No, not the Inner Hebridean island producer of single malt, or the AOC in France’s extreme south-west famed for its honey-sweet whites (that’s Jurançon): this is Jura in foothills of the Jura mountains on France’s border with Switzerland, a tiny area of vines that produces some of the most unusual and underappreciated wines in the country.
As much as Burgundy, its fawned-over neighbour to the west, Jura has a claim to be part of France’s gastronomic soul. It’s a place where centuries of fascination with molds and fungi, combined with an enviable natural larder, have made it a food-lover’s paradise.
The region’s wines should be thought of as ‘food wines’: wines that make food more interesting and that are made more interesting by food. Think earthy, nutty flavours: morels, walnuts, saucisson fumé, poulet de Bresse, aged cheeses – comté, bleu de Gex, vacherin, morbier. These are the choice morsels Jura wines were made for.
It has to be said, though, that for such a small wine region (the total area under vine is 1,600ha – about the same as the village of Margaux), there’s a lot to get to grips with – unique grapes, different styles, many strange and confusing names – so let’s break it down…
Jura has four main appellations: Arbois, Côtes du Jura, Château-Chalon and L’Étoile (the latter named after the starfish fossils found in the soil the vines take root in), plus two wine-style appellations that cover the whole area: Crémant du Jura (sparkling) and Macvin du Jura (a vin de liqueur).
The Burgundian influence on the reds comes through pinot noir, but there’s also the local poulsard (also known as ploussard, confusingly), which makes coral-tinted, rose-scented reds (which Jurassians sometimes refer to as rosé, confusingly); and TROUSSEAU, which makes deeper reds with interesting combinations of pepper and violet. These are fragrant, acidic reds, often with a marked rustic savour, which plead, quietly but persistently, to be paired with honking cheeses.
The whites are dominated by CHARDONNAY (usually of a very different character from that found in Burgundy) and the native SAVAGNIN. Savagnin is no relation to sauvignon, by the way. The sole purpose of their near-identical names is to confuse us. Savagnin is in fact the same grape as the Italian traminer. In Jura it is often used to make deliberately oxidised ‘yellow wines’. Oxidation imparts a dry-sherry aroma and flavour, which people sometimes equate with faultiness; Jura proves such people wrong.
This oxidative style has been a tradition in Jura for hundreds of years and is linked to production of its speciality: VIN JAUNE. A classic vin jaune is aged in old Burgundy barrels for six years or more and matures in much the same way as fino sherry – the barrels are only partly filled, allowing in oxygen (a process known as ‘ullage’), and the fermented grape juice is kept a thin skin of surface yeasts in (known as the ‘voile’, or ‘veil’, reminiscent of the ‘flor’ that covers maturing fino).
Vin jaune is the only wine in France that can be sold in its own special-sized bottle, the squat, 62cl clavelin (62cl representing the volume left per original litre put into a barrel after evaporation of the so-called ‘angel’s share’).
Showing nutty, savoury, occasionally even curry-spice flavours, vin jaune is a wine everyone should try at least once. It will keep, and evolve, for 50 years or, in some cases, a lot longer – in 2011 a bottle of drinkable vin jaune was bought at auction for €57,000. It was bottled in 1774.
Three other specialities complete Jura’s all-singing, all-dancing viticultural CV. Cremant du Jura is a sparkling wine made from slightly under-ripe savagnin grapes. It’s one of the best-value fizzes you’ll find anywhere in France.
VIN DE PAILLE (‘straw wine’) is a sweet white (18% minimum potential alcohol) made from chardonnay, savignin and/or poulsard grapes. The grapes are traditionally air-dried on straw mats to concentrate their sugars and the fermented juice is aged for up to three years.
Then there’s MACVIN – not a sign that Ronald McDonald has extended his reach to the bucolic fringes of eastern France (though he probably has), but a vin de liqueur savoured as an aperitif in Jura. It’s made from fortified pomace and is much like a vin doux naturel, except the alcohol is added earlier, resulting in a slightly more alcohol-dominated drink. They like that sort of thing in mountain regions.
So there you have it: a voyage of vinous discovery. Take away the alcohol factor, and that’s what we’re basically after when we browse the wine shelves. Jura offers it in abundance – a point made singingly clear by the fine wine collector who forked out €57,000 for that pre-Revolution bottle, who said it all in an interview he gave after the hammer had fallen: “Bordeaux does not make me dream any more,” he said. “Jura does.”
This post is edited from a post that originally appeared on the Borough Wines blog