“If you own and farm your vines, the wine becomes an image of your own personality. You make your own wine, with your own feelings, and your own love.”
is a winemaker who believes that great emotion can be found in a bottle of wine. That emotion, however, he reminds us adamantly can only be transported to the glass from vineyards that are farmed organically. He underlines that wine is not a necessity: it isn’t like corn or wheat which is essential for food production. This makes us think in ways we haven’t thought before; there really should be no excuse for chemically treated, unhealthy, unhappy vineyards.
He also believes that the wine he makes reflects his personality. As he changes and grows, so do his wines. He is a man that never stands still, but continues his quest of trying to improve his wines, year on year.
Not only is Stéphane a posterboy for organic farming, he is also one of the beacons of terroir expression in wine: the neverending quest of a winemaker-farmer to portray the soils and mesoclimate of a specific vineyard in the glass itself.
As we walk with Stéphane through the vines, he explains that the two vineyards on either side of the dirt track are composed of entirely different bedrocks: on one side it is lias marne, whereas on the other side it is trias marne: varying amounts of limestone with clay from millions of years ago. He also has separate vineyards that sit on Jurassic limestone on much rockier soils with very little clay. He is very proud to have this differentiation of soils, and explains that this is why the Jura is capable of creating wines with such distinct personalities. The topic of minerality has been widely debated, with many critics saying it isn’t possible to taste the soil type in the wine. For Stéphane, however, this doesn’t even cross his mind. He is adamant when he says,
“If you take Chardonnay, for example, if it’s planted on limestone here, you get something more mineral: fine, delicate and salty. Lias clay will give you more bitter characteristics: citrus, but also something spicy. Trias clay gives a much larger wine, something more rustic, with very smoky aromas. These soils are millions of years apart, and the sediment is totally different, so the wine will be totally different.”
As we sit sipping and moving from glass to glass, we truly taste this in the wines. The way he explains it is not romantic or whimsical: it is matter-of-fact and the wine in the glass itself is the evidence.
Stéphane’s grandfather had what was a typical farm in those days: 2.5 hectares of vines and cows for milk and comte cheese production. As was common, when it was time to pass on the estate, it got divided up between his four children, so Stéphane’s parents began their own winemaking journey with less than one hectare, but working in polyculture meant that wine was not their sole income. The 70s and 80s saw the boom of chemical agriculture and what Stéphane describes as “unclean viticulture,” but he emphasises strongly that his parents always chose to farm sensitively, without herbicides, instead ploughing the land.
His parents began to focus more on viticulture, and slowly built up the estate to a sizable 18 hectares, which Stephane has doubled over time to 35 hectares today. As a young man, he began working together with his parents in 1989, with his first vintage in 1990. He also spent five years working in Burgundy, and this ignited a passion in him to see what he could achieve with Chardonnay in the Jura. His winemaking style has evolved greatly over the years to where it is today; to the wines that have seen him achieve wine stardom. He remembers how his first Chardonnay wines were fairly oaky and made with lots of batonnage, giving richer styles. Today, he works the opposite way: with no batonnage and with old oak, but it was a gradual process. This process of personal evolution is a key part of what he finds special about wine:
“I think at the beginning, when you start to make wine, it’s very easy to make a wine more concentrated, more woody, or more powerful. That’s what I did, and it was interesting and exciting at the time. It’s just human nature - maybe it’s our way of proving we can make that kind of style. You can compare it to learning how to cook...”
While the vineyards had never been treated with herbicides, they weren’t fully organic when Stéphane took them over. He started to meet other winemakers from other regions, in particular the Loire, when he went to visit clients of his, such as at Lafayette Gourmet in Paris. He fondly remembers encounters with Nicolas Joly of Coulee de Serrant and Nady Foucault of Clos Rougeard. These were winemakers producing incredibly moving wines, and farming organically/biodynamically. He says,
“It was the mid-90s, and this was when the rise of organic viticulture was just starting. Before, organic farming had been perhaps more of a political engagement, but now it was also being used with the goal of creating really good wine too.”
It was the quality of these wines that inspired Stéphane to start working organically in 1997, and by 1999 he was certified. The next progression was to biodynamics, which he feels gives a more precise form of viticulture. All of his vineyards are certified by Demeter. He says,
“We’re proud to have been working organically for 22 years now. It’s a much cleaner form of viticulture. It is sad when you see great terroirs that are wasted by unclean viticulture. Organic or biodynamic farming is important to show identity and typicity.”
He says he is relieved to see that a new, younger generation of emerging winemakers and farmers seem to be more interested in organics, or as he calls it, “clean viticulture.”
It is this clean viticulture that he believes allows us to better showcase the Jura's unique differentiation of terroirs. Geologist, Brenna Quigley, explains that the Jura is composed of various geologic formations from different eras.
During the Triassic period; 200 million years ago and earlier; soils were dry and continental. These are known as "Trias" soils. Then, Pangaea flooded, which brought a period of time when the soils went from from dry and muddy, to entirely beach-like. The soils that were produced between these time periods are nicknamed “Lias” soils. They do not represent a true geologic time period, but rather fill in the gap from the Triassic ("Trias”) soils to the Jurassic soils, the latter of which brought us the famous limestone found in parts of this region and across Burgundy. She explains,
"So, when we speak about "Lias," this tends to be more limestone-rich, whereas "Trias" has more clay. Sometimes, growers in the Jura will also actually refer to some vineyards as being Jurassic. When they say this, they are referring to the true hard limestone, which is usually found at the top of the slopes."
He emphasises this when he says,
“Wine is for pleasure: for sharing. We share bottles with people to understand and discover something new. But wine isn’t necessary for living, like food is - it’s a different agriculture in that regard - so it seems even more stupid to use chemicals in viticulture. If wine is for pleasure and for education, then it doesn’t make sense to drink chemicals. I hope one day that all wine will be farmed organically...”
For Stéphane, it isn’t just organic viticulture that’s the key to the future of the region. He is a firm believer in the importance of massal selection, not clonal selection. Massal selection is the process of reproducing vineyards from several plants, whereas clonal selection revolves around just one plant. He says,
“It is so important to keep the genetic diversity of the past. If you choose one clone, it’s like having loads of the same brother. Maybe that one clone is the “best,” but it’s the choice of those who want to control life a bit. If you use massal selection, it gives you more complexity in the wine and represents the real population of the vineyard.”
He explains that by using massal selection, you will achieve more complexity, as various plants will give different characteristic: some will give more ripeness, some will give more acidity, some will give more flavour. In addition, he emphasises that it’s important to use the massal selection technique to preserve history:
“If you plant using clones you kill all the potential genetics of the past, and that is completely stupid. It’s important for the quality of the wine, but it’s also important for genetics.”
He also allows the vines to continue to grow in the vineyard, preserving the apex (the tips of the shoots). He explains that this results in smaller grapes; so a smaller yield; but it preserves the acid.
Stéphane works with the five key varieties of the Jura: Savagnin, Chardonnay (as well as a rare pink-skinned mutation of Chardonnay), Poulsard, Trousseau and Pinot Noir. The Savagnin and Poulsard are planted on soils where there is more clay, as they need cooler temperatures and more humidity.
His method for making his wines has changed a lot over the years. The first was a simple change: to use only the yeasts that were naturally present on the grapes. He had returned from an internship in 1990, in Australia, where he had used packet yeasts - the same ones that he had used in his winery back home. When he returned, it made him question, why use these packet yeasts when I can just use what we have in the vineyard?
So, since 1991 he has only fermented his wines with indigenous yeasts. This became easier when he switched to organic viticulture. He explains,
“You need to protect the grapes and to not put products on them, to make sure your yeast population is big enough. Many chemical products in a sense sterilise the grapes, which means your fermentation will be complicated as there aren’t enough yeasts on the grapes.”
He also works a lot with the lees - the solid part of the wine - little particles of yeasts, grape skins, pips etc. This brings complexity to the wine and helps him to work reductively. Organic viticulture is also important for this, he muses:
“If you put chemicals on your grapes, then you’ll have chemicals in the lees, which means you can't use them. If you work organically, then it’s not a problem to keep lots of your lees.”
He makes white wines both in the reductive style and in the classic oxidative Jura vin jaune style, as well as sparkling wine. He says,
“In the Jura, all our different styles of winemaking are part of tradition, not because of fashion. Here, crémant has always been very popular, and it represents one third of the region’s wine production. We have Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and the climate and soil means we have nice acidity and a great potential for crémant.”
Crémant is produced in the same way as Champagne; meaning usually it requires the addition of laboratory-cultured yeast and cane sugar. Stéphane wanted to see if he could find a way that didn’t involve these external additions:
“I really wanted to minimise any additions from “outside,” so I thought for many years about a way to create crémant using only juice and yeasts from our estate. I figured out a way to do this, by using grape juice and fermenting vin de paille - so no sugar additions, and only yeasts that come from our vineyards.”
He is proud of this -- and rightly so. Even in Champagne, there are very few producers who make their wines without external additions. As such, he has named it indigène, meaning indigenous, as the wine was born from his vineyards only.
His vin jaune wines are also revered. The famous "yellow wine" of the Jura is a wine made oxidatively by allowing the wine to come into contact with oxygen by leaving headspace in the barrel. Over the course of many years (to be labelled as a vin jaune it must be aged for six years and three months), a strong surface yeast, known as a "flor," develops on the wine's surface. This gives a wine a powerful saline, nutty element. Stéphane's single vineyard vin jaunes are astonishingly different and full of character. He winks, saying simply,
"The flor starts in the vineyard!"
Originally, he destemmed all of his grapes for red wine production. However, intrigued by the stems, he began to experiment with a portion of whole bunches from 2001. By 2007 he was so convinced by what the stems had to offer that he switched everything to 100% whole bunch fermentations. He says,
“The expression of terroir is complicated, and it depends whether you’re speaking about white wine or red wine. Logically, in our simple minds you might say that it’s easier to have an expression of terroir through white wine, as the winemaking is usually the same: you press the grapes and you ferment and the soil expression comes faster. For the reds, it’s more complicated… Some people say it’s better to use the stems or to not use the stems. It’s your experience, your opinion, your wine. For me, the expression of the soil is higher if you use whole bunches, and try to preserve the maximum of the grapes before fermentation.”
He thinks for a bit, before adding,
“I make two Pinot Noirs. One is from limestone and one is from clay. I don’t think the expression of the soil was as obvious before I started to use whole bunches.”
He has also begun to use much less sulphur in recent years; sometimes none at all. This also means that he has started to make his wines in a more reductive way: meaning with very little exposure to air, and by using the lees, as this provides a naturally reductive environment. He says,
“When you speak about winemaking, it’s very important to speak about sulphur. Working without sulphur can be very interesting. For the reds, it’s easier as working with reduction will help them to evolve... If there’s some activity in the bottle, it will be good for the wine: it will put it in reduction - the opposite of oxidation. Poulsard in particular is very interesting made in this way without sulphur.”
It is the opposite of the previous trend of microoxygenation, which became popular in the 90s and 00s. This helped the wine to be bigger and more open when young, but it didn’t give it the strongest chance for a long life. He believes his method will give the wine a “warranty,” and help it to have a very long ageing potential.
Despite the fact he has come so far in evolving his winemaking techniques, he is not about to stop anytime soon. He says,
“You always find a way to evolve and you should always look to do better. You have a personal evolution, like a chef in a kitchen. You’ll make a different wine when you’re 50, or 60, to what you made when you were 25.”
Just as we change and evolve as people, so should the wines. Stéphane adds,
“If you own and farm your vines, the personality of your wine is very clear. The wine becomes an image of your personality. As soon as you involve consultant winemakers, you lose this. You make your own wine, with your own feelings, and your own love.”
He finishes by telling us what the most important aspect of wine is for him: