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The House in the Woods (or the day I met Pierre Overnoy)

3rd June, 2016

I didn’t go to the Jura with that many plans. In fact, I hadn’t meant to go at all but it was so close to everything else and on the way from Beaujolais to Champagne. And some of my favourite wines come from there; how could I not?

So when I stayed with the Foillard’s in Beaujolais, it occurred to me that one of the people who I would really like to meet was Pierre Overnoy. The wines are rare and extremely hard to get. Maybe not as expensive as some but legendary. So Alex helped me organise a visit, which coincided with lunch with some Brazilian winemakers and importers which I was invited to join, and gratefully accepted.

When I arrive at the winery in Pupillin, Anne tells me that Pierre and Emmanuel aren’t there, they’re elsewhere with the Brazilian people but I can’t quite work out where that might be. Anyway, I’m to drive and meet them; she will come soon. There’s no address so my GPS is useless but Anne instructs me to go back out of town and follow a dirt road, where I’ll find a house in the woods. I’ll know I’m in the right place because there’s lots of cars there. So off I go.

The road is narrow and hidden. There’s a bridge with a narrow gate, the bridge itself has been patched up with cardboard and I’m a little worried driving my car over it. And there, ahead of me, is the house in the woods. It’s in a clearing, surrounded by grass and some fruit trees. I can hear a dog barking from inside as I pull up.

When I get out of the car, Pierre comes outside to greet me. He doesn’t speak English and my French is dismal but he asks if I am from “Australie”, to which I reply, “Oui” so we each know who the other is. Inside, 10 or so other people- who I guess to be the Brazilian wine people- plus Pierre’s son, Emmanuel, are seated around a big table trying wines. The room is large, light and airy, with a kitchen in one corner and a comfortable amount of clutter. It’s the kind of place where, if you were making something and you needed a spare part, you would find it. I also spy, to my delight, some beehive frames. Pierre pulls a chair from a stack on the same side of the room as the beehive frames and seats me next to him.

Emmanuel pours me the first wine, a Chardonnay. It’s light and fresh, rich in flavour, but with perfect tension, still young. The next Chardonnay has been aged for 18 years under flor, which you can smell and taste but it is, in fact, the fruit that dominates. It has a wonderful caramel note and orange zest that stays in the mouth long after my last tiny sip.

At the same time as I’m catching up on the tasting, Pierre is talking. One of the Brazilians is translating for him but it’s hard to follow since my French is poor and my Portuguese is non-existent, so it’s only later that I learn a little more about the wines- a lot I can guess anyway from tasting.

The next wine is Savagnin. It jumps from the glass, with the familiar smell of curry leaf and yellow flowers, daisies. I smell the limestone and then there’s the push-pull in the mouth between the limestone and clay. The flavour profile is reminiscent of leatherwood honey, the final taste is salt, which lingers for a long time. It too was under flor 18 years. I’m not sure why it is not then a Vin Jaune, it doesn’t taste like one- this is something I will clarify next time, but I need to practice my French.

Now we begin Vin Jaune, with a 1959. It’s a striking golden yellow and quite clear. The nose is explosive and engulfing, yet the palate so light and clean, with so much detail- the freshness of grass, quince, apple, lemon and minerals. To me, it’s like a story unfolding, with so many small details to pay attention to. I’ve had wines like this before, but not many, as they’re hard to find.

Pierre touches my arm and tries to explain something to me-  he’s gesturing with his hands, it seems that there’s something low and something high but I’m lost as to what it is.

The Brazilian translator (who I later find out also owns a restaurant) explains for me, “There are two types of cellar. You can have a high cellar or a low cellar. A low cellar is high in humidity meaning that the wine loses the alcohol; in a high cellar, it loses the water.” I’m guessing this has been aged in a low cellar, which he confirms.

The next Vin Jaune is deeper in colour, almost amber. The smell is more alcoholic and richer, incredibly perfumed. It must be from a high cellar. It sits on the front palate then tapers towards the end, almost like persimmon but far more intense, finishing on spice and orange zest. After 14 years in barrel, it went from 13% to 17%. I love the intensity of it but my preference is for the previous wine.

When I’ve tasted both Vin Jaune, Pierre asks for another wine to be passed down the table, which he pours for me. My first red of the tasting (as often in France, they had started on red and moved onto white, so I’ve gone backwards to catch up) is 1990 Ploussard. Pierre tells me it was a very good year, this is one of the best reds they’ve ever made. I believe him. It’s got so much structure framing bright red fruits, spicy and earthy, full in the mouth yet restrained. The tannins are silky and the final note is mineral, long and refreshing. This could easily age another 20 years, longer.

Next there’s the 1986 Ploussard- a cooler year, which I can tell just by the colour, it’s much lighter than the last. Yet it still holds up well, although it has some sediment as it’s towards the end of the bottle. I don’t mind, it looks like little red snowflakes floating around in the glass. It’s very fine, like strawberries. It’s drinking well now- it could still age longer but there’s less structure than ’90, it’s a little wilder. So good with terrine.

This wine is one year older than me, which I tell Pierre. He says that ’87 was a difficult vintage but worked well for them in the end. He has some but he’s not sure where- when I come back, I’m to let him know beforehand and we’ll try it.

The final wine is the 2013 Ploussard. It’s delicious but not ready yet, although it goes well with the salad- you can still taste the stalks and it matches perfectly the sweetness in the carrots. By now, everyone is just drinking and eating and talking- enjoying- because the tasting is done.

We have salad and terrine, followed by a main course of beef. It’s been cooked sitting on grape vines in a pot with some wine- you can taste both the wine and the beef, which is very tender, from the steam. The sauce is reduced, a mixture of juices from the beef and the wine. After cheese and dessert, a pastry made by Anne, the Brazilians leave with Pierre to get a bottle of wine from one of his cellars. We wish each other well on our travels and promise to visit when in each other’s countries.

I help Anne and Emmanuel clean up and try some of Pierre’s honey. It’s delicious, very complex, very wild, with many different flavours, high notes and low. I try his honey a few times over the next few days at other producers’ houses and always, it’s the same.

When Pierre returns, Anne and Emmanuel leave. Pierre and I say goodbye with the promise that I will return later in the year, and there will ’87 Ploussard and, the new season’s honey. Even though we don’t speak the same language, I know that I’ve found a new friend. Oh and yes, I couldn’t resist. I did ask for a photo of him with Jasmine’s wine.

I make a lot of plans at the last minute, I’m that kind of person. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I know that it would drive some people mad to travel with me. But I don’t think that anyone could say it’s a bad thing on this occasion. And I look forward to my return.

By Lou