Tradition vs. Terroir in France Profonde

Laurent Macle defies a Jura family tradition
Feb 23, 2015

It isn't easy being a rebel in one of France's smallest and strangest wine appellations. Just ask Laurent Macle.

Château-Chalon is, as the French say, particulier. The appellation allows only one kind of wine—the Jura's oxidative, Sherry-like vin jaune (yellow wine). No one knows how this white style from Savagnin grapes began, but in the cliff-top village of Château-Chalon (pop. 170) and neighboring burgs, it's taken very seriously.

Macle, however, is trying something different. "This is my little test I have been doing since 2007," Macle, 44, explains discreetly in his family's 17th-century cellars. The "little test" is four Burgundy barrels a year—1,000 bottles—of clean, complex, non-oxidative, Chardonnay-based Côtes du Jura wine.

Macle, a fifth-generation winemaker who hails from a long line of coopers, has no reason to be timid or apologetic. These barrel-fermented and -aged wines (some of which use a bit of Savagnin) are delicious. For most wine lovers, they are probably far more approachable than the "traditional" oxidative Jura style that Macle also does exactingly well.

But Macle's father Jean—four-term mayor of Château-Chalon and a winemaker who built the family farm from less than 4 acres of vineyards to more than 34—does not approve.

"It was a fight—it wasn't in the tradition," explains Macle, who took over from his father in 2004. "My father will never be convinced."

The dispute within the Macle family is important because it pits two revered pillars of the wine world against each other: terroir vs. tradition.

Wines bearing the Château-Chalon label on their unique, squat 0.62-liter clavelin bottles are, like all vin jaune, aged six years in barrels with air space that develops as the wine evaporates and the barrels are not topped up. With oxygen exposure, a layer of yeast naturally develops that transforms the aromas and taste of the wine.

Macle embraces this tradition. But he believes that it actually masks the true expressions of his vineyards, planted on slopes of blue marl soils. "People confuse terroir with the taste of vin jaune," says Macle. "But it's not that—it's the aging that gives the wine its flavor."

Macle was reared as an old-school gentleman; to greet visitors, he wears a turtleneck, slacks and shiny black shoes. 

But he is also a farmer who cares about terroir. At Domaine Macle, he runs everything, from tending the vineyards to the winemaking. To maintain quality, he even reduced the Macle vineyards to about 27 acres, most of which are farmed organically. In his Chardonnay experiments, he finds the purest expression of minerality, saltiness, citrus and subtle aromas.

Yet many French clients who have been trekking for years to Domaine Macle turn up their noses at Macle's new ouillé whites—wines that are topped up in barrel like 99.9 percent of the world's fine wines.

"They say, 'This is not the Jura.'" A broad, bright smile crosses Macle's face.

"No?" he responds. "It's not made in Burgundy."

This debate will likely increase here as more young, open-minded vignerons take over and question the Jura's very particulier tradition.

Originally, most agree, Jura's oxidative winemaking probably developed from a happy accident of a forgotten barrel discovered in a cellar centuries ago. It had interesting flavors and long aging potential, and voilà, the innovation stuck to become tradition.

But it's not the only wine tradition here. Centuries ago, Château-Chalon, run by a religious order of nuns, was known for sweet wines. Historically, says Arbois producer Stéphane Tissot, Jura winemakers made a mix of styles, including some that were not oxidative. Only from the 1960s on, he says, the fashion developed for the oxidative "taste of the Jura" style for all whites, not just long-aged vin jaune

Macle differentiates his wines by their labels. Oxidative whites bear regal-looking traditional labels. Non-oxidative wines have labels with kindergarten watercolors by the next generation—Macle's eldest daughter.

Tradition? Terroir?

Macle is doing a fine job having it both ways.

France Jura

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