Discovering Jura Gems

by Everett Hutt
August 31, 2006

When I read Eric Asimov’s August 2 New York Times piece on Jura wines, my heart sank. Not only had my idea for an article just been scooped in a big way but I was worried that prices would soar for the wines of this little-known gem of a region in France. After that initial moment of greedy shock, however, I was pleased. The wines of the Jura are everything Asimov claims, and even more, in my opinion. Rather than repeat his discoveries, I suggest you read his article and allow me to complement it with some anecdotes of my own.

For many years, I had tasted Jura wines here and there. At first I disliked them intensely.  When you are expecting a nice rich, smooth Chardonnay, the nutty, bitter, oxidized taste of a Chardonnay from this region is quite a rude jolt. It is an acquired taste, and most people never venture beyond their first sip of a Jura wine.

My first inducement to change came on a trip in November 2002 to the Jura region with some French friends. They were not food-and-wine types, so we spent most of our time hiking (not a bad thing to do in these lovely foothills of the Alps), but our evenings were spent quaffing local wines married with traditional dishes from the area. My interest was piqued. It intensified in 2004, when I had a superb 1984 Château Chalon at Ledoyen, a top restaurant in Paris. It was sublime with the Comté cheese we were having, as the almost gasoline fume-like taste cut across the bitter bite of the aged cheese.

I was determined to get to know the wines better, but even in Paris this is not an easy feat. Jura wines are not widely distributed even within France. One producer told us that 90% of the wines are consumed in the region itself. As the Jura produces only a tiny fraction of all French wines, this leaves very little to taste elsewhere. So it was back to the Jura for a long weekend in March of this year, this time with four wine-friendly friends.

Our target was small producers who are focused on high quality and the art of wine making. As always, we allowed time for adventure, trying producers no one has ever heard of. Sometimes this leads to wonderful finds; sometimes you understand after one sniff and swig why no one has ever heard of them….

The weekend was a success. We discovered wonderful, rich, complex wines of all styles at moderate prices, while meeting some charming producers. Initially, we had planned to visit about four wineries a day, but that proved impossible. At every stop, we were greeted by the winemaker or owner, who practically treated us like we were long-lost family.  One-hour tastings were the norm, and we tasted everything in the range, often as many as fifteen different wines.

From tastings, we would roll over to a local country restaurant where a hearty meal of the regional cuisine awaited us (with more wine, of course). From time to time, we also stopped at wine shops that looked promising or at the local "coopérative" (collective producers’ wine shop) where we found some additional gems.

In all, I came back with more than twenty different bottles to retaste in the comfort of my home. (A piece of advice from hard-learned experience: never purchase large quantities of wine when you have been tasting a lot; you will often make mistakes, even if you don’t swallow the wine.)

To celebrate the trip and taste the wines, I organized a dinner at my apartment in Paris with the friends from the trip as well as other wine and food lovers. The dinner focused on the white and sweet wines of the region. The food, too, was all from the Jura, which specializes in hearty mountain dishes, such as river and lake fish, root vegetables, pungent aged cow cheeses and wild berries.

For aperitif, the winner was a stunning Chardonnay: 2001 Fleur de Marne La Bardette from Domaine Labet in the town of Rotalier. It is a classic full-bodied Chardonnay with hints of honey and peaches topped by a light creaminess that melts in your mouth. 

“Wait a minute,” you are saying “Doesn’t this sound like most Burgundian Chardonnays?” Indeed you are right. Many younger producers are making more "classic-style” wines (which confusingly they call "atypical"), especially with Chardonnay. Marketing ploy or not, at about $15 a bottle — in France, direct from the producer — this is a great wine.

Once the food arrived, we steered our wines back to the more "traditional" oxidized Jura wines, which, for most palates, are anything but traditional or ordinary. Our starter was a baked tower of beets, Comté cheese and smoked beef. Here the winning wine was a mixture of 20% Savagnin and 80% Chardonnay: 2002 Vielles Vignes Blanc de l’Etoile from Domaine Philippe Vandelle in the town of l’Etoile. This wine had just enough walnut flavor from the Savagnin to cut the sharpness of the Comté, while the Chardonnay’s oxidized flavor mixed beautifully with the beets. The combination was superb, but, on its own, the wine would be a nice introduction to the typical oxidized white wines of the Jura. ($8.40 in France, direct from the producer.)

The main course was a fresh lake pike perch cooked in herbs with snow peas. Pike perch can be a bitter fish, even when cooked well, but we didn’t notice it at all with our 100% Savagnin-based wines. Both wines we tried were good, but I tipped slightly in favor of the 2000 Côtes du Jura Savagnin from Domaine Berthet-Bondet in the town of Château Chalon. This producer is one of the few well-known ones we tasted, and its wines are often seen in better restaurants in Paris. One can understand why, as this wine is a pure expression of the typical oxidized Savagnin wine. At $18 (in France direct from the producer), it is fairly priced.

The cheese course was the star of the evening. Our cheeses were all from the Jura; the highlight, of course, was the three- and five-year aged Comté. There is only one wine to pair with this, vin jaune, which is made from 100% Savagnin. The difference between a vin jaune and a normal Savagnin is the aging. To receive this name, the grapes must ferment for six years and three months in oak barrels — exposed to oxygen the whole time — before they can be bottled. The result is like turbocharging the nuts and oxidation process, which often leads to petrol odors and tastes. It is almost impossible to drink alone, but pairs beautifully with sharp bitter cheeses. All three bottles we tried were excellent, but my favorite was the 1994 Vin Jaune from Château d’Arlay in the town of Arlay. At $41 (in France, direct from the producer) for a 625 ml bottle, the price is steep, but these wines are unique in the world. If you acquire the taste, they are well worth the price.

Topping it all off for dessert was a chocolate mousse. Most people consider chocolate notoriously difficult to pair with wine, but the Jura provides a solution: vin de paille. This naturally sweet wine is made by taking Savagnin, Chardonnay and Poulsard grapes (the latter make some of the red wines in the region) and drying them for four to six months before pressing them. They are then placed in a barrel for at least eighteen months. The result is a creamy wine that reminds me of tawny port, yet with a lighter berry note (no doubt from the Poulsard grape). The best of the evening was the 2002 Vin de Paille Cellier de Belleville from Domaine Credoz in the town of Menetru-le-vignoble. As with all sweet wines, production is low. They are sold only in half bottles, and the prices are correspondingly expensive at $20 (in France, direct from the producer).

These moments of epiphany with Jura wines have changed my attitude permanently towards them. I am now a big fan. And if you are now sufficiently interested to try these unique wines, I can only advise you to be persistent. To taste a range of producers and types, it will take time locating wine retailers and restaurants that sell or carry them. It will also take time for your taste buds to become accustomed to them. But what a delicious benefit for your perseverance. Happy tasting!

Everett Hutt has lived in Paris for over eight years. When not working on his day job in Marketing, he spends his time enjoying all that Paris and France have to offer in the way of great wine and food.

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