Jurançon - The Region
If Madiran is the king of Southwest red wines, then Jurançon is the king of whites. In fact, Jurançon (pronounced Jur (as in jury)-ahn-sohn) has regal ties; during the baptism of Henry IV, the future King of France had garlic rubbed on his lips followed by a few drops of Jurançon sweet wine in 1553. The ritual was said to enhance his vigor and ardent spirit and catapulted Jurançon to became known as the noble wine of French kings.
Producers divide Jurançon into two zones (La Chapelle de Rousse and Monein) which lie at opposite sides of the appellation about twenty miles apart. The vineyards of the former lie along the ridges above the town of Jurançon and about a third of the region’s producers are located here. Many of the vineyards in this area are carved into the hillsides, creating what looks like amphitheaters curving along the slopes. This helps give the vines maximum sun exposure along their steep pitches. Because of its higher altitude (vineyards are often at 300 to 400 meters), wines from this area tend to have the highest acidity in the region. Soils around La Chapelle de Rousse are arid, with layers of baseball-sized puddingstones embedded into the soil. These provide excellent drainage for the vines, and also helps promote considerable structure and acidity.
The vines in both zones usually face south and are trained six or seven feet high, not only to avoid damage from spring frosts but also to maximise sun exposure within the sometimes gray and moist foothills. Like in Madiran and Iroulèguy, all grapes must be harvested by hand.
Jurançon is influenced by both an oceanic climate (with some 1,200 mm of annual rain) and a mountainous climate (with warm winds from North Africa traversing the mountains during the months of September, October and early November.) These winds allow growers to leave fruit on the vines late in the season until it shrivels and concentrates the sugar within the grapes, creating some of the world’s finest and unique dessert wines. About 60% of Jurançon’s production is for sweet wines (released as Jurançon), while 40% of the grapes are vinified dry (and released as Jurançon Sec).
Maximum yield is 40 hl/ha for the sweet wines and 65 hl/ha for the dry wines.
Petit Manseng makes up 40% of its plantings and is a grape capable of developing high sugar levels without losing its crisp, refreshing acidity. Its aromatics often remind tasters of demi-sec or sweet Chenin Blanc, albeit with less apple nuance and chalky minerality. The hallmark of Petit Manseng is its balance of exotic sweetness and acidity that rarely make the wines come across as cloying. Typical aromas include pineapple (often the white rather than golden part of the fruit) and, with aging, more tropical notes including papaya, mango and truffles. Its small yet loosely-formed grapes combined with thick skins inhibit the botrytis fungus from developing. Instead, concentration is gained through the technique of passerillage, when the vine stems are pinched (often with a pair of plyers) to cut off circulation, allowing the grapes to stay on the vine and further dehydrate.
Gros Manseng is a grape that makes up 55% of the region’s plantings and is largely used today for dry wines aged in stainless steel, where its golden color offers aromas of passionfruit, flowers, acacia and candied fruits with plenty of buttressing acidity. Many producers make their basic dry wines aged in tank from pure Gros Manseng (which are usually best in their first four years of life), and another, more gastronomic cuvée blending the two Mansengs, often aged in oak (that can age gracefully until their tenth birthday).
Petit Courbu produces small grapes in very tight bunches that resemble pine cones. While not frequently found, some growers like it because its lower alcohol and acidity tames that of the higher Mansengs.
Camaralet is another grape not often seen, but a few winemakers have recently replanted this grape that gives good levels of alcohol and good body but less complexity than the Mansengs.
Jurançon Sec: Dry Jurançon was not seen in the region until the 1960s and 1970s when consumers began demanding dryer wines and the cooperative realized that immediate consumption made the appellation more financially viable. Jurançon Sec was granted an appellation in 1975. Two types of cuvées are often made by producers: The first, normally with pure Gros Manseng and aged in stainless-steel, is usually quite simplistic with notes of passionfruit and apple flavors balanced by very taught acidity. These wines, like Muscadet or Txocholi, are excellent with shellfish or white river fish.
The second type of Jurançon Sec is much more interesting, both aromatically and texturally. These wines usually see two or three grape varieties blended together and are often aged in barrel, something that marries their exotic fruit nuance to the vanilla and spice flavors imparted by the oak. These are kinky wines in that they smell sweet but whose intense acids enable the wines to finish completely dry. Food accompaniments here move up a large notch: meaty white fish in a sauce, scallops, lobster even, or veal sweetbreads, pork roast with exotic fruits, or a veal tajine.
Jurançon: The region’s most traditional wine simply uses the appellation Jurançon. Normally made with 50-80% Gros Manseng, these wines generally have 40-50 grams per liter of residual sugar and are referred to locally as vins de l’apres-midi (wines of the afternoon). They are a typical aperitif wine in the region, whose aromas range from spicy apple to pineapple, with acids that support the texture from becoming too heavy.
Jurançon Moelleux: These wines also go under the appellation Jurançon, but are usually much richer in sugar than their traditional counterparts (85-100 grams of sugar per liter) and have a thicker texture. Nearly always made with pure Petit Manseng and aged in newer oak, these wines have deeper and more exotic fruit nuance, whose weight is always buttressed by the lovely Manseng acids. Flavors in Jurançon sweet wines, which must be considered among the world’s elite, include dried pear, tea, nougat, caramel, golden raisins, preserved lemon, dried fig, vanilla, hazelnuts, coconut, preserved mandarine, black truffles, white truffles, almonds, mango, papaya, guava, pineapple, brown sugar, creme brulée, preserved orange, cinnamon, clove, acacia and honeysuckle. The classic food pairing for foie gras is a sweet wine. It would obviously work as well with many desserts containing some of the above flavors, provided that the dessert is less sweet than the wine.
Jean-Bernard Larrieu is a well-liked and often written about vigneron who is emblematic of Jurançon. With his ample beard and long locks topped with a beret, he comes across as being somewhere between a hippy and a mountain man, yet his small Lennon glasses add an intellectual aspect to his profile. In 1922, the family owned but 2 hectares of vines, most of whose wine was sold to local cafes, and eaked out a living by also selling peaches and raising cows. In the sixties, Marcel Larrieu took over for his father, planted more vines and sold his grapes to the cooperative. He got rid of the cows, and began growing strawberries rather than peaches. Between 1970 and 1975, he was the first to plant vines on terrasses that followed the contours of the hills. In 1985, his son Jean-Bernard, who had studied enology, built a winery and began bottling wine themselves.
In the past decade Jean-Bernard has converted his 17 hectare property from sustainable to organic viticulture, not an easy task with the region’s tremendous humidity. Instead of spraying with synthetic chemicals, only copper and sulfur are used. Organic compost nourishes the soil, and certain grasses help aerate the soil. A local barometer gives precise weather predictions, enabling him to spray less than in years past. Treatments with teas made with specific plants help develop a higher resistence to various maladies within the vineyards, also limiting the amount of annual spraying.
The terrasses range between 250 and 350 meters altitude, facing the Pyrenees to the south and southwest. On clear days, the landscape is breathtaking!
Lapeyre Jurançon Sec (100% Gros Manseng aged in tank): This is a great introduction to the wines of Jurançon! It shows notes of apple, peach, melon and passionfruit flavors that are buttressed by bright acids to help make this a perfect partner for seafood. Something like a hypothetical blend of Sauvignon Blanc (without the herbs) and Chenin Blanc (without the earthy element).
Lapeyre Jurançon Sec Vitage Vielh (vieilles vignes in Occitan or old vines): Made with 65 year-old Gros Manseng (60%), Petit Manseng (30%) and Petit Courbu (10%). Aging takes place in 600 liter barrels, yielding a wine with bright pineapple, vanilla and mineral complexity. This wine rocks!
Lapeyre Jurançon Sec Montoulon (70% Petit Manseng, along with Petit Courbu and Camaralet, from massale selection vines planted in high density on a terrassed vineyard called Montoulon not far from the domaine. It goes through 100% malolactic fermentation and is aged entirely in new and second-use barrels: Aromas of pineapple, honey and vanilla abound. It shows awesome balance on the palate between fruit and acidity. This wine is full-bodied, complex and very long.
Lapeyre Jurancon Magendia (mageur or meilleur or best): Made with 100% Petit Manseng, shrivelled because of passerillage, and harvested in November and December, normally after two, three or four passes through the vineyard. The grapes are shrivelled and have lost much of their water. The sugar and acidity both concentrate with the drying action of the warm winds crossing the Pyrenees. The pressing is long and gentle, and fermentations (in barrels) can last 2 or 3 months. Afterwards the wines stay on their fine lees for 12 to 18 months. Ideal with foie gras, sheeps milk cheese, strong charcuterie and roquefort cheese. This wine bursts with exotic citrus fruits (guava, dried pineapple) along with a hint of creme brulée, yet it retains great acidity that prevents it from being at all cloying.