What’s the Big Deal About Jura?

Many characterful, Old-World wine styles emerge from the Jura but quantities are very limited.

Wine bars from Paris to Tokyo via New York and San Francisco sell it by the glass; London’s Hedonism Wines has a 1774 vintage on sale and world-famous Noma restaurant in Copenhagen has more than 120 wines listed.

But few mainstream liquor stores, supermarkets or restaurants stock it, so what is the big deal about Jura?

Jura, that’s in Scotland isn’t it?

Well, yes, the island of Jura off the Scottish coast produces its own highly regarded malt whisky, but we’re talking about the little wine region in eastern France, in the foothills of the Jura Mountains that divide France from Switzerland.


Who says it’s a big deal?

For the past six or seven years, sommeliers in the U.S., Japan and Denmark have been making a lot of noise about Jura reds like Poulsardand Trousseau, and about the region’s unusual whites too, especially from organic producers. Their enthusiasm has become so infectious, that a growing number of wine lovers around the world have become Jura fans and exports have doubled in that period.

Back in the 18th and 19th Century, sparkling wines, reds and what was called Vin de Garde (today known as Vin Jaune) were famous not only in the French courts but beyond in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and most early wine books included several pages about Jura wines.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, Jura and its main wine town Arbois, were also made famous by a legendary wine marketing man of his time: wine producer Henri Maire. Credited with rescuing the region from obscurity he launched a fizz called “Vin Fou”, or “Mad Wine” advertising it on street corners all over France. He specialized in innovative publicity schemes like sending bottles to the Russian cosmonauts to drink in space.

Whites, reds, rosés or fizz?

All of them, and more besides. For a very small region with fewer than 2000 hectares (5000 acres) of vines, Jura has a huge range of wine styles. A quarter are sparkling, the same amount are red or rosé, half are white. There is a tiny amount of a sweet white from dried grapes, called Vin de Paille and four percent is of the legendary, very long-lived Vin Jaune, literally translated as “yellow wine.” The rest of the whites are dry, in various styles.

International or indigenous grapes?

Both. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have been grown in Jura for centuries, as long as in Burgundy, Jura’s closest neighbor geographically (Beaune is about 50 miles west of Arbois). Chardonnay is the region’s most planted grape, used both for sparkling wines and for some cracking whites. A little Pinot Noir is used for sparkling, the rest for reds; sometimes as a varietal wine, sometimes part of a blend with Jura’s two indigenous red grapes, Poulsard (or Ploussard) and Trousseau. Also indigenous is the versatile and potentially classy Savagnin – a white grape born in the Jura. Latest research shows it to be the same as Traminer and the great-granddaddy of myriad world grapes.

Jura is famous for its cheese as well as its odd-shaped Clavelin bottles

© AFP (L & R); Wink Lorch (C) | Jura is famous for its cheese as well as its odd-shaped Clavelin bottles

Sum the wines up in a few words…

Characterful, Old-World styles, driven by freshness linked with earthy flavors, joyful with food and long-lived.

I’m interested, where should I start?

A glass of Crémant du Jura is about the most easily recognizable style of wine that Jura makes, with a fresh apply character. Or if you enjoy delicate and light reds (you like Beaujolais?), then find an organic Arbois Poulsard and try it slightly chilled – don’t be afraid by its pale color, it packs a punch and its slightly hard edge calls out for a plate of smoked meat or charcuterie.

What other wine styles mustn’t I miss?

Chardonnay. If you enjoy Chablis or Côte de Beaune Burgundy, you will love the earthy flavors of Arbois or Côtes du Jura Chardonnay, especially from producers who make terroir selections. Many are made like Burgundy, but matured in older barrels; the top ones give premier cru a good run for the money. There are also some unusual oxidative Chardonnays, especially from the L’Etoile appellation.

And, jump at the chance to try Vin Jaune, but be prepared to be surprised. Sold in a dumpy 62cl bottle – called a clavelin – and released in the seventh year after harvest, you will find Vin Jaune under the Arbois, Côtes du Jura or L’Etoile appellations and as Château-Chalon. The closest taste is fino Sherry as it is made by maturing the wine under a veil of yeast, a little like Sherry’s flor yeast. The difference is that the Savagnin grape is grown in Jura’s cool climate and heavy clay-limestone soils and the wine is not fortified, but matured for nearly six years in barrels under the yeast, with barrels never topped up. Vin Jaune is a fine, long-lived wine with great intensity of spicy flavors and a distinct nuttiness from the slight oxidation. Try it with the local Comté cheese.

You can also find Savagnin made in the same way but not aged so long, and there is delightful lemony-fresh Savagnin, not made under the veil and with no hint of that oxidation.

But I prefer proper reds…

Then try Trousseau or even Jura Pinot Noir. The warmer summers in recent years and better winemaking in the region has given Jura reds a boost.

Arbois, the main wine town of Jura; Jacques Puffeney

© AFP; Wink Lorch | Arbois, the main wine town of Jura; Jacques Puffeney

Who are the star winemakers – the names I need to know?

The legends include Pierre Overnoy, one of the fathers of natural wine, whose successor Emmanuel Houillon makes expensive wines under the Maison Overnoy label. They are famous for Ploussard. Another natural aficionado whose wines are in hot demand is Jean-François Ganevat with an excellent Chardonnay range. High-quality biodynamic producer Stéphane Tissot of Domaine André et Mireille Tissot is one of several Jura Tissots – his wines are the most widely exported and his great range goes from Crémants through reds to terroir-specific Chardonnays and Vins Jaunes, and a special sweet wine range too. Jacques Puffeney will produce his last vintage in 2014, and all his wines are well worth seeking out.

Domaine du Pélican is Burgundy’s Marquis d’Angerville’s Jura outpost and there are many other worthy names: Macle, Dugois, Lornet, Labet, Pignier, de la Tournelle, Montbourgeau, Buronfosse, Badoz, de la Renardière, Rolet and Bornard are just a few. Several tiny producers have set up in the past decade, growing grapes organically and making wines using so-called “natural” methods.

What are the best food matches?

In the region – apart from the classic Comté cheese and Vin Jaune, or reds with charcuterie – the other signature dish is Bresse chicken with morels, cooked in Savagnin and finished off with Vin Jaune, which you can match with any white. Some of the most exciting matches outside of traditional food are with Asian dishes, as the spice and structure of Jura wines pairs perfectly.

Why can’t I find Jura wines easily, especially from the best producers?

Simply because production levels from each individual producer are too small for large stores to take and the ranges are often so wide that they may only produce a few hundred cases of each wine.