Jura Wines with Attitude
French winemaking doesn’t get much more extreme than this.
The Jura, on the French fringes of the Swiss Alps, is hard country. Winters are cold, spring comes late and while summer days are long, the nights are chilly. Fall is vintage time, a scramble to get the grapes ripe and harvested before rains arrive.
This tiny wine region is 4,400 acres, similar in size to Yountville in Napa Valley. The Jura lies up against the mountains that separate the watersheds of the Rhine, Rhône and Po rivers.
Historically isolated, the Jura has evolved several distinct wine styles that are now being discovered by the rest of the world.
Leading the charge have been fashion-conscious sommeliers, who seem to thrive on springing surprises on unsuspecting diners.
Yet, on the fine-dining circuit, three years is an eon for a wine list. And that’s about how long these wines have been showing up in New York, London and San Francisco.
That means these same sommeliers are about to jump off the Jura ski lift.
Luckily, if you live outside Manhattan, now’s the time to have a tête-à-tête with your local sommeliers and retailers. These wines are becoming more widely available in the U.S., and more consumers can discover them.
“We are a little region with a huge range of wines,” says vigneron Pierre Rolet. “We appeal to drinkers who are happy to experiment.”
To help those hearty home explorers, here’s a quick guide to the major Jura wine styles and grape varieties.
These whites are a Jura specialty. Called vins typés (typical wines) here, they are made by simply leaving a wine alone to age in barrel under a protective layer of yeast. The wines develop a wonderful, unforgettable nutty flavor allied to intense acidity and spice.
The process is Sherry-like, but the taste is not. It’s an acquired taste, but once acquired, it won’t be put away lightly. The indigenous Savagnin grape gives the best of these flavors.
92 Domaine Pignier 2009 Savagnin (Côtes du Jura). A wine that has complex, oxidative tendencies, giving smokiness, almond flavors alongside the ripe apricots. The acidity of this wine is intense, deliciously fresh while also mature. It gives a tension to the wine that suggests further potential for aging. Drink until 2020. Polaner Selections.
abv: 13% Price: $39
The ultimate in oxidative wine is vin jaune (yellow wine). It’s made Jura known throughout the wine world for its extreme concentration and range of flavors, from smoky to yeasty, with intense acidity.
To become a vin jaune, the wine (generally made from Savagnin) is aged in barrel for six years and three months. During this time, a layer of yeast forms on the surface and protects the wine from air.
Patrice Beguet, of Domaine Hughes-Beguet in Arbois, calls the process “a mystery,” and there are concerns of late that barrels are failing to develop the yeast layer. No topping up is allowed, so the wine gradually loses volume and gains concentration.
The greatest vin jaune comes from Château-Chalon. The wine goes, uniquely, into a clavelin, a 620-ml bottle (allegedly, the amount of wine that comes from a liter of grape juice after aging).
Drink this extraordinary wine with strong, hard cheeses (like the local Comté), with mushroom dishes, lobster or shrimp. Perhaps the greatest pleasure, however, is to drink it by itself at the end of a meal.
94 Domaine Berthet-Bondet 2006 Vin Jaune (Château—Chalon). This exceptional example shows why Château-Chalon is so special. Its balance of acidity and fragrant fruitiness underpinning the yeast and almond flavors is unique. It’s ready to drink in all its glory, but will age for many, many years. VOS Selections. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.5% Price: $90/620 ml
Chardonnay, sometimes blended with Savagnin, dominates this class of Jura white wines. Each region boasts its own distinctive style, with L’Etoile’s being particularly special, the sole variety produced from its chalky soil.
There are reminiscences of Burgundy, but Jura’s cool climate and higher-altitude vineyards give these whites freshness and lightness that’s inimitable. Think mown mountain meadows.
92 Domaine Labet 2011 Fleurs (Côtes du Jura). Made from pure Chardonnay, this is a fruity and fragrant wine. It’s rich and complex, with strong acidity. Put the two together, and the wine has weight, aging potential and a fine, zesty, tight texture. It needs to age, so drink this fascinating Chardonnay from 2016. Charles Neal Selections.
abv: 13% Price: $NA
Don’t look for dark color in Jura’s red wines. Neither of the two principal local grapes—Trousseau and Poulsard—offer more than a pale red color that could almost be mistaken for rosé.
Even with Pinot Noir as an addition, the wines are light, fragrant and fruity, never intense or powerful.
The best wines are often blends, but with their barnyard, undergrowth characters, they can feel rustic. Paired with a plate of cured meat or chicken dishes (even curry), they begin to sing, however gently.
86 Frédéric Lornet 2011 Trousseau des Dames (Arbois). Light in color and soft in texture, this is a fruity wine, with an attractive balance between crushed ripe strawberries and fresh acidity. It’s vibrant, yet with ample weight, and is drinkable now. Wine Symphony.
abv: 12.5% Price: $31
Two local specialties here are vin de paille (straw wine) and macvin. For vin de paille, grapes are laid out on trays (traditionally straw) in a room with industrial air dryers or, more romantically, hung from the rafters and dried for six weeks before being turned into wine.
The concentration of the grapes is quite natural, with no sense of noble rot. The resulting wine, after a fermentation that can last months, is high in sugar. The wines are honeyed, fresh, nutty, complex and are best served just before dessert or with pâtés at the start of a meal.
Macvin is a real peculiarity—an apéritif made by adding alcohol to unfermented grape juice. It’s a tradition, but to be honest, it’s a tradition best enjoyed in the Jura.
91 Château d’Arlay 2002 Vin de Paille (Côtes du Jura). Château d’Arlay is a local landmark, founded in the 13th century and now one of the top producers in the Jura. With age, this 2002 has become a fascinating wine. It still shows its sweetness while offering notes of dried fruits, prunes, figs and spice, along with a nutty character that suggests the wine can still age for many years. Wines of France.
abv: 14.5% Price: $60/500 ml
This Champagne-style wine accounts for one in every four bottles produced in the Jura, so it’s relatively easy to find at retail. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir dominate the blend.
The wines are mainly in a fruity, fresh and crisp style, available brut and demi-sec. At around $20 per bottle, Crémant de Jura often represents great value.
87 André et Mireille Tissot NV Crémant de Jura. There is a pleasant hint of oxidation here, giving the wine some toasty characteristics. For lovers of more mature sparkling wines, this is a wine to enjoy now. Vintner Select.
abv: 12.5% Price: $24
•Despite the trendiness of the wines, the Jura producers I visited told me that until I showed up, no American sommelier or wine writer had visited their wineries.
•The Jurassic Period—when dinosaurs roamed the earth—takes its name from the region and its underlying limestone.
•Besides wine, the Jura is known for its cheeses, from Laughing Cow to the more serious, not-so-laughing Comté.
•The year 1854 was a good one for Jura natives Louis Pasteur, who discovered pasteurization, and Louis Vuitton, who launched his fashion brand.
Grapes of the Jura
Savagnin For first-timers to Jura wines, this is the grape to understand. It has a connection, but little flavor likeness, to Traminer, having intense acidity and only a light perfume. In the Jura, this is the “one that makes the wines so special,” says Pierre Rolet. It’s behind all the wonderful, special oxidative wines and is the only one permitted in vin jaune.
Chardonnay Grown in the Jura since the 10th century, Chardonnay forms the backbone of the fruity Jura white wines. Pliable and amenable, it produces wines from fresh to wood-aged, always with a light touch that sets Jura Chardonnay apart from white Burgundy.
Poulsard Sometimes spelled Ploussard, this is native to the Jura. It gives wines that range from elegant and aromatic, to animal and rustic. The color is always light, not quite rosé.
Trousseau Travelers on the Route of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain left their mark with plantings of this vine, all the way from the Jura to northern Spain and Portugal. The wines from this much-traveled grape are soft and warm, sometimes with intense red and black fruit flavors. The best examples can age.
Pinot Noir Travelling across the Saône Valley from Burgundy has lightened Pinot Noir and given it a spring in its step. It’s also intensified acidity and left greenness in some years when ripening is difficult. Best in a blend or in Crémant du Jura.
6 Jura-friendly hotspots, from coast to coast
2500 Folsom St., San Francisco
The wines of Jacques Puffeney feature here.
1221 NW 21st Ave., Portland, Oregon
Trousseau from Stéphane Tissot, and Chardonnay from Domaine Rolet.
713 Vine St., Cincinnati
André et Mireille Tissot’s Crémant de Jura is the house sparkling wine.
34 Eighth Ave., New York City
Look for the wines of Jacques Puffeney and Stéphane Tissot.
113 MacDougal St., New York City
For a rare pairing of (light) red Jura from Domaine Ganevat with air-dried steak.
Trestle on Tenth
242 Tenth Ave., New York City
Featuring wines from Philippe Bernard, Berthet-Bondet and Domaine Ganevat.
- 2Oxidative White Wines
- 3Vin Jaunes
- 4Fruity White Wines
- 5Red Wines
- 6Vin de Paille and Macvin
- 7Crémant de Jura
- 8Dispatches from the Jura