Resurrecting the Mystery: Clos Joliette

BY NEAL MARTIN | JANUARY 28, 2020

Abbey Road, Dark Side of the Moon, Unknown Pleasures, London Calling and Screamadelica: albums whose cover art defined an artist as much as the music itself. Likewise, a wine label design can mold preconceptions of the wine. A handful of labels are iconic and act as irresistible, subliminal magnetic forces upon the inquisitive wine-lover. Think of the unmistakable black and white typeface of DRC, the eye-catching bold yellow and red of Figeac – and add to that list Clos Joliette. I have no inkling who designed the label; what I do know is that when I first laid eyes on it, with its distinctive, almost childlike italic capital lettering and, underneath, the simple drawing of a vineyard laborer looking over his vines with Pyrenean peaks in the background, it triggered a feeling of acute anticipation. There was something enigmatic about that label; a priori, the wine must surely be special. And so it proved, though over the years, bottles were rarely encountered. When I composed a Cellar Favorite for the 1978, information on this Jurançon icon was frustratingly negligible and vague. Trawling the Internet unearthed such sketchy historical details that I could not even verify whether Clos Joliette still existed. It appeared to be in a confusing state of limbo, a wine estate not confirmed dead but seemingly comatose.

This article fills in some gaps, including the current state of proprietorship and what may follow, plus a handful of tasting notes with respect to wines now coming onto the market. Expect answers to questions, but also more unanswered questions! Earlier this year, Lionel Osmin invited me to a private tasting of Joliette in London. I was unfamiliar with his name, and I’ll explain how he fits into the Joliette jigsaw puzzle later on. Let me first summarize the history of Clos Joliette.


History

Clos Joliette is regarded as the first producer in the Jurançon, in the southwest corner of France. In 1929, the Migne family cleared forest in a natural southeast-facing amphitheater to plant about a hectare of vines. Back then, the go-to grape variety was Gros Manseng but, intentionally or not, the Mignes went against received wisdom and cultivated Petit Manseng. Jurançon’s wines enjoyed local demand, though according to Osmin, a bottle would cost little more than two francs. Nevertheless, Clos Joliette gradually built a modest if niche reputation as the region’s leading producer, even if it never sold for much more than around 12 euros in today’s money. With limited income, investment was minimal. Maurice Migne was in charge of Clos Joliette in the Sixties and Seventies, and when he passed away, his widow Jeanne took over production for many years. Apparently she was the archetypal French paysan, always attired in her traditional black apron, under which she tied her leather satchel stuffed with wads of money. Every transaction was made in cash, and well, I’ll leave it to readers’ carnal imaginations how she used to pay hot-blooded male pickers.

No records exist of how the Mignes farmed the land or made their wines, though ancient bottles now fetch hundreds of euros whenever they come up at auction. Clos Joliette was revered by some of the world’s best winemakers. Legend has it that the late Didier Dagueneau trespassed into the vineyard in the middle of the night to take cuttings to propagate for his own Jurançon estate, Les Jardins de Babylone. In 1989, Jeanne Migne passed away, and with nobody in the family interested in continuing the estate, the vineyard was auctioned off around 1990 or 1991. The Mignes’ son, who was in the car business, sold off the cellar of old vintages, which is why old bottles are as rare as hen’s teeth. There were a few interested parties, including fellow Jurançon winemaker Charles Hours and actor Gérard Depardieu, who had visited Joliette several times. Most predicted that Hours would buy the estate; however, the successful bidder was Parisian caviste Michel Renaud. It seems that Renaud treated Clos Joliette as a part-time hobby instead of devoting himself fully to the estate, using pickers from his Armagnac vineyard to conduct the harvest; leaving barrels for five years without racking and topping them up only if necessary; then selling only a fraction of the production to a few friends and cellaring the remainder. Renaud died in 2015, leaving a wife, a daughter and her half-brother, the former a trained oenologist. It became widely known that Clos Joliette was for sale, though despite its niche fame, this was no Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé and there was no queue of prospective buyers. French inheritance laws are complicated, and when Renaud’s widow passed away, there was still no outright buyer. Consequently, the estate entered a transitional period that continues to this day.


The vineyard of Joliette with the snow-capped Pyrenean peaks in the background. 

So where does Osmin come in? Born in the city of Pau, he tasted many old Jurançon wines from his father’s cellar and trained at Charles Hours before establishing his own distribution business, focused on Jurançon. In 2017, during a telephone call with a friend, Osmin serendipitously discovered that Joliette was seeking a buyer after Michel Renaud’s passing. He immediately contacted the family to see if they would sell him their “precious jewel.” Negotiations proved difficult and petered out, yet three months before she passed away, Renaud’s widow called Osmin out of the blue and informed him that it had been decided that he would take over running the estate. The five-year contract gives Osmin the right to farm the vineyard and make the wine, and control over distribution of new vintages as well as the accumulated stocks of vintages spanning Renaud’s 20-year tenure – hence this tasting. As eagle-eyed readers might spot on the label, Osmin is allowed to use the Joliette name but not Clos Joliette. This is because Clos Joliette pertains to the vineyard, ergo it comes under Jurançon appellation rules that stipulate a minimum level of residual sugar at around 50–60g/L for “Moelleux” wines and a maximum for “Sec.” Clos Joliette’s residual sugar levels tend to fall between the two, which meant that it had to either change style or forgo Jurançon AC status. Osmin opted for the latter, and so henceforth “Joliette” is classed as a Vin de Table de France. When the five-year contract comes up, Osmin is confident that he will finally be able to take possession of the estate by buying out Renaud’s daughter and her half-brother, but of course, that cannot be guaranteed.

Remarkably, some might say foolishly, Osmin signed the contract without having ever tasted any of the bottles in Joliette’s cellar and, like virtually everyone else, knowing little about Renaud’s modus operandi. In the vineyard, he found that apart from the original 1929 plantings at the top of the amphitheater, Renaud had extended the vineyard with terraces populated by vines in the region of 20 years old to bring the total vineyard to 1.5 hectares (not 1.8 hectares as I incorrectly stated in my Cellar Favorite). Not all of those terraces can be used, since parts of them do not receive sufficient sunlight hours, and there are some patches where vines are missing, so yields will always be limited. Interestingly, Osmin found that Migne had propagated vines using marcotage, burying the vine branch back into the soil. He also found that the vineyard’s steepness makes it prone to erosion, and that this in turn reveals some areas with pockets of unstable bedrock underneath, like on the limestone bedrock in Saint-Émilion. When I inquired about vineyard husbandry, Osmin said he had no doubt that for years the previous proprietors had dumped a lot of chemicals and herbicides onto the vines, though since converting to organic just a year ago, he has already found increasing biodiversity. At some point he may undertake a soil analysis, although it depends on how things turn out apropos of ownership. Osmin determined that historically, picking took three or four days, although he has no idea whether that was consecutive or spread over a longer period of time.


The current guardian, aiming to resurrect Joliette, Lionel Osmin.

Venturing into the cellar, although Migne’s and Renaud’s techniques will never be known, to his astonishment Osmin discovered that neither paid much heed to the style or sweetness of each barrel, and that Renaud had never practiced any assemblage to create a uniform blend. Every barrel differs wildly in terms of sweetness. And when Osmin tasted random bottles in the cellar bins, he discovered that again, every bin tasted different, leading him to believe that each 300-bottle bin corresponds to an individual barrel (but those expecting a bin to be uniform should remember that there would be differences depending upon whether the wine was run off from the top or the bottom of the barrel). All this explains why my aforementioned 1978 tasted sweet but came without “Moelleux” on the label. Essentially, back then it was like playing Russian roulette: all old bottles of Clos Joliette indicate is “Jurançon,” and even then, 90% are technically illegal because they rarely reached the residual sugar levels stipulated by appellation rules.

“The wines should all have been dead when you looked at the cellar,” Osmin told me. “The juice from the old press must have been very oxidized. It went against everything that I had been taught at oenological school. Barrels had been left empty, so I cannot use those, and I was obliged to buy new barrels, which raised the question of whether I should pursue a more modern style. But I bought two or three used barrels from Suduiraut.” Of course, browning the juice prior to fermentation is now viewed as a means of preventing premature oxidation, so maybe Migne and Renaud were just unwittingly ahead of their time.

It is clear that Osmin wants to maintain the traditional style of Joliette. Fruit from the 2016 and 2017 vintages was sold to a neighboring estate, and Osmin finally made the 2018 vintage, albeit at a paltry 8hl/ha that barely filled two barrels. Going forward, Osmin wishes to indicate the sweetness of bottles while remaining outside appellation rules. Therefore, bottles with a green wax capsule are driest, below 10g/L residual sugar; yellow, between 10 and 30g/L; and orange, above that, normally up to 60g/L. A code on the bottle makes it easy to work out what you are tasting: “L” followed by two digits relating to the vintage and then “C” followed by the bin identifier. Osmin told me that having tasted through all of the roughly 140 bins, they concluded that 24 are top quality. He is currently selling the wines as six-packs of six different bottles including one from those 24 bins, mindful that all subsequent releases should have the same average quality. The price will be around €1,200.00 per six-pack.


The Wines

The first point to make is that among the nine wines, the sweetness levels varied wildly, ranging from an almost Sercial Madeira character up to a mature Tokaji/Barsac hybrid. Thank God that Osmin opted for a system to indicate sweetness level; I have ensured that this is mentioned in the tasting note for readers’ reference. What pleased me about tasting these wines is that despite Renaud’s seeming indifference toward Clos Joliette throughout his tenure, he may have inadvertently continued making the Jurançon that attracted those who adore the traditional style under Migne and will fork out hundreds of euros for the privilege of experiencing it. There is still that sense of rusticity and that feeling of not knowing quite what you are going to get. Yet I found that these vintages possessed the elusive charm that makes Clos Joliette, now Joliette, so special. Taking the first three drier styles, the 1993 Jurançon L93-C90 was uncompromising, take-me-or-leave-me wine with distinct flor-like notes that made it compelling. Wonderful! The 1994 Jurançon L94-C53 seemed a bit lopsided and too alcoholic (15.7%). The 1998 Jurançon L98-C03 reveled in a great growing season, offering a gorgeous, waxy-textured palate and impressive complexity. I loved the 1996 Jurançon L96-C82 for its entrancing Aszu-like aromas, tension and off-dry finish; this is far more successful than two other yellow wax capsule iterations in 2000 and 2007, the latter indicating some error in the winery in terms of sulfur addition. Osmin believes it might eventually come around; who knows? There were two orange-capsule bottlings, my pick being the quite superb 2001 Jurançon L01-C39, which contains 84gm/L residual sugar and yet manages to convey real nuance and elegance.

Joliette or Clos Joliette, whatever you want to call it, remains an enigma. Even after this tasting and subsequent research, there remain gaps in information that are unlikely to be filled. I guess that is part of the allure. Joliette is not a well-known name, and yet its hardcore fans, including well-known winemakers, speak about it in hushed tones, while collectors pay vast sums at auction for ancient bottles. Joliette has the intangible magic that wealthy producers build marketing departments to conjure among cognoscenti, missing the point that magic is not something you buy. It’s not even necessarily correlated to the quality of the wine. And it starts with that label.  

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