September 2008 issue

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PAGES (54-61) September 2008

COVER STORY Wines of the Jura Wink Lorch

Would the curious wines of the Jura be the ultimate challenge for the educated sommelier? Offering a broad range of eclectic, food-friendly styles at relatively modest prices, the fascinating Jura region—the smallest in France—is worthy of discovery. Today, although less than 5% of the area’s wines are exported, an increasing number of worthy producers from the Jura are finding importers in North America.

The region is situated some 50 miles east of Burgundy’s Côtes Chalonnaise, below the western flank of the Jura Mountains, which divide Switzerland from France. Its 4,000 acres of scattered vineyards, on clay-limestone soils with important outcroppings of marl, stretch from just north of the small town of Arbois to beyond the departmental capital of Lons-le-Saunier, about 40 miles to the southwest. The Jura has a continental climate, with cold winters and warm summers, but is not an easy place to grow and ripen grapes. Although it can hardly be referred to as a mountainous region—altitudes are rarely above 1,300 feet—the vineyards are fairly steep and, in places, have heavy clay soils that are particularly difficult to work after wet weather. All the potential calamities Mother Nature can inflict are here: spring frost, outbreaks of hail (increasingly common with climate change), and untimely rain, carrying the risk of rot or disease and sometimes affecting the harvest. Unsurprisingly, there is great vintage variation, yet the harvest is often saved, for those who take the chance of picking late, by benign fall weather.

The Jura has five main authorized grape varieties, four geographic Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée zones, and two stylistic AOCs. Add to this a couple hundred producers bottling their own wines in a myriad of styles, and you can begin to see the difficulties involved in comprehending the region. The famous Vin Jaune (“yellow wine”) represents a mere 3% of production, and Vin de Paille (“straw wine”) even less; the largest production today is of sparkling Crémant du Jura, followed by the dry whites, reds, and rosés.

THE STORY OF VIN JAUNE

To understand the white wines of the Jura, it helps to know how Vin Jaune is made. Savagnin, picked late at low yields, is the exclusive grape for Vin Jaune. Fermentation and malolactic conversion are usually in tank; after some months, the new wine is transferred to old, 60-gallon barrels that are not completely filled. The barrels are stored in ventilated “cellars,” which may be on or just below ground level, or even in the roof, thus providing the opposite of what are normally considered ideal cellar conditions. Ventilation is essential, and fluctuating temperatures are desirable, for aging Vin Jaune; some producers even use several caves à Vin Jaune to add complexity, since different conditions will produce different flavors. A film of yeast, similar to Sherry flor and called the voile (“veil”), forms on the surface of the wine and prevents it from becoming completely oxidized. Some compare it to the other great oxidized wine, Sherry, but Vin Jaune is unfortified and aged differently.

By law, the wine may not be sold until six years and three months after harvest. Most of this time will be spent in barrel, with analytical and tasting checks done twice a year. Barrels that have not developed sufficient voile or that show too much volatile acidity or insufficient ethanal, or acetaldehyde, which is partly responsible for the distinctive aromas of Vin Jaune, are withdrawn from aging; Savagnin from the withdrawn barrels may be bottled separately for earlier release, or blended with Chardonnay. Arbois producer Jacques Puffeney, whose Vin Jaune is among the best, says he usually retains only about a third of his original barrels of potential yellow wine.

Vin Jaune may be labeled as AOC Arbois, Côtes du Jura, or L’Étoile; because all AOC Château-Chalon is Vin Jaune, the name is not included on the label of a Château-Chalon. Under AOC regulations, and hence European law, a Vin Jaune can only be released in a 620ml clavelin bottle, which has been in use in the Jura since the early 1700s, but is not found anywhere else. Unfortunately, this bottle size is technically not allowed into North America, although the Jura producers’ association is currently trying to persuade the European Union to negotiate an exception due to its historic use. Some sample bottles do make their way into U.S. markets.

Not released until seven years after harvest, Vin Jaune ages magnificently in bottle. The preeminent Château-Chalon producer Jean Macle recommends aging for a minimum of 10 years to develop the most interesting flavors. The best vintages, such as 1989, 1990, 1995, and 1999, will last for at least 30 years. Jaunes should be served at fairly warm temperatures, around 60-65ºF, and should be opened well in advance, with younger vintages decanted. Once opened, the wines stay fresh for at least a week.

The color varies from pale gold to deep amber, and there is a distinct oxidative character on the nose, with walnuts (sometimes “green” walnuts) showing in some, spices such as ginger and fenugreek in others, along with candied fruits, smokiness, and sometimes the characteristic minerality of the Jura, especially from Château-Chalon. Bone-dry and powerful, with the alcohol content typically around 14%, a good Jaune will have a depth of flavor and complexity that can overcome the initial shock of acidity. The wine works extremely well with mature Comté cheese and walnuts, and can also be served with the local chicken-in-Vin-Jaune dish (classically AOC Bresse chicken with morel mushrooms cooked in a rich, creamy wine sauce, finished off with Vin Jaune), or with river trout in a similar sauce. It’s worth trying with lightly spiced dishes as well.

OTHER JURA WHITES

When sold as a simple white, Savagnin is usually a “baby Vin Jaune,” sometimes displaying a little of the characteristic Savagnin lemon flavor, but more often simply like a Jaune with less intensity. Chardonnays and blends are perhaps the most difficult style for outsiders to understand—they are noticeably oxidized and often have heightened acidity. As sommelier Christophe Menozzi, a Jura specialist who owns a self-named restaurant in Besançon, notes, “The maturation of these wines suppresses all the characteristics of the grape variety. The slight oxidation maintains the finesse of the wine, increasing acidity and completely changing the flavors.” In matching these wines with food, he advises, “Think about the acidity and the minerality. Marinated meats do not work, nor do fatty fish; it’s better to match with river fish. A citrus or spicy sauce works—saffron, ginger, or fenugreek—rather than chili; the spices work as a catalyst between the wine and the dish.”

The most commercially viable wines of the Jura are undoubtedly the fresh, value-priced Crémants. With demand for these sparkling wines constantly increasing, New York importer Neal Rosenthal says he ”can’t get enough.” A positive side effect has been an improvement in quality of the still Chardonnays, for which producers reserve their best grapes. “Burgundian” Chardonnays from Arbois and Côtes du Jura can be revelatory. Mâcon-based Jean Rijckaert has built a reputation on this style of Jura Chardonnay; Stéphane Tissot of Domaine André et Mireille Tissot in AOC Arbois says he aims to make these wines the equal of great Burgundy—and he is getting close. The minerality and earthiness from the marl soils mark the difference in these wines, and with Tissot and Jean-François Ganevat, another great Chardonnay producer, working biodynamically, the terroir is given the chance to express itself.

In fact, a greater proportion of vineyards are farmed organically in the Jura than elsewhere in France, which is impressive in this rainy climate. There is also a move toward natural, no-sulfur wines, originally led by the revered Pierre Overnoy and continued by his successor, Emmanuel Houillon. Several other producers now make one or two no-sulfur wines, in particular from the delicate, red Poulsard grape. Considering the risk of bottle variation, it could a dangerous move for a region trying to get a foot in the marketplace. Rosenthal hopes the interest in no-sulfur wines is “an obsession that will blow over,” and Menozzi is also cautious about it, while respecting the work and the wines of Overnoy.

Also creating debate is Savagnin Ouillé, meaning “topped up” or non-oxidative. This style is made by increasing numbers of producers, some releasing the wines very young without oak aging, others fermenting and aging in oak. All these Savagnins show a delicious streak of lemony acidity that pairs well with Asian food. Jura traditionalists are horrified, yet there is growing historical evidence that oxidative wines were not the original wines made in the region.

RED AND SWEET WINES

The reds of the Jura are no less surprising and potentially difficult to sell. The few good Pinot Noirs may be recognizable to international palates, but even the colors of the orange-pink Poulsard and the pale-ruby Trousseau can put off some drinkers. These are, says Rosenthal, “a real teaching tool in a modern world obsessed with dark-colored reds. These reds are versatile at the table, too.” Menozzi suggests that while Trousseau is easy to pair with foods that suit any medium-bodied red, the Poulsard is particularly good with charcuterie and other cured pork products. “After the pale color that is quick to age and the delicate nose,” he says, “Poulsard shocks on the palate because the fruit is only encountered briefly, and the palate is much more structured than expected.”

The sweeter Vin de Paille wines are also intriguing partners with food. Made from early-picked Chardonnay, Savagnin, and Poulsard grapes, which are dried and then pressed after several months, the wines must be aged for a minimum of three years, most of this in oak, and have a minimum 14.5% alcohol. Residual sugar levels can thus be as low as 70 grams per liter, rarely rising above about 120 grams per liter. Tissot makes several delicious cuvées from dried grapes that do not fit the rules because they are sweeter, have lower alcohol, and are aged for a shorter period. He is obliged to label them as ”made from partially fermented grape must.”

With Jura wines rarely sporting explanatory back labels, and with a range of 10 or more different styles from each producer—not including single-vineyard wines from winemakers such as Tissot and Ganevat—it’s no wonder this region can be mystifying to consumers and professionals alike. But these are supremely interesting wines to match with foods, and as Menozzi observes, it’s “a cultural rather than intellectual experience to celebrate the differences in these wines.”

Rosenthal says simply: “Originally, I thought that nobody would drink these wines, but today, they have become the most talked-about wines in my portfolio. The new generation is eager to learn, and there is an outpouring of curiosity.”

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