This is a version of an article also published in the Financial Times. See also tasting notes on 43 current offerings from the Jura and on 16 vins jaunes.
Two weeks ago winemaker Rollo Crittenden of Crittenden Estate in Victoria went to the eastern French region of Jura for the first time – all because of a mistake in labelling vine cuttings sent to Australia.
Noting the popularity of Albariño, and Australian enthusiasm for what they call 'alternative' (to the most famous) grape varieties, a few dozen Australian vine growers bought cuttings from the official national vine supplier in the early years of this century. Australian Albariño was just starting to make an impact on the local market when a visiting French vine expert pointed out that the vines in the ground were not the Spanish variety at all, but Savagnin Blanc, the most characteristic white wine grape of the Jura.
Cue much scratching of Australian heads. No one had heard of Savagnin Down Under, and its name – though definitely not its flavour – was inconveniently like the increasingly popular Sauvignon Blanc. What to do?
Between two and three dozen Australian wine producers have since bitten the Savagnin bullet and are selling wines so labelled, and at least two of them, including Crittenden, are experimenting with making sous voile [under a veil, of yeast, pictured above right] examples matured under a thin film of yeast in the highly particular tradition of the Jura. The finest of these, and Jura's most expensive wine, is vin jaune, a table wine, regarded as ideal with the local poulet de Bresse, that has been aged under yeast for more than six years and is very vaguely like the driest and most intense form of fino sherry - but lighter and even tangier.
It is clear why Rollo Crittenden was keen to get to grips with how things are done in the Jura but he got off to a bad start. On his first day he dropped in to one of several cellars-cum-wine-shops on the main street of the local wine town of Arbois, where Louis Pasteur lived and worked. On learning that he was an Australian making Savagnin, the middle-aged producer's demeanour changed abruptly and Rollo was told, 'you should not be doing this. Savagnin's our variety, not yours. It belongs only in the Jura.'
'I was quite surprised and disappointed by this response', Rollo reported, 'as I had at least expected a level of curiosity and perhaps a little pride that their obscure variety from the smallest region in France would be gaining traction on the other side of the world.' Fortunately, he was welcomed with open arms the next day at the reputable Domaine Jean-Louis Tissot, where they insisted on giving him not only advice but Sunday lunch too. Valérie Tissot insisted, 'This is the Jura. This is what we do - we eat.'
I was very impressed by a cask sample of Crittenden's 2013 Sous Voile Savagnin from fruit grown on Australia's Mornington Peninsula. It had already developed some of the curious cumin and curry powder aromas found in the Jura wines of this style, and was a big step up from their rather timid, anodyne 2011 example.
The strange thing is that, since 2009 when the Australians were so horrified to learn that they had been supplied with 'obscure' Savagnin rather than fashionable Albariño that they threated to sue the government plant supplier, Jura wines have become the height of fashion with certain wine trend-setters, notably east coast American sommeliers. My wine-writing colleague Wink Lorch, who self-published Jura Wine, the first specialist book on the topic in English, is treated as a celebrity in New York.
She was, inevitably, co-host of a recent tasting of wines from 16 Jura visiting producers who made the trek to London, where their wines are also establishing more than a foothold in hipsterish wine bars, restaurants and wine retailers. She also presented a tasting of 16 vins jaunes from vintages back to 1988 to a selection of hipsterish sommeliers who, I sincerely hope, realised what treasures they are.
Unfortunately, this modish status has coincided with the fact that the last three vintages, particularly 2012 and 2013, have been exceptionally small, so one or two producers such as Labet, who had attended previous Jura tastings in London,were not represented. And, with barely 2,000 hectares of vines in the mixed farming hills of Jura in total, and 60% of the wine produced made either by co-ops (a great source of inexpensive fizz) or négociants, it is clear that wines from individual Jura domaines will never be cheap.
But they do offer unique styles and flavours. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the grapes of nearby Burgundy, may be the most planted grape varieties but they have their own, lighter, crisper styles in the Jura. And the region has not only super-tangy Savagnin but two red wine grape specialities to offer, both of which produce wines notably, and to some tastes usefully, low in alcohol.
Poulsard, also known as Ploussard, makes the most extraordinary light, soft reds with an unusual tomato colour – classic wine-bar fodder. The Trousseau grape, California versions thereof currently enjoying a certain vogue, makes extraordinary wine – low in alcohol like Poulsard but with particularly fine tannins, not always that much acidity but really interesting flavours on a spectrum from raspberry via violets to lead pencil.
Until recently the Jura has been an unusually hermetically sealed wine region, with virtually no outside investment – which has perhaps helped to retain the very special character of its wines.
The Mâconnais producer Jean Rijckaert started up a domaine in the Jura in 1998 but is passing over control of his Chardonnays, which have almost split the difference between Jura and Mâcon in style, to new co-owner Florent Rouve.
It will be interesting to see how wines made by a much more high-profile Burgundian investor evolve. Guillaume d'Angerville of Domaine Marquis d'Angerville in Volnay decided to try to invest in Jura when the sommelier at Taillevent gave him a particularly convincing Arbois Chardonnay blind. Before being allowed to acquire 5 ha of vines and establish his Domaine du Pélican in 2012, he had to pass muster with a committee of 15 locals, all sceptical of his motives (read more in the introduction to Jura current releases published on Thursday). His first few wines might be described as tentative but he has subsequently leased a further 4.5 ha, the vineyards of 'the pope of Jura' Jacques Puffeney, as well as retaining a papal vin jaune consultant. This should definitely be a name to watch.
RECOMMENDED JURA WINES
These wines are difficult to find but they may eventually make their way out of the Jura, and wine-searcher.com may help.
Dom Benoit Badoz, Les Roussots Trousseau 2013 Côtes du Jura
(£14.50 The Sampler - a rare Jura bargain)
Dom Baud et Fils Chardonnay 2013 Côtes du Jura
Dom Daniel Dugois Savagnin 2011 Arbois
Fruitière Vinicole d'Arbois, Cuvée Béthanie Chardonnay/Savagnin 2013 Arbois
Dom Pignier, Sauvageon Savagnin 2012 Côtes du Jura
Dom Pignier, Chartreux Chardonnay 2011 Côtes du Jura
Dom Pignier, Les Gauthières Trousseau Rouge 2013 Côtes du Jura
Dom de la Pinte, Fonteneille Chardonnay 2012 Pupillin
Dom de la Pinte Savagnin 2008 Arbois
Dom Rijckaert – Rouve, Les Sarres Savagnin 2010 Côtes du Jura
Dom Rolet Père et Fils Chardonnay 2011 L'Étoile
Dom André et Mireille Tissot, Clos de la Tour de Curon Chardonnay 2012 Arbois
Dom André et Mireille Tissot, Les Graviers Chardonnay 2012 Arbois
Dom Jean-Louis Tissot Poulsard 2011 Arbois
Dom Jean-Louis Tissot Trousseau 2011 Arbois