It is a truth universally acknowledged that some of the best wine regions are ones that you might not have heard of. Take for example Jura, France’s smallest wine region (don’t get it confused with the tiny Swiss Jura). What the region lacks in acreage it makes up for with a range of classic and idiosyncratic varietals, plus one of wine’s favorite companions: cheese.
Snuggled in the twisting, spruce-studded hillsides of the Jura Mountains between Burgundy and Switzerland lies the lush wine region. Picturesque, harboring medieval-era buildings, only 1,850 hectares, and untouched by mobs of tourists, it’s not a stretch to imagine Jura is torn from the pages of a fairytale. Its alpine meadows burst with flowers and the lazy shapes of cows – you have them to thank for Comté, a nutty-tasting cheese that was as popular during the time of Charlemagne as it is now, and which can only be made in Jura.
The cool climate allows for chaptalization, where sugar is added during the winemaking process, since the grapes might be under ripe when picked. The area’s limestone also helped give birth to the word “Jurassic” – the period was named after the Jura Mountains when limestone from hundreds of millions of years ago was discovered.
Given Jura’s varied landscape, elevation, and the ensuing topographical differences, it’s split into four smaller sections: Arbois, Cotes du Jora, Etoile, and Chateau-Chalon, with the former two being known for producing great vintages of any varietal. Etoile is known for its whites, while Chateau-Chalon can claim exclusive rights to Jura’s specialty: vin jaune.
The Fall from Glory
As idyllic as Jura is, it hasn’t been spared tragedy. The area has been planted since the 13th century and thrived for the next several hundred years, boasting over 10,000 hectares of vines and producing quantities to rival Burgundy’s. Then, in the 19th century, along came phylloxera, decimating the vines. Mildew and the First World War continued to wreck havoc, and the expansion of railroads allowed Languedoc to become a new source of wine for those further north. The number of hectares fell below 1,000 in the 1960s, especially as other fruit and milk were seen as more valuable commodities than wine.
The area has started to recover, though still falling far short of its pre-phylloxera hectares. However, there may be hope for Jura to increase its number of plantings as oenephiles, casual and expert alike, develop a taste for Jura’s unique, oxidized wines.
Jura’s primarily home to Chardonnay (locals call it Melon d’Arbois), Savagnin (sound like you’re in the know by calling it Naturé), Poulsard (the dominant red variety and a native varietal), Pinot noir, and Trousseau. Chardonnay is extremely popular here, as it is everywhere, claiming almost half of the plantings. However, Jura winemakers don’t settle for the ordinary and despite their small space, there’s a lot going on: producers have earned a reputation for distinctive wines, one of the most famous being vin jaune.
The intense vin jaune (“yellow wine”) is most similar to sherry and is made from – and only made from – Savagnin grapes, picked as late as possible so the grapes are ripe and sweet. They’re stored for over six years and allowed to partly evaporate in aging barrels from Burgundy. This lets the wine oxidize and grow a light covering of yeast, yielding a drink rich with hints of ginger, walnut, and honey. If that sounds intriguing, you’re going to struggle to find it on a typical American shelf: it’s bottled in a clavelin, or a squat, 21-ounce bottle that doesn’t travel easily.
Some of France’s most famous vin de paille (“straw wine,” or wine made from dried grapes) can be found here, made from the ripest Chardonnay, Savagnin, and Poulsard. The end result is a sweet wine that evokes stone fruits. You’ll also find Crémant du Jura, a sparkling wine made by the original Champagne method using unripe Chardonnay grapes, and Macvin du Jura, a sweet, fortified wine.
The notion that “good things come in small packages” might be a cliché, but Jura proves it isn’t one we should retire just yet.