Tucked away only an hour’s drive directly east of the hallowed ground of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, lies the smallest French wine region: the Jura. Arguably equally famous for its comté cheese as for its striking wines, this is a region that still largely remains in polyculture. In the past, winemakers would also grow wheat and raise cows for milk and cheese, and some still do. Its wines have gained notoriety over the past few years for their freshness and vibrancy - the region is capable of producing fine wines that can rival Burgundy, and it has captured the hearts of many.
A Brief History
Just like in Burgundy, vineyards were first planted in the region in the ninth century, if not before, by the Cistercian monks. Jura is part of the larger region of Franche-Comté, which borders Switzerland, and like so many other border regions, it has had a turbulent past. In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, it was under the rule of the French, Austrians and even the Spaniards. The latter makes one wonder whether this explains the prominence of the grape variety, Trousseau, in Spain. Savagnin, the celebrated white grape of the region, has been renowned as the star here for many centuries, but nobody knows exactly when the first mysterious "vin jaune" appeared. By the 19th century, however, one thing was certain: the Jura was well-established as a fine wine region.
Jura Rocks & Soils
While it might be just a stone’s throw away, the geology of Burgundy and the Jura are very different. The region is named after the Jura mountains, which acts as a division line. The vineyards of the Jura sitting at a slightly higher elevation share a very similar terroir to that of Burgundy: limestone from the Jurassic period of time (200-145 million years ago). While Burgundy’s soils vary in terms of quantity of clay and limestone, they are all from this specific time period.
However, the Jura also has soils from another geologic period: the Triassic period. Brenna Quigley, geologist, explains,
“The Triassic period ends at 201.3 Ma (million years ago) which is a very precise number. The end of the geologic period is marked by a major mass extinction event that can be dated pretty precisely. When the Triassic ends, the Jurassic begins.”
These soils are also clay limestone, but the material is vastly different, and gives different styles of wine. Stéphane Tissot explains,
“Trias clay gives a much larger wine, something more rustic, with very smoky aromas. These soils are millions of years apart, and the sediment is totally different, so the wine will be totally different.”
Some winemakers also refer to “lias” soils. These do not stem from a specific geological era, rather they form a sort of bridge in between the Triassic and Jurassic periods. Brenna explains,
“The term Lias was used before we were able to date the mass extinction event, so it more specifically refers to a typical package of rocks that is found between the dry continental material of the Triassic, and the tropical beachy material of the Jurassic. Now that geologists have better constructed the history of the whole earth, the term Lias doesn’t really apply. Technically, it straddles the Triassic-Jurassic boundary.”
The Jura is tiny. Its vineyard plantings represent just 0.3% of French vineyard plantings, and is less than 15% of the size of Burgundy, which in itself is also a small wine region. That said, around 15%+ (and growing) of its total vineyards are certified organically, which puts the Jura in the lead of organics in northern France, together with Alsace.
There are just four AOCs, for once in French wine something very simple: AOC Côtes du Jura, which spreads all the way up and down the region, AOC Arbois and Arbois-Pupillin, centred around the towns of Arbois and Pupillin, AOC Château-Chalon (only for vin jaune) and AOC L’Etoile (only for white wines, vin jaune and vin de paille).
Under AOC laws, Jura wine can be produced from Savagnin, Poulsard, Trousseau, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
There also remain a few parcels in the region that are planted to other ancient varieties such as Enfariné Noir, Mézy, Geuche (the local name for the rare and historically important Gouais Blanc), and Argant.
Both Jean-François Ganevat and Etienne Thiebaud proudly tend vineyards planted to these varieties, and make wines from them.
An ancient variety: a recent archaeological excavation revealed grape seeds that showed a genetic match to Savagnin 400km away in Orléans, central France. This means that the variety has been cultivated since more than 900 years ago and passed down to modern day through cuttings. It also means that while the Jura is considered its home, it could have originated elsewhere. Geneticists have discovered that Savagnin and Pinot Noir share a parent-offspring relationship, but nobody knows which came first.
In a similar way to Pinot, due to its age and spread, Savagnin has drastically mutated along the way. Genetically speaking, Gewürztraminer (famous in Alsace and Germany) and Traminer (so-named after the Tramin village in Italy’s south Tyrol) are composed of the same DNA as Savagnin, but the wines are vastly different. Gewürztraminer, for example, is pink-skinned and incredibly aromatic, and the wine it produces is famous for its floral aromas.
The Savagnin of the Jura, meanwhile, is yellow-skinned and rather non-aromatic, instead often displaying citrus, mineral and saline characteristics. In a blind tasting, the ouillé styles can be confused with Chardonnay, although the acidity tends to be more pronounced. It is also produced in oxidative, flor-influenced styles, which gives wines with more of a sherry-like, nutty flavour profile. The heralded and rare vin jaunes from the region are produced from Savagnin, and are some of the most powerful, explosive white wines in the world.
Also an ancient variety, Poulsard is the sweetheart of the Jura. Found almost only here, it is also sometimes labelled as Ploussard, its local name in the town of Pupillin in Arbois, where it is famously produced by the likes of Pierre Overnoy. It was first mentioned in historical documents in the Jura under the name Polozard. It is a very delicate variety to grow, with thin skins and prone to weather hazards and various diseases, which likely explains why it is not so widely cultivated.
The wine produced from Poulsard is very pale in colour - partly due to its thin skins, but also due to many winemakers employing a very gentle maceration for the variety. It is very perfumed with scents of roses and peonies, often with an earthy, forest-like component.
Thought to have originated in or near the Jura, Trousseau has mystified ampelographers for centuries due to its prominence in Portugal under the name Bastardo. It was first recorded in the Jura in the 1700s, and soon after appeared in Spain and Portugal, where it has been cultivated for two centuries. From grapevine DNA testing, we know that Trousseau is a likely offspring of Savagnin, which makes its birthplace more likely to be France as opposed to Portugal.
While native to the Jura, only around 8% of the wines from the region are made from Trousseau, as it requires a lot of sun, explaining why it found a new home in Spain and Portugal. That said, it reminds close to the hearts of its supporters, such as Pierre Overnoy, who says,
"What is a petit or a grand vin? For me that lies in complexity and finesse, and drinkability. My first memories are of my grandfather's wines, and those vineyards were planted to a lot of Trousseau. So, I decided to do that too. If you ask me: what does Trousseau add? Well... I'll just say, taste it, & you'll see."
With global warming, plantings of Trousseau are increasing. The wines it makes are darker and more inky in appearance than Poulsard, with a red and black fruit profile. It is more tannic, with savoury and occasionally even meaty characteristics.
Chardonnay is thought to have originated just across the mountain in Burgundy, where it has found grape fame. It is just as capable of creating greatness in the Jura, and some of the wines produced from the variety are right up there on the list of fine Chardonnays. One of these is the wine produced from Stephane Tissot’s Clos de la Tour de Curon. Rajat Parr, renowned sommelier-turned-winemaker, says,
“It is one of the top Chardonnays in the world, on a par with any Montrachet.”
Indeed it was a blind tasting of one of Tissot’s Chardonnays that shocked Guillaume D’Angerville, who had thought it was a top Burgundy wine, and led him to start making wine in the Jura also. There is a growing trend in the region for producing Chardonnay produced in a “ouille” style - without access to oxygen - rivalling those of Burgundy. A combination of soils, winemaking technique and the use of healthy lees, means that many Chardonnays produced by top winemakers rival their Burgundian counterparts.
Like Chardonnay, the top spots of the Pinot Noir leaderboard is dominated by great Burgundies. However, also like Chardonnay, there are excellent examples to be found in the Jura, where it thrives on similar soil types.
Aromatically, they are very similar to Burgundies, depending on winemaking decisions such as whether to use whole bunches or destem. It is also commonplace to create Jurassic red blends of Pinot, together with Poulsard and Trousseau, to create a red wine that is completely unique to the region.
Styles of Wine
Although only a small region, Jura is home to a hugely diverse range of wine styles. This is both a blessing and a curse; it’s likely consumers might taste a vin jaune and be confused, expecting all wines from the region to taste sherry-like, which is far from reality.
White wine - “ouillé” vs oxidative
This is the most common method of white winemaking in the world: barrels are systematically topped up when evaporation occurs to avoid any oxygen getting into contact with the wine via the headspace which forms in the barrel if left unattended. It’s so common that there is almost never an indication of the style on the label in any other region apart from here, as it’s simply a given.
In the Jura, however, white wines are made in two styles: the aforementioned “ouillé”, or using oxidative methods. When working oxidatively, winemakers purposefully introduce their wines to oxygen over long periods of time. Oxidative white wine is not very common around the world - other wines made in this style are sherry (although sherry is fortified with additional spirit, so has a stronger alcohol percentage) and Rioja’s traditional white wines. More and more, however, winemakers around the world are being inspired by these wines and now oxidative styles are found in many regions, although it very much remains a niche.
Making white wine oxidatively isn’t easy, as bacterial problems can easily wreak havoc: oxygen is food! However, when cared for and monitored, it can create compelling wines of deep, long-lasting flavours of nuts and caramel. Often, these wines develop what is known as a “flor” - a surface yeast, which contributes to these flavours and heightens the saline quality of the wine. These wines are often labelled as sous voile, meaning “under the veil (of the yeast)” - as ever, the French are romantics.
Crémant de Jura
Sparkling wine production has always played a big role in the Jura, and remains very popular. Crémant is the name for any sparkling wine that is created according to the traditional method, outside of Champagne. The key grapes used here are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and the best examples can be as compelling as some grower Champagnes.
This yellow, golden wine of the Jura is one of the most weird and wonderful wines of the world. Utterly unique and with specific laws, some stranger than others, such as:
- Must be produced from the Savagnin variety
- Must be aged for six years and three months
- Must be bottled in the clavelin bottle - a chubby, funny-looking little bottle of 62cl (although strangely they are actually manufactured to 65cl) - which is the only bottle shape other than the 75cl bottle permitted under EU law. Nobody knows why the clavelin was used historically, but rather romantically it has been suggested that only 62cl of wine remains after the wine has been ageing for so long - the left has evaporated - like the angels’ share of whisky
Vin de Paille
Translated as straw wine, this is also a darling wine of the Jura. It is similar to wines such as the famous Tuscan vin santo. Grapes are laid out on straw for at least six weeks, resulting in hyper-concentrated sweet grapes. The wine takes a very long time to ferment and eventually stops on its own accord, meaning the resulting wine is sweet.
This is a surprising wine that might shock you when you first taste it, as it truly does taste like alcoholic grape juice, and not like a wine. That’s because it is: it’s made of raw grape juice (which may have just started to ferment), blended with grape spirit (marc du Jura), which must have been aged for 14+ months. The final alcohol level must be somewhere between 16 and 22%.
It is the combination of Jura's talents that makes this region so special. It's like watching the individual gymnastics at the Olympics: it's a region that can do everything.