“We may be drinking wine from the same bottle, but we’re not really drinking the same wine. The energy of the person - that changes the wine. We all have different experiences."
is a winemaker who gives a proper, firm handshake, and whose rugged farmer hands are twice the size of yours. He’s very down-to-earth; you immediately feel comfortable in his presence. As we’re chatting, we realise that he’s actually expressing deeply profound notions, but they’re just being told in such a matter-of-fact way. It's as if almost everything that comes out of his mouth could be quoted.
That’s the thing with Jean-François. He has become a true icon of the wine world; his emblematic wines are what so many winemakers dream of; but he’s done so not by trying to impress anyone, or by trying to make fine wine. He has just done what feels right to him; in the vineyard and in the winery; and out has popped some of the finest, most moving and sought-after wines in the world. It all comes down to one word: a word that defines how the best wines are made... instinct. Jean-François has bucketfuls of it.
On arriving in Hameau de la Combe, in the south of the Jura, we feel a little like we've landed right in the middle of a fairytale. We gaze around in awe at the small bundle of houses that seem to be suspended in time: stuck somewhere in the mid-18th century. Not only that, but they somehow seem to have haphazardly dropped from the sky collectively, all on their own: that’s how distant regular town life seems here.
None of the houses have signposts (if you live here, why would you? You know all of your neighbours on a first name basis) so after a bit of wandering around and looking confused, we're relieved to find an old barrel lid leaning against a tree: Domaine Ganevat.
We knock on the door and out comes a bounding Jean-François who greets us with the aforementioned bear-like handshake.
He takes us to a barn next door to sit down and chat. There's a little sign on the wall that says "sens de la vie," which means The Meaning of Life, with an arrow next to it pointing in the direction of the door. Is it meant to be tongue-in-cheek, we wonder? Get out of the cellar and into the vineyards?
We sit down opposite him at the table, where we find ourselves surrounded by 30 bottles of wine. Jean-François has a reputation for making over 100 cuvées in some years. He pours some Antide into our glass and says,
“We may be drinking wine from the same bottle, but we’re not really drinking the same wine.” Jean-François points to my fingers, wrapped around the stem of my glass, and then back to his own. “The energy of the person... that changes the wine. We all have different experiences.”
We nod slowly, taking in his words.
It doesn’t matter whether you're sitting in a hamlet in deep rural France, or in the middle of a city somewhere on the other side of the world, or even on the moon for that matter. We all have the capacity to connect with the wine in front of us, but at the same time, we must always respect that every person has different thoughts, different tastes.
The beginnings of the Ganevat family can be traced back to 1650, when the family was not just involved in winegrowing but also in the raising of cattle, and the production of milk and cheese. In 1982, this side of the family business halted as Jean-François’ father decided to focus wholly on wine.
Jean-François went to Burgundy to learn with Jean-Marc Morey in Chassagne-Montrachet, but when he returned to the Jura, it dawned upon him that he wished to do things a little differently. He muses,
“Through tasting various wines of our region, and further afield, I had noticed that something seemed to be missing in the wines where the farming involved chemical herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers etc. Something was missing in terms of harmony and balance, whereas the wines of my grandfather and great-grandfather had this balance.”
He pauses for a minute and pours us some "Julien en Billat L'enfant Terrible du Sud," before continuing;
“I think I had realised that synthetic chemicals did not equal quality. There was a disconnect. So, like Pierre Overnoy, I decided to faire du vin comme autrefois - to make wines with a nod to the past.”
He pauses, chuckles, and winks;
“Back then, nobody wanted our wines. 85% of our wine was sold here!”
At the beginning, he was all on his own, and now he employs fifteen people. He also has herds of young winemakers who flock to work with him during harvest: to go to the Jura to work with the Master himself is a little like learning how to play the guitar with Brian May.
“Young winemakers come here from abroad, as harvest interns. It’s good for the region; it’s good for us. It’s important for conversation.”
Jean-Francois farms 13 hectares of vines in the Jura, which create his domaine wines. These vineyards are tended biodynamically, including the use of natural plant-based products such as orange oil to decrease the use of copper used in the vineyards.
“You know, it’s pretty simple… here in the south of the Jura… this area; it’s always been agricultural. We’ve never had a lot of money. When chemical farming came about, at the time, it was expensive. So, we never had many chemicals here!”
He works with the predominant Jura varieties of Chardonnay, Savagnin, Poulsard, Trousseau and Pinot Noir. Savagnin and Pinot Noir are two of the oldest varieties of vitis vinifera in the world, and there is a chance that Savagnin could indeed be the parent of Pinot Noir and the closest relative to the wild vine, which predescends vitis vinifera.
He also holds the key to a couple of ancient plots where he fiercely safeguards approximately 25 varieties of ancient, indigenous semi-forgotten varieties such as Petit Béclan, Gros Béclan, Portugais Bleu, Isabelle and Enfariné.
In 2013, he also launched his négoce label, "Anne et Jean-François Ganevat" (Anne is his sister, who makes the wines with him), due to devastating losses from frost, to be able to support his family in the years where nature hands him cruel cards.
Even then, it’s not always easy, he explains.
“In 2017, it was hard to even buy grapes as a négoce… the climate across France, well… to put it in one word, it was catastrophic.”
At Ganevat, they were frosted three nights in a row; on the 17th, 18th and 19th of April. The frost affected 95% of their vineyards. It was a huge blow.
This means that under his négoce label he now works with everything from Syrah from the Rhône to Riesling from Alsace. Sometimes these appear as single vineyard wines, sometimes as cross-appellation blends that break every preconceived rule you may have of what is vinously possible. Ever thought you could make a wine blended from Chardonnay, Savagnin, Viognier, Clairette, Picpoul, Grenache Gris and Aligoté, let alone one that is profound?
Jean-François has one winemaking philosophy that's louder than the rest:
“It’s simple. I have always wanted to make wines that I want to drink.”
He makes wine with a hands-off approach; the key ingredients simply being whole bunches for the reds, and time for the whites.
The cellar is full of different vessels; everything from old Burgundy barrels, to amphorae of all shapes and sizes and large, to old Austrian foudres.
“In terms of foudres, I like large old Pauscha [a cooperage] foudres a lot. They give a direct approach to the wine somehow.”
His white wines are made from Chardonnay and the ancient Jurassic variety, Savagnin, one of the ancestors of Chardonnay.
“Savagnin is capable of achieving such incredible depth, and the acidity is always more pronounced. However, farming in the way that we do means that we’re able to make Chardonnay in the same vein as Savagnin; our pH levels are remarkably low.”
His white wines are always aged on the lees for at least two years. They seem to always have a stamp of salinity running through their core. We ask him where it comes from.
“It comes from balance, that saltiness. Always from balance.”
He continues, pouring a glass of Chamois du Paradis 2015. At 14.5% alcohol, it's a number that would make many cock their head to one side.
“People… they’re too scared. They’re scared and so they bottle too soon. “Sun Vintages;” they need to be left alone. The third year of ageing brings something incredible to them; some kind of freshness; which gives them their balance. This only comes with time... with age.”
“Meanwhile, with cooler vintages, ageing gives them a certain fleshiness, while refining them. It brightens them somehow.”
“The longer you wait, the more you gain...” he winks.
“For red wines, we leave the bunches as they are; we treat it like an infusion. It’s as if we’re making tea. The stems give spice and herbal notes to the wines.”
The wines are almost always bottled without sulphur, but if Jean-François feels that a cuvée needs it, he'll add a "homeopathic dose." This is a method that consists of adding a micro-dose of sulphur (sometimes undetectable) but that is believed to have the same effect on the wine.
Every season brings with it its mysteries. In the winter, Jean-François explains, the wines’ tannins are marked. Then, as the cellar warms up, the tannins somehow “fall out” of the wine. The red wines are always incredibly pale. We pick up a Syrah/Grenache blend from the South of France and we're completely confused; it is a fair bronze colour, almost translucent. He sees us looking at it with our eyebrows furrowed, and he laughs.
“It’s a mystery, I know! I think our yeasts do a lot of that. Dark wine… well… it just doesn’t happen here.”
We nod, and realise that part of the magic of these wines lies in Jean-François' inherent trust in the microbiology of his cellar. It's the microorganisms that know how great wine is created, not the human beings, and isn't there an untold magic in that?
Want to take a nosedive into a wine so mineral you wonder if there's limestone in your glass? Want to taste a wine that's made from seven different varieties, from across the whole of France, but that tastes exactly as if it's from the Jura, with a little more shimmy?