When a close friend of mine first heard of the inaugural Jura Wine Tasting in Toronto last April, his Twitter was ablaze with statements like “Jura — I am all over the obscure regions!”
Just east of Burgundy, and slightly to the west of Switzerland, is the 80-kilometre-wide wine region known as the Jura. This secluded, mountainous land is probably best known, to most people, for its non-vinous exploits. It is the birthplace of Louis Pasteur, and home to a trio of renowned cow cheeses: Comté, Morbier and Blue de Gex.
Wine-wise, the Jura has the distinction of being home to France’s very first co-op, established in 1906, the first AOC area, Arbois, in 1936, and of course, the address of Vin Jaune — France’s answer to dry sherry. Also, the global wine community owes a debt of gratitude to a Jurassian botanist, Alexis Millardet. He was the creator of the famous “bouillis bordelaise,” used to combat vineyard rot. And, even more importantly, he and his partner were the first to suggest grafting as means to combat phylloxera.
In Montreal, where I grew up and started wine studies, Vin Jaune and other dry wines from the same area have always been plentiful. Even after I moved to Niagara in the mid-1990s, these wines were available at the LCBO. Sadly, due to the monopoly’s decision to shift purchasing towards a more streamlined and homogenously fruit-driven product, these wines fell out of favour. A true pity! The Jura offers a selection of grapes and wine styles found nowhere else, making for both interesting drinking, as well as innovative food marriages.
The region itself only became French in 1678. Before this time it was under Spanish influence. European power plays of that time period did produce some interesting results. And because the Spaniards created sherry, there is a certain belief that the genesis of oxidized wines in the Jura stemmed from their rule. But there is no firm evidence to validate this hypothesis.
Prior to the arrival of phylloxera and WWI, there were close to 20,000 hectares of vineyards. Today, there are only 2000, planted on a mixture of limestone on the slopes, clay on the flatlands and smatterings of marl throughout, giving rise to four geographic appellations, two style appellations and five varietals.
Because of its proximity to Burgundy, it comes as no surprise that Chardonnay is the most planted grape in the Jura. The best renditions are from a combination of hillside slopes and limestone soils, à la modèle de la Bourgogne. Both non-oaked and oaked versions exist. In regards to the later, when applied, it is done so judiciously, so as to protect the integrity of the fruit.
The Jura’s singular white grape, and number two in terms of acreage, is Savagnin, which is also known as Traminer (but not Gewürz). It may be the only grape authorized in the production of Vin Jaune, but it is not solely restricted to said specialty. Late ripening, low yielding and high in acid, it has the capacity to produce interesting dry wines, as well as vibrant dessert wines.
Also, there are distinctions to be made with both white varietals, namely non-oxidized (labelled ouillé) and oxidized (non-ouillé) versions, which refers to the fact that all barrels topped up the eye (oeil) of the barrel are not oxidized, while those coming short of the oeil are.
Historically, a high percentage of white wines from the Jura were oxidized, but sometime in the 1990s, a transition to a modern style of winemaking occurred. Today, both styles co-exist. In the case of Savagnin, many producers will actually label their wine Naturé, the ancient name of Savagnin, when producing the oxidized version. There is also a wine christened Tradition, which is a blend of oxidized Savagnin and Chardonnay.
Without a doubt, this is the finest red varietal grown in the Jura. The best are reminiscent of top Côte de Beaune, and once again, the limestone is the key to their success.
In times gone by, the Jura’s most planted red was consumed as a table grape due to its pale colour and minimal tannins. Even after a week of hard macerations, it is a rosé at best. It is also susceptible to a plethora of viticultural issues. More structured versions come to life when blended with Pinot Noir or Trousseau. Classic aromas are of red fruits and flowers.
Known as Bastardo in Portugal, this late ripening varietal finds success being planted on the warmest gravel soils with full sun exposure. Good colour, medium tannins, high alcohol and combination of red and black fruits are its call signs.
The secret to making Vin Jaune is late harvested Savagnin planted on blue and red marls. By law, the minimum alcohol content at harvest is 11.5 per cent, but in practice, most producers easily surpass this. The juice is then fermented in older barrels to dryness, but never fortified like sherry. Aging then transpires in low humidity cellars, wherein the barrels are never topped up, allowing for evaporation, and subsequently, the development of the famed voile (yeast film), which partially protects the wine from oxidation.
After six years and three months of aging, the wine’s alcohol rises to 15 per cent, and it develops the characteristic deep yellow colour and attributes of yeast, nuts, dried fruits and curry. It is then bottled in the squat bottle known as the clavelin, which has a standard volume of 620 millilitres — this is what is left over after one litre of wine ages and evaporates for 75 months.
Of course, such a singular wine deserves an equally singular celebration, which comes in the form of the La Percée du Vin Jaune. The event, which has become France’s largest wine festival, welcomes close to 60,000 people during the first weekend of every February, when the yeast is broken and the wine from six autumns previous is withdrawn from cask.
vin de paille
Grapes for this wine are picked early to retain good acidity and avoid any rot which may occur with late autumn rains. The whole clusters are then dried on straw (paille) mats or racks, in well-ventilated rooms for a minimum of six weeks, until they desiccate. It is at this point they are pressed. 100 kilos of grapes will produce a miniscule 15 litres of wine, which will then be fermented until 15 to 18 per cent alcohol is achieved. The resulting sweet wine will then spend three years in barrel, producing a sticky spectrum of jammy fruits, prunes, honey, caramel and orange marmalade. These wines can only be fashioned within Côtes de Jura, l’Étoile and Arbois AOCs.
crémant de jura aoc
The AOC may be produced anywhere in the Jura region and denotes a sparkling wine made in the traditional method. Both white and rosé versions are produced, and all five grapes are authorized for use. For the white version, the law mandates a minimum usage of 50 per cent Chardonnay, and for rosé, Pinot Noir and Trousseau must comprise at least 50 per cent of the assemblage.
macvin de jura aoc
Macvin is a Mistelle/Vin de Liqueur, or, if you will, fortified grape juice. Like Crémant, Macvin is a “style” AOC, which may be concocted anywhere within Jurassian boundries, and all grapes are permitted.
Two parts fresh sweet grape juice are blended with one part Marc de Jura, a pomace (think grappa) based spirit, which has already been aged, in barrel, for 18 months. Once blended, the two are set aside to marry for 12 months before bottling. The final product will be sweet, with an alcohol content somewhere between 16 and 22 per cent.
Jura’s most important region in terms of production is Arbois. Within the 850 hectares, many soils exist, allowing for all styles and colours of wine to be produced. Within this area is the tiny town of Pupillin, whose name is spelled in white letters on the hill, like Hollywood. And the big star in Pupillin is Poulsard, with 70 per cent of all plantings being this fickle varietal.
côte de jura aoc
The second largest appellation follows the ground rules set about for Arbois; all grapes, colours and styles are in play.
L’Étoile is the smallest region with a slim 60 hectares cultivated. This appellation derives its name from two sources – the star-shaped fossils throughout the soils, and the village itself, which is surrounded by five mountains, roughly forming the five points of a star. Chardonnay is the king, followed by the queen, Savagnin. Poulssard is authorized solely for Vin de Paille.
The appellation of CC is a village perched on small mountain, surrounded by sloping vineyards. It is also considered the cru of Vin Jaune. Why cru? The combination of slopes with blue marl and stones helps to expedite ripening and give an extra dimension to the low yielding Savagnin grapes. Producers are also fanatical. In a great year, a meager 2000 hectolitres is produced, while in lesser ones, there is not a drop.
classic jura food and other possibilities
So what to pair with these wines? Locally, the classic dish served with Vin Jaune is, ironically enough, Coq au Vin Jaune; a decadent combination of free range bresse chicken, cream, Vin Jaune and morel mushrooms. The version I savoured while in the Jura also had pinch of curry added, to further bridge the pairing. Otherwise, Comté cheese for its nuttiness.
For Chardonnay and Savagnin, fondue and fresh water fish work extremely well because of the wines’ acidity. As for the reds and their natural propensity for delicacy, charcuterie, smoked sausage and duck are regional combinations.
Then again, do not restrict yourself. Open your mind and your palate, as there is too much versatility and diversity to restrict yourself to just one style of cuisine. These wines are made for food!