France, Wine Regions

What haunts me

The irritation and resistance melted from Elisa’s face. “Oh, those are chrysanthemums, giant whites and yellows. I raise them every year, bigger than anybody around here.

“Kind of a long-stemmed flower? Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke?” he asked.

“That’s it. What a nice way to describe them.”

“They smell kind of nasty till you get used to them,” he said.

“It’s a good bitter smell,” she retorted, “not nasty at all.”

He changed his tone quickly. “I like the smell myself.”

– John Steinbeck, The Chrysanthemums

It started before we even arrived in Burgundy. Way before that. On the road to Macon from Geneva.

Like a shadow it kept showing up in the brightest of places. Our Sat-Nav must have been drunk, that’s the only way I can describe how it could possibly want to navigate us off the highway into the darkness. Into Jura.

“I would love to take a quick detour to Jura,” I said, half-jesting as I knew all the great wines lay ahead of us in Burgundy. These were some of the great wines in Burgundy, yet…

I could not sleep that night. I watched the philosophical panel show Mots-croisés on France-2 trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a country with philosophers on television. Then after a few hours of drifting off I woke up to find a cinéma vérité styled
documentary on the hotel television about two hunters in a Jura forest.

The program followed the hunters slipping on the hills of mud in a wet Autumn forest chasing after one deer. The whole show was in whispers. Finally the deer was shot. In graphic and agonising detail. On a side of a hill, the dead body fell down into the gully into the sous-bois amongst the fougere, the frais du bois and truffes.

It was All Saints Day in France. This is a public holiday that celebrates the dark half of the year and traditionally was the time of feasting and drinking. This is the day when it was thought possible for the living to communicate with the dead. In other words, the same meaning as behind Halloween but where no one dresses as junkie zombies and blood-splattered nurses in suspenders.

Then I saw a message from someone from work, “as of April we agent for Domaine Jean Rijckaerts Jura wines so you might have a good excuse to go.”

Vin Jaune is a mysterious wine. The yellow wine of Jura. I asked a few Burgundians about Chardonnay from Arbois who talked about it like something from outer space – it’s life, Jim, but not as know it. An oxidised wine, usually made from Savignan, which lasts forever and tastes like a very mellow sherry but is not fortified. Leave the cork out of it and it will last for a year in the cellar. The Burgundians shrugged with a quirky smile when I asked about it.

All Saint’s Day La Toussaint is marked by the lighting of numerous candles in cemeteries and the decorating of graves with chrysanthemums, the flowers associated with death. Chrysanthemums have a strange smell. A bit like Vin Jaune, not everyone likes these flowers. Everyone has their own associations. The oxidative quality can scare some.

On the day after La Toussant is Le Jour des Morts (All Soul’s Day), when people pray for the souls of the departed we were asked to our Burgundy agent’s house for an aperitif before dinner.

“Do you like Vin Jaune? I have a 1982 if you would like to try.”

We had a glass with warm Autumn walnuts and local ham before dinner in a restaurant in Beaune. At 29 years old, it was still fresh but completely relaxed and sure of itself. A fino sherry without the edge. For my friends, it was the first time they had tried it.

It may seem strange to be haunted by Jura when there were so many excellent wines in Burgundy for this 2010 vintage – this was not a difficult vintage to taste En Primeur, and believe me, some are – but it was not Burgundy, but Jura, which affected my sleep and dreams. Amongst the Grand Cru came a visit from the shadows.

 Image: George Barbier


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