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The Vin Jaune, or "yellow wine", of eastern France's Jura region is not just yellow but the brightest yellow, like pure honey. The strange 62-oz. bottles in which they are sold are half-covered with dirt when photographed for supermarket glossies to show that their nectar, properly served chilled, is of the earth, of good, French earth. Plucked en masse from the sleepy fields of Chateau-Chalon, Arbois, or another smallish vineyard village of the like, Savagnin grapes are harvested late, almost in November, then squeezed, fermented, and sealed and aged in oak caskets for a period of exactly six years and three months. In these caskets, in dark and humid cellars, a layer of yeast forms upon the liquid's surface, protecting the young wine from the spoiling effects of oxygen and thus allowing for its unique yellowness to blossom from within. On the first morning after the last day of the third month of the seventh year, la Percée, or "the piercing", of the caskets begins. Locals flock to a tiny, unknown village for the annual mass, ceremony, and piercing itself. There, 25 wine "houses" are set up, each offering only the most refined and choice flavors from the year's harvest. It was amongst these houses, each within a barn, or tent, or some other makeshift location, that I was introduced to proper wine etiquette, and how, in turn, to appreciate wine itself. It was also here where I learned how to go to a wine tasting with friends who buy bottles for in-between-tasting "tastings" and who drink on buses and trains. In other words, this is where I learned how not to go to a wine-tasting.
The unknown village that would host the festivities this year was Cramans, indicated my yellow train ticket, printed especially for the event. It would be a formal affair, I decided, and I would wear a tie of red. Arriving at the town's train station around noon with my German friend Thomas, we stepped out into the soggiest, most bitterly cold February Sunday and continued down to a path of hay laid out like a red carpet that continued, little did we know, for about a half-hour until we reached the village "proper" (one main street, lined with ancient brick houses and barns, constitutes the "downtown"). We complained shamelessly and annoyingly about the weather amongst the large group with whom we were making our pilgrimage, but neither of us would have really turned back, not with the irreplaceable lesson in being cultured that lie ahead.
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Shivering plastic banners point the way to the entrance, generally a movable shed or a few long, fold-out tables, where you redeem your pre-paid ticket for the event. You are handed a small, cardboard box with a nylon string and your own, personal glass, generally of a medium bowl which suits the heavier nature of the Vin Jaune, as opposed to a small bowl for a white wine or a larger, more airy bowl for a red. The box has a large hole on its top side to accommodate your glass during the periods in between tastings, when you are theoretically not supposed to be tasting wine but appreciating the wine you just had, or eating potato cubes smothered in regional cheese, a somewhat expensive but traditional between-tasting snack. Your personal cardboard glass-carrier should then be suspended from your neck, regardless of how goofy the apparatus looks sticking out from your chest as such. Attention paid to the proximity of other tasters is essential from this point on.
You are also handed 10 stamps, each decorated with the town's name and the annual event's logo. Each is about the size of a thumbnail and therefore difficult to hold, not to mention when the weather is Nordic in nature and your gloves are on. Three of the stamps are yellow and the rest are purple. Yellow stamps may be redeemed at a house for a taste of any wine including the coveted Vin Jaune; inferior purple stamps are good for any wine save the yellow wine, which includes regional reds as well as Vin Jaune knock-offs such as Vin de Paille, "straw wine", and le Macvin, a sweet Jaune variation. After accepting your stamps, you are handed a personal map of the town's main street and the locations of the wine houses on that street, and you are off. One other note: while 10 stamps is no doubt sufficient for a satisfying wine-tasting experience, experts familiar with the Percee will be sure to ask their friends who went on Saturday for any tickets they had left over from their tasting. I would start with 18 tickets, a good, round amount.
While giddily fondling our new tasting toys, Thomas and I ran into Laurent, a Franco-German friend of ours from a nearby city. With him were his girlfriend and her parents, visiting from the balmy Riviera. Everyone was porting his or her personal cardboard-glass-container-box around his or her neck as we approached; as we stood huddled in the group warming ourselves and the minutes passed, some strangely unsettling but quiet smashes of glass seemed to be audible everywhere around us. Smash--we collectively turned to a man next to us, and he was looking down at his feet, where his personal tasting glass laid shattered amongst the gravel of the main street. Unfortunately, the sporadic spots of rain, coming in and out since the moment we stepped off the train, softened the cardboard holders, causing the glasses to silently slip out through the boxes' bottoms. We all looked to each other and were smiling when smash--Laurent's glass had yet to even see a bottle of Vin Jaune, and now this. It was still freezing, but Laurent found a plastic cup and morale was high so we decided to move to our first house.
Once you enter through the heavy barn-like doors of a rural maison, or wine house, and the high, straw-covered, reinforced ceilings are above you, and the walls of strong, grey rock, probably regional rock, are beside you, and the straw crunches on the plank-wood floor are beneath you, your experience begins. The barn's innards is a throbbing mass of aficionados, glasses in hands or in the air, Comté or Morbier cheese ready at their side, but the room gives off a warmth that generally accumulates at the maison's back, where the caskets reside, and where a group of three or four cheerful and apronned wine-handlers happily fill a constant stream of glasses held out by eager hands. You will fight to the front and will tell a handler which type of wine it is that you want, and they will smile and pour about two milliliters-worth, or a "taste", of wine.
Proceeding from this point requires patience and a genuine swallowing of pride if you are to truly enjoy your wine. Before you do anything you must make sure that you're not cupping the bowl of the glass with your hand, but that you're holding it firmly by its stem. Cupping warms the wine unnaturally, and in the case of a chilled Vin Jaune, the repercussions in flavor due to this error can be quite regrettable. That said, the wine should first be inspected; holding it up to a light, while exaggerating the holding-up part to appear less of a novice to nearby tasters, will suffice in indicating any particles or unwanted debris that may be present in your glass of wine. Clarity can also be an indicator of taste and/or age; a clearer wine may suggest a weaker, or more mature, taste. Yellow wine, as mentioned before, looks like pure honey, suggesting a strong yet not cloudy clarity level as acceptable. A gentle agitation of the wine in a counterclockwise direction will then introduce you to les jambes, or the legs, of the wine. Observing the sides of the bowl as the twirled wine coats the glass, slowing aborting the agitation forces the coat to turn into drops that slide back down to join the sitting liquid. These drops are the wine's legs, and the speed at which they flow, their size, and distances between drops all illustrate a wine's richness. It is safe to say that Vin Jaune, while honey-colored, should be discarded if its viscosity is anywhere near honey-like, for such a result suggests that the bottle in which such a wine was delivered to you had probably been left uncorked for several days. On the contrary, "moderate" legs, nothing too watery, is a yellow wine ideal. Finally, bring the glass to your nose so that the majority of your nose is within the glass (but not touching it or the wine) and take several long, slow whiffs of the liquid. This is an examination of the wine's bouquet; while a moderate fragrance is expected of Vin Jaune, it is ultimately your preference to decide what the ideal smell is. Adjectives used to describe the flavor should come within the vicinity of nutty, woody, mouth-filling, or tarry.
Glasses in hand, we, as a group, wish each other santé, "health", and the game begins. Turns out that this first wine will be much better than many of the others to come; Laurent's girlfriend's parents brought cheese, so we munch as we taste. The father explains that a first taste should be held in the mouth for a few moments to let the wine settle under your tongue. Touches of bitter, sweet, and sour will arise from the mouth's floor; breathing with an open mouth exaggerates the wine's qualities. Picking out the nuances, or impressions, of the wine is where true wine appreciation lies, and some say that it is at first impression where these nuances can be best identified, before multiple-taste-overload and/or intoxication can prevent proper analysis of a wine's complex characteristics. Body, strength, feel, consistency, and aftertaste are all important dimensions to which attention should be paid. The evolution of a glass over a period of time, though, might bring out the complexity of a wine more than any other characteristic; this is why many higher-end restaurants open bottles hours before a meal in served; one wine literally transforms itself into a completely different wine over the course of time.
The steep stone steps out of the barn became just that much steeper over the course two glasses of wine, but we all make it up and out into the still-hazy day. It is still bitter cold and Thomas and I curse in French to note this--putain!--but also to take advantage of an opportunity to curse in French. Our mouths' insides are considerably less cold, though; not only the taste of walnut shells but also certain alcoholic warmth resides near the back of the palette. Chomping on cheese to pass time exacerbates the taste a bit. Laurent with girlfriend and family emerges, and we coordinate our maps to find another good maison. Glancing down at Laurent's gloved right hand, I notice a bottle; I gather that he bought it as a gift for someone, or for himself. We scuttle to the next old house and descend into its glowing bowels, searching for another group's regional interpretation of the fruits of its vine. This cavern, somewhat smaller, is crammed to its stone limits just as the first house. Drinking songs echo off the dark, lamp-lighted walls, and smiles and general jolliness prevails. It is still spitting under the stubborn clouds outside but inside, protected by a high, slanted roof, people think of themselves and worries are put off. We receive our second or third glasses, and swirl the wine as before, but so what if we skipped a step, like the smelling step? It's been an hour or two into the tasting so we know the rules and can therefore break them, for now. We ascend up and out of the darkness, and Laurent says, "How about some wine before the next tasting?" The first maison was excellent, so we accept. He uncorks his bottle and the clink of bottle against glass is becoming more of a lingering ringing.
We look to our maps, those precious maps, for our next destination. The pattern of finding, descending, laughing, kindly asking, gladly receiving, smiling, sometimes swirling, sometimes smelling, and always, always drinking starts to repeat itself, which is of course normal at a fine wine tasting, of course. Of course you will be drinking many, many wines. After another house Laurent buys another bottle, which is popped open within the hour and finished off within two hours. More and more people seem to be filling the long street, surprisingly, when we notice that the sky is clearing up. Thomas throws his huge arm around me and points--"Look!"--at a high chair, apparently for adults, attached to a goofy Shriners-looking car, full of people with green wigs and huge, novelty sunglasses. The entertainers, apparently an essential part of these wine-tastings, all tumble out and grab hold of people in the crowd and act like they're giving them haircuts. Laurent's girlfriend is a victim, as am I, and then Laurent and Thomas grab me, red tie and all, and somebody whom I don't know snaps our picture.
Then...sun! The clouds are gone and the sun in shining, and my wine-tasting glass, smudged from the drops of every variety of Vin Jaune offered, is still intact, which is a big plus, let me tell you. Laurent and Thomas and I are still here, but we lost Laurent's girlfriend and family; apparently they're on the rocks anyway, he says, pouring me more wine. Suddenly two girls show up. They both know Thomas, and one of them I've seen around the university. Boy, she's cute. We start talking and then someone hands me more wine tickets, and I look down and count and realize that I have 18 tickets again, like I did when I arrived five hours ago. "You need to use them all," someone, Laurent I think, says.
Mon dieu, that line for the Johnny-on-the-Spot is so long. Laurent is going behind a car nearby so I think I'll do that too, but I'll sure make sure Lucy doesn't see. This is a great maison...I ask Lucy if she sees how big the tastes are here. They are huge, and look at all these yellow tickets I still have left, and my glass isn't even broken! Now it's around 4 pm, and this long road will lead us to the bus. The sun is still shining and I have my glass but Lord knows I'm not cold anymore. A bus ride is not typical for a wine-tasting, but this town is so small that they need something, anything to take us back. The bus is rolling, bouncing along and Laurent is across the aisle so I hold out my glass and he pours, for Thomas and me both. I forget the first tasting-step so we are drinking when finally we are at the train station, and this train takes us back to our fair city, our metropolis compared to Cramans, that forsaken place, and on the train Lucy tells me about how she studies German. I tell her, "Germany, wow! Talk about great wine! Have you had Riesling?" Laurent is talking up a girl nobody knows, and Thomas is talking to Lucy's friend, and I, well, we're all idiots, but I suppose there's a price to pay for being as cultured as we, indubitably, have become.