[*a version of this article appears in the February 2015 issue of Decanter.]
If you’d asked anyone about France’s Jura region and its wines a couple of decades ago, chances are you’d 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 twenty years and the name Jura is on many lips. The wines are enjoying cult status on both sides of the Atlantic – marginally more so in the US than in the UK. Wine educator Wink Lorch, with impeccable timing, recently devoted a whole book to them entitled Jura Wine, 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 must be the explosion of interest in ‘natural wines’, a movement that’s well represented in the Jura. Another is that alongside Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – whose Jura manifestations are BTW 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, 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’ll find a range of more accessible styles (look out for the words ouillé or floral), which nevertheless remain distinctly stamped with local character. If you’ve never visited the Jura, or it’s been a while since you last came, now is the moment to re-establish contact with these distinctive wines.
The Jura is pocket-sized – from Arbois in the north to Lons-le-Saunier in the south it’s barely 40 kilometres, so in a couple of days you could fit in plenty of tasting of both liquids and solids (the area is famous for its superb Comté, Mont d’Or and Morbier cheeses, game, wild mushrooms and freshwater fish); a three- to four-day stay 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.
All 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 overwhelmingly 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) is one of the Jura’s burgeoning band of second-career wine makers (architecture was his first) whose natural wines have garnered an enthusiastic following, featuring on wine lists such as World’s No. 1 Restaurant 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 they’ve been making wine since 1659. Benoit, the tenth generation in an unbroken father-to-son line, rejoined 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 they make a particularly juicy Trousseau.
North of Poligny in Pupillin Jean-Michel and Laurence Petit manage their seven-hectare Domaine de la Renardière almost unaided – as if to underline the hands-on nature of the operation, labels bear the shadowy outline of a hand. Tastings are convivial and instructive, opening with Ploussard (as spelt in Pupillin, self-styled world capital of this grape) and continuing with Trousseau and some fine Chardonnays. If you’ve never tasted Savagnin before, this is the place to start, for Jean-Michel and Laurence 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-les-Arsures [scene of this year’s Percée du Vin Jaune – a fun occasion which I’ve just written up for FT Weekend, with more here too soon] but nextdoor in Arsures, Domaine Daniel Dugois 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 their (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 the Jura today. Then cap things off with a Vin de Paille, 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.
An essential halt should be in the much-photographed Château-Chalon, perched on a craggy outcrop and justifiably classed as one of France’s plus beaux villages. This is the nerve centre of vin jaune – Château-Chalon is not only the name of the village but an appellation in itself, described by Wink Lorch as ‘one of the most unusual AOCs in France’ because dedicated exclusively to the famous yellow wine.
Park in the centre, take time to explore the village and then find your way up to Domaine Jean Berthet-Bondet, an elegant, vine-clad manor house and winery where Jean Berthet-Bondet and/or his (English-speaking) daughter Hélène will guide you through their range of wines. Blends include a fragrant red trio of Trousseau, Poulsard and Pinot Noir and racy single white varietals include a floral Savagnin labelled Savagnier and Balanoz, a lightly oaky, crisp Chardonnay. The climax will be their vin jaune, the perfect partner for a piece of aged Comté cheese.
Last stop should be at Domaine Pignier, a small but significant southern outpost in Montaigu above Lons-le-Saunier. Siblings Jean-Etienne, Antoine and Marie-Florence are responsible for fifteen hectares of vines, farmed along biodynamic lines since 1998 and Demeter-certified in 2003. The estate, once belonging to the Carthusian monastic order, has been in the family’s hands since the French Revolution.
Besides fragrant, fine-bubbled Crémant (white from Chardonnay, pink from Pinot Noir), standouts are toothsome Trousseau and Savagnin ouillé raised in 600-litre concrete ‘eggs’. Take away a parting taste of their vin jaune, which has slumbered seven years under its veil of yeast in the spectacular, vaulted 13th-century Carthusian cellar.
Where to stay
Château de Germigney, Port Lesney
Once a hunting lodge, now a Relais & Châteaux set in a stunning garden. Chef Pierre Basso Moro’s taste-packed food is anchored in the Jura but modern in style. Helpful steer from the sommelier for newcomers to the region’s wines.
Les Jardins sur Glantine, Poligny
A small gem hidden inside an 18th-century hôtel particulier on Poligny’s main street with two comfortable suites. Epic breakfast and legendary table d’hôtes by former French Masterchef contestant.
Gîte Les Logis du Théatre, Poligny
Tasteful 4-bedroom gîte in beautifully restored town house with spectacular kitchen and tiny garden. The Clarisses convent is just over the wall, so no danger of riotous neighbours partying late.
Hostellerie Saint Germain, Saint-Germain-près-Arlay
Small, recently modernised hostelry in the stunning Seille valley, the incarnation of a restaurant avec chambres – stay here to sample Chef Marc Tupin’s creative riffs on the local cuisine.
Where to eat
Hotel-Restaurant Jean-Paul Jeunet, Arbois
Attentive, unfussy, gently humorous service, highly skilled, good-looking food, judicious sommelier advice on the dazzling wine list and some rooms.
Restaurant La Balance Mets et Vins, Arbois
Town bistro sporting blackboard specials and good choice of Jura wines by the glass – the place to taste coq au vin jaune et aux morilles, a regional classic.
Le Bistrot de Port Lesney
Appealing bistro offshoot of Château de Germigney redolent with red-and-white checks, foie gras, sautéd calves liver, unctuous potato mash, Paris Brest and selected local drops served glasswise.