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Jura Wines: A Primer & an Upcoming Travel Film…

Jura Wines Stéphane Tissot

Jura wines are sommelier favourites around the globe. Yet, this tranquil corner of eastern France between Burgundy and the Swiss border is one of the smallest of French wine regions. In fact, it represents less than one percent of French wine, in terms of total vineyard acreage. 

Since my days in Burgundy, I have been a great admirer of fine Jura wines and have watched the region’s rise to (wine bar) fame with growing interest. This past summer, I decided that it was time to investigate and took a camera crew along to document my adventures.

Stay tuned for my Jura wine travel documentary coming out soon. Follow me on Instagram for more.

A Fascinating History

The Jura has some pretty impressive claims to fame. The Jurassic period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, was named after the Jura mountains. It was here that layers of limestone rock from the period were first identified.

The Jura was also home to renowned French chemist Louis Pasteur, who we can thank for the rabies vaccine, but also for his ground-breaking experiments on microbial fermentation, carried out on Jura wines in Arbois. Pasteur’s work propelled the winemaking world forward.

Alongside its impressive diversity of French wine styles, the Jura also prides itself on its gastronomic delights. Comté and Morbier cheeses, Bresse chicken, and Montbéliard sausages are just a few of its highlights.

Prime Terroir

The vineyards stretch across a narrow 80-kilometre undulating expanse in the foothills of the Jura mountains, in an area called the Revermont. While many lump Jura wines in a high-altitude, “mountain wine” category with Savoie, Jura vineyards rarely surpass 400 metres in altitude.

The Vineyards of Château Chalon

Over the course of the Mesozoic era, loose clay and limestone rock deposits accumulated, forming the major subsoil of the Jura. Today, the range of marl (lime-rich, clay, and silt mudstone soils), clay, and limestone soils, alongside the numerous vineyard orientations, and altitudes allows for multiple grape varieties to thrive here.

The Jura has a largely continental climate with cold, often damp winters and warm, dry summers. Spring frosts, hail, mildew, and rot can all wreak havoc on the vineyards as the 2021 growing season unfortunately displayed. This is a challenging place to grow grapes.

Despite this, the Jura is one of the most organic wine regions of France. Almost a quarter of the region’s vineyards are certified organic or biodynamic, and the number is increasing steadily. Natural winemaking has also taken hold strongly in the Jura, with an abundance of high-quality examples of low intervention Jura wines.

Jura Wines: Diverse & Distinctive Styles

The multiplicity of grapes and winemaking practices is a major part of what makes Jura wines so fascinating.

Dry white Jura wines from Chardonnay and Savagnin grapes are made in ouillé and non ouillé styles. Ouillé refers to the process of topping up wine barrels to avoid oxidative reactions. Ouillé white wines are often referred to as Les Floraux locally for their floral, fruity appeal.

The more traditional white winemaking method for Jura wines is to deliberately abstain from topping up barrels, allowing subtle oxidation to occur and a layer of yeast for form; a technique called sous voile. This process brings savoury, nutty, exotic spice flavours to the wines that increase in potency the longer wines are aged. The most famous of sous voile Jura wines is the region’s iconic Vin Jaune.

Rosé and red Jura wines are produced from native varieties, Poulsard and Trousseau, as well as Pinot Noir. The Jura also makes excellent Crémant du Jura, Vin de Paille (straw wine), grape brandy called Marc du Jura, and a liqueur wine called MacVin du Jura.

Jura Wines: The Appellations of Origin

The Jura has seven appellations, or AOCs, for its wines – four are geographic and three are related to specific Jura wine styles.

Map credit: Comité Interprofessionnel des vins du Jura

Arbois is the most historic, and among the largest, of Jura wine geographic appellations. It was one of the very first French wine regions to achieve AOC status back in 1936. All styles of Jura wines are made here but the area’s red wines are particularly prized. The sheltered slopes of Arbois’ best vineyards produce more than two-thirds of the Jura’s red wines.

The Côtes du Jura is the region’s other large appellation. It is a region-wide, covering the area north of Arbois all the way to the Jura’s southern vineyard limits. Like Arbois, all Jura wines styles can be produced from Côtes du Jura AOC vineyards. Chardonnay – which accounts for over 40% of the Jura’s plantings – covers much of the southern Côtes du Jura slopes. 

Château-Chalon is the smallest area, with approximately 60 hectares of vineyards, but it is hugely significant. It is the birthplace of Vin Jaune. The appellation is named for its picturesque medieval village, which is perched atop the hillside vineyards. Vin Jaune, which is made exclusively from the Savagnin grape, is the only wine produced here.

The Étoile appellation is also diminutive in size but highly prized for its limestone soils and its racy, mineral-driven Chardonnay wines.

Among the style-related appellations for Jura wines, Crémant du Jura is the most prolific. These elegant, traditional method sparkling wines make up a quarter of the region’s wine sales.

Making a Jura Wines Movie!

My tour through Jura wine country included visits to three of its top-quality estates. At Domaine André and Mireille Tissot near Arbois, I caught up with Stéphane Tissot to discuss biodynamics and the rise of single vineyard Jura wines.

In Château-Chalon, I learned the secrets of Vin Jaune production from the master himself, Laurent Macle of Domaine Jean Macle. I also checked in on the younger generation at Domaine Baud in the Côtes du Jura town of Le Vernois, to taste some bubblies.

Drinking crémant with Clémentine & Bastien Baud

Of course, no tasting of Jura wines is complete without the right food pairings. Luckily, the Jura is home to Meilleur Ouvrier de France, sommelier Philippe Troussard. He took me on a tour of the Arbois market to chat classic and modern Jura wine pairings.

The Jura Wine Tasting Report

To get a larger sense of Jura wines, I also dropped in to the Vins du Jura wine trade association for a regional overview blind tasting. While sampling over 90 recent vintage sparkling, dry whites, and red wines, Vins du Jura director Olivier Badoureaux updated me on all things Jura wines.

A detailed Jura wines tasting report with all my top-rated Jura wines is also coming out soon. Jura wine lovers, watch this space, or watch for updates on Instagram.

Final Thoughts on Jura Wines

The ravages of Phylloxera, two world wars, and the Jura’s somewhat remote location took a toll on production. The vineyards that once spanned 20,000 hectares now make up a mere tenth of that area.

The demanding grape growing conditions here are not for the faint of heart. Violent frosts, hail, and extremes of temperature are more commonplace now as the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent.

The 2021 growing season was particularly hard hit. Laurent Macle showed me the gaping hole where an entire, terraced parcel of his Château Chalon vineyards was washed away by heavy July flooding. Producers across the region estimated 50 to 85% crop losses, notably in organically farmed sites.

Despite these hardships, the passion and ambition of the Jura’s best growers is unmistakable. Their unwavering commitment to sustainable grape growing, low interventionist winemaking, and high-quality wine overall has led to a rapid rise in global demand.

While we can expect to see lower export levels given the small harvest, Jura wines are most definitely worth seeking out. For my palate, they are among the most distinctive and exciting wines on the market today

Tasting old vintages with Domaine Macle

*** This Jura Wines article was originally written for Good Food Revolution. Want to learn more about artisanal food, wine, beer and spirits.? Check out their excellent website. ***

Producers Reviews Wines

Bénédicte & Stéphane Tissot: Extreme Winemaking in the Jura

Benedicte Stephane Tissot Jura Wine Chardonnay Savagnin Blanc
Photo credit: Bénédicte & Stéphane Tissot

I saw a great cartoon in France once, of a man sitting behind a desk burdened down by files, looking exasperated, with a dream bubble showing him happily working in the vineyards. The second image depicts him exhausted in the cellar, with tanks overflowing, dreaming of a quiet, orderly office life.

The idyllic notion of owning a vineyard – lovingly tending the vines by hand and crafting vibrant, terroir-driven wines in a neat little cellar – is the wistful reverie of many a wine lover. The reality is, of course, not nearly as romantic.

The work is back breaking (just spend one day harvesting the low lying grapes in Burgundy and you will know what I mean). There are countless pests and diseases that threaten the health of the plant on a daily basis. This is not to mention the uncontrollable variable of weather.

Wine-related social media posts are currently flooded with images of vineyards in Champagne and Chablis ablaze with smudge pots (oil-burning mini fires), in desperate attempts to ward off frost damage. In just one night, or a couple of minutes where hail is concerned, crops can be utterly devastated.

Wineries working on a small to moderate scale, without the luxury of large vineyard teams or fancy equipment to respond rapidly to such threats, are at particular risk. This is especially true for those based in marginal climates where rot, hail and frost are prevalent. Getting a palatable wine in bottle each year in these conditions represents nothing short of a feat of courage and skill.

Enter Bénédicte and Stéphane Tissot. Based in the tiny Jura appellation, The Tissots own some 35 hectares of vineyards, manned by a team of 15 hardy souls. The Jura region is made up of just 2000 hectares of vineyards, on a narrow strip running 60km north to south in eastern France. The climate is similar to the Côte d’Or (Burgundy), with damp, cool winters and warm, mainly dry summers. The vines are planted at an average altitude of 300 metres.

Domaine Tissot have not only made the bold choice of farming according to biodynamic principles, they are also adherents to the low interventionist movement (aka natural winemaking), fermenting with natural yeasts and limiting sulphur dioxide additions. The Tissot estate is that rare breed of winery that enjoys a cult-like following amongst the hipster sommelier set, but is equally well regarded by more traditional wine gatekeepers.

I met Stéphane Tissot on a grey, chilly day. I’ll admit that I went into the tasting feeling as uncertain as the weather. Would the wines be that breed of murky, sour natural wines that I have difficulty embracing? Or would they embody the standard to which (I feel) this wine category should be aiming?

While I can’t claim to have unabashedly loved all of the wines, I was impressed. There was a common theme of complexity, elegance and freshness running through the dozen or so cuvées we sampled. The savoury, earthy quality that makes Jura whites so intriguing was amply displayed. The reds, though beautifully textured and wonderfully vibrant, were less to my taste. The pretty fruit and floral tones felt a bit muted to me; overshadowed by volatile or bretty aromatics.

My top three white wine picks from the tasting include the following: (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out)

Photo credit: www.saq.com

Domaine Tissot Les Graviers 2014 – 92pts. PW

100% Chardonnay from the Arbois appellation. Stony, limestone scree top soils, over clay sub-soils. Les Graviers is a blend of 7 vineyards planted between 1952 and 2002.

Moderately intense nose featuring chalky minerality and toasty aromas underscored by lemon and green apple. Brisk acidity is ably balanced by the faintly creamy, layered texture and well-integrated oak. Very precise, with concentrated citrus, earthy/savoury nuances and grilled, nutty flavours. A subtle bitterness on the finish adds interest without masking the fruit.

Where to buy: SAQ (38.25$)

Domaine Tissot Les Bruyères 2014 – 90pts. PW

100% Chardonnay from the Arbois appellation. Limestone-rich soils. 40 – 80 year old vines.

Somewhat muted, rustic white*, with savoury notes, honey, floral tones and subtle minerality developing upon aeration. Cleaner on the palate, with crisp acidity, medium body, concentrated orchard fruit and earthy flavours. While fermented and aged in (mainly used) French oak, the imprint is very subtle and harmonious. Long, layered finish with subtle hoppy sourness.

* I recommend decanting a couple of hours before serving to allow these reductive notes to blow off.

Where to buy: SAQ (46.50$)

Domaine Tissot Vin Jaune 2007 – 94pts. LW

Vin Jaune is a unique, oxidative wine style made only in the Jura; aged for over 6 years in untopped barrels (initially under a veil of yeast, much like in Sherry). The grape used is the local Savagnin Blanc (a crisp, firm white). It is an acquired taste, but nothing beats it with an aged Comté cheese!

Lovely old gold colour. Wonderfully complex aromatics featuring earthy, savoury notes, raw honey, baker’s yeast and ripe apple. The palate remains incredibly vibrant, with crisp acidity, a firm structure, yet smooth, integrated structure. Rich nutty, savoury flavours linger on the long, layered finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (75.00$)