Yellow Wine: A few minutes after I ordered a bottle of wine at New York’s Bette restaurant, the sommelier hustled over to my table like Tony Dorsett tumbling for the end zone, setting down a plate of gouda, pears, hazelnuts, and pecans.
“You’re gonna need this with your wine,” he warned.
When I zeroed in on the wine — a 2002 Arbois Savagnin from Jacques Puffeney — I knew I might be in for an unusual ride. Puffeney’s wines hail from France’s obscure Jura region, which is nestled between Burgundy and Switzerland, and are known for their aggressive acidity and fino-sherry-like oxidized quality. Vin jaune (or “yellow wine”) is the most famous of Jura’s wines, made from extra-ripe Savagnin grapes and aged under a layer of yeast for six years, producing a style said to be even more aggressive than the less-aged Savagnin I chose.
Okay, bring it on, I thought – I love taut sips like Chablis and Grüner Veltliner from Austria, and a little oxidation rarely rubbed me wrong; such vinous voltage can turbo-charge the tastebuds and heighten the flavor of food.
But was the Puffeney so high-wattage that it merited an unsolicited plate of nibbles? To be sure, certain foods can buff the contours of an edgy wine — like red meat’s ability to tame the astringency of a tannic Cabernet or walnuts’ mellowing effect on an overly-dry glass of Sherry. The sommelier’s offering — and his insistent, almost apologetic rendering of it — suggested that something more dire might be at play. Did experience teach him that diners needed to be numbed before wetting their lips with this juice, like Xylocaine before a needle or a blindfold before the firing squad?
The wine arrived, and I took a hit. First, there was a briny smell of the ocean — bracing, but not unpleasant. A few sips later, however, we crossed the line into something considerably more sauvage — the yellow wine’s saline tang giving way to fifth-grade memories of nose-tweaking Testors paint. Its taste was equally disconcerting—so salty doctors should prescribe it for sore throats.
Ever the optimist, I informed my tablemates that it would eventually come around. Give it time. Give it food. Give it love.
“This is a black-diamond wine, an expert’s quaff, an acquired taste,” I declared hopefully.
I tried to acquire the taste. I really tried. I sampled the yellow wine it with nuts and cheese, and meats and cheese, and meaty cheese. I yearned to like it, like a neophyte struggling to appreciate the baroque operas of Handel or the disjointed poetry of William Carlos Williams or any BBC comedy.
But I just couldn’t catch its groove. It put a pall over everything we ate — an immovable distraction, like trying to picnic in the shadow of a Chinatown dumpster. Like one’s inaugural visit with raw oysters or improvisational jazz, perhaps appreciating wine from Jura requires several attempts. But until I explore more, I fear that many of them are like Siegfried & Roy’s saber-toothed Montecore: rare, unwieldy, and headed for your jugular.