The Jura is an important French mountainous region that borders on Switzerland in the east and Burgundy in the west. The winemaking traditions have been derived from those of both these regions, although, specifically, the styles made in the Jura called vin jaune (yellow wine) and vin de paille (straw wine) taste like nothing else in the world.
Vin jaune reaches its peak of idiosyncratic intensity of flavor in the appellation Château-Chalon. Exclusive and surprisingly expensive, these wines are made from specialized white wine grape Savagnin and have decades of aging potential. Straw wines are sweet, and Burgundian grape Chardonnay tends to have more importance. The best results are often compared to Sauternes for their flavors of tropical fruit. Vin de liqueur is a fortified style with high alcohol levels, and is usually not considered wine.
More conventional styles include the rosés made from Poulsard, a pale grape whose wines typically taste like red wine, but come out colored as rosé. Oftentimes, Pinot Noir is mixed in to give the wine a redder color. Some renegade producers are attempting to produce pure Pinot Noir with a nod to neighboring Burgundy, but the cold climate and unsuitably lofty altitude make this mission unlikely to succeed.
In a country where viticultural innovation is far too often looked down upon, the Jura is a region where producers are sticking to localized, extremely unusual styles of wine...and having tremendous success. Attempts to produce more traditional wines have largely been unsuccessful. This region's main advantage is that wines of the same style are produced nowhere else in the world.
Although the Jura is a very old region, having existed since prehistoric times, the wine industry has only relatively recently become major there. At some point in the Middle Ages, likely in the 13th or 14th century, natives of the Jura discovered the Poulsard grape and found the light but aromatic red wines it made interesting. The grape was imported from Burgundy, where generally low-quality examples were being made, and soon enough Burgundy was producing Pinot and Chardonnay while the Jura had good results with Poulsard.
Nowadays, Poulsard's dominance over red wines remains unquestioned, but Chardonnay has increased in popularity to make up almost all the non-vin jaune white wine plantings. Vin jaune has also increased in popularity, but an old USA regulation relating to bottle size has continued to obstruct its import to the States.
Climate and Viticulture
The unique wines of the Jura are produced mainly from grapes that do not thrive anywhere else in the world. People think that the Jura climate is a virtual replica of Burgundy's due to the high altitudes of the best vineyard land and the cool climate, not to mention the clay and limestone interspersed with high-quality marl in the soil. However, there are a few key differences.
The weather is slightly colder in the Jura, a minor difference that ends up having a great effect on the wines. Fearing underripe wines if they harvest early, many producers wait until mid-October to harvest, whereas Burgundy producers harvest at least a month earlier. Vin jaune is made from late-harvest grapes exclusively.
The soil is similar to that of Burgundy, with clay on the plains but at higher altitudes much more limestone. Deposits of marl exist as well, which generally add to the quality of the wine in that area. Some hills are even "limestone hills", meaning they are entirely composed of a limestone embankment. These hills can often make the best wines, but erosion is a major concern for producers who plant on them.
An explanation of the vin jaune production process is due the reader. Vin jaune means yellow wine, and the wine produced here is truly a golden yellow, although not too much darker than a mature Sauternes or white Burgundy. The squat, strangely shaped bottles are the main source of import problems, meaning that vin jaune is rare outside France and virtually impossible to find in the USA.
The Savagnin grapes are harvested in late October; they are sometimes made into dessert wines, but in this case they are fermented in used oak barrels with a bit of room at the top for oxidation. A film of yeast forms over the wine to protect it, but not before characteristic aromas have infected the wine. After six years and two months the wines are taken out and bottled in traditional clavelins. The shape of the bottle supposedly plays an important part in the taste of the wine, which is why producers refuse to bottle the wine in traditional containers.
Although the classic Burgundian grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are extremely common in the Jura, and they are allowed in four of the six Jura AOCs, these are not the primary grapes of the region. Savagnin, famous for its use in vin jaune, is the primary white grape, while the naturally pale Poulsard can produce a rosé or very light red of great aromatic character, but needs another grape blended in for color. Rare red grape Trousseau (known as Bastardo in Portugal, where it is most often used) is also allowed for the reds.
Here are eight good Jura producers.
- Andre et Mireille Tissot: This large producer has examples from most of the Jura's major regions. Chardonnay, regular Savagnin, Poulsard, and an expensive but good vin jaune are produced in Arbois, with the regular wines ranging from $20 to $35. A dry Crémant du Jura is also produced for lovers of whimsical bubblies.
- Domaine Berthet Bondet: Some basic wines are produced here, but the main cuvée is the Château Chalon. Costing over $100 (and for a 650mL bottle at that) the amazing wines can be either drunk in a few years or aged for up to a century!
- Château d'Arlay: As well as some very good vin jaunes for under $50, made from Savagnin in the traditional style, other white wines from Chardonnay have a good reputation here.
- Domaine Jean Macle: Like its competitor, Domaine Berthet Bondet, Macle makes some wines from other Jura appellations, but almost entirely concentrates on the exclusive Château Chalon. These wines are expensive but deliver on the shocking, idiosyncratic flavors of great vin jaune.
- Domaine Montbourgeau: Experimental bubbly from Chardonnay is an interesting wine here, but for whimsical bubbly drinkers only. The L'Etoile cuvée is also Chardonnay. Also in L'Etoile, the vin de paille and vin jaune are intriguing, often among the most available examples of these wines.
- Jacques Puffeney: The Arbois styles here are excellent, such as Burgundian Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as the better wines from indigenous Poulsard and Savagnin. There's even a Trousseau, called Les Berangers, that is expensive but high-quality. Expensive half-bottles of vin de paille are available, but in very limited quantities.
- Jean Rijckaert: Known for its Burgundian wines from the Mâconnais and to a lesser extent the Côte de Beaune, Rijckaert also has significant Jura holdings. The basic Chardonnay comes from Arbois, with the special cuvée "Chante-Merle" perhaps offering higher quality. From the Côtes du Jura appellation, there is another Chardonnay labeled "Les Sarres" made in a similar style. The only Savagnin also comes from Arbois; called the "En Paradis", it is not vin jaune but offers powerful, characterful flavor.
- Domaine Rolet: The wines are generally well-pedigreed here. Look for sparkling Blanc de Blanc Champagne-style wines, made in both non-vintage and vintage forms. L'Etoile is another good Chardonnay for around $20, while blends and other styles are made in Arbois.
The lowest quality wines from the Jura usually fall under vin de table or vin de pays designations, while the six AOCs of the Jura indicate higher quality.
- Arbois: Probably the most common and important Jura AOC, and virtually the only one whose wines are seen in the United States. Although vin jaune can be made here, notably from the producers Jacques Puffeney and both Tissot vignerons, most wines are made in a traditional style. All the Jura grapes are found here: Savagnin (made as regular wine it is surprisingly good), Chardonnay, in varying styles, Poulsard, and to a lesser extent Pinot Noir and Trousseau. Almost all wines are affordable here as well.
- Château-Chalon: Although a great AOC for vin jaune (only varietal Savagnin made in the specified style), Château-Chalon is virtually unknown in the USA due to import restrictions on the oddly shaped bottles. It is made in the eponymous village of about four square miles. Look for expensive but shockingly rich and powerful Savagnins from domaines Berthet Bondet and Jean Macle.
- Crémant du Jura: Crémant du Jura is Champagne-style bubbly generally made from Chardonnay, with sometimes a bit of Pinot Noir thrown in. Pinot Gris, Savagnin, Trousseau, and Poulsard are also allowed, but are rarely seen. Good producers include Tissot and Rolet.
- Côtes du Jura: A large appellation for wines coming from the many limestone hills of the scenic Jura, this allows all five typically seen Jura grapes. Quality is lower than in the more specific appellations, but all kinds of interesting styles are produced, notably vin jaune from Château d'Arlay and more traditional wines from Jean Rijckaert.
- L'Etoile: Four communes, mainly the titular L'Etoile, make up this large AOC. Chardonnay, Savagnin and Poulsard are allowed here, but Pinot Noir and Trousseau are not. Chardonnay is the most common, with good cuvées coming from Domaine de Montbourgeau and Domaine Rolet. Montbourgeau also makes expensive but intriguing vin jaune and vin de paille, generally from Savagnin grapes.
- Macvin du Jura: Virtually unknown outside France, Macvin du Jura is an idiosyncratic fortified wine that comes from a blend of late-harvest Savagnin blended with a special type of pomace brandy. Only recognized since 1991, the AOC makes good sweet wines but they are rarely seen in the USA.