Time appears to stand still in Château-Chalon. Majestically perched atop a limestone bluff, it’s a destination that beckons you to forget the rest of the world. Other spots may rival it, but few surpass the combination of natural beauty, charm, tranquility, wine tradition and well-preserved antiquity. Limestone rock houses adorn the quiet streets, and some seem like they’re a thousand years old. L’Eglise Saint-Pierre de Château–Chalon, a Romanesque church from the tenth century sits on the edge of a cliff with garden terraces far below. Through centuries of wars in Europe, France bears scars, but there are few visible here, and most damage was rebuilt with an attention to architectural continuity, unlike much of the Brutalism that cropped up in the rest of France after World War II. However, the population is a quarter of what it was a few hundred years ago—one reason why it feels slightly haunted and at the same time pleasantly barren outside of tourist season.
But Château-Chalon’s magic doesn’t begin and end with the beauty of the cliff views and mystical, ancient limestone houses. The other attraction is its celebrated vineyards, the wines, and most famously the vin jaune (yellow wine) rendered from the white grape, Savagnin—a noble cultivar believed to be a genetic relative of some of the world’s most exceptional and diverse white grapes, Chenin Blanc and Albariño. Here, the regional vin jaune is known and referred to as Château-Chalon; and this name on the label, accompanied with the words, Appellation Château-Chalon Controlée, indicates that this wine is produced in a vin jaune method, in accordance with the local law.
Vin jaune is a wine grown and made within the limitations of France’s Jura wine region. Unique characteristics have been developed by a combination of its terroir, the Savagnin white grape and cellar aging in barrel under—literally covered by—a particular type of yeast, simply referred to as voile. This yeast, similar to the flor yeast of Spain’s Jerez (Sherry) wines, develops a blanket-like cover over the Savagnin-based wine inside oak barrels. During the aging of wine in wooden barrels, the barrels are normally topped up every week or so with the same wine held in another container to limit the airspace and deter unwanted oxidation, buildup of volatile acidity, bacterial infections, brettanomyces and all the other microbial bugs that typically thrive in an oxidative environment.
In the unique case of wines like the vin jaune Château-Chalon, the barrels are not topped up through the entire barrel aging process, which by law must last a minimum of six years and three months; more technically, it’s not to be bottled until the December of six years after the grapes were harvested—a big expense of time, money and cellar space; what’s more is that not every barrel ages well enough to be worthy of bottling as Château-Chalon and must be sold off, or destroyed! During this time the wine level in the barrels decreases due to evaporation, while the wine is still protected by the voile. The voile covers the top of the wine in the barrel and moderates the oxidation and develops particularly unique results of increased levels of acetaldehyde and sotolon—the latter an aromatic compound that renders the wines with characteristics of nuttiness; it’s also the origin of many aromatic notes in some foods as well as Madeira, Sherry and Port wines, to name a few. This is where the term, sous voile—under the veil—comes from. This “veil” is the yeast (but not the same yeast responsible for the alcoholic fermentation), and it’s the signature of the wines from the Jura. Another oddity of vin jaunes is that by law they must be bottled in uniquely-shaped 620ml bottles, called clavelin. This volume represents the supposed—or typical—remainder of what started as a liter of wine before the seventy-five months of sous voile aging.
Not all vin jaune are equal, and ithout a proper maestro, it can be as underwhelming (or overwhelming in a bad way) as any wine in the world. However, Jean-Claude Credoz, the pragmatic truth seeker that he is, is calculated and deliberate with the craft of his entire range of wines. They are true to the Jura, and with the right amount of wonderful regional funk that makes is special—with no question as to whether or not it’s a result of sound intention.
While Jean-Claude previously farmed without herbicides and pesticides, he has since made the jump into organic certification. However, before beginning the certification process he exhaustively sampled and analyzed his soils for the impact of his highly ecologically conscious sustainable farming compared to organic and biodynamic farming, which both practices through the growing season often require more treatments of copper and sulfur—both additions are acceptable and in all farming certification levels (organic, biodynamic and “natural” included) and necessary for grape growing in Europe to combat downey and powdery mildew issues during the vegetative cycle. He discussed with friends in the region who farm in these ways to open the conversation before deciding to make the leap. His initial hesitation was that the of the quality and quantity of the natural yeasts from the vineyards may be negatively impacted from an increase in the number of treatments by comparison to his more sustainable lutte raisonée (reasoned struggle) methods. In the end, there appears that the yeast populations remain healthy and now Credoz’s entire vineyard collection will be certified organic by 2021. -TV
Lay of the Land
Château-Chalon is one of the legendary appellations of the Jura, and one of France’s most historic and unique. Driving in to the Jura from the Saône plain to the west and through old industrial towns the land takes an abrupt jump in elevation and a scenic view of limestone cliffs. There are many ancient towns in France with almost unbearable charm and Château Chalon is easily at the top of the list. (Read here for a more poetic impression of the village and landscape by writer, Ty O’Neill.)
While Château-Chalon is one of the many great triumphs of French wine antiquity, the wines bottled under the AOC Château-Chalon are rare and make up a very small proportion of Jean-Claude Credoz’s production. He owns 4.6 hectares in the appellation, which is nearly 10% of all the vineyard land alloted for this special and rare wine. Much of Château-Chalon’s land is used for still wine production, and Jean-Claude has some ancient-vine Chardonnay that he’s required by law to replace with Savagnin when he replants them—today they’re over one hundred years old. It should be noted that while the land is perfect for this vin jaune, the nine-year investment—six and a quarter in barrel required by law, and more time in bottle before release—is difficult, and the market is still quite niche. Wines with a quicker turnaround of a couple of years or less bring more cash flow, which certainly helps to keep the lights on.
The largest part of the Château-Chalon vineyards is located in Menétru-le-Vignoble, with numerous expositions from southeast to slightly southwest. The remainder sits on the same hill as the township of Château-Chalon. Jean-Claude’s top crus in the appellation come from Menétru-le-Vignoble, and are known as “En Beaumont” and “Vigne-aux-Dames.” (Because most of the vines within Château-Chalon’s communal boundaries are designated as Côtes du Jura and the lion’s share of AOC Château-Chalon is in Menétru-le-Vignoble, there is a rivalry between the two villages.) The other five hectares or so of his vineyards are located within the Côtes du Jura appellation, largely just across the way in a ravine next to the Château-Chalon hill below Menétru-le-Vignoble and is sheltered from eastern and northern winds. This creates a small heat trap that furthers the ripening of these grapes in less favorable exposition to the sun to complete full maturity of the fruit.
The climate of the Château-Chalon appellation is continental. Jean-Claude mentioned that the temperature can exceed 40°C (over 104°F) during the summer’s hottest days—a surprising figure for this part of the world that by appearance would seem to regularly be cooler and wetter. However, the balance is achieved with the alpine influence from the east; after all, the Jura is within the Alpine foothills. The Alps, like any high mountains within close proximity to vineyard land, balance scorching days with cooler nights and tend to keep the acidic tension in the wines. Despite the possibility for very hot late season days, the Savagnin grapes used for Château-Chalon are normally picked in October with a minimum potential alcohol of 12%. However, the typical alcohol content of many vin jaune is well above that figure by a couple degrees.
Credoz has many other grape varieties, both red (Poulsard, Trousseau and Pinot Noir are bottled separately, and we’re quite happy for that…) and white (Melon à Queue Rouge, an ancient regional biotype of Chardonnay clearly with an unusually long name…, Chardonnay and Savagnin).
The constant comparison to the geological setting of Burgundy rings true on many levels, save the igneous and metamorphic rocks in much of Beaujolais. They are also quite different, despite their shared marine sedimentary origins. What’s most important are the specifics of each plot and hillside. From a macro point of view, the limestone sedimentary rock formations of the Jura and Burgundy are from the Jurassic period—hence the name of the region, the Jura—that spanned some fifty-six million years, and began just a touch over two hundred million years ago. During and after the original depositions of that time, a lot of different things happened between these two regions. As in Burgundy, each sub-region of the Jura has particularities that are unique and should be explored for their specific geological identity. In general one could say that both are limestone and clay terroirs, there is more clay in the balance of the soils in the Jura and in Burgundy there is more rock.
In the vineyards of Château-Chalon and Credoz’s surrounding Côtes du Jura vineyards, the bedrock and soil are typically composed of greyish-blue limestone marl mixed with a yellow-hued clay (like the soft yellow color of Credoz’s labels) and white limestone scree from the upper sections of vineyards and the forests that caps the hillsides. As mentioned, there are many different expositions (SE, S, SW) and degrees of slope aspect from very steep to moderately so, and nearly flat. The prize of Credoz’s range rests on the south face of the hill below Menétru-le-Vignoble on a very steep hillside. -TV
(For an exceptional and enjoyable read on Château-Chalon I suggest the book by Edward Behr, “The Food and Wine of France.”)