The Wines of Jurançon

Henry IV of France and Navarre (nicknamed le vert galant) was baptized with a drop of Jurançon, and novelist Colette called the wine the seduction du vert galant: ‘I was a girl when I met this prince; aroused, imperious, treacherous, as all great seducers are.’

Lou nouste Henric (Our Henry): Statue of Henry IV in Pau

Jurançon lies to the south of Madiran, just outside Pau in the Pyrenean foothills. With 1,300mm annual rainfall, humidity is high; but a warm and dry foehn wind extends the ripening season into October and November, with some harvests taking place as late as December and even January. The soils are clay and sand with some limestone at higher altitudes. Some vineyards contain poudingues (after the English ‘pudding’), sedimentary rocks of calcareous clay studded with marble-sized pebbles.

The mid-October view from Domaine Larredya

The principal grape varieties are Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng (in Occitan the ‘g’ is pronounced with a southern trill), with smaller amounts of Courbu Blanc, Petit Courbu, Camarlet de Lasseube, and Lauzet. Vines are trained high (conduite en hautain) to lift the fruit from frost and disease and encourage canopy development. Gros Manseng is normally the principal variety for Jurançon Sec AOP, and Petit Manseng for Jurançon AOP, which is sweet and sometimes aged in oak. With its thick skin, Petit Manseng is especially suited to drying on the vine (passerillage). It is considered more noble than Gros Manseng but is lower yielding. Despite the fashion for dry wines, Jurançon is more sought-after than Jurançon Sec and dominates production.

Petit Manseng in October: thick skins, open bunches, and low yields.

Jurançon is golden in colour, often with a greenish tinge. The nose delivers a medley of tropical fruits such as mango, pineapple, and guava along with flowers and sweet spice and perhaps even beeswax, banana, and coconut. Some of the wines from Domaine Castéra display prominent truffle. Acidity is very high—higher than Chenin Blanc or even Riesling—but sweetness can vary quite considerably depending on vintage conditions and time of harvest. Dry Jurançon is often mistaken for New World Sauvignon Blanc, but Petit Manseng is noticeably less herbaceous. The age-worthy style of dry Jurançon favoured by Charles Hours (pronounced ‘Ours’ or ‘Bear’) at Clos Uroulat can happily be mistaken for Savennières. Sweet Jurançon is more akin to Vouvray than to nearby Sauternes, both in terms of acid structure and aroma profile. At Château Jolys, I tasted a 2001 December harvest that blew me away with notes of caramel, coconut, dried fruits, gingerbread, cloves, and Bourbon vanilla, among others.

2001 December harvest at Château Jolys

Top producers in Jurançon include Clos Uroulat, Château Jolys, Domaine Cauhapé, Domaine Larredya with its biodynamic amphitheatre, Domaine Castéra, Clos Lapeyre, and Guirardel, where Mme Guirardel offered me a fabulous pairing of duck hearts in ginger.