Today we will once more pay a visit to the largest wine producer in the world, France, however this time we will learn about a region found a little way off the beaten track- a region located in the mountainous east of France, often forgotten or overlooked by consumers; the historical Appellation of Jura. This week the question posed is not necessarily what makes this region successful, but more what makes it a forgotten region? And is it capable of making a comeback?
So first up, where is Jura? Well, if you were in the major wine town of Beaune in Burgundy and drove 75km due east, you’d be in the heart of Jura. To the north-east of Jura is Alsace, and 60km to the east is the border with Switzerland; Geneva is 2 hours to the south over the mountains. This is alpine territory, and the unique wines from this Appellation used to be very popular throughout Europe for their unique flavours and styles. Today however the area under vine is less than 10% of what it was at its peak of popularity 200 years ago. The reason for this decline in vineyard area and resulting loss of popularity and market share throughout Europe is the same as what happened to all the vineyards through Europe in the 1870s; the arrival of the American Phylloxera louse. As I’ve mentioned in several previous pieces, this little bug was responsible for the near-complete destruction of the European wine trade. Even today phylloxera is still present in almost all European vineyards, and vignerons must graft onto resistant American rootstocks in order for their vines to survive- not an issue for most varieties. In Jura however, the 3 key varieties (which I will speak about more in a minute) unique to their region did not take well to being grafted. This meant the vines could only be grown on their own roots in sterile nurseries and not out on the mountain vineyards. It wasn’t until decades later when better rootstocks were developed that Jura varieties could be planted back into the vineyards, but by then the horse had already bolted, and other regions had usurped Jura’s popularity.
So what are these fussy varieties? 5 varieties can be found in Jura wines- the first two, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have been borrowed from Burgundy to the west, though evidence has been shown these grapes may have already been here as early as the middle ages! Their reliability of production, quality and ability to graft easily made them a quick favourite when Phylloxera struck, and many producers began making more single-varietal still wines as well as sparkling wines, though these were in direct competition with the better-established and already more popular wines of Burgundy, so failed to gain much headway. The real interest lies in the other 3 native varieties; Poulsard (also known locally as Ploussard), Trousseau and Savagnin. Poulsard is a thin-skinned and relatively neutral varietal which is used to make light summer reds, rosés and sparkling wines, usually at entry-level prices. Trousseau is a thicker-skinned red variety that will only grow in the warmer corners of cold alpine Jura, and does best on gravel soils which hold the days heat and warm the vine overnight, allowing it to develop interesting flavours, and is fermented into highly perfumed and rich red wines. Most-grown is Savagnin, a white variety with a close relationship to Gewürztraminer. This variety does well as florally perfumed still and sparkling wines, and is the only variety allowed to be made into the one-of-a-kind Vin Jaune of Jura (more on that later). The style of Jura wines are usually very rustic and old-fashioned, with very little new oak used with any of the wines, wild fermentation and long oxidative ageing. The organic wine movement, which has gained a lot of steam across the globe in the past 10 years, is a core part of winemaking in Jura, though this is not a new introduction, rather another reflection of the old ways winemakers have kept to here by shunning pesticides, fertilisers and fungicides, and preferring to allow the vines to survive on their own.
Vin Jaune (yellow wine) is the wine style that sets Jura apart from pretty much every region in France (if not the world). As mentioned above it must be made from 100% native Savagnin grapes, which are left to ripen on the vine for longer than those grapes intended for dry sparkling and still white wines. This develops the aromatic profile of the grape and builds the sugars in the grape to about 13-13.5% potential alcohol (approximately 214-223g/L of sugar). The grapes are crushed and fermented as usually, then put into 228L old wooden barrels, filled almost to the top, but allowing a small layer of air to settle on top. This allows the formation of the voile or thin veil of yeast, which protects the wine from oxidation and consumes certain compounds in the wine, replacing them with others (just like the layer of flor in Sherry). The wine is then aged for a minimum of 5 years in warehouses that are not climate controlled, which constantly changes the development and thickness of this yeast layer, and slowly changing the flavours and textures of the wine. The most famous and highly-regarded region within Jura for making Vin Jaune is Chateau-Chalon, which has distinctive marl soils which give added complexity to the resulting wines whilst retaining their fresh acidity. These wines have been shown to last for 50 or more years and have a distinctive spiced flavour- a perfect match to the local Comte cheese!
Wine Sales Manager