Over time, I find myself drinking more and more white wines. Although I was a confirmed red wine drinker in my younger days, I’ve noted that white wines seem to be easier on my body now. And fortunately for me, the quality and variety of white wines throughout the world has never been better.
My favorite white wines have always come from France--Chablis, other white Burgundies, Bordeaux blanc, Alsace Rieslings, Blanc de Blanc Champagne. And some excellent Italian white wines are definitely in my white-wine mix lately.
Like so many other confirmed wine drinkers, I’m always looking for something new to add to my wine repertoire. This past year, I’ve re-discovered the amazing--and very different--white wines of the Jura in eastern France. They’re not going to replace Chablis for me, but I find the unique white wines of Jura to be a refreshing change.
The Jura wine region is rather small; it is 50 miles long, and never more than four miles wide. It’s located in the Jura Mountain range, in reality the foothills of the Alps, in the extreme east-central part of France, not far from the Swiss border. Jura is directly east of, and runs parallel to, Burgundy’s Côte d’Or district. Geographically it resembles the Côte d’Or in that it is long rather than wide and runs in a northeast direction with its vineyards facing south and southeast. The main town in the Jura is Arbois, in the northern part of the district. Arbois was the home of one of France’s--and the world’s--greatest scientists, Louis Pasteur, a man who enabled the world understand more about fermentation.
Because the Jura is out of the way, it doesn’t draw many tourists--just some skiers, nature-lovers, and a few wine geeks. Along with its northern neighbor, Savoie (an even more obscure wine region), the Jura department is part of the Franche-Comte region. Locals speak their own dialect as well as French.
Jura’s climate is continental, with quite a bit of mountain rains, and very cold winters--a climate that does not lend itself to red wine production. And yet the region does produce some light-bodied reds. Wine-wise, the Jura is tiny, producing only one percent of France’s wine. More than half of its wines are white, including all of the important wines. Much of the rest is rosé, with some sparkling wine as well.
Jura is primarily known for two distinct wines: its “Yellow Wines” (Vins Jaunes)--made nowhere else in France--and its “Straw Wines” (Vins de Paille), a little of which is also made in the Northern Rhône (the great Hermitage producer Jean-Louis Chave produces an outstanding Vin de Paille), but really a speciality of Jura.
Vin Jaune, the so-called Yellow Wine, is clearly the Jura’s most distinctive and interesting wine. It is made from the local variety, Savagnin, in all four AOC zones, but it is at its best--and the exclusive specialty of--the village of Château-Chalon.
The closest comparison of Vin Jaune is to that of a Fino Sherry from Spain, but unlike Sherry, it’s not fortified. Vin Jaune is made from late-picked Savagnin grapes. It undergoes a slow fermentation and ages for a minimum of six years in cool cellars. Because the barrels are never filled to the top, a powdery film of yeasts, similar to the flor that covers Fino Sherry in casks, develops on the wine. Oxidation sets in, despite the yeast coating, andVin Jaune takes on a nuttiness and a special tangy character. The wine’s color is a deep golden yellow, almost amber. Because of the manner in which Vin Jaune is made--like Madeira, purposely oxidized in the winemaking process--it is practically ageless (like Madeira).
Vin Jaune is dry, powerful, and rich in extract, a unique drinking experience. I prefer it as an after-dinner wine, with cheese. It comes in a unique, square 620 ml bottle, called a clavelin. Vin Jaune used to be difficult to find in the U.S., but thanks to recent promotional campaigns in the U.S from the Jura region, it is now readily available. Château-Chalon, the most renowned Vin Jaune, retails in the $65 to $100 range, depending on its age. It is a unique tasting experience. The wine seems to be at its best with at least ten years of aging.
Vin de Paille gets the name “Straw Wine” because of the manner in which it’s made. Similarly to Italy’s Vin Santo, ripe grapes (usually Savagnin or Chardonnay) are harvested late in vintages when they are especially ripe, and then placed on straw mats or in baskets and are hung from the rafters in dry attics for two months or more. The grapes shrivel up like raisins, become very concentrated in sugar, and make a luscious, rich dessert wine with a golden or amber color. Vin de Paille tastes very nutty and raisiny, with good natural acidity. It’s made in half-bottles (retails for about $50), 500 ml (about $60) and standard 750 ml bottles ($65 to $80). For a wine that is this labor-intensive to produce, the prices are reasonable for this stunning dessert wine.
Geographically, Jura has four AOC wine areas, all in its northern half: From north to south, Arbois, Côtes du Jura, Château-Chalon, and L’Etoile. A sensible way to tour the Jura is to start in Arbois and work your way south.
The Arbois AOC zone produces about half of the Jura’s wines, and about half of these wines are white. The two white varieties that dominate are the local Savagnin (related to Italy’s Traminer) and Chardonnay. Savagnin whites and Savagnin-based blends are Arbois’s most interesting wines. The variety has an unusual nutty flavor, not found in other wines. Savagnin, the variety that makes up Vin Jaune (yellow wine), is the Jura’s most important grape variety.
Arbois does produce some red wine (actually, deep pink) and some pale rosés from two local red varieties, Poulsard and Trousseau, and from Pinot Noir. The reds are pleasant, easy-drinking, quaffing wines that are meant to be consumed when they are young.
Arbois makes a decent sparkling wine, labeled Arbois Mousseaux AOC, and a little bit of Yellow Wine and Straw Wine. Henri Maire, the Jura’s largest négociant-producer (who makes about half of all the Jura wines) has his winery in Arbois.
Côtes du Jura, the second-largest Appellation in Jura, lies south of Arbois. Its vineyards are spread over 12 major villages. All kinds of wines are made here, and they’re similar in style to Arbois wines, but are generally a bit lighter-bodied. White wines dominate, but you can also find some very good Crémant du Jura sparkling wines. The Jura’s most renowned (and arguably best) producer, Château d’Arlay, has its winery in the village of Arlay on the Côtes du Jura.
Château-Chalon, a hilltop village east of Arlay, makes only one wine, the eponymous Château-Chalon, and then only in good vintages. Château-Chalon, regarded as the best of the Jura’s Vin Jaunes, is the region’s most renowned wine. It is deep golden brown in color, with an especially nutty flavor. Unlike us, the wine can last for hundreds of years.
L’Etoile is a small AOC zone made up of three villages, including Etoile; it lies south of Arlay and Château-Chalon. L’Etoile’s main varietal wine is Chardonnay, followed by Savagnin. L’Etoile also produces a sparkling wine called L’Etoile Mousseux. The specialty wine of L’Etoile is its Vin Jaune.
Recently, I tasted an entire array of Jura wines. Some of the Jura wines that impressed me the most are the following:
Château d’Arlay: Located on the Côtes du Jura, any discussion of Jura wines must start with this wine estate, one of the oldest in France, whose wines are present in the best restaurants around the world.
Château d’Arlay Côtes du Jura Chardonnay “A la Reine” 2006: Fifty-eight year-old vines produce a lovely, concentrated wine; a great value at $16.
Château d’Arlay Côtes du Jura Blanc 2006: Two-thirds Chardonnay; one-third Savagnin. The addition of the Savagnin adds an intriguing dimension to the wine; it is aged four years on its lees in a large vat for additional complexity. About $21.
Château d’Arlay Côtes du Jura “Corail” Rosé 2006: A lovely wine made with half-red grapes (Trousseau;Poulsard) and half-white grapes (Chardonnay; Savagnin). Vinified as a red wine; deep rosé color; completely dry. Ideal aperitif; try it with shrimps or lake fish. About $20.
Château d’Arlay Côtes du Jura Rouge 2006: 100 percent Pinot Noir. An excellent red wine, as long as you’re not expecting Burgundy. Very much tastes like Pinot Noir, with all its nuances, albeit a lighter version in this cool climate. Delightful! In the $23 to $26 range.
Domaine Rolet Père & Fils: One of the leading estates in Arbois, with many vineyards in all AOC areas except Château-Chalon. Although Domaine Rolet produces a full range of Jura wines, one of its specialities is a very fine sparkling wine, Crémant du Jura.
Domaine Rolet Crémant du Jura 2007: A dry brut made from mainly Chardonnay, but with some red Poulsard added; vinified as a white sparkling wine. Fine acidity; refreshing and lively. About $25.
Domaine Rolet Crémant du Jura Rosé Brut NV: A blend of Chardonnay and red grapes; the color of deep pink roses. Dry and delicious. $21-$23.
Domaine André et Mireille Tissot: Located just north of Arbois, Domaine Tissot has vineyards in Arbois, Côtes du Jura, and Château-Chalon AOC areas. One of its specialties is its red wine, Trousseau--considered by critics the Jura’s finest red varietal wine.
Domaine Tissot Arbois Trousseau “Singulier” 2009: Fairly deep red color; quite dry and tannic, but light-bodied. Ready to drink; the red-wine alternative in white-wine country. About $28-$30.
Domaine Berthet Bondet: One of the leading estates in Château-Chalon, Berthet Bondet produces an entire range of wines, but specializes in Château-Chalon (the wine) and Vin de Paille.
Domaine Berthet Bondet Château-Chalon 2004: Deep golden color. A rich, luxurious, complexly-flavored wine with an amazingly long finish. Goes well-beyond Fino Sherry in concentration. Will last for decades, perhaps centuries. At $65, a bargain for this unique wine.
Domaine Berthet Bondet Côtes du Jura Vin de Paille 2005 (375 ml): If you’ve tasted Italy’s Vin Santo, this Vin de Paille will remind you of that wine, but with a more nutty, raisiny flavor. Made from Savagnin and Chardonnay grapes. A delicious dessert wine with a long, satisfying finish. Try with biscotti. $49-$50.
Champ d’Etoiles: Located south of the town of L’Etoile, Champ d’Etoiles practices biodynamic techniques in its vineyards. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are its principal wines, and it also produces a really lovely Crémant du Jura Brut Zero dosage from these two varieties, plus a fine Brut Rosé.
Champ d’Etoiles Crémant du Jura Brut Rosé 2009: Made from 100 percent Pinot Noir. I was intrigued with its strawberry aromas and flavors. Quite delightful. $33.
Champ d’Etoiles Côtes du Jura Pinot Noir 2009: As good a Pinot Noir that you’ll find at this price. Light-bodied, yes, but a wine that will go well with fish as well as light meats and vegetables. About $15.
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I urge you to seek out some of the above wines from the Jura, for a completely different tasting experience. Viva La France!