Monday, January 11, 2010

On The (Yellow) Star

On a recent evening, shared with a few good friends over a few good bottles and some food, of course, one wine in particular raised not only my eyebrows but also an excellent question. "What is L'Étoile?" We were drinking a bottle of L'Étoile Savagnin from Domaine de Montbourgeau at the time, and it was my friend Bill who asked the question(s). He wasn't asking what it means — "L'Étoile" is French for "the star" — but rather, "Is that the AOC? Is it a place?" I answered in the affirmative to part one but realized that I couldn't quite explain, off the top of my head, the origins of or reasoning behind its name.

A quick Google Maps search points to a town in France called L'Étoile that's located about 150 kilometers due north of Paris, very much not in the Jura, which is the region where AOC L'Étoile is located. As it turns out, though, there's another small town called L'Étoile in the heart of the Jura. While the AOC takes its name from this commune, "L'Étoile" also refers to two of the area's distinct regional characteristics: a series of five hills surrounding the village that, with the help of a little imagination, form the five arms of a star, and from the fossilized remains of invertebrate starfish ("crinoïdes" or "pentacrines") that are common to the soil in the vineyards of L'Étoile, situated on what were seabeds many millennia ago.

The AOC boundaries encompass roughly 75-80 hectares, about 50 hectares of which are under vine. Split that between 30 farmers and 26 different wineries (21 estates, 2 co-ops and 3 négociants) and you'll start to get a sense of at least one of the reasons that so little wine from L'Étoile reaches the US market. The AOC allows for the production of white wines only, primarily from Chardonnay and Savagnin, which respectively account for 90% and 10% of overall plantations, though small amounts of Ploussard (vinified as white wine) are also tolerated.

Now that we've done at least some justice to the questions, let's move on to the wine that raised them... and raised my eyebrows....

L'Étoile Savagnin, Domaine de Montbourgeau (Nicole Dériaux) 2002
$37. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Rosenthal Wine Merchant, New York, NY.

There's surprisingly little information available about this cuvée of Savagnin from Domaine de Montbourgeau, not even a mention on the producer's own website. Though Nicole Dériaux apparently carries on the oxidative winemaking practices used by her father, Jean Gros, and traditional to the Jura, this is not obviously oxidative wine. Its color is a waxy yellow in the glass and it does eventually reveal background flavors of hazelnuts and walnuts, but those are typical characteristics of Savagnin and strike me, in this case, as more primary than oxidation-induced flavor elements.

In any event, I'm splitting hairs. The wine is deliciously captivating. One eyebrow arched when I put nose to glass, finding subtle yet piercing aromas of turmeric and coriander, coupled with powerful minerality. The other eyebrow went up at the first sip, where those same curry spices blossomed in the wine's mouth aromas, magnified and amplified by very energetic, muscular mouthfeel and nervy acidity. Both eyebrows stayed up when the wine conjured an unmistakable aroma and flavor memory: Singapore Chow Mei Fun. I kid you not, the association was fixed, stamped indelibly in my mind.

I'm not sure whether Bill planned it or whether the stars (no pun intended) had simply aligned, but the wine proved a compelling match to just about all of the food he'd lined up for the evening. A great contrast to the salty, fatty savor of thinly sliced Jambon de Bayonne, which brought out the spice and minerality in the wine. It worked equally well with a hunk of Morbier, which just happens to come from nearby Franche-Comté and to be an only slightly less classic match than Comté itself. Here it was the pleasantly funky nuttiness of the cheese playing with the similarly wild, outdoorsy characteristics of the wine. And damn if it didn't prove a fine match with roast chicken, too.

Aside from mentions of "Singapore Chow Mei Fun" and "yellow," my notes are dominated by one other key phrase. "Buy." Priced in the high $30s, this is by no means inexpensive but it's money well spent for a wine that should develop extremely well in the cellar and that already delivers compelling pleasure. In one of those odd synchronicities in the wine blogging world, my cohort DoBi just wrote up Montbourgeau's regular bottling of L'Étoile, paired it with Chex Mix in homage to Dr. Vino's impossible food and wine pairings, and even took a picture that's very similar to my own. As Jeremy says, "Not everyone will like this wine." But that's okay, I do, so there'll be more for me.


Do Bianchi said...

"if it grows with it, it goes with it." Isn't this a GREAT cold-weather wine?

Man, and is it a trip or what...? The stars align again in our blogs!

thanks for the shout out... more for us! ;-)

Pameladevi said...

I love this wine. Never tire of it (and it works really well with Indian food). I was in the Jura last fall and visited Nicole. We went to see her Savignin vines, planted on a fairly high slope. You could do a 360 turn and see all 5 hills. Have you tasted her sparkling wine? It is every bit as good as her oxidative Savignin and Chardonnay wines.

David McDuff said...

It really is a great winter white, Jeremy, and a trip that we so often find ourselves on nearly parallel paths.

Hi Pamaladevi,
I'd obviously love to drink it more often as well. I have had Nicole's Crémant du Jara and, while I liked it, it didn't quite make my socks run up and down. Definitely in need of a revisit.

Your choice of spelling -- Savignin vs. Savagnin -- sent me in search of an answer as to why there are two accepted spellings... to no avail. If you have any thoughts or info on the matter, please do share.

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