Unknown territory

Vineyards in Jura
Vineyards in Jura
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Small, but perfectly formed... Christine Austin samples the wines from an unfamilar outpost of eastern France.

In the world of wine there are only a few places that I haven’t managed to get to on my travels, but Jura is one of them. Tucked away in the far east of France, it is a tiny wine area with around 1,600 hectares of vines and as such rates as one of the smallest wine regions in France.

Just for argument, Margaux in Bordeaux is slightly smaller, but since it makes all its wines into just one appellation, Jura is more diverse and so deserves some special attention.

To be honest, I haven’t had any great urge to go visit the area, mainly because the wines are difficult to find in shops and even when I have come across them I have found their styles and names quite unfamiliar.

But that was before the big Jura tasting in London which attracted such a huge crowd that it was almost impossible to get around the tables. And that was when I realised that I had been ignoring a region capable of producing quite captivating, distinct and different food-friendly wines that could easily end up on several restaurant wines lists.

Now that I have tasted the wines and started to get to grips with the region It would be lovely to go visit, but in the meanwhile here are a few basics about the region and my thoughts on the wines.

Location

Jura is in the far east of France on the western foothills of the low Jura Mountains, around 80 km east of Burgundy and around the same distance from the Swiss border. Stretching from just north of Arbois to just south of Lons le Saunier, this is an elevated region, around 250 to 400 metres above sea level with clay limestone soils and a climate that is even more continental than Burgundy. Just the name Jura conjures up the image of hills and mountains but this elevation is similar to Alsace and less than some vineyards in Burgundy, so Jura is definitely not a mountain wine region. Winters can be very cold and vines need to be trained high to avoid the autumn frosts which can overlap with harvest.

Grapes

There are five key grapes in Jura. Chardonnay is the main white grape but it tastes nothing like all the Chardonnay-based wines you have tried before since it is crisp, minerally and intense. Savagnin, also known as Naturé, is Jura’s own white grape, originally related to Traminer and hence Gewurztraminer but is seems to have missed out on many of those varieties’ aromatic qualities, instead gathering deep minerally characteristics, clean lively acidity and the ability to age. It is late ripening and so is mainly cultivated on south-facing slopes.

There are red grapes too – Poulsard (also known as Ploussard) makes pale, almost rosé wines; Trousseau, known as Bastardo in Portugal which needs warm gravelly soils to ripen properly and Pinot Noir which produces pale but balanced elegant wines.

Wine styles

The most enjoyable wine is Crémant de Jura, made mainly from Chardonnay grapes although all grapes are permitted in the blend. It is made using the traditional in-bottle fermentation method like very expensive fizz from not far away, but it has a completely different price point. Aldi is the most easily accessible supplier of this bright, vivacious frothy wine with clean, brisk fruit and a soft toasty richness on the finish. Aldi’s version comes from Philippe Michel and I am surprised other retailers haven’t followed their lead, especially since it is such terrific value at just £7.99 a bottle.

Arbois is the largest AC in the region and can be made from any of the permitted grape varieties, as can Côtes du Jura. I particularly liked the 100 per cent Trousseau Cuvée Grevilière from Domaine Daniel Dugois for its ripe, red fruits and soft tannins and the herbal, minerally, gravelly style of Côtes du Jura Naturé 2011 from Dom Berthet-Bondet.

Vin Jaune, which translates as “yellow wine” is the distinctive style of wine made in an oxidative style by being aged in casks for more than six years. Only tiny qualities are made and prices are high, but its character is so different that it acts as a signpost to the region. The simple Vin Jaune can be made from any of the permitted grapes and once fermented it is aged in oak casks, filled just three-quarters full. Unlike many regions where storage conditions are carefully regulated those for Vin Jaune fluctuate wildly.

The wine develops a layer of yeast on the surface known as flor – like sherry – which gradually adds its own range of flavours. Once bottled, in the traditional 62cl Clavelin bottle which equates to one litre of wine, which has evaporated down after being aged for six years, it is virtually indestructible and can live for decades.

The most famous Vin Jaune is Château-Chalon, named after a local hilltop village, which is made from 100 per cent Savagnin grown on the local limestone and marl. It is produced in even smaller quantities than other Jura wines and has greater complexity and depth of flavour.

Find the wines

Local retailer Le Bon Vin (www.lebonvin.co.uk) is the best place to start tasting Jura wines. They stock a Vin de Paille 2005, from Domaine Rolet, made from Savagnin, Chardonnay and Poulsard grapes which have been dried for three months before being pressed, fermented and aged in oak casks. The resul t is a concentrated, almost Tokaji-like sweet wine with tangy acidity. This wine costs £36.50 for a half bottle.

They also have Arbois Vin Jaune 2004, also from Domaine Rolet made solely from Savagnin, aged for six years which 
shows the delicious, unique concentrated, nutty qualities of the region. It should be served with local Jura cheeses such as Comte or creamy chicken dishes. £39.50 for a traditional Clavelin bottle containing 62cl.

As well as Domaine Rolet, seek 
out André and Mireille Tissot, Domaine Berthet-Bondet and Domaine de la Pinte.