Introducing Les Matheny The Enduring Magic of the Jura

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Twenty years ago, no one could have predicted the Jura’s current popularity.

Twenty years or so ago, when we first crossed the threshold of Jacques Puffeney’s cellar door, there was nary a true Jura wine present in the US market. The oxidative whites and perplexing reds produced from the unheard of Trousseau and Poulsard varieties were mere curiosities at the time, rejected often for their strikingly non-commercial qualities. We persevered, gradually winning converts to the Puffeney wines and adding, over the years, other producers from different corners of the Jura who were, and remain, just as dedicated as Puffeney to producing the typical, traditional wines of the Jura. As our list of Jura-based producers and appellations has grown, so has the market for these enchanting wines, a fascinating and ultimately rewarding result that makes a strong case for the growing intelligence and sophistication of the US market.

As is frequently the case when the most odd of entries in life’s market sweepstakes suddenly becomes popular, a wave of wines arrive to ride the crest of the newfound favor, some genuine and compelling, others very much less so. Now, when one surveys the wine scene, Jura wines, though not omnipresent, have found their way into many an importer’s list, are more commonplace on retailers’ shelves and even settle in comfortably, more or less, on a multitude of adventurous wine lists; Trousseau and Poulsard are now being planted in California; Burgundian gentry have quietly purchased vineyards in the Jura; so, we know that the Jura has “arrived”.

We suppose this is a blessing of sorts … certainly a boon for the long-ignored producers of the Jura and a breath of fresh air in a market that too often is victim to the will of marketing plans and generic wines. But, for the true believer in the profound traditions that underpin the greatest and most unique wines of this small viticultural region, one notes a growing presence of Jura wines that are more references to the Burgundian vision of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir than to the funky and “sauvage” wines that are the true reference points of the series of appellations found in the Jura. The grandeur of the Jura lies in the racy reds and oxidative whites that feast from and refer to the “marne” of the Jurassian soils. These raw, uninhibited wines scream their allegiance to another age and demand an audience that thinks beyond the questions of whether a wine has an occasional dose of SO2 or whether a producer has Burgundian attachments to its lineage. The “jazz” of the Jura can’t be taught; it must be absorbed through generations of exposure to the habits of a long and challenging tradition.

We continue our search for that sort of truth in the Jura and have had the good fortune of stumbling upon growers who epitomize all that we treasure here. Now, in 2018, we add to our portfolio, proudly the deepest of anyone working the region, a domaine of impeccable class: Les Matheny, the creation of Elise and Emeric Foléat.

Emeric Foléat reached out to us early last fall, as he and his wife Elise were taking the first steps in seeking broader representation for their fledgling winery, Les Matheny. Emeric was quite familiar with our work, for he had spent eight years working for Jacques Puffeney—a resumé detail that all but forced us to pay the young couple a visit during our October circuit, at the end of a particularly strenuous day. After so many years in the business and so many visits, one can judge fairly quickly whether a potential new grower holds promise—and Les Matheny glowed with it. From Elise and Emeric’s warm, unforced demeanor, to their winery filled with weathered wooden casks and absent of shiny technology, to the very smell of it all—great Jura cellars harbor a salty, yeasty, tangy air rife with the scents of wine growing and changing—we were primed for a meaningful encounter. And boy, did we ever receive one…

Both of them born and bred in the Jura, Elise and Emeric began Les Matheny—playfully named after their tiny home village of Mathenay—in 2007, and their holdings today encompass three and a half hectares of vines spread among Arbois, Montigny-les-Arsures, and Poligny. In the rustic old farmhouse they converted into a winery, thoughtful experimentation rooted in local tradition is their operative philosophy. Giving concession neither to easy marketability nor to the notion of a “product line,” the Foléats take each harvest as it comes, vinifying and aging certain parcels separately if the notion strikes them, keeping a cask or two under voile for an extra-long time if the underlying material proves worthy, and topping up their barrels occasionally, partially, and based purely on taste and instinct. While both enologist and marketer alike may consider Les Matheny a baffling operation, those who value character in wine will find a deep well of authenticity and beauty here. These are wines free of shackles—whites of visceral intensity, layered and nuanced, yet simultaneously tough and bare-knuckled; brazenly structured reds that scoff at the dainty, almost apologetic extraction common for such thin-skinned varieties; wines of immense aromatic range that are unafraid to stare volatile acidity in the face and emerge victorious. (In a particularly moving anecdote, Emeric recounted monitoring a fermentation at Puffeney’s side; as the temperature of the tank climbed ever higher and young Emeric began to panic, the always-taciturn Jacques consoled him: “Don’t worry; it’s almost night. Things will cool down. Everything will turn out fine.”) We simply could not say “no” to wines—or people—of such engaging personality, uncompromising realness, and aesthetic satisfaction, and we eagerly await sharing our spoils with those among you wise enough to act on the minuscule quantities to which we have access.

2013 Arbois Chardonnay: Quite a few parcels comprise Les Matheny’s Chardonnay, and Emeric vinifies each one separately, deciding on the final blend only after each individual wine develops its personality with time in barrel—in this case, well-worn 600-liter tonneaux. Produced from vines averaging 45 years of age, the 2013 soars from the glass, a storm of ripe green apples, freshly blasted quarry, and musky honey. The palate is both firm and expansive, with a generous pinch of telltale Jurassic salt lengthening the complex, penetrating flavors of greengage and candied lemon. Emeric’s “partial sous-voile” approach shows in the wine’s gently oxidative edge—one that bows to the veil without making a virtue of it—and for such a bold and assertive wine to remain so straightforwardly delicious is a difficult balancing act to pull off. This was the wine with which Emeric and Elise opened our tasting, and it made for a formidable first impression.

2011 Arbois Chardonnay “6 ans sous voile”: Emeric and Elise conducted an experiment on a particularly hardy parcel of old-vines Chardonnay from Montigny-les-Arsures (Puffeney’s home village, known affectionately as “The Capital of Trousseau”) in the 2011 vintage, letting it evolve in a 600-liter barrel for a full six years without topping it up at all. The result—which had only been in bottle a month when we tasted it—is startling in its intensity, a wine that stares you directly in the eye and dares you to blink. A full-on oxidative twang permeates the whole affair, yet so much else is taking place that it still feels like a backdrop: grilled pineapple, apple tart, and pork broth, all doused in salt—and, interestingly, a subtle autolytic note reminiscent of extended-lees-aged Champagne. Immense acidity and lift infuse everything with crackling electricity. This is the kind of wine that could only come from the Jura—a place where mindful negligence yields poetry.

2011 Cotes du Jura Savagnin “5 ans d’âge”: The Foléats own a parcel of Savagnin in the village of Poligny, within striking distance of the fabled Chateau-Chalon—considered by some to be the source of the Jura’s greatest Vin Jaune. This 2011, which spent five years in barrels without topping up, embodies the combination of intricate, murmuring depth and powerful oxidative grip for which the zone is famous. As with the Chardonnay “6 ans” above, it is difficult to overstate just how profound an effect such a lengthy aging regimen has on the final wine. Not only does it develop immense complexity through controlled oxidation and the influence of the yeast veil, but the glacial evaporation that occurs serves to concentrate and harmonize all of its elements. Certainly, there are other wines of long elevage in the world, but none do quite what these do. While lesser traditionally styled Jura white wines tend to be overwhelmed by their oxidative character, this stunning wine is buttressed by it. An aggressively spicy nose of curry powder, fresh-ground cinnamon, white pepper, and mountain herbs introduces a palate both laser-focused and remarkably expansive, its nutty funk and high-toned fireworks dancing a fiery tango. While great Jura Chardonnay sits easily alongside the best renditions of that eternally popular grape variety on the planet, it is the thick-skinned, late-ripening Savagnin that plays the song of the region with the greatest feeling and fluency. And with renditions such as this one, its unhinged wildness and striking tension illuminate the heart of what makes the Jura so unique and incredible.

2015 Arbois Poulsard: Emeric’s lengthy tenure under Puffeney shows especially strongly in his treatment of the indigenous red grape varieties of the region. Whereas many growers here emphasize the thin-skinned, gentle nature of Poulsard and Trousseau, producing delicate, pale wines of wispy tannins and almost rosé-like fruit character, Emeric—like Jacques before him—produces firm, bold red wines proud of their structure and deeply evocative of their limestone-dominated terroir. The lifted, expressive 2015 Poulsard displays enchanting sandalwood aromas, bursting with black cherry and freshly turned earth, again toeing the line of appropriate volatile acidity in the most appealing possible fashion. The wine’s unabashedly dense structure—the result of a three-week cuvaison—promises great rewards for those willing to wait a few years, though it will undoubtedly dazzle right now, especially at the table.

2015 Arbois Trousseau: Les Matheny’s 2015 Trousseau is a brooding, serious beast, bristling with energy and thickly textured. Its brash, iron-inflected nose erupts from the glass like a missile, with pitch-black, spice-drenched fruit battling for attention with the wine’s core of mineral-tinged leather and black pepper. Not for the faint of heart, this is a profoundly structured, ruggedly tannic wine that seems to demand cellar time, but—as with the atavistic, rough-hewn Bandol of Chateau Pradeaux—these are honest, proud tannins that are somehow charming despite their intensity.


2009 Cotes du Jura Vin Jaune: The Foléats produced all of 200 bottles of Vin Jaune in the 2009 vintage, and we are fortunate to have access to a sliver of that tiny pie. Like the Savagnin above, this comes from vines in Poligny, quite close to Chateau-Chalon itself, and it offers an even more profound take on that esteemed terroir. “Non-interventionism” has almost become a cliché when discussing wines of a non-commercial bent, but it truly does require immense courage and the full internalization of trust-in-nature to produce great Vin Jaune—and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more explosively dynamic example than this one. If this 2009 lacks a touch of the sheer power and regal breadth of Emeric’s famous mentor’s Vin Jaune, it compensates for it in pure intensity—the wine of an undeniable raw talent for whom wines like this run in his blood. The final wine of our first visit with the Foléats, this wine left us shaking our heads in delight and disbelief, grinning like kids at what we had discovered in this wonderful young couple’s work.

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