The way that chef Didier Elena of New York restaurant Chefs Club remembers it, his former boss Alain Ducasse—a man awarded more Michelin stars than virtually any other chef in history—became interested in Vin Jaune, the deep yellow wine of France's Jura region, in 1996. That was the year Ducasse opened his first namesake restaurant in Paris at the Sofitel Le Parc hotel (with Elena working for him), and 1996 was also the year that Ducasse began to organize his menu around reinvented classic French dishes from around the country.
As Ducasse began rooting around the wider French tradition looking for ideas that might work well in the capital, he took an interest in a braised chicken recipe from the Jura that called for asparagus, morel mushrooms, Comté cheese, and a local wine specialty called Vin Jaune.
"If you use Vin Jaune in cuisine, you need the best that is available, because with Vin Jaune the taste is unique ..." - Didier Elena
Vin Jaune, as it turned out, is unique in the world of wine. An extra long aging requirement by law ensures the wine made from the low-yielding Savagnin grapes must spend over six years in barrel, often under a yeast covering which imparts the style's characteristic strong savory and saline flavors that can evoke equally strong reactions in drinkers.
At the time, Vin Jaune's flavor was counter to the norm—the French were generally drinking wines with a fresh, fruity character—so most restaurants didn’t carry the style. But those strong, savory notes did appeal to two chefs.
"If you use Vin Jaune in cuisine, you need the best that is available, because with Vin Jaune the taste is unique," says Elena, who tried substituting other wines into the chicken recipe his boss had proposed.
Elena’s experiments with alternatives proved unsatisfactory. "We tried different wines, sweet wines, in the recipe" he remembers, "but Vin Jaune is totally different. Vin Jaune is totally not sweet, it is low in acid, and you want to get that flavor and keep it so that you can taste it in the cuisine. Morels and Comté are delicious with the wine. It is difficult to replace Vin Jaune in that dish."
The combination caught on for Ducasse in Paris, and pretty soon he and Elena were going through cases of Vin Jaune. Elena recalls that they used so much of one particular Vin Jaune style wine that the producer made a special journey to Ducasse's restaurant in Paris. "Sixty percent of what this person was making we purchased," says Elena, "and he wanted to order his wine at the dinner, but we didn’t offer a single Vin Jaune on the wine list at that time, it all went into that chicken dish."
In 2000, Ducasse sent Elena to New York to run the kitchen of his restaurant at the Essex House, and Elena brought with him the idea of cooking with Vin Jaune. Not surprisingly, New Yorkers were largely unfamiliar with the wine, and few bottles were for sale in the U.S.
David Lillie, a longtime Manhattan retailer, recalls that back then "the average consumer found the wines too weird." Very little was available or asked for in New York. At the Essex House, Elena instructed the sommelier, André Compeyre, to find some Vin Jaune and Compeyre obtained one of the few bottles that was legally imported at the time, a Vin Jaune from Lornet.
Years years later, when Elena moved to Ducasse’s nearby restaurant Adour in The St. Regis, he brought along the Vin Jaune recipe, and even today he continues to cook with the wine, having recently featured a Dover Sole dish at Chefs Club that incorporates the Vin Jaune.
Back in 1997, a few years before Elena moved to New York, chef Didier Virot was working as the opening executive chef of the city's now widely acclaimed Jean-Georges restaurant. Virot had lived near the Jura and also shared a fondness for cooking with Vin Jaune. Using the same chicken recipe as Ducasse, Virot chose to subbed fish in as the protein. However, in sourcing wine, he encountered the same problem as Elena, the lack of Jura wine imported to the United States. So, he asked friend and wine importer Neal Rosenthal for help.
Didier provided me with a list of several references for producers in the Jura and Puffeney was among the names. Happily, I did manage to develop a strong bond with Jacques Puffeney, with the wonderful result that we had the pleasure of presenting his wines for the first time in the USA.
Puffeney, who recently retired, has long been nicknamed "the Pope of the Jura," and eventually became one of the producers most revered in this country for his traditional wines. Because of Rosenthal’s national distribution network and strong relationships with top chefs in this country, the Puffeney wines slowly began to establish themselves and the Jura in the minds of American buyers. But it was Virot who first pointed Rosenthal in Puffeney’s direction, and Rosenthal recalls that "they spent many moments together discussing wines and I treated his thoughts on the subject with great respect."
A quick search of wine lists today yields plenty of evidence that American sommeliers have fully embraced the wines of the Jura. Wines made in the Vin Jaune style are now available in many of the most respected dining rooms in the country including Eleven Madison Park, The Modern, Cosme, Per Se, The NoMad and Pearl & Ash on the east coast, as well as The Progress, Nopa, Michael Mina, Foreign Cinema and Lukshon on the west.
But the groundwork for Jura wines availability in this country was laid by chefs, long before the enthusiasm of sommeliers. It used to be that if such a wine was found in an American restaurant at all, it was in the kitchen, because the first real Jura champions were chefs.