Emmanuel Houillon, Vigneron at Maison Pierre Overnoy, Arbois-Pupillin
This post is a joint effort between Guilhaume Gerard, the Wine Digger, and I. We sat with Manu for 5 hours interviewing and talking with him. Guilhaume has a great post including pictures from last year here:
“I have never used sulfur” Emmanuel Houillon tells us while sit at his table drinking poulsard “I don’t know how.”
For many vignerons in the world this would be a statement of their winemaking philosophy, a badge of difference in a sea of industrial made wines. For Manu, it is simply the truth.
When Manu started working for Pierre Overnoy on his two hectacre vineyard in Pupillin in 1989, Pierre had already been sulfur free for 4 years. Disappointed by the result he had been tasting from his sulfured wines (an unfortunate side-effect from school in Beaune, Manu tells us), in 1985 Pierre met Jacques Neauport who had been working with the legendary chemist and winemaker Jules Chauvet and started making wines without sulfur. By taking Jules’ work on gamay of using clean grapes fermented semi-carbonically (carbonic gas is added before and after the wine is tanked to help prevent oxidation, which is something that sulfur does for most vignerons) and combining them with the knowledge he had gained from working with his dad since 1968, Pierre figured out how to bring his wines back to life. By the time Manu started his official internship in 1990, the only wines he was learning how to make were sulfur free, except to clean the barrels, which are then cleaned and drained with water to remove residue. He now works alongside his family members Adeline and Aurelien but things have still not changed.
In the vineyards of Pierre Overnoy there are four of the traditional grape varieties in the area, Poulsard, the sole red, Chardonnay, a small bit of Melon-qeue-rouge which is always blended with one of the whites, and Savagnin, which is the grape that makes the Jura’s famed Vin Jaune. Massale selection is done for all the vines they grow (selection massale is only permitted in the Jura, on clones or franc-de-pied if the replanting is in the owner’s vineyards. No sales are allowed) from cloned plants. Franc-de-pied was attempted once, but the results were less than stellar, and all the plants died within seven years. Pierre and Manu had a good headstart on many vignerons working naturally because the vineyards in Pierre’s family had never been sprayed with any type of chemicals, so clean fruit was a given. Pupillin itself is a small sleepy town tucked neatly in the bucolic Jura. It is not a famous winemaking name in the same vein as say, Chablis. Up until recently most of the land in the appellation was still devoted to poly-culture, with only a small portion reserved for vines. When phyloxera arrived in Arbois in 1886 the vines were wiped out, and later odium and mildew killed much of the cloned plantings or made the vineyard work no longer worth the effort, so the land was allowed to go back to mixed farms in order to make livings. When chemical sprays for weeds and various plant diseases came about, many vineyards were replanted and the poly-culture was lost, although the total number is much less than pre-phyloxera. Manu has continued this practice in order to insure the best grapes, only using Bordeaux mixture, and even with that he stops at least one and one half months in advance in order for the grapes to come in as only grapes.
Manu talks a lot about things that are only learned from experience, and not much in the way of abstract theory or philosophy. In the vineyard him and Pierre break from the teachings of Chauvet by leaving their harvest in the vineyard each day until dusk, and pressing at night. One of the most repeated points in Chauvet’s writing is the need for grapes to be pressed as quickly after harvest, but here is one of his most famous followers doing exactly the opposite. When asked why this is Manu responds by saying that this is because traditionally in the area the de-stemming and selection of the grapes (Manu tells us that they do selection grape by grape, not cluster by cluster) was done in the vineyards and the pressing at night and it works for them, so why change?
In the cellar Manu is an obsessive, patient winemaker, but he is no dogmatist and he would probably laugh if anyone was to refer to him as a “non-interventionist.” While some people’s internships last a summer or maybe a year, Manu worked as Pierre’s apprentice for 11 years. In that time he learned all he could from Pierre (a relationship that is still ongoing, we initially met at Pierre’s house for the tasting). When he took over in 2001 the winery had grown to 5 hectacres, thanks in part to Pierre gaining two hectacres from his sister and the additional planting of one hectacre of chardonnay in 1998 (currently they have six hectacres and Manu eventually wants seven and a half).
Tasting through the wines was to see this patience in action. Instead of the typical 2007-8-9 current releases that most people have, Manu is currently selling a 2005 Poulsard (the 06, 07, and 08 have since been released) a 2003 sous-voile Savagnin, and two Savagnins from 1999, a vin jaune and a rare ouille version from the same year that was continuously topped off for 10 years before bottling. This philosophy of continuing the elevage until the winemaker thinks there is nothing more to be gained is a rare and refreshing thing, especially coming from a winemaker in an out of the way appellation.
The wine is vinified in a variety of containers, including large format wood containers, older barriques, stainless steel, and a colossal 30 hectoliter concrete egg that has to be seen to be believed. Depending on the vintage, different containers will be used on different wines (the 2009 poulsard, for instance, is all stainless steel, which was not necessarily the case in previous vintages). When it comes to making wine, Manu doesn’t believe that there are any hard rules in the cellar including (and this surprised the hell out of me, as I’m sure it will others) chapitalisation. He doesn’t like doing it, but he freely admits to it when the year is thin and the wine isn’t going to amount to much. Unlike sulfur, he understands chapitalising wines (a common, accepted and traditional practice in many appellations) and feels he can get better wines in certain vintages by the addition of sugar.
The wines of Maison Pierre Overnoy are, if you haven’t guessed already, something worthy of the highest praise. In fact, while tasting in the cellars of Nady Foucault at Clos Rougeard one can spot, mixed in with impossibly priced burgundies, a few bottles of Overnoy on the racks. The Poulsard, a thin skinned fat grape prone to reduction and a winemaker’s nightmare and which seems to take to Pupillin’s terroir better than other places in the Jura, is always on the razor’s edge of lightness and complexity, a wine to both drink and ponder. The chardonnays are distinctly Jura, neither faux-Burgundian or cheaply decorated like so many Chardonnays. Then the there are the savagnins. If you’ve never had an oxidized savagnin the experience is, for lack of a better term, “transformative,” and Overnoy’s wines are the best examples. They have none of the heaviness associated with most oxidized wines, and they retain a certain amount of liveliness and freshness no matter how old. The vin jaune, which for those who don’t know, is made in the same sous-voile style as sherry. A layer of flor yeast is allowed to form on top of the wines, which are never topped off (the difference between ouille, which is topped off, and non-ouille). The wines, protected by this layer of yeast age slowly, 6 years and 3 months is the minimum by law, but Manu leaves his for much longer, and take on a characteristic unlike anything else. In this Manu admits to a certain amount of luck. His voile forms relatively quickly, two to three months opposed to up to two years for Jacques Puffeney another well regarded vigneron (and one of my favorites) in the area, which helps to protect the wine and retain its freshness. Vin jaune is a wine of nature almost entirely, as no barrel can ever be made into jaune, it either happens or it doesn’t. In addition Manu also makes an ouille savagnin that is kept in barrel for so long that it oxidizes despite being constantly topped. The oxidation is the result of micro-oxygenation from the barrel over a great number of years, rather than a large contact like the jaune. The wine is different from the jaune and surprisingly much more oxidized, but no less fascinating. The wines are all priced based not on demand, but on the yield for that year.