Heads are finally turning towards this tiny region, home to weird and wonderful wines, famed Comté cheese and picturesque scenery. Read Sue Style's Jura travel guide here.
Planted area 1,782ha
Main grape varieties Chardonnay, Savagnin, Poulsard (aka Ploussard), Trousseau, Pinot Noir
Production 55,032 hectolitres (2013)
Main soil types Marl, Limestone
If you’d asked anyone about France’s Jura region and its wines a few decades ago, chances are you would have received a blank stare. A few enlightened souls might have muttered something about vin jaune, or dredged up memories of faded signs for Henri Maire’s Vin Fou, affixed to the sides of dilapidated barns in the remoter parts of rural France. Fast-forward 20 years and the name Jura is on many lips. The wines are enjoying cult status on both sides of the Atlantic. Wine educator Wink Lorch recently devoted a whole book to them, which has received critical acclaim.
How come this secret pocket of vineyards, sandwiched between Burgundy and Switzerland, has suddenly swung into the spotlight? A contributory factor is certainly the explosion of interest in ‘natural’ wines among a section of the wine-buying public, a movement that’s well represented in the Jura. Another is that alongside Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – whose Jura manifestations are, by the way, a world away from neighbouring Burgundy’s – the region fields little-known varieties like finely spicy Savagnin, wild-child Poulsard and the demanding but rewarding Trousseau (Portugal’s Bastardo), all indigenous to the Jura and with huge appeal for adventurous wine lovers.
Above all, attentive Jura vignerons have realised that not only is there a limited market for the bone-dry, long-aged, Sherry-reminiscent vin jaune wines, there’s also little demand for the oxidative style which formerly characterised all Jura wines, white or red, young or old, jaune or not. Today, in place of a small selection of funky and sometimes frankly weird wines, you will find a range of more accessible styles (look out for the words ouillé or floral), which nevertheless remain distinctly stamped with local character. If, like me, you haven’t visited in 20 years, it’s time to re-establish contact with these distinctive wines.
Small in size, big on taste
The Jura is pocket-sized – from Arbois in the north to Lons-le-Saunier in the south it’s barely 40km, so you could fit in plenty of tasting of both liquids and solids (the area is famous for its fine cheeses, game, wild mushrooms and freshwater fish) in a couple of days; three to four would be better still.
However you land in the region, you need wheels to take you through the gentle green and gold countryside, past villages snuggled in misty hollows and through small market towns like Poligny and Arbois, their main streets lined with grand bourgeois houses in palest limestone – solid evidence of long-established prosperity.
Along the route, neat vineyards lie cheek-by-jowl with pastures grazed by Montbéliarde cows busily laying down stores of deliciousness for future – as yet unborn – wheels of Comté cheese. The skyline is punctuated by occasional limestone crags that break through the surface of the verdant landscape Most dramatic of all are the reculées: steeply faced, horseshoe-shaped rock formations that form abrupt dead ends to valleys.
Stay in one of the suites at Les Jardins sur Glantine on Poligny’s main street and you’ll kill two birds with a single stone. The B&B is hosted by Nathalie Eigenschenck, while her partner Ludwig Bindernagel (Les Chais du Vieux-Bourg, bindernagel.fr) is one of the Jura’s burgeoning band of second-career winemakers (architecture was his first) whose natural wines have garnered an enthusiastic following, featuring on wine lists such as Noma in Copenhagen. In addition to fine Crémant, Poulsard and Pinot Noir, he makes stellar whites from Chardonnay and Savagnin, both blended and monovarietal.
While Bindernagel’s first vintage was in 2003, at Domaine Badoz (benoit-badoz.com) they have been making wine since 1659. Benoît, the 10th generation in an unbroken father-to-son line, returned to the family fold in the 1990s after spells in leading Old- and New-World vineyards and took over from his father in 2003. His extra-Jurassien experience has been tactfully integrated and he skilfully balances ancient with modern – new Jura oak alongside venerable old barrels, sleek, streamlined bottles for his Chardonnay Arrogance but traditional, broad-shouldered ones for Côtes du Jura classics. Almost half the vineyards are planted with Savagnin for both early-matured wines and long-lived vin jaune, and he makes a particularly juicy Trousseau.
North of Poligny in Pupillin, Jean-Michel and Laurence Petit manage their 7ha Domaine de la Renardière (Rue du Chardonnay; +33 3 84 66 25 10) almost unaided – as if to underline the hands-on nature of the operation, labels bear a shadowy outline of a hand. Tastings are convivial and instructive, opening with Ploussard (as the Poulsard grape is spelt in its self-styled homeland of Pupillin) and continuing with Trousseau and some fine Chardonnays. If you’ve never tasted Savagnin before, this is the place to start, for the Petits well understand the demands this unique grape puts on those unfamiliar with its spicy aromas and bone-dry profile. Try Les Terrasses first, a lovely example of a modern, approachable Savagnin, before advancing to more typical sorts and graduating to vin jaune.
There’s a cluster of top names in and around Arbois and Montigny-lès-Arsures but next door in Arsures, Domaine Daniel Dugois (vins-danieldugois.com) is the only winery. This is the place to get to grips with Trousseau: almost 40% of Dugois’ vineyards are dedicated to this complicated but potentially rewarding variety, including a rare white one. Taste its (modern, ouillé) Savagnin Auréoline against the traditional Blanc Savagnin and you’ll have a clear exposition of the two different styles to be found in Jura today. Then cap things off with a vin de paille (straw wine) made from Chardonnay, Trousseau, Savagnin and Poulsard grapes picked at maturity, dried on trays till they resemble raisins and pressed to give a burnished, fabulously concentrated elixir.
Last stop should be Domaine Pignier (domaine-pignier.com), a small but significant southern outpost in Montaigu above Lons-le-Saunier. Siblings Jean-Etienne, Antoine and Marie Florence are responsible for 15ha of vines, farmed along biodynamic lines since 1998 and Demeter-certified in 2003. The estate, which once belonged to the Carthusian monastic order, has been in the family’s hands since the French Revolution.
Besides fragrant, fine-bubbled Crémant de Jura (white from Chardonnay, pink from Pinot Noir), standouts here are toothsome Trousseau and Savagnin ouillé matured in 600-litre concrete eggs, both of which sell out dismayingly fast. Take away a parting taste of the vin jaune, which has slumbered for seven years under its veil of yeast in the spectacular 13th-century Carthusian cellar beneath the tasting room.
How to get there
Fly to Lyon-St-Exupèry or Geneva, then it’s a two-hour drive to the vineyards. Or take the TGV to Dole, Mouchard or Bourg-en-Bresse and hire a car. By car, take the A39 and exit Poligny.
Written by Sue Style