Recently, my wife and I opened two different bottles of Bourgogne Blanc. Both wines shared some superficial similarities – they were a similar price, from the 2015 vintage and both made by famous producers. We were looking to have a Burgundian experience on a budget. And lovely, though they were, neither wine lived up to our expectations.
Even Bourgogne Blanc comes with a sizeable price tag these days and the dollar to pleasure ratio was low. We love Burgundy, but where do we go for incredible French Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that won’t break the bank? For wine capable of delivering a quickening of the heart rate and a purring pleasure that breeds contentment?
Look to the Jura
The Jura is not Burgundy, but it’s not far; about 80 kilometres away. Burgundy is a touchy subject amongst wine lovers, with many friends of mine saying it’s pointless to draw comparisons. Burgundy is Burgundy they say, standing alone. But I’m not so sure……
Generally, Burgundy is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and on that basis comparisons can and should be drawn. I think it was Ernest Hemingway who said that having a good time is getting your money’s worth. Wine begins and ends with having a good time. So, l’avant! Let’s check out the Jura.
A lusher, greener Burgundy
The Jura is only an hour or so’s drive from Burgundy yet I was struck by the differences between the two close neighbours. The landscape, soils, climate and wines are markedly different. Visually, the landscape is lusher and greener in the Jura than Burgundy. The climate is Continental and can be cold and wet to the point where you wonder how they can ripen grapes at all. The summer is short and hot, allowing the grapes a narrow window to ripen. And even at their ripest, the wines retain something of their winter coolness. There is something vital, vivid and bracing about these wines – pulsing with an energy that only a region as cold and challenging as this one can translate into a bottle.
I have never been to the Jura in summertime, but I have in Autumn. The light is soft, moody almost, and you can smell the damp earth and the smoke, and the wet grass. The reds of the Jura are wines I always associate with this season, although due to their low alcohol and astonishingly bright fruit, they are ideal in summer too. A better bottle of red could not be served with a joint of lamb on a warm day.
The Jura sits on the eastern side of the Saone Valley and mirrors Burgundy in the west. As in Burgundy, the best vineyards are to be found on slopes; the ripening sun the catalyst for wine production. The vineyards are scattered and are only to be found on the most favourable sites. This is a key difference with Burgundy, whose vineyards essentially lie continuously along the Cote d ‘Or. With only the most favourable sites currently being planted in the Jura, the implication is a greater consistency in quality wine production.
The Jura soils are heavier than those to be found in Burgundy. Limestone is coveted, but it’s clay that is common. The heavier soils, higher rainfall and cooler temperatures combine to make wines that are prettier and less dense. Indeed, the wines don’t ever get to the size, extract or concentration of Burgundy. Limestone is more likely to be found in vineyards of higher elevation and the clay towards the bottom of slopes. There are a scattering of marl deposits and many of the regions finest wines come from these vineyards.
Jura grape varieties – old and new
The local grape varieties, their cultivation and vinification techniques ensure Jura wines are unique and have a regional identity that is one of the strongest in the world. The comparisons with Burgundy start with it’s close proximity to the Jura and some shared varietals. Chardonnay contributes to almost half of vineyard plantings in the Jura, while Pinot Noir is around 10%. There are, however, 3 other varieties that tease out the differences between the regions.
Originally from the lower foothills of the Jura, Poulsard is often described as “rose” wine. Thin skinned, the wine is invariably pale. The reds, particularly in warm vintages, can be absolutely delicious. Despite their lightness of body, they can be very complex, with flavours of red berries, spice and earthy/woodland characteristics. Their tannins are long and faintly chalky and are a wonderful match with charcuterie, antipasto and a wide variety of meat dishes. They’re also an excellent match with Middle Eastern cuisine.
Trousseau is reminiscent of Pinot Noir and produces wines with greater colour, density and structure. Trousseau’s upfront charm belies a wine of immense ageing potential, capable of holding its fruit profile for many years. Aromas and flavours of cut flowers, red fruits (particularly cherries), kirsch, blue fruits and earthy/meaty characteristics.
Savagnin, a local variety, is what really sets the Jura apart from the rest of the vinous world. Usually used almost exclusively for Vin Jaune, (I’ll explain), it can also be made into a varietal wine. Unloved by many due to its high acidity and hard bony texture, I find varietal Savagnin is wonderful. In warmer vintages, the grape can shake off its hard, lean reputation, into something textured, pulpy and with incredible energy. Lovers of young Hunter Valley Semillon take note!
Making wine differently
Quite frankly, the Jura’s wine styles are bewilderingly complicated. Grapes can be made into single varietal wines, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Savagnin and so on. They may also be blended, which is particularly common with the reds. Wine can be aged in cask for a short or extended period and topped up. That is, as the wine evaporates, the cask is continuously refilled to avoid oxidation. Conversely, wine may also be aged in cask and not topped up, encouraging oxidation. The wine labelling may not always provide this information and, unless you love surprises, you should only buy Jura wines when you are aware of the production process.
Cremant du Jura
The Jura makes a sparkling wine called Cremant du Jura. All the grape varieties mentioned previously are permitted, including Pinot Gris. The sparkling can be white or rose, dry or sweet. Generally the wines are dry and excellent. It is impossible to generalise this style; oak may be used, or not, and the wine made for an aperitif or richer and more structured style. The lighter, drier aperitif is the most common.
Poulsard in particular is generally blended due to its pale colour and light frame. Despite the relative lightness of all the Jura’s reds, they possess an uncommon purity. Chalky/powdery texture, fresh invigorating acid and long tannins.
The Jura’s Pinot Noir reminds me of Burgundy’s Cotes de Beaune. Savoury, intense, floral, red/blue and black fruits, spice with firm threaded tannins. The best of the Jura Pinot’s are priced similarly to Bourgogne Rouge but in qualitative terms, there is no comparison. The Jura reds are veritable bargains. The wines are beautiful upon release, but the best will live for decades.
The whites like the reds may be blended and there are infinite options that an oak barrel can provide. With extended barrel ageing and oxidation, a multitude of flavours come to the fore including orange rind, nuts, honey, spices, mushrooms, curry leaf, salt, butter, stone fruits, earth, tobacco, beeswax, apples, fig, quince, smoke, cocoa, grapefruit, citrus and white flowers. Do you get the picture? These wines are amongst the most complex in the world.
The whites are what really defines the Jura. The Chardonnay can be made like Chardonnay from Burgundy, but as with Pinot Noir, the Jura wines represent ridiculous value for money. They don’t tend to be big and full of stuffing, rather they possess the floral elegance and satin texture of Puligny.
Vin Jaune is made from Savagnin only and, for many people, this is the very essence of Jura. Harvested late, Savagnin is already a late ripener, and with a potential alcohol level of up to 15%. After fermentation the wine is transferred to cask – usually casks that have already been used for Vin Jaune. These casks carry the natural yeasts necessary to make the voile or veil, a yeast covering that is similar to the flor of Sherry. The barrel is not completely filled, leaving space for the formation of the voile.
Unlike Sherry, there is no solera system and the wine is not topped up. The voile is thinner than the flor of Jerez and dies sooner. The temperatures of the Jura are also much cooler than those of Jerez, ensuring a very slow oxidation. The wine is left for 6 years and 3 months, before being bottled into the traditional dumpy bottles called clavelins.
The flavour descriptors of Vin Jaune can make for a very long list similar to the whites already mentioned. The wine can live for decades and acquires an earthy, pine scented aroma and a flavour of butter, toast and mushrooms. You can match Vin Jaune with Comte or Roquefort cheese. The wine also partners well with veal and dishes made with cream sauces. A sauce of morels in cream is a classic and you can put this on chicken, veal, pork, or beef, and it will work beautifully.
Vin de Paille
Literally this means straw wine, and in the case of the Jura, there can be some huge stylistic differences between producers. Savagnin, Chardonnay, Poulsard and Trousseau can all be used. Generally though it is the first three varieties that make up the blend. The grapes are picked early, barely ripe to retain their acidity. The picked grapes are left to dry and shrivel, traditionally on straw, but nowadays either hung from rafters or the bunches placed apart in boxes of wood or plastic. The space must be dry, warm and well ventilated to avoid rot. This process can last for several months.
The grapes must reach a potential alcohol of between 19 and 22 degrees. The grapes are pressed, usually in the new year and fermented. Fermentation can be very slow due to the high concentration of sugar. The wine must be aged for a minimum of 3 years of which 18 months must be in barrel, although usually all the ageing is done in barrel. Generally, the wine is topped up, but it is not a requirement. Some very traditional producers will choose a more oxidative style. Vin de Paille must be at least 14%, hence the wine is made with varying levels of sweetness.
Keep in mind the wine producers’ options here: the grapes chosen, when to press and ferment the wine (in other words, the level of sugar concentration in the grapes), the type and size of barrel, to top up or not and the length of time in wood….
The style of Vin de Paille can vary from medium sweet to very rich and sweet. If a greater percentage of Savagnin is used, the wines tend to have immense energy and balance out the sweetness beautifully. The combination of sweetness, with almost savage acidity is remarkable and the wines can age for many years.
In terms of food matching, fried foie gras is a classic. Creamed mushroom dishes, pea and ham soup and Comte cheese. For dessert, chocolate cake, bitter chocolate and baked apple/pear desserts go perfectly.
Macvin, is similar to Pineau des Charentes in that it is made by adding brandy to unfermented grape juice. It can be very refreshing and should always be served cold. Common flavours include brandy, pears, figs, quince, apple, nuts, candied fruits and herbs.
Macvin is a wonderful match with creme brulee and caramel tart for dessert. For starters, I would be thinking of nuts, rock melon or honeydew. I often add ice and a slice of lime, although purists would frown on this.
Getting around the Jura
The regions of the Jura are not delimited in terms of quality. It is the producer and the quality of their raw material that matters. Great producers have great vineyards, but these are to be found all over the Jura region and are not concentrated as they are in Burgundy or other wine regions.
Cotes du Jura
The Codes du Jura has 660 hectares of vines. Any vineyard that lies outside the appellations listed below are labelled Cotes du Jura. All styles of wine are made.
The largest of the Jura wine regions, Arbois has around 850 hectares of vines. The vineyards are scattered around the village of Pupillin. All the wine styles are to be found. There are scattered marl deposits and it is home to some of the Jura’s finest vineyards.
This is an appellation for Vin Jaune only, with around 50 hectares of vines under production. However, other wines can and are made here, but must be labelled Cotes du Jura. Most famous for the quality of its Vin Jaune, the other wine styles produced from Chateau Chalon are every bit as good as the rest of the Jura.
This is a white wine appellation only, with Chardonnay contributing 90% of the plantings and Savagnin,10%. All wine styles are represented here. L’Etoile is better known for its varietal wines, particularly Chardonnay. To confuse the issue further, examples are generally not oxidised, but not always so.
Top Jura producers
One of the great producers of the Jura and France in general. Travelling and working in Australia and South Africa, Stephane brings an international perspective to a region that has embraced its own orthodoxy. The Tissot wines are made as naturally as possible and the focus here is on single vineyard and small batch wines. Biodynamic, yields kept to 30h/l, wild ferments, minimal sulphur, no additions and bottling without fining or filtration.
There is no house style here but the wines, however they are made, are of the highest quality. Known as a great innovator, many of Tissot’s wines lie outside the appellation rules and as a consequence cannot be bottled as Jura. Regardless of whether you like your Jura topped up, oxidised, dry or sweet, these wines offer an incredible, unparalleled insight into the Jura region.
Biodynamic. One of the larger producers of the Jura with 34 hectares, including a whopping 14 hectares of Savagnin. All the wines are fermented in concrete and aged in large foudres. The wines are generally topped up and aged for different periods, depending on the desired style. Even the most rigorously topped white wines display the tang of Jura. The whites tend to be concentrated and the Chardonnay is a wonderful alternative to white Burgundy. The reds display enormous aromatics, beautiful freshness and an invigorating structure. All the wines here are ageworthy. Sulphur is used only during the final stages of racking and bottling. Vin Jaune is also made here, and is quite frankly incredible.
Jean-Francois Bourdy is the 15th generation to produce wine at this venerable estate. We have no exact date of the estate’s beginnings, but it is believed to be between 1475 and 1500. This is not a large estate, covering 10 hectares in the Cotes du Jura and Chateau-Chalon appellations. The wines are traditionally made and the vineyard cultivation is biodynamic. Alas, we only offer one wine for the present, a red. Light to medium bodied, with textural chalky/gravelly tannins and prominent acidity, this is a gorgeous offering. Despite its light frame, the wine’s power is elemental and will go with a range of rich dishes and live for decades. Great value here.
Fastidious, detail-driven wines that are incomparable expressions of the Jura. The vineyards are organically farmed, with only the healthiest, ripest fruit used. Yields are kept very low, only 35l/ha and only the top six inches of the vineyard ploughed, severing the surface roots of the vine. This deprives the vine of the topsoil potassium, which otherwise combines with tartaric acid and lowers their acidity.
There are absolutely no additions to the wine. The grapes undergo a semi-carbonic maceration in a closed tank under a blanket of Carbon Dioxide. The wines can take over a year to ferment. Bottled unfined and unfiltered they retain some of the CO2 at bottling. This acts as an antioxidant and if approached young, gives the wines an incredibly expressive perfume. The white wines are both Ouille (topped up) and sous voile (under the veil and not topped up). The reds tend to be light to medium bodied, expressive, bright and tangy. Some of the Jura’s greatest wines are made here and they are extremely rare.
Jura vs Burgundy – in conclusion
I started this article thinking of Burgundy and possible alternatives. The Jura of course is an excellent alternative, but I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s so much more than that. Tasting a white wine that is deliberately oxidised can be challenging, but as far as I’m concerned these wines offer an alternative to just about anywhere, such is their uniqueness.
The important thing to know when opening a bottle of Jura is what it is. You need to be aware of the wine styles, but it’s important to know exactly how the wine is made to determine that you got what you wanted. For example, if the label states Chardonnay, has it been topped up, or not? The wine styles are totally different, but these differences will probably not be on the front or back label. With the Jura wines that we sell, we cannot change the label, but we can tell you exactly what to expect.