Jura? For sura

No, not the Inner Hebridean island producer of single malt, or the AOC in France’s extreme south-west famed for its honey-sweet whites (that’s Jurançon): this is Jura in foothills of the Jura mountains on the country’s border with Switzerland, a tiny area of vines that produces some of the most unusual and underappreciated wines in France.

As much as Burgundy, its fawned-over neighbour to the west, Jura has a claim to be part of France’s gastronomic soul. It’s a place where centuries of fascination with molds and fungi, combined with a top-notch natural larder, have made it a food-lover’s paradise.

The region’s wines should be thought of as ‘food wines’: wines that make food more interesting and that are made more interesting by food. Think earthy, nutty, musty flavours: morels, walnuts, saucisson fumé, poulet de Bresse, aged cheeses – comté, bleu de Gex, vacherin, morbier. These are the choice morsels Jura wines were made for.

It has to be said, though, that for such a small wine region (the total area under vine is 1,600ha – about the same as the village of Margaux), there’s a lot to get to grips with – unique grapes, different styles, many strange and confusing names – so let’s break it down…

Jura has four main appellations: Arbois, Côtes du Jura, Château-Chalon and L’Étoile (the latter named after the starfish fossils found in the soil the vines take root in), plus two wine-style appellations that cover the whole area: Crémant du Jura (sparkling) and Macvin du Jura (a vin de liqueur).

The Burgundian influence on the reds comes through pinot noir, but there’s also the local poulsard (also known as ploussard, confusingly), which makes pale, coral-tinted, rose-scented reds (which Jurassians sometimes refer to as rosé, confusingly); and trousseau, which makes deeper reds with interesting combinations of pepper and violet. These are fragrant, acidic reds, often with a marked rustic savour, which plead, silently but insistently, to be paired with honking cheeses.

The whites are dominated by chardonnay (usually of a very different character from that found in Burgundy) and the native savagnin. Savagnin is no relation to sauvignon, by the way. The sole purpose of their near-identical names is to confuse us. Savagnin is in fact the same grape as the Italian traminer. In Jura it is often used to make deliberately oxidised ‘yellow wines’. Oxidation imparts a dry-sherry aroma and flavour, which people often equate with fault; Jura proves such people wrong.

This oxidative style has been a ‘thing’ in Jura for hundreds of years and is linked to production of its speciality: vin jaune. A classic vin jaune is aged in old Burgundy barrels for six years or more and matures in much the same way as fino sherry – the barrels are only partly filled, allowing in oxygen (a process known as ‘ullage’), and the fermented grape juice is kept a thin skin of surface yeasts in (known as the ‘voile’, or ‘veil’, reminiscent of the ‘flor’ that covers maturing fino).

Vin jaune is the only wine in France that can be sold in its own special-sized bottle, the squat, 62cl clavelin (62cl representing the volume left per original litre put into a barrel after evaporation of the so-called ‘angel’s share’).

Showing nutty, savoury, occasionally even curry-spice flavours, vin jaune is one to discover. It will keep, and evolve, for 50 years or, in some cases, a lot longer – in 2011 a bottle of drinkable vin jaune was bought at auction for €57,000. It was bottled in 1774.

Three other specialities complete Jura’s all-singing, all-dancing viticultural CV. Cremant du Jura is a sparkling wine made from slightly under-ripe savagnin grapes. This is possibly the best-value fizz you’ll find anywhere in France.

Vin de paille (‘straw wine’) is a sweet white (18% minimum potential alcohol) made from chardonnay, savignin and/or poulsard grapes. The grapes are traditionally air-dried on straw mats to concentrate their sugars and the fermented juice is aged for up to three years.

Then there’s Macvin – not a sign that Ronald McDonald has extended his reach to the bucolic fringes of eastern France (though he probably has), but a vin de liqueur savoured as an aperitif in Jura. It’s made from fortified pomace and is much like a vin doux naturel, except the alcohol is added earlier, resulting in a slightly more alcohol-dominated drink. They like that sort of thing in mountain regions.

So there you have it: a voyage of vinous discovery. Take away the alcohol factor, and that’s what we’re basically after when we browse the bottles on the shelves. Jura offers it in abundance – a point made singingly clear by the fine wine collector who forked out €57,000 for that pre-revolutionary bottle, who said simply in an interview afterwards: “Bordeaux does not make me dream any more. Jura does.”

Meet the winemaker: Philippe Vandelle of Domaine Philippe Vandelle, Jura…

Jura winemaker Philippe Vandelle

BW: What is distinctive about your style of winemaking – what are you trying to achieve?

PV: We have a very distinct style of winemaking in Jura and the vinification is very different for the whites and reds. For the whites, we use a classic, temperature-controlled fermentation in stainless steel with indigenous yeasts, before the unique ageing process in old barrels. We never use new oak. The reds, which account for 10% of our total production, undergo a short fermentation (around 10 days) to preserve the delicate aromas of trousseau and poulsard.

BW: Your family has been making wines for a long time – seven generations. How has the approach to winemaking changed during that time?

PV: That’s right, our family has a long history of winemaking. The approach has changed very little: we produce wines in a traditional way and this is very much the style of our wines.

BW: How was this year’s harvest?

PV: Overall, I’m very pleased with the harvest, although the yields were much lower this year. We had a poor spring, which meant the vines struggled during flowering, but the weather was superb during ripening and harvest.

BW: Some of Jura’s grapes will be unfamiliar to people in the UK. How would you describe them? 

PV: Savagnin – The grape is quite small and it ripens quite late, so we have to be patient – the 2013 harvest took place on 20th September. To make vin jaune we have to wait for the grapes to reach maximum ripeness.

Poulsard – poulsard produces quite small fruit, too, with a thin skin. It has similarities with pinot in aromas.

Trousseau – trousseau produces much bigger berries and the wine is a very pale red, or even a dark rosé. It has a delicate floral aromas, with red fruits.

BW: There seems to be some similarities between wines of Burgundy and Jura. How do they compare as winegrowing regions?

PV: We share a similar sedimentary soil as Burgundy – a poor marl which makes the vines bury deep into the rock formation. And of course, we use Burgundy barrels. Jura is slightly cooler, however, benefiting from the cool air from the surrounding mountains.

BW: Can you explain the difference between the vin jaune method and that for producing fino sherry? How does it affect the finished product?

PV: The wine spends six years ageing in barrel. During this time, we never top up so the wine begins to concentrate as it evaporates from the barrel. Also, we don’t add any spirit to the wine to stop the fermentation.

BW: What is your favourite food pairings for your range of wines – what would you have them with?

We have some fantastic poultry in the region. Chicken in a cream sauce is a wonderful pairing. And the comté is a must-try, of course.

BW: Jura wines are well known for their ageing potential. What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar?

PV: That’s true. I’d say vin jaune really starts to show it’s best after 10-15 years. We have some vin jaune in the cellar from 1893.

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