I love Jacques Puffeney and I hardly know him.
To understand the reason, I need not look any further than his history of, as my old friend Michael Havens once called it, a “commitment to a particular style over an extended period of time.”
Jacques’ particular style, honed and tweaked for decades in a little mountainside town called Arbois in France’s Jura region, has taken me some time to understand. I don’t believe he has ever tried to polish himself for a photograph or thought very much about how to become more widely or easily appreciated. Two winters ago I spent thirty minutes with him in his dank little wine barrel room and he poured tastes of wines for my friend and me.
He wore a threadbare old blue sweater that contoured his belly, and he was short—probably 5’3″ or 5’4″—I didn’t know he would be short. His dark eyes seemed sad to me, or just tired that morning. It was the end of March and it was still cold in Arbois. His gray beard was as bushy as you would expect a mystical mountain man’s beard to be. We understood very little of what he said in French, except that a certain wine had ‘beaucoup acidite,’ or that another wine was ‘doux.’ We also, somehow, understood that his daughter had gone to work for a big hotel company on the other side of the mountains in Geneva.
When we returned from Europe, Neal Rosenthal, Jacques’ American importer for many years, only hinted that his winemaking could be nearing its end. “He doesn’t seem terribly well to me, Neal.” “Well, Jacques is a contemporary of mine,” Neal said, as if to suggest that the two were somehow similar not just in age but also in terms of health or longevity. “But Neal,” I said, suggesting delicately that he had not seemed a model of fitness, “he isn’t a long-distance runner.” “No,” Neal quickly replied. “He’s a long-distance eater!” And he told me that there was no clear successor to Puffeney, that he couldn’t be sure what would become of these winemaking methods that produced such magnificently idiosyncratic wines for all these years, what would become of the famed Savagnin and Trousseau and Poulsard grapevines themselves.
Before the Puffeney in my life, I knew what I was talking about. Flavors were familiar, all of them fit in one or another cubby hole in some very manageable context. There were pinot noirs and cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays, and hamburgers and fresh-picked apples and old world lasagna. Some things were sweet, or rich, or sour or salty or spicy. I thought I had a bead on things. Tasting the first few Puffeney wines was like being handed a glass of some something that came from another planet. Before there had been yellows and greens, beeswax and honey, lavender and clover. Now there was something that Rabelais really could have appreciated—a little of which he might have poured down his shirt right in the middle of dinner, just because. It wasn’t very clean to begin with, that shirt. Sure, here are the usual sunshiny yellows and reds, the ripe fruits and agreeable acidities of the world’s most lustrous wines, but this musty, yeasty salinity, this flavor you’ve known all your life but never really knew until now. There had once been a bite of a raw mushroom, and for a couple of seconds upon swallowing it a searing instant of earth and cinnamon and iodine, and now here was the moment making itself available to you not jut for tasting but for revisiting. Keep that stuff coming, please, if you don’t mind—I don’t know where that comes from or how they make it but please don’t let my glass get empty. And yet the wines also have the sort of graceful balance that only things that come straight from the earth can have. When you take a bite from a great apple that just came off a tree you don’t need someone to tell you that it wasn’t made by a 3-D printer. The Puffeney wines, paradigm-shattering and Rabelaisian chest hair evoking as they are, have that same quality. They are straight from the earth, they are seamless, they are like nothing else.
And now it is official that Puffeney, bearer for years of the unofficial title ‘The Pope of Arbois,’ is retiring. There is no succession plan in place—the domain was recently sold to the Burgundy winery Marquis d’Angerville. It’s hard to imagine that the contents of the bottles will have the same magic. The method of the winemaking, generally speaking, is a matter of public record. ‘Sous Voile,’ it’s called, and it means, literally, that wines rest ‘under a veil’ of yeast as they age in old wooden barrels. Puffeney certainly isn’t the only winemaker in the Jura to practice this method, and his retirement certainly won’t mean the end of this particular, uncommon style of winemaking. But neither is it easy to imagine that wines with personalities like these will be produced again. The Jura has plenty of competent winemakers, and none of them but one are the Pope.
In the village of Arbois, which looks a little like what Auburn or Placerville would look like if they were on the way to the Alps instead of the Sierras, every restaurant serves Coq au Vin Jaune. Arbois Vin Jaune—the yellow wine of Arbois, is the great wine of the region, and they use it to braise chicken and mushrooms, which they serve over white rice. Vin Jaune must age for seventy-five months ‘sous voile,’ during which time it acquires a depth of dry rich flavor found virtually nowhere else. Once bottled, it will improve for quite a longer time than you will, unless perhaps you are a newborn or plan to live for 150 years.
My friend Hiram Simon, a man with a very great palate who distributes the wines of another Jura winemaker named Stephane Tissot, confessed to me once that he prefers Tissot’s wines to Puffeney’s. Hiram told me he finds Tissot’s wines more polished, cleaner, finally more compelling. I gained some clarity when he also told me that he prefers Tissot’s chardonnays—not made sous-voile, to his more oxidative savagnins, which are not for everyone.
Savagnin, the grape used to produce Vin Jaune, is for me one of the great gifts of the natural world, at its holiest and most feral after decades of aging. I’ll own bottles of Puffeney’s Vin Jaunes until the day I die.
Popes and their wines don’t retire, they only grow old.