Wines of France’s Jura

The wines of France’s Jura region are among its least known overseas, and many deserve to be better known.

    Though the region’s total vineyard acreage is quite small – only 5,000 acres – it makes some very distinctive wines. Most are especially interesting as they’re made by traditional methods little influenced by modern enology.

    The region, the southern half of Franche-Comté, is sandwiched between Burgundy and Switzerland. Part of Jura lies in the Jura Mountains, but the region where grapes grow is in the lowest of three plateaus  at about 1,000 to 1,500 ft. altitude.

    As the location is fairly cool, with harsh winters, it can be challenging for grape growers. The grapes barely ripen enough to form stable wines, and it’s legal (and common) to add sugar to reach an adequate level of alcohol. This process is common and legal in cooler parts of Europe. and the eastern US.

    Five grapes are traditional and most widely grown. Not surprisingly since this area is close to Burgundy and once was part of that Duchy, the great Burgundian grapes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are most widely grown, and in fact, about 45 percent of production is Chardonnay.

    In general, the Chardonnays are crisp and reminiscent of minor Burgundian Chardonnays, though Jura winemakers have a taste for wines aged in neutral oak, sometimes for years.

    The Pinot Noirs are similar to Burgundy’s, too.

    Oddly, in the Jura, most whites are aged for a few years before release and reds released as infants. This is the opposite of the practice in most wine regions.

    Also popular are wines made from the distinctive white Savignan (not Sauvignon), a relative of Alsace’s Traminer, and those made from two local red varieties, Poulsard and Trousseau.

    Poulsard, called Ploussard in one tiny village, makes a light red or rosé, and as it’s usually very young, is ideal with picnics and light foods.

    Trousseau is deeper in color, but this is not a region for big, deeply colored wines.

    The small area is subdivided into a few smaller appellations. The general name is Côtes du Jura, but Arbois and tiny L'Etoile have their own appellations, as does Château-Chalon but only for vin jaune.

    The region also makes some quite tasty sparkling wine called Crémant du Jura, as well as three special wines. Vin de paille, or straw wine, is much like vin santo or recioto of Italy. It is made by partially drying the grapes, traditionally on straw mats, to increase the sugar concentration and create a pleasant sweet dessert wine with raisin flavors.

    Macvin is made like Angelica: brandy is added to unfermented grape must  or pressed juice, creating an almost syrupy liqueur.

    The most unusual wine is vin jaune, or yellow wine (Their marketing literature translates it as ‘golden.’)

    It’s made much like Sherry, but not fortified or sweetened. Ripe Savignan must is fermented, then placed in barrels and left there for six years without topping. As water evaporates, a layer of yeast much like the flor of Jerez develops on the surface of the wine, protecting it from the bacteria that would turn it to vinegar. The wine oxidizes and develops a distinctive flavor and aroma.

The wine is even bottled in distinctive 62 ml (not 75 ml) bottles, what tradition says would be left from a regular bottle after the evaporation.

The local winemakers, many of whom make most of these different wines, consider it the epitome of their art. It’s often used for cooking coq au vin jaune, for example, and served with the local cheeses.

I find it’s either an acquired taste or one natural to some palates; mine is not one of them, but some wine critics on a recent trip considered it a rare treasure.

Not many winemakers seem to have studied or worked in more modern wine regions, and they have found their old methods recently popular as fans seek ‘natural’ wines with minimal intervention and processing. Most are organic, for example, but not because they’ve adopted that practice; they’ve never used chemicals.

Many of the wines are delightful, and a few winemakers are making ‘modern’ fruity wines, but some of the wines are definitely a bit funky, which again appeals to some people. This is not a place where we saw immaculate sterile wineries, but wine being made the way it has been for century. That’s ironic since the most famous person from the region is probably Louis Pasteur, a winemaker who also discovered the secrets and importance of hygiene as well as vaccination and pasteurization (not that that improves wine).

Besides wine, the Jura region is famous for cheese. Cows are everywhere in the lush green fields. Their most famous cheese is nutty Comté, which is similar to Gruyere from nearby Switzerland, and Morbier, which has a distinct gray line that marks the traditional separation between the morning and evening production.

Perhaps even better known is La Vache qui Rit, or Laughing Cow, a highly processed cheese that can be kept without refrigeration of a while. The local people we saw regarded it the way cheese lovers here view Velveeta, however.

Jura is beautiful with many small villages little changed over the centuries, and the largest ‘city’ houses fewer than 25,000  people. It’s marked with many dramatic cliffs, canyons and rivers, and one legacy of the water and local limestone is a large number of caves.

You can also visit castles and ancient cliff-top towns like Chateau Chalon.

Because the area is landlocked but contains many rivers, trout is popular, as is a local sausage called Morteau, which was proudly served to us repeatedly, always with boiled potatoes and a runny cheese that looks like fondue but is actually made from whey like ricotta. They’re good matches with the local wines, too.

Jura would be a good destination for those bored with the same old France. The people are delightful, the vistas enticing and the wine and food are as far from McDonald’s and Yellowtail as you’ll find