Class Recap: Trousseau

Trousseau’s had an interesting life.

It’s best-known, celebrated even, amongst the cow herds and limestone cliffs of the tiniest wine region in France, where, as far as we can tell, it was probably born.

There, in the Jura—where reds tend towards the translucent and ethereal and are traditionally (as in Burgundy) tasted first, ahead of the richer, more complicated and intense white wines—it nonetheless has a reputation as a big boy. It ripens late, and favors the warmest sites in the region; the slopes around Montigny are considered its capital.

For whatever reason, though, it decided to go on pilgrimage.

The route just about traces the Camino de Santiago, and finds it popping up in all kinds of places, under many different names:

in the Charante, in western France, where its pink-skinned mutation (called chauché gris there) was important 500 years or so ago;

in the borderlands between Galicia and northern Portugal, where it’s called merenzao, or maría ordoña, or bastardo;

in the Douro and the island of Madeira (bastardo likewise), where it has been fortified and sweetened.

It’s been known as verdejo noir in Rueda, and maturana tinto (“late-ripening red”) in Rioja.

It can be found mixed plantings in some of the oldest vineyards in California. (Think, say, Nervo Ranch, planted in 1896 in Geyserville, where trousseau is in the Cuisenhart along with negrette, petit sirah, grenache, and zinfandel, among others.)

In the warmth of other suns, far away from the foothills of the Alps, it finally found the heat it was looking for.

And then one more unlikely thing happened, after its long journey: it became cool.

The Jura, an isolated rural backwater clinging to obsolete winemaking, became a symbol of the wild and weird world of wine we’d lost. Trousseau was suddenly hip. And young California winemakers, searching in the early part of this century for a style of wine that wasn’t the Michael Bay movie everyone in Napa was making, found in the Jura’s pale, delicate reds something to aspire to.

It turned out that trousseau was already there, planted by Bernie Luchsinger in Lake County in 2002 alongside other Portuguese varieties in the hopes of making California port.

The light-touch, low-ABV red Duncan Arnot and Duncan Arnot Meyers made from it in 2009 became a calling card for the kind of California wines a guy like Jon Bonné would write about in The New California Wine (2013).

And today, it’s come to represent something far larger than the tiny footprint of land it actually occupies. (Even setting aside its miniscule—though growing!—acreage on the West Coast, it only comprises 8% of the vines in its own birthplace.) Trousseau, widely travelled and many-named, has cult status, symbolic weight. It’s used as a stick to bash imaginary hipsters with, and as a shorthand for a particular flavor of wine geekdom, and as a mid-aughts calling card for natural wine. Small data point: it’s one of the two classes this season that sold out.

Class was on Saturday, February 19. Some questions to ask while you taste:

1. What do you think of when you think of red wine from the Jura? Which of these wines matched that expectation? Which undercut it?

2. What is trousseau “supposed” to taste like? Does climate or place make a significant different in how this grape performs?

3. Wine color is often used as a shorthand for style; “red wine” is supposed to be rich, serious, complex, and the darker the color, the richer and more serious. In what ways do these wines do different things than what a red is “supposed” to do? What situations or foods might these work for that other red wines wouldn’t? Does the color in the glass always match the texture and shape of these wines in the mouth?

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This is what we tasted:

How it might look on a wine list

In one sentence
Ultra-typical Jura trousseau that shows just how much what’s typical is changing.

Who made it? Siblings Valérie and Jean-Christophe Tissot, with one full-time employee and three seasonal workers. Their grandparents were important parts of Arbois’ cooperative winery; their parents planted more vines and started bottling their own wine in 1990; they’re semi-retired, with the children in charge of the day to day. The estate comprises about 17 hectares.
From where? The Jura, isolated, rural, forested, and tiny, at the base of cliffs that become the French Alps, home to a surprising diversity of wine style and grape variety. [Atlas Entry]
Out of what? Two hectares of trousseau in Montigny-les-Arsures, the heart of the Arbois and unofficial capital of trousseau in the Jura.
Farmed how? Still lutte raisonée, which can mean a lot of things. They’ve moved over the years to fewer synthetic sprays, a mixture of plowing and cover crops, and herbicide only on a single parcel of chardonnay. Please note: that means they are not organic, which is rare for me to use for these tastings but absolutely common in the region. Less than 15% of the Jura is farmed organically. The importer shared all of the details with me, they’re transparent when asked, and they’re doing a better job in their vines than the vast majority of their neighbors. That said, a bunch of retailer websites list this wine as “organically farmed” and that’s just not true. I think it’s important to be accurate and honest.
One more thing: Crack this open and you’re in for a bit of a shock if you’re picturing Jura trousseau as transparent and delicate: the wine, from some of the warmest sites in the region in a very warm vintage (2018) is 14.5% alcohol and quite dark and brooding. Something to think about!

How it might look on a wine list

In one sentence
Profound, glowing rarity from green Spain.

Who made it? Luis Taboada, a generational landowner, who in 2011 partnered with the winemaking duo behind the local Ronsel do Sil (Curro Bareño and Jesús Olivares) as well as a viticulturist to assist with the transition to organics, and started to bottle his old parcels of local idiosyncratic varieties long since fallen by the wayside.
From where? Ribeira Sacra, the slate and schist terraces that plunge into river canyons where the Miño meets the Sil. In Galicia, Spain’s green northwest, where the local language is mutually intelligible with Portuguese and there are Celtic runes carved into standing stones.
Out of what? Ribeira Sacra has certain parallels to the northern Rhône, both slate river valleys devoted to a single variety: syrah in the Rhône, mencía here. But in both places, there are grapes that break the rules of monoculture. Here, in addition to rare white grapes (Fedellos do Couto bottles their own as “Conasbrancas”, aka “coñas brancas”, or, loosely translated, “what the hell do we do with the white ones?”) there are other, rarer locals: caíño tinto, brancellao, and what turns out to be trousseau: merenzao, also known as bastardo.
One more thing: This is pricy—almost $50 retail in most markets—but it was also the unanimous favorite, blowing most tasters away. Consider the splurge, and decant for maximum impact.

How it might look on a wine list
ARNOT-ROBERTS, trousseau, “Luchsinger Vineyard” NORTH COAST

In one sentence
The bottle that launched the New California.

Who made it? Duncan Arnot and Nathan Lee Roberts, who founded Arnot-Roberts in 2001 and were among the first wave of boundary-pushing indie-California winemakers.
From where? They found it in 2009 in Lake County, where it’d been planted by Bernie Luchsinger in 2002 in the hopes of maybe using it for fortified wine, as the variety had been in Port & Madeira. What they did with it instead demonstrates, among other things, the power of a point of view.
One more thing: Aside from what’s being grafted over or planted, and from the ancient vines hiding in 19th century field plantings, the other big California surprise is the survival of trousseau gris, historically known around these parts as ‘grey riesling’. It’s all really from one centenarian vineyard, Fannucchi-Wood Road, but you’ll find all kinds of New California type producers buying the fruit and vinifying it in different ways.

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