This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
See my tasting notes on selected Jura wines and also Jura delights for tips on where to eat and stay.
From Friday until the end of August, Britain’s wine lovers can take
advantage of a new route to some of France’s best vineyards. Danube Wings will
fly twice-weekly between the airstrip they cheekily describe as ‘Cambridge
(London)’ and Dole in Franche-Comté in eastern France.
Dole is just 50 minutes by autoroute from Beaune, Burgundy’s historic wine
capital, but more adventurous wine enthusiasts might like to drive in the
opposite direction, east into the much less well known but increasingly
fashionable vineyards of the Jura. This is the region of lush farmland to which we
owe the word Jurassic, Comté cheese and, until the late 19th century, vast
quantities of wine, as much as was produced in Burgundy.
But the Jura vignoble was quite literally decimated by a combination of
phylloxera, mildew, the first world war, and the railways which opened up the
Languedoc as an alternative source of wine to city dwellers in northern France.
By the 1960s, there were fewer than 1,000 hectares of vines left. Milk and other
fruits were much more valuable crops than grapes and even today there are
only 2,000 hectares of Jura vineyard.
Jura’s wines are some of France’s most distinctive, however. Chardonnay may be
the region’s most planted grape variety and a certain amount of light Pinot
Noir is made, both of them contributing to some great-value fizz, but Jura can
boast its own highly individual grape varieties. Poulsard makes vivacious,
rose-scented reds. Trousseau’s rather deeper reds intriguingly combine pepper
and violet scents. But most exciting of all is Trousseau’s progeny Savagnin
Blanc, which is identical to the heady Traminer but in Jura is capable of making
extremely tense, long-lived, full-bodied dry whites as well as versions that
are deliberately oxidised, more or less, to make ‘yellow wines’. The most
extreme versions that qualify as vin
jaune are aged for six years or more under a thin layer of surface yeasts
in only partly filled casks to produce wines vaguely reminiscent of old fino
sherry, but with a distinctly Jura/Savagnin orchard-like accent.
Australians are currently learning to love Savagnin Blanc. It turned out that,
owing to some mislabelling in Spain, the vine cuttings being sold by Australian
nurseries as the fashionable Galician variety Albariño were actually Savagnin.
Perhaps they should study the current ways of Jura winemakers.
As a reaction to too many excessively flat, oxidised wines in the 1970s, Jura’s
winemakers flirted with a more fruity, ‘international’ style of Chardonnay in
the last two decades of the 20th century. But this century has seen more daring
experimentation with lightly oxidative – gently nutty – styles and, especially,
vineyard-designated Chardonnays designed to express to the maximum the enormous
variation in aspect, elevation and soil types to be found in the Jura. And there's arguably
considerably more such variation in the Jura than in Burgundy, according to one of the region’s most effusive
exponents, Stéphane Tissot (pictured above in the vines), now running Domaine André et Mireille Tissot with
his wife Bénédicte.
His catchphrase, ‘la vie est belle’
(life is beautiful), certainly seemed apt to me as he bounced me around the
region’s hills and tracks in his dusty 4 x 4. He told me how his conversion to
less intervention in the winery began when he worked at Brown Brothers in
Australia in the early 1990s and found himself, in a completely different
environment on the other side of the world, adding exactly the same packet of
yeast as his father did back home. By 2004 his 45 hectares of vines were
biodynamic and are now officially certified. ‘I spent five years studying wine
in Beaune and learnt nothing – well, nothing I use here', he told me, sweeping
a thick arm over his rippling green vines.
In his family’s particularly cool cellars, tucked into a fold of limestone on
the edge of the village of Montigny-les-Arsures, where, as is the way in Jura,
it can take a whole year to ferment his Chardonnay and Savagnin to dryness, he has
all the most fashionable wine vessels: large, old oak casks, many from Chassin
of Rully, an experimental wooden fermentation vat from Stockinger of Austria,
and five clay amphorae.
For Tissot, Jura wines are riding the crest of a wave – and they have certainly
taken off in North America, where a group of the region’s top winemakers have
travelled en masse for the last four years, whipping up a whirl of enthusiasm
among wine media and sommeliers there. This year, a trip to China is in
prospect, apparently. And when I plaintively asked the man in charge of generic
promotion of Jura wines about the British market, so tantalisingly close now, I
was told that it had already been conquered. I’m not so sure. Wines carrying
the four Jura appellations of Arbois, Côtes du Jura, L’Étoile and
Château-Chalon are still pretty rare in the UK in my experience, even
though those of natural wine pioneer Pierre
Overnoy and Gavenat can be found on some of our more adventurous wine lists.
The wines of Jacques Puffeney, the ‘pope of Jura’ about to make his fiftieth
vintage, have admittedly been imported into the UK by Vine Trail for some time.
He seemed keener on letting his wines communicate than on being very voluble
himself, but he did tell me that a bottle of 1774 vin jaune had recently sold for a fortune at a sale in Geneva, and
that he never tastes his barrels of potential vin jaune. He just has
their contents analysed every six months in order to decide which go into the
Much more communicative was Bavarian Ludwig Bindernagel, once a Parisian
architect but now custodian of three hectares of Jura vines and a rather
handsome old townhouse that he runs as Les Jardins sur Glantine guesthouse (pictured below) with
his partner in the old wine town of Poligny. ‘I have no merit as a winemaker', he told me disarmingly, ‘I just have some good terroir.’
Certainly his Chais du Vieux Bourg wines have a beguiling combination of wildness
and fruit, and one of his Chardonnays has the irresistible name ‘Sous les
Cerisiers’ (Under the Cherry Trees - see picture far above) – so irresistible to New Yorkers, he told
me incredulously, that he saw it on sale there for $120 a bottle. ‘Our wines
sell more easily in New York than in Paris', he admitted.
He is hugely encouraged, however, by the wind of change currently blowing through
the underground cellars and verdant vineyards of Jura. Every year sees the
arrival of more aspiring vignerons inspired by the potential of this
gastronomically vital region – now within such easy reach of Cambridge
PRODUCERS OF NOTE with UK importers
Bourdy Dudley & de Fleury
Chais du Vieux Bourg
Ganevat Les Caves de Pyrène
Labet Vine Trail
Les Caves de Pyrène
Jacques Puffeney Vine Trail
Jean Rijckaert Wine Direct, Bibendum
Tissot (both A&M and B&S) Richards Walford/Berry Bros