Passion for Jura – The Land
Let’s say you are talking to an oenophile. Ask her to name the major wine regions in France. I’m sure that Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne will be first. With the small pause, Loire and Rhone will follow, and then may be (may be!) Languedoc. I wonder how many of the oenophiles will mention Jura? Next question might be even more “tricky” – how many oenophiles tasted Jura wines? And the trickiest question of all – how many of you, my readers, tasted Jura wines? No, you don’t need to answer – Jura wines are almost impossible to find in US, and very difficult to find outside of France in general, so it is not surprising that they are not winning popularity contests, and thus it is really not your fault that you are not familiar with Jura wines.
We live in the times of the dramatic globalization of wine. Not only wine is exceedingly produced in the new and unusual places, but wine availability is becoming more and more global. No, Jura is not a newcomer to the world of wine, if anything, it is quite the opposite – Jura wines had been produced for more than two thousand years. The global availability is what changed – as consumers demand more and different wines, Jura wines, which are definitely unique and different, are becoming better known and more demanded.
Few days ago I was lucky to attend the wine tasting in New York City, called Passion for Jura, which was a great learning experience. The event consisted of seminar and walk around tasting, with more than 20 producers represented. Before we talk about wines themselves, lets take a look at the Jura region and many of its unique qualities first.
Jura region is a narrow stretch of land, about 50 miles long and less than 2 miles wide, in the north-west part of France, sandwiched between Burgundy and Switzerland. First mentions of the Jura region go all the way back to 80 A.D. When it comes to the different aspects of terroir, climate in Jura is somewhat similar to Burgundy, with the potential for more severe cold temperatures, especially during winter time. Soils are probably the most unique aspect of Jura terroir, with some of the shale formations aging between 200 and 230 million years – so yes, you can probably find dinosaur imprints in that soil, if you look deep enough. Overall, the difference in the age of soil can be quite dramatic, tens of millions of years between the neighboring vineyards.
Jura wines were well regarded in France, with Arbois (one of the main towns in the region) wines being known for what they are since the 10th century, and Château-Chalon wines (this is where the famous Vin Jaune is made) being well known since the 16th century. Similarly to all other winemaking regions in France, Phylloxera wrecked havoc in Jura’s wine industry. Before the Phylloxera, Jura region had about 50,000 acres under the vine, with 42 grape varieties, out of which 14 were identified in 1774 as “good grapes”. Today, Jura region has only about 5,000 acres planted, and only 5 varietals are used in the winemaking. Of course everything has two sides – only the best areas were replanted after the Phylloxera epidemic, and only with the grapes which produced the best results, so yes, there is silver lining in most everything in this life.
It is impossible to talk about Jura and not to mention a few of the famous people who dramatically impacted the wine world, while living in Jura at the same time. First, of course is Louis Pasteur, whose seminal work “Studies its diseases, their causes and new preservation and aging process“, published in 1886, was really a key element of the modern oenology. While Pasteur’s name is probably familiar to many, I wonder how many people will recognize the name of Alexis Millardet, also of Jura – meanwhile, he came up with the technique of grafting French vines on the American rootstock, which allowed to restart the French wine industry after the Phylloxera devastation. And the last person I would like to mention here is Joseph Girard, a resident of Arbois, who founded INAO (National Institute of Denominations of Origin) and was instrumental in establishing the AOC system of quality, which was subsequently copied all over the world. It is probably not very surprising that the very first AOC in France, established in 1936, was … the Arbois AOC!
Let’s talk about the grapes. Now, this is somewhat of the simple task, as there are only 5 grapes growing in Jura – 3 reds and 2 whites. Here they are:
Poulsard – indigenous red grape of Jura, sometimes also called Ploussard. Most planted red grape in Jura (about 40% of all red grape plantings), and about 14% of total grape plantings. Produces bright looking wines, almost Rosé in color, which are very refreshing and age quite well.
Trousseau – another red grape of Jura, part of the Savagnin family, most likely originated in Jura. The same grape is known as Bastardo in Portugal. Has about 8% of the total planted area, and about 22% of the red grape plantings. Often blended with Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir – was introduced in Jura in 14th century. Has about 13% of the total plantings, and a bit less that 40% of the red grape plantings. Early ripening variety, thus has high degree of risk of frost damage in spring.
Chardonnay – same as Pinot Noir, was introduced in Jura in 14th century. Also known as Melon d’Arbois in the north, and Gamay Blanc in the south. Few vignerons are still growing Melon á Queue Rouge, a rare red clone of Chardonnay. Chardonnay is the most popular grape in Jura, at about 43% of total area plantings and 2/3 of the white grapes plantings.
Savagnin – most famous grape of Jura, and the only one allowed to be used in Vin Jaune. Late ripening variety with low yield. makes up about 22% of the total grape plantings and about 1/3 of the white grape plantings.
Before we get to the styles of wines and regions, let me give you a few interesting numbers. With 5,000 acres planted, there are about 300 grape growers in Jura, each taking care of about 17 acres of vineyards. There are also about 200 producers and about 100 villages in the Jura region.
With only 5 grapes, Jura produces a great variety of stylistically very different wines. Historically, Jura wine were very unique, as oxidation always played a very important role in the white wines of Jura. While oxidation is great, as the oxidized wine can be preserved almost forever, it doesn’t necessarily appeal to the tastes of the mass of the wine drinkers in the world. Starting in 1990, the style of Jura wines started to change, to move from oxidized to fresh, generally more acceptable style. As the result, there is a number of styles which you need to be aware of in order to make sure the wine will actually taste as you would expect instead of “OMG, what is it???”. Additional problem is that these styles are not necessarily clearly indicated on the from label, so sometimes you really need to look through all the information on the labels and outside in order to understand what type of wine it is. The oxidation is only relevant to the white wines, so the styles of the white wines are:
- Ouillé – non-oxidized
- non-Ouillé – oxidized
- Naturé – Savagnin wine in the oxidized style
- Tradition – a blend of oxidized Savagnin and Chardonnay
For what I understand, all it means is that if you don’t see the word Ouillé somewhere on the label or description of the wine, there is a good chance that the wine will be oxidized – if anyone who reads this post has better knowledge of the subject, I would greatly appreciate the comment!
Tired yet? We are almost done! Last part – let’s talk about wine styles and appellations. Before we get to the Jura details, one general note. Have you noticed the words AOP showing up more and more on the wine labels, especially on the latest releases of wine? This is because the French government, following overall EU requirements, is changing the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) nomenclature to the AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée), so you should expect to see the words AOP more and more on the bottles of French wines.
Jura uses total of 6 appellation designations – 2 of them are product designations, and 4 are geographical designations. Additionally, there are two wines which can be made in different appellations but they still have very specific product requirements. Here we are:
Crémant du Jura AOP – this is the product AOP for Sparkling wines in Jura. Made by the traditional (méthode champenoise) method, with 9 month minimum aging on lees. The wine can be produced anywhere in Jura, using all 5 varietals. Grapes should be harvested by hand and whole-cluster pressed.
Macvin du Jura AOP – this is the product AOP for fortified dessert wines. Can be made anywhere in Jura AOPs using any of the 5 grapes. The wine is made by blending of 2/3 of unfermented grape juice with 1/3 of the local brandy, called Marc du Jura, which should be made at the same property from the grape skin pomace. The wine should be aged for at least 12 month in the oak barrels before release.
Arbois AOP – geographic AOP, the biggest in terms of production. All 5 grapes are grown and permitted in production of the wines, with all types of wine allowed for production.
Château-Chalon AOP – a dedicated geographic AOP for production of Vin Jaune. Savagnin is the only allowed grape, harvested late. If any other wines are made, they are designated as Côtes du Jura. For more details, please see below.
Côtes du Jura AOP – a geographic AOP. All 5 grapes are allowed to be used, and all styles of wines can be produced.
L’Étoile AOP – a geographic AOP, the smallest in Jura, consisting of only 4 villages. Only Chardonnay, Savagnin and Poulsard are allowed. All styles of the wines can be produced.
Vin Jaune – Most famous wine of Jura, so called “yellow” or “golden” wine. Can be made only out of the 100% Savagnin, in any of the 4 geographic AOPs. The grape is harvested late, and vinified as any other white wine would. After that, the wine is aged in the oak barrels which are not completely filled up. The barrels are never topped off and never racked. Similar to the Jerez, the thin film is formed on the wine’s surface, which is called The Veil – it allows the wine to age gently. The minimum age of the wine before it can be bottled is 6 years and 3 month. The wine requires pre-tasting prior to the bottling, and it is produced only in the good years. Vin Jaune is bottled in the special bottles called Clavelin, which contain 620 ml – Jura winemakers had to endure a long fight with the authorities in order to keep the historical, but not EU standard size (750ml) of the bottle.
Vin de Paille – the dessert! Generally produced from Chardonnay, Savagnin, Poulsard and sometimes Trousseau in Arbois, L’Étoile or Côtes du Jura AOPs. The grapes are harvested early and then dried up either in the boxes or hanged up in the air for 3 -5 month. After pressing, the wine have to age for at least 3 years with minimum of 18 month in the oak.
Whew, and we are pretty much done. Believe it or not, but I think this is probably the longest ever post with the least number of pictures – if not The longest, then definitely one of the longest. Jura is unique and special region, as you will see when we will be talking about the wines in the next post, and I really wanted to give you all the information together, without breaking it into the pieces. If you are still reading it – I definitely want to thank you for your patience. I hope you learned something new here. Also, if you have an experience with Jura wines, your comments and opinion will be greatly appreciated. Hell, your comments will be greatly appreciated even if you never heard of Jura wines till today. With that, until the next time – cheers!