Viticultural Jura is one of the smallest of all wine regions in France. Over 80 kilometers stretching North to South, on a ridge never more than 5 kilometers wide, the Jura has 1850 hectares under vines. This is down from 20,000HA pre-phylloxera, when about 40 varieties were widely used. This has been reduced to 5 since the creation of the AOCs, with the local grapes Trousseau and Poulsard for red wines and Savagnin for white, and the Burgundian grapes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Chardonnay dominates the plantations, although there are many types of plants and clones. The most interesting is called Melon à Queue Rouge, a type developed locally which has reddish stems.
Pierre Overnoy’s father ran a 15HA farm of mixed agriculture in Pupillin, a village near Arbois. 2.65HA of the land was vineyards, which Overnoy took over in 1968; he left the rest of the farming to his brother. From his beginnings, he tended his vines in organic fashion, known at the time as traditional, i.e. without herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, nothing but copper and sulfur.
In his winemaking, he was a pioneer of what has come to be called natural wines, especially in his avoidance of the use of sulfur. The Jura, with its tradition of Vin Jaune, made in a slowly oxidative fashion, was probably ideally suited for these explorations. Jules Chauvet, the Beaujolais négociant and wine researcher, was a mentor and a friend to Pierre Overnoy since those early years. Overnoy’s goal was to make wines of terroir, which would reveal the minerality of their soils and the ripeness of their vintage.
Emmanuel Houillon, a kid from the nearby, vineless area in Franche-Comté (the region that comprises Jura), came to Pierre as an apprentice in the fall of 1990. He went to school for two weeks in a row, then worked at the estate for two weeks. That lasted seven years, until he left school with a professional baccalauréat in viticulture and oenology. Overnoy then hired him as an employee.
In 1995, when still a student, Houillon found 1/3HA of Chardonnay vines which he tended himself. He also planted 1/2HA of Chardonnay in 1998. That same year, the Overnoy estate grew by 2.5HA of Poulsard and Savagnin, when Pierre took over vines owned by his sister.
In 2001, at the age of 63, Pierre Overnoy retired. Houillon worked with his wife Anne until his brother Aurélien joined them as a partner in 2007. Pierre Overnoy devotes much of his time to baking bread and is an everyday presence for the family and the estate.
The estate now consists of 2.43 HA of Ploussard (or Poulsard), 2.20 HA of Chardonnay and 2HA of Savagnin.
This interview with Emmanuel Houillon took place in Pierre Overnoy's house in August, 2012.
Tell us about the estate.
Today, we work 6 hectares of vines. We grow three different grapes: about 2 h of Ploussard, 2h of Chardonnay and 2h of Savagnin. We're also planting 30 ares of Trousseau next year, which will be a new experience for us.
As far as our history, the estate was founded by Pierre, and today I have taken over all major responsibilities. The vines have always been worked organically, and our goal is simply to make a pure, authentic wine. We want you to taste fermented grape juice and that's it. Sometimes this is problematic, because people don't understand the wines or what we are trying to make. But overall, people are very open to the idea.
Can you tell us about Pierre's beginnings?
Pierre took over his family's estate. His father and brother were both vignerons, and he expanded the viticultural size of the estate by shifting from polyculture to monoculture. At some point early in his career, Pierre decided to study how to make wine in Beaune, where he was taught modern oenology. After applying these techniques to make wine, Pierre found it odd that his wines were so dull compared to his father or brother's; after all these were the same grapes! He had gone to oenology school to make better wines than his family's, but it ended up being the opposite!
Around this same period -mid-to-late 70's-, he met Jacques Neauport for the first time. Jacques told him that it was entirely possible to make wine without modern techniques and even without sulfur. In 1984, Pierre started vinifying without sulfur, only adding a touch at bottling. Starting in 1986, not one of Pierre's wines have seen any added sulfur.
What is Pierre's current involvement?
Pierre is still completely integral in my family's day to day life. He's still here, he's still a vigneron, but now his new passion is baking bread! He's always there to taste the wines with me, to give advice or lend a helping hand.
What about your involvement?
The first time I came to Pupillin was with my uncle, who had been buying wine from Pierre for a very long time. He knew the Overnoy family very well; over our many visits, my parents eventually befriended Pierre. I was in high school at the time, and by 1989 I would spend all my off time helping out in the vines. I was 14 at the time.
In September 1990, I went to Beaune to study viticulture, and that was really the beginning of my career.
Did you hope to start your own estate or to work elsewhere after your studies?
When you're 15, you don't really think about stuff like that! All I knew was that it was something I truly enjoyed -that I still enjoy- and that the vines felt like a wake up call. I was a bit of a lost soul in school, but learning to make wines with Pierre -especially with how different it was than what they were teaching me in Beaune- made me realize that even if you think you've found everything, there's still so much more to unearth.
So seeing how Pierre worked, and how completely different it was from what you were being taught in school, that really affected you?
We are always told that the teacher knows everything. But if he teaches you the wrong thing, you might spend your entire life doing something wrong and thinking it's right. We were told that wines without added sulfur were impossible to make, that it would invariably turn to vinegar. So to make people accept that it IS possible to do -and even today some people still don't believe it- that was something that marked me. This was 1990: people treated Pierre like an extraterrestrial!
After your studies, did you come right back to Pupillin?
The program I took had me splitting my time between Pierre's vines and school: each month I would spend two weeks in Pupillin, then two weeks in class. In July and August, I was in the vines the whole time. So I've always been working the same land. It's where I learned everything. I studied for 7 years, and in 1997 I came back to Pupillin to work full time with Pierre. I was salaried until 2001, which is when I took over the estate.
What's the work in the vines like?
Everything is important, everything counts. I think the most important thing everyone needs to start focusing on is taking your selections massales very seriously. Go find the old vines wherever they may be, because otherwise you're going to lose them forever.
This is really important for the future generation of vignerons. Back in Pierre's day, people controlled the entire process of how their vines were planted. If they felt like they needed something that could withstand a colder climate, they would make selections from vines that were a little more precocious. Today, our climate is getting increasingly hotter, so it makes sense to find the vines that produce lesser maturities, that you can harvest later. The pépiniériste cannot do this job for you: he can only do the same, uniform plantings for everybody. People need to make personal judgement calls.
Has anything evolved in the cellar over the years?
We have a saying here: "You can always do better for tomorrow." I don't believe you can ever reach a point where you can say: "Everything is perfect, we'll keep it exactly like this." Everything is always changing: the climate, the yeasts that will ferment the wine each year... These are things that we know aren't static. So you have to follow the movement of where things are headed.
Obviously, we are trying to make wines that we like to drink. Wine from 200 years ago might not be what we'd want to drink today. So yes, there are always little changes happening here and there, but never any drastic overhauls.
What is your take on sulfur?
In my opinion, sulfur can in some instances be beneficial to viticulture and winemaking. Pierre always said it helps stabilize wines, and can carry them through time. The problem is that sulfur use has become standardized, and in many cases takes the life out of the wine.
The big argument is that it keeps the wine stable.
But this is a fool's tale! I would argue that alive wines often age better, because when a wine is unfiltered and unfined, you've got all the elements you need for it to age. If you want to make a wine that will age for a long time, there are many ways to do it: you can leave it on its lees for a long time, bottle them years before release...
Sulfur free wine often gets a bad rap because many of them have very obvious flaws, specifically brett, oxidation and volatile acidity. Yet this never occurs with your wines. Why?
There are important guidelines to follow if you don't want your wine to suffer from these flaws. You can't just do whatever you want, however you want to do it. You can make sulfur free wine every year, but that means that some vintages you'll need to be patient. Being meticulous with the grapes you are harvesting is THE most important thing you can do. Especially with the reds, if you're not sorting through what you're picking, it's not even worth attempting.
Another important detail: not letting the grapes reach over-maturity. The best fruit is the one picked and eaten exactly at the right time. If it's under-ripe, over-ripe or you let it sit for a few days, it's going to lose some of its purity.
How do you feel about the term "natural wine"?
Our wines are what they are. As far as classifying them, I'd rather someone else do that: it's much more interesting for us, and gives us the opportunity to always put what we're doing into question.
Here's the thing: for a long time, these wines were misunderstood. There were so many "connaisseurs" that believed our wines weren't good because they were unfiltered, un-fined, un-everything... Today, people are more sincere when they drink. They taste a wine, and if they like it, they're happy. They are much more confident in their own palates. Better that than being told what you should and shouldn't like! So I think there is a future for these wines. I think that one day we won't talk about organic agriculture anymore, because everyone will be doing it.
You're convinced of this?
I'd like to see it happen! It's how we used to do things, right? Why couldn't it come back? In any case, I'm convinced that the next generation of great wines will come from this type of work.
Do you think this shift will result from new laws being passed, or simply a more conscious generation of farmers?
There is already an ever increasing amount of consciousness. We needed it. And now I'm meeting more and more people who are proud of what they do. They have a healthy outlook on life, and even if they're not working organically yet, tomorrow they will be. And the consumer is requesting it too: they are sick of always drinking the exact same wine every time, they want to taste the pleasure of something real.
What do like to drink?
Plenty of stuff! We have so many vignerons friends... I don't set any rules for myself, but I love wines from my friends. I won't name names, but from North to the South, I like it all!
This visit with Emmanuel Houillon took place in July 2017.
Words and photos by Jules Dressner.
Knowing how iconoclastic Overnoy has become, our annual visits with Manu, Anne and Pierre almost feels like a privilege. Getting an appointment is notoriously difficult, harder even than acquiring the wines. And it is true that in so many ways, the six hectare estate lives up to the hype: as pioneers of "sans-souffre", the unwavering attention to detail in the vines and the cellar, the insistence of only releasing wine they deem ready...
This kind of adulation goes to a lot of people's heads, but I'm fairly convinced the Houillon are blissfully unaware of how obsessed the wine world has become with them. Manu just wants to make wine and take care of his family. He is one of the nicest, humblest and generous people we work with. He's also a very private person; posting his wines will get you hundreds of likes on social media, but I doubt many people would recognize a picture of him.
On this summer day, we got to experience something Manu had wanted to do with us for a long time: tour the vineyards and taste the results "sur place". For all the Overnoy madness, surprisingly little has been written about about the land. My big takeaway from this visit, as you shall soon see, is that the Chardonnay, Ploussard and Savagnin all grow in separate, distinct lieu-dits and terroirs.
We started our visit in Viandreries, the lieu-dit where the estates' 1.7 hectares of 50 year old Chardonnay are planted along with a tiny bit of Ploussard.
Manu had only slept a few hours, as he'd partied with friends the night before, then woken up at 5:30 to go on a hot air balloon with his wife Anne in the morning.
"I'm tired, but when you're spending time with friends, it's worth it."
While soaking in the beautiful landscape, Manu opened a bottle of 2012 Chardonnay.
"Everyone surrounding us here is working organically now. So much has changed in the last 10 years. It's very encouraging."
The Chardonnay had a beautiful nose; it’s the rare type of wine you spend so much time smelling, you forget you're supposed to drink! Unsurprisingly, it is rich, complex, herbaceous and has a very long finish. The wine was fermented and aged in foudre for 4 years, and bottled August 16th, 2016. As mentioned earlier, the Houillon release wines when they feel they are ready, which is why vintages are constantly jumping around.
Zaggy was very much enjoying les Viandries.
Unfortunately for her, we eventually had to drive over to a nearby cluster of lieu-dits: Le Grappiot, la Ronde, Huguenette and Aspis.
These four sites are all within a few steps of each other. At 70 ares, La Ronde is a combo of young and old Ploussard, with the oldest vines planted in 1959. It’s a north-east exposition planted on red marl. The oldest Ploussard vines are in the hectare of Huguenette, planted in 1949. With all these Ploussard vines around us, it was time to open a 2015!
The wine was almost amber in color. The nose was very aromatic, rich but still 100% Ploussard (think onion peel.) The tannins were a little more pronounced than usual, but very subtle and well incorporated. With a little air, flavors of blood orange became more prominent. In the solar 2015, the wine clocked in at 13%.
“With the weather we had, I was surprised the alcohol wasn't higher.”
They’ve also recently planted 50 ares of Savagnin here that have taken very well.
Our final stop was in the lieu-dit of Parc, where the Houillon’s 50 ares of Savagnin grow on grey and red marl.
Half a hectare is not a lot...
Here, we opened a Savagnin Ouillé 2006. It spent 8 years in barrel, and was bottled in 2014. With a never-ending finish and beautiful, precise oxydation, it was fantastic. With a little air, the minerality really started coming out.
That was our visit. It was fun. It was educational. It was special. It was a reminder that one of the most revered, sought-after estates in the world is still the work of a humble farmer. And it won't even get us a thousand likes.