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Getting to know the Jura

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Marcel Orford-Williams Marcel Orford-Williams
Jura

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For many, the wines of one of France's smallest wine region are an unknown; others associate it only with the idiosyncratic sherry-like vin jaune. Society buyer Marcel Orford-Williams puts the record straight and provides an introduction to this historic but up-and-coming region.

A few basic facts

The Jura is a region in eastern France, between Burgundy and Switzerland. Between Burgundy and the Jura is La Bresse, flat land lying on either side of the river Saône. The vines start when the ground begins to rise to the east and towards a large limestone plateau. The climate is continental, long cold winters and hot summers but with more rain than in Burgundy. The two vineyards, incidentally, are only about an hour's drive away. But the feel is different. The Jura seems to me always greener, lusher, which would offer an explanation, surely, for the extraordinary array of cheeses.

The land under vine occupies a very small area among the foothills of the Jura, amounting to about 2,000 ha, though prior to phylloxera it used to be ten times the size. It is one of the smallest wine regions in France. The soil, not surprisingly, is limestone but with overlays of clays of varying hues which account for both the number of grape varieties used and for the complex nature of so many of the wines. Vines are trained quite high in order to avoid spring frosts. Growers in the Jura need plenty of patience and nerves of steel as the harvest can easily extend into November.

A house overlooking vineyards in the Jura
A house overlooking vineyards in the Jura

Grape varieties

The Jura is famous for its eccentric varieties. Today there are five of them including three reds. At one time there may have been 40 or more.

Pinot noir

Unsurprisingly both pinot noir and chardonnay are planted in the Jura and have always been. The wines are pale in colour, fragrant and characteristically on the earthy side. Traditionally pinot was used more as a component in a blend but there are more and more pure varietal pinots being made today.

Poulsard

Also called ploussard may have originated from further south in the Bugey. Though a black grape, poulsard has very thin skins with little colour pigment and very low tannins. The wines are very pale and are often blended with a little pinot for colour. Even when macerating for a week, wines can sometimes show no colour at all. The wines are fragrant, delicate and the best can have charm. Best served on the cool side with charcuterie, poultry, even fish.

Jura wines are fragrant, delicate and the best can have charm. Best served on the cool side with charcuterie, poultry, even fish.
Jura wines are fragrant, delicate and the best can have charm. Best served on the cool side with charcuterie, poultry, even fish.

Trousseau

Trousseau is the most interesting of the three reds. It is an ancient variety that buds late thus escaping the spring frosts. On the other hand it is an irregular cropper and the tendency in the Jura is to plant more pinot. Amazingly trousseau is also known as bastardo, one of the varieties used in the making of port! Colour remains pale (so quite unlike its Portuguese cousin) but trousseau produces a full-flavoured, quite full-bodied wine, often gamey, earthy but sometimes with hints of strawberry. In good vintages, the wines can keep extremely well and develop much complexity. Charcuterie, game, poultry or maybe some seriously flavoursome sausage would be my choice for these wines.

Chardonnay

Perfectly adapted to the heavy clay soils, chardonnay is now widely planted. At worst, chardonnay from the Jura can appear thin and lean. But the good wines have real character, some might even say 'attitude'. Acidities are higher than in Burgundy which is why in general wines are aged in oak for longer. At best they are wines of genuine complexity and richness. Chardonnay can also be aged under flor to create a vin jaune-like wine. More importantly, chardonnay is used as the base wine for the increasingly popular Crémant du Jura.

Savagnin

Sometimes known as naturé or fromentin, savagnin is the most famous Jura grape responsible for making its greatest wines: vin jaune and Château-Chalon. This ancient variety, much admired in Switzerland where it is known as heida, is probably identical to traminer and thus related to its decidedly aromatic, pink-skinned variant, gewürztraminer.

Savagnin produces small pale berries with very irregular yields, sometimes almost nothing at all. It is well adapted to the climate and ripens very slowly and can even be picked as late as December in some years. It is not the easiest of vines to plant and growers only persist with it because of what it is capable of. Some savagnin is made into wine in the conventional way and bottled on its own or sometimes it is blended with chardonnay. The wines are fresh, full with a hint of spice and bone dry. However, most savagnin is reserved for vin jaune. The partner of choice with Jura cheeses, especially Comté (but good cheddar works just as well), also poultry, fish in rich sauces and curries.

Making vin jaune

Vins jaunes can be sold under the following appellations: Côtes du Jura, Arbois, L'Etoile and of course Château-Chalon (which is not a single estate but the name of a village). The wines must be 100% savagnin.

The savagnin is harvested late, usually in late October but it can be November. The grapes have to weigh in with a potential alcohol of between 13% and 15%. Not surprisingly therefore vin jaune is not made every year. The wines ferment slowly and then are transferred to 228l barrels of old oak. The barrels are never topped up and the wines become partially protected from oxidation by a thin veil of yeast, called locally 'voile' which is very similar to the flor in sherry. To get the appellation vin jaune, the wine has to remain in barrel for not less than six years and three months by which time only about 62% of the wine is left after evaporation. Appropriately, vin jaune is then bottled in a special tubby bottle called the ,clavelin holding 62cl.

Not so long ago, it was quite normal for a grower to discover that several of his barrels had not made it and had turned to vinegar. These days, growers are able to analyse the wines during the élevage for the presence and effectiveness of the voile. The wines that once would have been lost are now bottled as a half-way vins jaunes and usually sold under the name Côtes du Jura Tradition. They are a good deal cheaper to buy and can be extremely good, baby vins jaunes.

Serving vin jaune

Vin jaune should not be chilled but served just cool. Decanting can be beneficial and gives the wines time to breathe. Wines opened the day before are nearly always better and, of course, they keep more or less for ever. Young vin jaune does have something in common with fino sherry but with age that similarity goes. The wines tend to be nutty, salty, sometimes peaty or spicy. Ginger is often the spice most associated with the wine. Invariably the wines are incredibly complex and long. The classic dish for vin jaune is poulet de Bresse à la crème aux morilles. Failing that, anything with mushrooms dominant works well, the wines are brilliant with risottos, curries and of course strong hard cheese.

Jura wines are delicious with mushrooms,  risottos, curries and of course strong hard cheese
Jura wines are delicious with mushrooms, risottos, curries and of course strong hard cheese

Vin de paille

Straw (paille) wine is the other speciality of the Jura and so rare that it is bottled in specially sized half bottles. Chardonnay, savagnin or poulsard grapes are used and bunches are normally hung indoors or laid out on racks to dry and are then pressed before Christmas. The tiny quantities of very sweet wine are then aged in barrel, sometimes for several years, and the wines become deeply coloured and very complex with pronounced flavours of walnut and raisins.

Macvin du Jura

This sounds like a joke but the name is derived from marc and vin and is a sweet vin de liqueur made from the blending of barely fermented grape must and aged marc where the origins of the grapes used for making the marc are from the same wine producer; an added complication but together with the ageing process helps ensure high quality and authenticity. Macvin, like vin de paille has a walnut and raisin flavour with spice and a good deal of complexity.

The appellations

Côtes du Jura

A catch-all appellation covering any style or grape variety and covering the whole region, particularly the vineyards of the far north and all of the south where most of the Jura's chardonnay is planted.

Arbois

The gorgeous town of Arbois in the north of the region, home to one of the great restaurants of France, gives its name to a large appellation covering all styles but with over half the production red and poulsard the most important grape. The village of Pupillin, a mile or two up the hill from the town can add its name to make Arbois-Pupillin.

L'Etoile

Named after fossilised starfish found locally, this small appellation is only for white wine. This is a source of very good chardonnay and exceptional vin jaune in a style that is fresher and a little lighter than Château-Chalon. This is the Chablis of the Jura.

Château-Chalon

This hill-top village is one of the loveliest in France. The original castle was built under Charles the Fat, from memory, but the key to the success of the wine was the Benedictine Abbey which looked after the wines and whose high-born nuns made sure that this extraordinary wine was distributed around all the courts. HM Queen Juliana was supposed to have enjoyed a sip on the day of her coronation. Henry IV of France was a frequent drinker and admirer. The appellation is only allowed for vin jaune. The wines are nutty, exceptionally complex and long and usually the longest living of all vins jaunes.

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