Happy 200th birthday, Louis Pasteur. I’m sorry I’m a little late – 28 December was actually the happy day – but for complex and interesting reasons, our society focusses so heavily on another birthday, on 25 December, that everything else falls into abeyance around it. The hierarchy of priorities is odd, to non-believers, and perhaps to some of the faithful, too. Pasteur could claim to be the personal saviour of anyone who loves wine – which, thanks partly to the Eucharist, includes an awful lot of observant Christians.
I revere Pasteur for coming up with the heating process that bears his name and kills germs in everything from wine to milk. But I admire him for other reasons, too. His account of scientific discovery – essentially, bumbling around effortfully for a long time looking for something, then presenting the findings as an assured, polished conclusion, with no trace of all that preliminary hard work – is much like the process of writing. And, while Pasteur was by all accounts a colossally humourless grump, it’s hard not to warm to a man who patented a beer-making process intended to vanquish the Germans in the taverns as France had just failed to do on the battlefield: this was just after the Franco-Prussian War. In fact, his patent, from 28 January 1873, is exactly 150 years old. He hoped it would be marketed as the ‘Beer of Revenge’. Happy Schadenfreude, Louis!
I also like his hometown, Arbois in the Jura, eastern France, which is like a fantasy of a French village: not just boulangeries and wine shops, but a decadent chocolaterie, Hirsinger, and Aux Délices du Palais, a superb delicatessen that is also a butcher so old-school they don’t just sell local rabbit, but chicken with the head still on (they do decapitate – but not until they’ve charged you for the full weight). There’s a tumbling brook – more on that shortly – a town square and several restaurants from which issues the unmistakably pungent perfume of fondue. Pasteur’s house is right beside that river, the Cuisance, because his father was a tanner and needed water for his work, as hides must be soaked before curing. Arguably, so did his son: Pasteur’s studies of fermentation – he it was who figured out that alcohol is a by-product of yeasts on grape skins consuming the sugars in the grape – and wine spoilage wouldn’t have got very far if the Jura vines had shrivelled from thirst.
Most of all, I love the Jura wines, particularly the amazing Vin Jaune: Savagnin aged sous voile (under a veil) of yeast until it is rich, nutty, lightly spicy and incredibly long-lasting: in my lifetime, bottles have been enjoyed that are older than Pasteur. In 2018, I visited Bénédicte and Stephane Tissot in Montigny-lès-Arsures, a village just north of Arbois. The wines I tasted included a Crémant made only with indigenous yeasts. In this era of commercial yeasts that can be chosen by style and capability as one would a pair of shoes, no wonder they named it Indigène. It was nearly as good as the superb biscuity Blanc de Blancs, BBF. And their Vins Jaunes – from 2011, so mere infants – were gorgeous.
Vin Jaune was the obvious wine for Pasteur to study: the veil of ignorance was literally there to be lifted. But I do wonder what he would have thought of the natural wine movement that has such presence in the Jura, thanks in part to Pierre Overnoy, who began avoiding sulphur as early as 1984.
Some consequences are harder to predict than others, even for scientists. It was Pasteur’s revelations about the process of fermentation that inadvertently enabled the modern commercial yeast industry. Then again, if he hadn’t helped make the winery less hospitable for microbes, it’s possible that ‘natural’ practices such as wild ferments and little or no sulphur would not be as workable as they are. Our world is so much cleaner and safer thanks to him that we can afford to introduce a little artisanal dirt.
From Arbois, it is possible to walk to Montigny-lès-Arsures, and Pasteur did, often, because he had a vineyard there (it still is, with a big sign signifying its historical importance). I prefer to walk in the opposite direction, which he did less frequently, because this is a stroll to a picturesque waterfall, and Pasteur was famously workaholic, to the point of rudeness. ‘Please don’t come, you will disturb me,’ he wrote to his son’s mother-in-law, winning my undying admiration by adding, ‘you say the visit will be for a few days but we both know you’ll stay for weeks.’
The walk follows the Cuisance, past a scenic swim hole that we had to ourselves during the pandemic, although it may be busier now. It is just over three miles to Les Planches-près-Arbois, with the Les Tufs waterfall up a path just beyond. It is magnificent: tree-fringed and dramatic, with a clear pool beneath the water-shrouded rocks.
Down in the village, Casa Antolia, an ivy-shrouded 18th-century winemakers’ house, has been transformed into a beautiful gite by Antoine Le Court and Julia Naar, who were actually looking for a garage to make wine in, not a rundown mansion. But they have done a terrific job: wooden floors, a velvet loveseat in the airy master bedroom, plants everywhere and really good wine glasses in the kitchen with its trestle table, although they may rethink that after the seventh round of replacements. And Antoine makes his wines – natural, bien sûr, and good, especially the Pet Nats – under the label Les Valseuses in the cellar.
‘People who love wine don’t care [about the details],’ said Antoine, as he drew a tasting measure of his Gamay from a vat: ‘they are after a feeling’. Well, yes, but feeling sick is not the one they have in mind, and if Antoine can ignore that risk, he has Pasteur to thank. Our forefathers and foremothers had great ingenuity, or they would not have managed to make wine at all: it is vinegar, after all, that grape juice aspires to become. During the moment, brief or long, in which it avoids that fate, wine offers us a bulwark against our own. The microbes always win in the end. Or do they? By unveiling them, Pasteur prolonged our lives and those of our wines, and fittingly, assured his own immortality.