|Deciding to write a book was definitely not a marketing decision, and it was not a burning ambition either, quite the contrary. Strange to think about it now, my decision almost came about as a desperate act, following the unexpected explosion in interest about Jura wines and fielding incessant questions. It became a ‘I guess I’ll really have to write a book’ moment.
For years I had contributed on Savoie and Jura to wine tomes from pocketbooks to encyclopaedias (and I still do) – they have the names of very famous wine authors on their covers. I had also been involved in the research and editing process for various wine book publishers – to an extent this put me off writing my own, but, ironically, it also gave me some of the tools to self-publish successfully.
Meanwhile, as a skier from childhood, and working in wine from early adulthood, I have long had a soft spot for wines that emerged from vineyards located on precipitous slopes en route to the ski resorts. I was drinking Swiss wines in the 1970s and the first visit I made to a Savoie vineyard was in the mid-1980s. Back then Jura wines, however, were not on my radar. Apart from the locals and a few top chefs, who prized Vin Jaune, Jura wines weren’t on anyone’s radar.
Lucky me, in the early 1990s, I began to spend part of the year in a ski resort in Haute Savoie. Back in the UK, where wine people thought Savoie and Jura were one and the same, co-habiting as they did in a tiny chapter or page in specialist books and magazines, everyone thought I lived in Jura (and still do, by the way). Almost out of the blue, I was asked to write on Jura and Savoie… but I knew nothing about Jura.
I had spent 20 years working in the world of wine, had gone through MW studies (passed the theory, but failed the tasting), I had taught at WSET Diploma level, yet when I walked out of my first serious cellar visit in Jura on a very cold January day, I felt like I knew nothing at all. I was bemused. Pale-coloured, chilled, thin but tannic reds were offered first; then a white, masquerading as a cheap burgundy-style Chardonnay but tasting nothing like it. And then, bammmm! The taste of oxidized apples and walnuts in the initially-weird ‘Tradition Savagnin’ (or was it blended with Chardonnay?) and a more subtle, wonderful seven-year-old Vin Jaune, long opened and kept warmish. We weren’t finished: Crémant to clear the palate and then a sweetish, but somewhat nutty Vin de Paille, and finally the shock of a stranger-still liqueur Macvin. Explanations were lengthy, it was exhausting and freezing cold too. What on earth was this region about?
I was hooked by the strangeness and novelty of the Jura, rooted in its traditions. I persisted in learning about the wines and then wine writer Tom Stevenson insisted that I became his Jura and Savoie contributor for his wonderful annual Wine Report, published 2004–09. ‘I know nothing,’ I protested, ‘but nor does anyone,’ he retorted. Thanks, Tom.
Through the early days of social media, I became known as the only one (apart from some worthy importers), who knew anything about Jura wines. And by a decade ago the world was waking up to them big time – soon New York offered a better range than Paris did, and these authentic wines were making leaps and bounds in quality.
Jura Wine, my first book, thus emerged, kicking and screaming, after countless visits and tastings at wine producers large and small, questions to local laboratories about the mysteries of Vin Jaune, to historians about Louis Pasteur’s work and how a still drinkable wine from 1774 came to be lurking in someone’s cellar, interviews with top chefs and more. Mick Rock, my chief photographer, somehow made it through one of the wettest early summer fortnights to bring forth fabulous photos. Quentin Sadler, my cartographer and I spent hours trying to figure out where exactly the tiny vineyards of Jura lay… A wonderful editor and designer worked with me to get the book ready for print and I had already run a successful crowdfunding campaign to part-finance it.
Some gratifying reviews and winning the André Simon award for Best Drink Book really made all my hard work finally seem worthwhile, even more so was shipping books to customers all around the world. Today, the thirst for knowledge on Jura wines remains unabated. This intriguing, tiny wine region evolves constantly, yet still retains its traditions and has a wider variety of wine styles than any other wine region in the world.
I still nurtured my much earlier love of Savoie wines, but with Jura all-consuming it took some time before I could devote myself to climbing the steep slopes of its vineyards. Delving behind the story of this Alpine wine region with its huge range of indigenous grape varieties had to wait. But now the time has come for Savoie’s wines, and for those of its neighbours Bugey, Isère and to the south the Diois and Hautes-Alpes. They are light, full of mountain freshness and highly original flavours from those rare grape varieties.
Even more challenging this time, once again, I did the full tour of vignerons spread across a much larger geographical area, and I consulted local geology and technical experts to get to grips with what I needed to write Wines of the French Alps. And this time the sun shone properly for the photographers. Once again, the book seems to be appreciated, which makes me happy, especially for the hard-working Alpine vignerons.
I am proud that Académie du Vin Library has taken on distribution of my two babies and hope you enjoy reading them.