The Mellowness Inducing Wines of the Jura

JURA-THEMED EURO LUNCH – Donato Enoteca, Redwood City, California (6/12/2011)

Our monthly Sunday wine lunch continued its tour of France’s major appellations with this delicious survey of mainly new releases from the Jura. With flights of sparkling crémant, dry whites, oxidative whites, delicate reds, vin jaunes and sweet wines, we surveyed most of the major types of wines produced in the Jura.

I have become a big fan of these wines in the last few years, in part because they are particularly food friendly. All of our wines were good, with some top producers represented. The combination of the wines, well matched food courses from Donato chef Pedro Ayala and excellent company generated in me a very distinct feeling of mellowness and well being. I’m not sure in what precise measure the wines of the Jura contributed to this feeling; I guess I’ll have to repeat the “experiment” a few more times, changing a variable or two, to get a better fix on that. I do think, however, that there is something particularly mellow and endearing about the traditional wines of the Jura that can’t help but make people drinking these wines over a lovely meal feel very contemplative and charmed themselves.

The Jura is a very small region, lying between Burgundy and the Swiss border, planted to only 4,700 acres. There are four geographical AOCs–Arbois, l’Etoile, Chateau Chalon and Côtes du Jura–and the sparkling wines have their own product AOC, Crémant du Jura appellation, which includes much of the area of the other four. There are five permitted grapes in the region, two white (Chardonnay and Savagnin) and three red (Poulsard, Trousseau and Pinot Noir). Each may be bottled on its own, or in blends. For the Chateau Chalon appellation, however, the wine must be 100% Savagnin, and red varietals are not grown in l’Etoile.

Sparkling Starters

Crémant de Jura is made by the méthode champenoise, and comes in both white and rosé styles. Appellation rules require that it be held for at least a year in bottle before release. By 2005, over 20% of wine production in the Jura was crémant.

Domaine Rolet was established in the early 1940s by Désiré Rolet. It is now the second largest winegrowing concern in the Jura, with 60 hectares of vineyards in well placed areas in the hills of the Arbois and Côtes du Jura. The 2007 Brut is a blend of 70% Chardonnay, 15% Poulsard and 15% Pinot Noir. This is a very appealing, minerally and complex crémant that sells for only about $19.

Domaine Tissot’s Stéphane Tissot is probably the Jura’s most famed vigneron. Domaine Tissot farms biodynamically and has relatively large holdings in many of the best terroirs around Arbois. Tissot’s crémant is 100% Chardonnay.
Tomato foam made from heirloom and grape tomatoes with cucumber and poached wild prawn

  • 2007 Domaine Rolet Crémant du Jura Crémant Brut – France, Jura, Crémant du Jura
    Light green-tinged yellow color with an abundance of tiny bubbles; intriguing, lifted, tart pear, mineral, saline, grapefruit, lime nose; medium-bodied, creamy textured, tart pear, tart citrus, mineral, ripe lime, chalk palate; medium-plus finish (90 pts.)
  • N.V. Domaine Tissot (André & Mireille now Stéphane) Crémant du Jura Brut – France, Jura, Crémant du Jura
    Light peach yellow color with small amount of tiny bubbles; a little oxidized, apricot, peach, chalk, yeast, mineral nose; a touch oxidized, tart apricot, tart peach, mineral, apple palate; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)

White Flight

To understand the Jura’s unusual white wines, it is helpful to be reminded of the process for producing the region’s vin jaune. The following information is largely borrowed from Jura and Savoie expert Wink Lorch’s article entitled “A Jurassic mystery.” Ripe Savagnin grown at low yields is first conventionally fermented and then transferred to old Burgundy barrels partially filled and place in a warm environment–-the producer’s attic, cellar or a storage warehouse, someplace well ventilated and subject to temperature fluctuations. This allows for the voile or film of yeast (like the flor of Jerez) to form on the wine’s surface, protecting it from oxidation while it continues to develop and concentrate. Those barrels that ultimately become vin jaune are aged for at least six years and three months, during which each cask is regularly checked for VA levels, and the formation of ethanal, an aldehyde that helps provide the “gout de Jaune.” Slow oxidation takes place, but the voile protects the wine from turning to vinegar. Those casks that aren’t developing in the necessary way are withdrawn and sold as Savagnin whites, or blended with Chardonnay and sold as whites. For the most rigorous producers, the rejection rate can be as high as three-quarters of the original barrels. Those that make it to the six year and three month point are bottled in the 62-centileter clavelin bottles. The best can age for another 10 years or more. In our flight, we had two Savagnins, one 100% Chard and a Savagnin/Chard blend.

Domaine Montbourgeau was founded in 1920 by Victor Gros. His granddaughter Nicole is currently in control of this relatively small, nine hectare estate. The Savagnin for the Montbourgeau L’Etoile is grown on rocky limestone in l’Etoile. Fermentation is in stainless steel, followed by aging sous voile in old oak barrels for two years before bottling. The sous voile aging definitely gives it an oxidized, sherried kind of nose. It is also juicy, mouthwatering and minerally, and went quite well with our savory ensalata.

Les Chais du Vieux Bourg is a relatively new producer, having been established in 2003 by Ludwig Bindernagel and Nathalie Eigenschenck. It consists of two and a half hectares of vineyards in Arlay. Their vines range from 40 to 50 years old. The BB1 is a blend of Chardonnay and Savagnin. I very much enjoyed its rich nose, oily texture, and complex and elegant palate. This wine paired beautifully with our dish.

Jacques Puffeney is the best known traditionalist winemaker in the Jura, having made wine for nearly 50 years now. His domaine consists of about seven and a half hectares of vineyards all located in the Arbois appellation. The Savagnin is normally the last variety he picks, after the Chardonnay, the Poulsard, Pinot Noir and then the Trousseau. The Savagnin is fermented both in cuve and foudre and then aged in small oak barrels. Puffeney farms organically and uses only ambient yeast.

Michel Gahier’s domaine is in Montigny, a couple of streets away from Puffeney, for whom he worked for many years. Gahier now owns about six hectares. He is also a traditionalist, who farms biodynamically, using only a horse drawn plough. Fermentation is with indigenous yeasts and the wine is raised in old barrels, mainly barriques. His Chardonnay was quite delicate, elegant and delicious, and was my favorite of this flight.
Ensalata di porcini in a grana padano cheese basket with Sardinian olive oil, asparagus, fava bean puree

  • 2005 Domaine de Montbourgeau Savagnin L’Etoile – France, Jura, L’Etoile
    Light lemon yellow color; intense, oxidized, sherried, tart lemon, kumquat nose; tasty, oxidized, juicy, mouthwatering, tart lemon, kumquat, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
  • 2005 Les Chais du Vieux Bourg Côtes du Jura BB1 – France, Jura, Côtes du Jura
    Light medium lemon yellow color; lovely, preserved lemon, baked lemon, almond nose with a touch of honey; tasty, fascinating, oily textured, tart lemon, ripe lemon, kumquat, mineral, almond, saline palate; medium-plus finish (93 pts.)
  • 2006 Jacques Puffeney Savagnin Arbois – France, Jura, Arbois
    Light golden yellow color; sherried, VA, light eggplant, almond nose; oily textured, sherried, savory, baked lemon, mineral, almond oil palate; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)
  • 2006 Michel Gahier Chardonnay Arbois Les Crets – France, Jura, Arbois
    Light lemon yellow color; oily, olive oil, lemon tea, baked orange nose; elegant and appealing, oily textured, delicate, baked lemon, ghee, mineral, almond palate; medium-plus finish 93+ points (93 pts.)

Oxidative White Flight

We had originally planned to do these next two wines as an intermezzo wine flight, without food, but our wonderful chef surprised us by managing to come up with a dish that suited them quite well.

Melon à Queue Rouge is a descendant of Chardonnay that developed in the Jura, and which has reddish stems. It is also supposed to be related to the Melon de Bourgogne from which Muscadet is made. Puffeney’s version of this rare varietal had a very intense, oxidative nose, with a tart minerally, kumquat palate. I preferred the Savagnin from Frédéric Lambert. This domaine was started in 1993 and now holds about 4.5 hectares in the Côtes du Jura appellation.

  • 2005 Jacques Puffeney Melon à Queue Rouge Arbois – France, Jura, Arbois
    Light medium lemon yellow color; intense, oxidative, nutty, VA, rancio nose; oily textured, kumquat, mineral, very tart lemon palate; medium-plus finish (Melon à Queue Rouge means “red headed melon” and is a variant of Chardonnay) (89 pts.)
  • 2007 Frédéric Lambert Côtes du Jura – France, Jura, Côtes du Jura
    Light golden yellow color; fino sherry, almond, baked pear nose; tasty, almond, peanut, fino sherry, baked pear, baked lemon palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)

Red Flight

I am very much a fan of both of the Jura’s indigenous red varieties, Poulsard and Trousseau. Poulsard tends to be very lightly colored, with a nose much like red Burgundy, but oftentimes with a floral and dried fruit dimension. It can be complex but very delicate on the palate, with tannic grip nonetheless. Trousseau usually has more color and tannins than Poulsard. There has long been speculation that it is the same as Portugal’s Bastardo, which was the only red grape traditionally used for vintage Madeira prior to phylloxera.

Puffeney makes two Poulsards, the “M” that we sampled at our lunch and another bottling just labeled “Poulsard.” The M is sourced solely from Puffeney’s home village of Montigny-les-Arsures north of Arbois. The wine undergoes a 15-20 day cuvaison and is then racked into old foudres, where it undergoes malolactic and remains for about two years before bottling. The Puffeney Trousseau bottling is the only Trousseau Puffeney makes, and although labeled a cuvee, it is actually a single vineyard wine from Puffeney’s home village of Montigny.

With our two Trousseaus, we had the same year, and same village, grown and vinified basically the same way. Although both wines were quite good, for me, despite some brett on the nose, the Michel Gahier was the more haunting and memorable.

  • 2007 Jacques Puffeney Poulsard Arbois “M” – France, Jura, Arbois
    Medium orange color with red lights and pale meniscus; tart blood orange, mineral, light brett, orange melon, white pepper nose; delicate, tart pomegranate, light brett, tart blood orange, white pepper palate; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
  • 2007 Jacques Puffeney Trousseau Arbois Les Berangères – France, Jura, Arbois
    Medium red color with 2 millimeter meniscus; intriguing, tart pomegranate, cranberry, white pepper, mineral, herbal nose; tasty, poised, silky textured, light bodied, pomegranate, tart cranberry, tart cherry, herbal, mineral, blood orange palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
  • 2007 Michel Gahier Trousseau Arbois Grands Vergers – France, Jura, Arbois
    Medium orange red color with 2 millimeter clear meniscus; tart pomegranate, tart cranberry, herbal, brett nose; intriguing, haunting, tart cranberry, tart pomegranate, smoky, dried red berry, herbal palate; medium-plus finish (93 pts.)

Vin Jaune Flight

Vin Jaune, as described above, is what so much oxidative Savagnin aspires to becoming before being selected out and bottled early because it is not developing in the way required for slow aged vin jaune. Here we had two excellent, if quite youthful, examples. My favorite was the ’02 from Domaine de la Tournelle. This producer was created in 1991 by consulting winemakers Evelyne and Pascal Clairet, who have amassed six hectares of vineyards. Their vin jaune spends nearly seven years aging below the voile. There was something particularly delicate about this wine, despite its oily texture and deep fino sherry nose. I suspect the fact that it was from 2002 gave it a slight edge on our Montbourgeau, as 2002 was a particularly fine vintage for vin jaune. The Montbourgeau Vin Jaune spends seven years under voile. It was also rich, oily textured, with an evocative nose.

As far as the mellowness inducing quality I am attributing to Jura wines, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if its key source is the slow aged vin jaune, and its derivatives, the oxidative whites that result from this slow aging process but that don’t fully develop into vin jaune. If a region can devote this much time and effort into producing distinctive wines from white grapes, patiently allowing them to mature for seven years or more, there must be a lot of mellow in this place. Surely wines from such a place must be an aid to contemplation and relaxation, wherever they are served.


Sweet Finish

We finished with two vintages of an idiosyncratic sweet wine made by Stéphane Tissot from the Poulsard grape. Tissot claims he is the only vigneron in the Jura using the method of drying late picked grapes on straw mats to produce this kind of passerillé. The results are certainly unctuous and rich, with complex flavors including blood orange, black cherry and pomegranate. These may not be a typical example of wine from the Jura, but they were a sweet and delicious way to keep the mellow going from a remarkably satisfying and delicious Sunday afternoon spent contemplating the distinctive grapes and winemaking practices of the Jura.

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One Response to The Mellowness Inducing Wines of the Jura

  1. Philip says:

    Absolutely fascinating. When I learned about, and was occasionally drinking, the wines of the Jura (back in the 80s), there were just two producers who anyone had heard of – Chateau Chalon and Henri Maire. I see M. Maire died in 2003, and his large domaine was sold last year. Great to see a region on the rise.

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