Most people are profoundly agnostic about the wines of Kenjiro Kagami. They have never heard of him. Of those who have, there is a small, but well publicised group of true believers.
Members of the church of Kenjiro drink everything they can find, upon which they make an offering to the gods of social media. Whether the wines really are the holy-grail of Jura, seems beside the point. If a Miroirs wine is felled and no-one can see the empty bottle, was it really drunk?
Is that too cynical though? Maybe just everyone loves the wines and wants to express it on social media. I’m not convinced. The smell of groupthink is too strong. It reminds me of queues outside Supreme. How do we really separate what we like, from what everyone else likes?
To add to the appeal or not of the hunt, depending on your preference, is the lack of a traditional supply / demand dynamic to accompany the market. Like Overnoy, it’s not that prices go up to settle the demand, rather that bottles are rationed by the gatekeepers who get tiny allocations. A typical scene might be that you see it on the list in a restaurant in France, and the owner will size you up before telling you that he won’t sell it to you. Awkward. Is it more exclusionary than not being able to drink a wine because you can’t afford it?
Anyway, because of the above, I hadn’t really formed to much of a strong opinion of the wines, save a couple of encounters in bars over the years. Fuck it, I thought, there are enough exciting young vignerons in Jura who I’d be happy to drink.
A few days ago, I walked up to La Croix Russe for a very small dinner with Kenjiro Kagami and Bruno Schueller, whom he worked for for many years to challenge my assumptions and try and overcome my anti social-media prejudices.
The Domaine started in 2011, before which Kenjiro had worked spells with Thierry Allemand and Bruno, both in their way pathfinders for avant-garde natural wines. They work on 3 hectares of vines in Grusse, about 10,000 bottles a year. The name ‘Miroirs’ itself is both a play on his name in Japanese and he believes an expression of the “Mirror” between himself, the wines and the terroir. It’s a fine concept.
We tried four wines, three before dinner. They had a bit more volume with the 2018 vintage, which I think they were pleased about after some recent short harvests. I asked Kenjiro who his main markets were, he told me he sends 30% to Japan, 30% stays in France, and the remaining 30% is split between all his other export markets.
2016 Domaine des Mirroirs Poulsard
This was beautifully light, very pure, very clean. A wine of elegance and a certain power without weight. Sometimes Poulsard can be more on the earthy, spicy side, like Puffenay, but this was much more on the Chambolle-style bright, cherry fruits.
2016 Domaine des Miroirs Les Saugettes Chardonnay
This was an oxidative style, aged in large foudre and concrete, I think. For me it wasn’t quite so enjoyable, the pure style of the domaine I think works better without the notes that come in with oxidation, as they somewhat drown out the delicacy of the style.
2017 Domaine des Miroirs Savignan
A very nice wine, and lovely Savignan, did it knock me sideways? No, although I’m all too aware of my coarseness. I suppose it depends what you evaluate it against. With dinner, Kenjiro brought with him a Magnum of his first ever vintage, the 2011. a very rare chance to try and older vintage. #unicorn I guess.
2011 Domaine de Miroirs Les Saugettes Chardonnay
They were so keen to get funds into the estate, they actually made two releases of this cuvee. A first, bottled only in 75cls, then this – a very limited release, only bottled in magnums, that had an extra year of elevage. A really great wine, still showing abundant youth. I suspect that all of the wines from the estate will end up getting drunk way before they hit their peak of maturity if this bottle was anything to go by.
Just to make a few remarks following these wines. Kenjiro was incredibly warm and welcoming, his shyness and humility makes one appreciate the wines even more I think. It is tempting to personify the wines to the man, and the unique sensibility of the Japanese artisan, cf the film, “Jiro dreams of Sushi” that seems to be almost mystic in its appreciation of the finer sensory aspects. Whether this contributes to the aura of the wines is debatable, but certainly tasting with a Japanese vigneron can be a unique experience. Sometimes even verging on the religious.
He is doing terrific work, please forgive my cynicism, and deserves the acclaim of being one of the best producers in Jura. The market for his wines is just a bit bonkers, but there we are.
To the right of the town are the slopes where Dutraive’s Cuvee Champagne comes from, in the distance, you can see the town of Morgon to the right of Fleurie, and the hills of the Cotes de Py (although you’ll need the eyes of a hawk)
There we were. Standing in front of a lovingly hand-made photo board of Lady Gaga.
“But how can I get my wine to her?” he mused. I confessed I did not know. Send her a bottle? Perhaps she is drowning in samples from of idiosyncratic Rhone blends. She always seemed to me more of a Rose / Champagne gal.
It was two o clock in the afternoon, the bleached white glare of Santa-Maria had been dimmed by the rolled-down security grill outside the winery entrance. Like many small wineries in California, it was a glorified concrete lock-up, situated next to an assortment of car repair companies and here-today, gone-tomorrow businesses. Barrels were stacked towards the back and towards the front, a mattress lay on the floor next to a pile of clothes.
He offered me a glass of Jamesons. It was only two in the afternoon. I felt sick. I was glad there was a foot of sunlight coming from the bottom of the security gates, I wondered about the feasibility of rolling through it. I’d driven 4 hours down from LAX to see this producer whose wines we’d imported, kind of on a whim, after reading some reviews praising his “individual, non-interventionalist, weird, natural” style.
Weird and natural it sure was. When it was good it was excellent. Unfortunately, about half of the bottles had started refermenting in bottle and I was seeking some sort of refund.
So there we were. He showed me some of the wines. They were shocking. There was one wine that he proudly announced had been opened for 7 days and was delicious. How could anyone trust the judgement of a winemaker who showed a wine like this with pride. It was terrible. It was totally oxidised. He could make great wine, I’d tried it in the past. But this was not right.
As if things couldn’t get any weirder, he then proceeded to tell me about his past life.
“Don’t worry. I’ve done the research.” Research that proved that in a past life, he had been the winemaker at Domaine de la Romanee-Conti in the 1860s. That of course, explained why his email account was something like Romanneconti1856@yahoo.com. Of course.
This was a guy in some sort of crisis. He’d broken up with his wife and kids and was sleeping in the winery. Although he was so off the wall with left-field energy, this was not the way he wanted things to pan out, that was for sure. But yet in classic American spirit, he soldiered on, dug in, and I felt terrible at being another weight dragging him down to earth.
To his immense credit, he refunded us in full for the wine. I’m not sure I thanked him enough for that. It was a mark of real decency that we like to imagine is part of the membrane of the wine business.
I don’t know what he’s doing now, I idly looked him up a year or so after the visit and found out he’d lost his license to buy grapes.
Like his wine, he was weird and leftfield, probably not the winemaker at Romanee-Conti in the late 19th century but a good guy, and whatever he’s doing now, I hope he’s happy. His wine was too good for Lady Gaga anyway.
Like my dad, Guy Breton used to deliver gas cannisters. An honourable job, no doubt, but one that is not going to sustain some for the long-haul.
So a decision was made around 1986. He was going to take over his grandfather’s family vines. He was going to make wine.
Like all the best decisions, the happy gods of good timing smiled, and he was led, tutored and poured wines by Jacques Neauport and Marcel Lapierre. The Pied-Pipers who led so many of this generation away from the sweetly whispered promises of industrial vinification.
He didn’t listen to them. He joined some like-minded winemakers who wanted to explore this way of making wine. With Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thevenet he had found friends and allies.
The gang worked hard on their wines. Jacques Neauport, a partisan and winemaking consultant to the group, known popularly as Bidasse, rather mischievously told a Le Figaro reporter that while the industrious gang were busy in their cellars, analyzing samples under and checking the development of their wines, the rest of Villie-Morgon was sitting on its collective arse watching game shows on television.
But, my god, I’m myself lying on a bed writing this now, and realise it is somewhat easy to throw shade on a post-war generation of Beaujolais producers, addicted to herbicides, pesticides and artificial yeasts, but that was the way. It wasn’t as if everyone accepted the trade off between quality and industrial farming. They were told they could have it all. A zeitgeist that said through science lay perfection and perfectibility. Happiness for all.
Additionally, for the prices paid for Beaujolais, for many it was the only way to survive. Making great wines with natural viticulture is great, sure, but feeding your family is better.
Even with work in the vineyards perhaps taking twice as much time, volumes smaller, and vinification more risky, this group didn’t recoup significantly more for their wines. The economics weren’t brilliant and it must have taken years before they were secure in this way of working.
With Petit Max though, the gang had found a kindred spirit, who you sense, more than any philosophy, just loved the way these wines tasted. Silky, light and so beautiful to drink you finish a bottle before you’ve pulled the cork. They were all winemakers for sure, but they were also drinking friends where the consumption at parties is measured not in bottles but hectolitres. Now, whilst the domaines of Foillard and Lapierre have increased to around 30 hectares, Guy’s has stayed small, only about 4 hectares in total.
I stopped briefly a few weeks ago to see how Guy was getting on with the 16s and 17s, and found him in great form.
After going through the current releases, which are all terrific in their respective styles, and revisiting the 15s a bit, which I think were a great success for him. He opened a blind bottle, which was clearly very old and I guessed towards 1990, but it was the 1989, one of his very first vintages. Judging from the blogosphere, it seems he’s opened a few bottles of this recently. I liked it very much and like all great old Beaujolais it had a very strong sense of Pinosite, but I think perhaps the reason he’s opening a few is he knows it’s probably on the downward path. This wine was bottled without any sulphur, a concept that is, I believe much more Neauportian than Chauvertian, who as a negoce was much more ambivalent about the use of sulphur.
As the morning progressed and I began gulping down Gamay like it was water, he talked about his admiration for the young vignerons, Thillardon and Cotton, his love of the new generation of Lyonnaise restaurants and the future of the region.
I think I can begin to get a sense of this pride at what he has created over the last twenty years. Not a boastful pride, but the quiet sense of satisfaction for the results that his hard work has generated. He is not a showman, not a show-off (Frimeur), and you sense that these are characteristics he greatly disdains. Primeur – Pas de Frimeur!
For a while there had been rumours of a rift between the brothers of the greatest estate in Cote-Rotie, Domaine Jamet.
Since the late 1980s, Jean-Paul and Jean-Luc had run their fathers’ domain with impeccable care and steadfastly traditional values. There was a sensible division of labour. Jean-Luc focussed on the vineyards, and Jean-Paul focussed on the winemaking. Why did they separate? There are plenty of soap-operaesque rumour but it is I guess, safest to say they had different visions for the future and leave it there.
It’s a novel situation. If you visit Jean-Paul’s new flash website, you can see that he has rubbed out all mark of Jean-Luc in the history of the estate and seeks to portray his lineage as the older brother as the true descendant of the spirit of Joseph Jamet, their father. He clearly benefits from the sense that the old wines that have made this such a legendary estate are part of his history, not Jean-Luc’s.
This is not the case. Jean-Luc was as much a part of the history as his brother, and as John Livingstone-Learmonth records, vinification, or at least the tasting and assemblage was a joint effort in the early days.
The vineyards have been broken up. Jean-Paul keeps the Cote Brune jewel, but, 4 hectares have been hewn from the original eight and both brothers have augmented to keep production of the two different estates relatively similar. Physically a wall runs down the middle of the estate and one winery is on one side, one on the other.
Jean-Luc’s 5 hectare Cote-Rotie holdings are mostly comprised: – Côte Bodin: 0,2 ha, Bonnivières: 0,6 ha, Chavaroche: 0,7 ha, Lancement: 0,75 ha, La Landonne: 0,17 ha, Mornachon: 0,86 ha, Les Moutonnes: 0,43 ha, Les Rochins: 0,3 ha, Tartaras: 0,13 ha
In addition to those prime Northern vineyard sites, he also holds 2 hectares of CDR and IGP, mostly from the plateau around the winery, Vallin and Bonniviere.
In order to raise new funds for the new cellar, JL sold approximately 75% of his production in 2013, 50% in 2014 and 25% in 2015. The first few vintages showed considerable promise, but I feel they were not totally representative of what he was looking to do. He was seasoning new barrels with wine. So, they show a bit oakier and perhaps a bit drier than the ideal he is going for. He believes that the first fill of a barrel is really important and has to be done with the same wine – he won’t buy second hand barrels from another estate. A change from the Jean-Paul wines is also in destemming, he tends to do a bit less full-bunch and ages for less time in barrel, this gives the wines a bit more a floral, mineral character when they’re young.
It’s with the 2015s that I think he has found his groove. The wines are incredible, and he has finally changed the labels after considerable pleading to ones that much more are in tune with the Jamet tradition.
I believe and I hope that in years to come, the relationship between the two Jamet brothers will be rather like that of Pascal and Francoise Cotat – wines that are a bit different in character but generally considered at the same quality level.
I also believe 2015 will reward early faith, as his star ascends, more people will take notice of the great work he’s doing and this is a great chance to get in at the start of his journey.
The first reviews are starting to come out – John Livingstone Learmonth says: “Given that Jean-Luc was almost entirely the vineyard man under the old, united family domaine, I have been agreeably impressed by the wines, which have got going since their debut.”
The 2015 Cote-Rotie is a 5* wine, and JLL says:
“The bouquet is bold, on beef stock, iron, dense black berries, has a poised, integral sweetness, airs of raspberry liqueur, oak smoke. It’s a solid start. The palate has the theme of mineral well placed through it, a lot of mountain of matter, thickening towards the finish. It holds sparkling and dense fruits – cassis, soaked cherries. It is vibrant and very full; there is real flair off its sun-dialled deck. It has great juice; it’s a treat to taste this. Decanting advised. “It has a lot of black fruits, a belle freshness to underpin it; it’s very long,” Jean-Luc Jamet. 12.5°.” ***** John Livingstone-Learmonth.