn't even the tiniest bit squeaky; if anything it's rather the opposite; it's squeaky clean. It is a testament to the old saying, "time heals all wounds."
The Cavarodes wines are spellbinding wines that live, breathe and evolve in the glass in front of you. They are so much more than wine: they are places and emotions captured in a glass. The Jura, and indeed the wider wine world, is lucky to have this young man at the helm of his domaine.