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Exotic Wine from the Foothills of the Alps

By Jim Clarke

Equidistant between the Cote d’Or and the Swiss border lies a little-known wine region producing a variety of wines, including one of the most ageworthy wines of France. And one of the most historical - the Roman Consul Pliny the Younger was already praising the wines of Jura in the First Century AD; archaeologists have found evidence of grapevines being grown there even earlier. The region was at its peak at the end of the 19th century, with 20,000 hectares under vine; after suffering through phylloxera and two World Wars, the total plantings today are about a tenth of that, but wines of great distinction are still being made.

The Grapes

Two of the grapes grown in the Jura are Burgundian - Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – but there are a number of unusual varietals that are rarely found elsewhere. Among reds, Poulsard (or Ploussard) remains popular with growers, despite being uncooperative in the vineyard; it buds early, making it susceptible to frost, has low yields, and is prone to coulure (a failure to properly form berries, usually related to temperamental spring weather). Growers persist with it, motivated by an appreciation for the perfumed qualities it brings to a wine. It is often blended with another local, Trousseau, which provides the backbone, tannins, and color that Poulsard lacks. Alone, Poulsard wines are as light as rosés in color, even when subjected to prolonged skin contact; they are characterized by red berry and mineral flavors, and are often served lightly chilled.

Along with Chardonnay, the other white grape of the region is called Savagnin, and while it suffers from many of the same difficulties as Poulsard, it is also the only varietal used in the region’s pride and joy, Vin Jaune (“yellow wine”). After a normal fermentation, the Savagnin wine is then aged in barrels for a minimum of six years and three months; during this time it develops a yeast-like covering similar to the flor which protects aging Sherry (unlike most Sherry, however, the wine is not fortified). The yeast limits oxidation and obviates the need to top off the barrel while reinforcing the nutty aromas characteristic to Savagnin and adding further complexities to the wine’s flavor. Vin Jaune also has its own, 62 cl. bottle called the clavelin; the slightly smaller than normal size is to account for the wine that evaporates during aging. In the past Chardonnay and Savagnin grapes have also been used to make table wines, but often in an oxidative style meant to echo Vin Jaune; many drinkers find the style flat and unappealing. Nowadays winemakers are treating the wines more carefully and creating refreshing, lighter wines from both grapes.

There are two other winemaking techniques that make this area special. The Vin de Paille (“straw wine”) takes advantage of mountain breezes to dry out the grapes, which traditionally were laid out on straw mats for at least three months to raisinate before being pressed and made into a dessert wine. The oddly-named MacVin is a wine fortified with local marc (brandy made from grapeskins, etc., left over from the winemaking process) and made in red, white, and rosé styles.

The Appellations

There are three major AOC’s, all of which are enclosed by the larger Cotes du Jura AOC. Arbois is the largest at about 800 hectares, including Arbois Pupillin as a sub-appellation; L’Etoile, named after the star-shaped fossils that are common to the limestone and clay soils, encompasses about 80 ha. Both of these permit wine production in all the styles described above. Chateau Chalon, on the other hand, is exclusively devoted to the production of Vin Jaune. Throughout the Cotes du Jura producers are also permitted to make a methode traditionelle sparkling wine under the Cremant du Jura appellation; many producers have developed quality sparklers in both blanc de blanc and rosé styles.

Frédéric Lornet

In 1974 Frédéric Lornet bottled their own wine for the first time in 20 years, instead of selling it to a negociant, and began a process that has put their wines at the forefront of the Jura’s producers. Both their vineyards and their range of wines have expanded since then, the former to include about 35 acres and the latter to include the entire range of wines possible under appellation law except MacVin. Under the Arbois appellation they have released two white table wines, a Chardonnay and a Naturé (a local name for Savagnin), both refreshing in the modern, non-oxidative style. The Cuvée Messagelins is a notable old-vine Chardonnay from grapes grown on a small, 2-acre parcel of land, yielding less than 400 cases of wine.

There are three table reds as well, a Pinot Noir, a Ploussard, and a Trousseau. The Ploussard is a great summer red. Lornet also produces Vin Jaune and Vin de Paille in limited quantities; the wines are exemplary renditions of their respective styles. Finally Lornet makes two sparkling Cremant du Jura, a Blanc de Blanc and a Ploussard rosé, named “L’Abbaye” for the abandoned Cistercian abbey where they are made. Both represent great values, with complexity and a fine mousse. The sparkling wines, along with the Vin Jaune and a Vin de Paille, are the easiest to find here in the U.S.; all are definitely worth looking for.

Jean Rijckaert

Dutchman Jean Rijckaert entered the wine industry in 1990 as Jean-Marie Guffens partner at Domaine Verget in the Macon region of Burgundy. The relationship only lasted until 1996, but Rijckaert’s relationship with wine has proven sturdier. While he still produces wines in the Maconnais, he has also brought his Burgundian approach to the Jura, where he has his summer home. At the moment he makes three Chardonnays and a Savagnin in the region. In both his Macon and his Jura wines he favors a clean style with a refreshing level of acidity. He felt his former partner overused new oak; he employs it cautiously, so fruit and mineral notes take pride of place in his wines.

Winegrowers take pride of place in his wines as well. A wine bottled with a green neck label comes from his own vineyards, but wines made from fruit bought from other growers are differentiated by a brown label. If the grower allows, Rijckaert also identifies the grower on the label, giving credit where credit is due.

Chateau Béthanie

Many winegrowers in the Jura were hard up at the beginning of the 20th Century. As elsewhere, the louse phylloxera had devastated their vineyards, and steep taxes were making it hard to stay in business. In Arbois a group of them came together to form one of France’s first vineyard cooperatives, the Fruitiére Vinicole d’Arbois. They moved into the Chateau Béthanie in 1969, making it their winemaking facility and brand name.

Because of the collaborative nature of bringing together grapes from a number of different farmers to create wine, cooperatives often fail to arrive at and enforce standards adequate for creating quality wines – mediocrity by committee, as it were. Chateau Béthanie is an exception, and has restricted the kinds of grapes its growers can contribute and enforced low yields since its beginnings. Their push for high standards was also behind the creation of France’s first AOC, Arbois, in 1936. With their diversity of winegrowers, they produce the full range of wines permitted under the region’s regulations, including Vin Jaune, Vin de Paille, and MacVin, and have won awards for their exceptional sparkling Cremants. Chateau Béthanie is also one of a handful of producers to make an enjoyable white in the older Jura style; their Arbois Cuvée is a blend of Chardonnay and Savagnin that shows wonderful pear, nut, and baking spice aromas with a full, round mouthfeel wrapped up by firm acidity in the finish.

Henri Maire

Henri Maire’s sparkling wines feature a colorful harlequin on the label and the fun moniker of “Vin Fou” (“Crazy Wine”); this playful marketing made them the breakthrough wines for Jura in the market. With properties totaling almost 1,000 acres, they produce and sell a huge portion of the region’s wines, so it should be no surprise that their wines run the gamut of styles and grapes available. The Chardonnay is refreshing and crisp, but the Savagnin is in the older, oxidative style which lends it a richness that makes it suitable for pairing with cheeses such as the local Morbier, Gruyere, or even Reblochon. Director Marie-Christine Tarby-Maire feels that these two contrasting approaches to winemaking reflect the character of the respective grapes. Despite the playfulness suggested by the marketing of their sparkling wines, Henri Maire takes their winemaking seriously. Their Vin Jaunes and Vin de Paille demonstrate this amply, full of character and richness that only careful attention over the wines’ long production process can accomplish.

It’s only appropriate that the Jura embraces a variety of wines and winemaking techniques; the region is home to the father of oenology, Louis Pasteur. His discovery of yeast’s role in converting the grapes’ sugars into alcohol marked the beginning of modern winemaking. Today, Jura is building on its past, and remains loyal to its traditions and grapes at a time when too many producers around the world are discarding local specialties in favor of international grapes and generic styles.

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Last Updated: August 2004
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