Jurassic spark

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A year ago I visited Jura for the first time and was thrilled by the quirkiness of the wines, especially the whites, made in this pastoral region southeast of Burgundy. But I felt rather snubbed by the fact that Jura’s wine producers visited North America to show their wares every year but had yet to show their wines en masse in Britain.

Last month, I’m delighted to report, saw London’s first-ever Jura wine delegation, of 28 different vignerons, at Chandos House. I do hope that the hundreds of merchants who tasted their way round the wines will translate their interest into orders. I heard a few of them muttering that these Jura wines were “frightfully expensive”: they typically retail for £12-£20 a bottle, sometimes more. But the British wine trade is happy to buy far more expensive French wines provided they carry posh, familiar names. The previous evening I had tasted a range of white burgundies retailing at £20-£50 a bottle and I must say that I found the Jura whites much more exciting – and not just because of their novelty.

Thanks in part to such annual trade missions, Jura wines are currently the height of fashion in New York – even the pale red Poulsard grape that is seriously wacky. Nor is Juraphilia restricted to the US. A French sommelier, who had come to London for the tasting, was wearing a T-shirt he had had printed with the words “Self-Confessed Jura Evangelist”. It seems likely that my fellow wine writer who specialises in Jura and goes by the wonderful name of Wink Lorch will have great success with her forthcoming, crowd-funded book on Jura wine.

Perhaps people go nuts about Jura because the wines are so distinctive yet quite complicated. Having mastered the intricacies of the different grapes and styles, they feel they are jolly well going to prove that the effort was worthwhile. Lorch was booked to give an introduction to Jura at the tasting, and never has so much been crammed into a 30-minute wine talk. She started off by dispelling myths I didn’t even know I misbelieved. The soils are apparently not all Jurassic. Some are Triassic. The total area of vineyards in the region is only just greater than the area of vines round the village of Margaux, although they are spread throughout a region that is much more extensive. Their elevation, at 200m to 400m above sea level, is about the same as the vineyards of Alsace, or the Grands and Premiers Crus of the Côte d’Or in Burgundy. Jura is not a mountain region, she told us sternly.

As in Burgundy, Chardonnay is the dominant white wine grape but the wines taste quite different. Strangely, many of them, even those made from 100 per cent Chardonnay, taste as though they contain a little of the region’s signature grape Savagnin (nothing to do with Sauvignon Blanc). Savagnin, incidentally, is one of the “founder varieties” we identified in our book Wine Grapes that traces the genetic relationships between more than 1,350 grape varieties. It is the same as Traminer, of which Gewürztraminer is a particularly smelly, pink-berried mutation, and is a progenitor of many other significant grape varieties. Even though it was long thought to have originated in the Alto Adige village of Tramin (called Termeno in Italian), it is much more likely to be a Jura native.

Chardonnay/Savagnin blends in which Chardonnay dominates are common in Jura and work really well. The tanginess and density of Savagnin spices up the easy fruit of the Chardonnay. The main decision a Jura winemaker has to make for every lot of white wine is whether to age it oxidatively (the classic way) or to keep it protected from air. A wine made from barrels or tanks that are constantly kept topped up and therefore free of oxidation and full of fruit, is often described as ouillé (a word not in my French dictionary). A Savagnin so-made may alternatively be called Naturé – and in some examples you really can smell the relationship with Traminer. Chardonnays made without any oxidation are sometimes labelled Floral. Wine made oxidatively meanwhile might be labelled Tradition or Typé but, in practice, it is all too rare to be able to tell from the label which wines are likely to have the sherry-like whiff of oxidation and which will be marked by fresh, fruity, floral aromas. (Wink Lorch would like to see the distinction spelt out on all labels, and I agree.)

Jura whites tend to be refreshingly crisp, generally a little tarter and definitely tangier than white burgundies, and as they age, both Chardonnay and Savagnin can take on marked nuttiness, whether or not they were aged oxidatively. Indeed some wines have an intriguing hint – and sometimes more than a hint – of cumin or curry powder. Jura is fertile ground for food and wine matchers.

The region’s most distinctive wine, vin jaune, may account for only 4 per cent of total production but is the most highly prized liquid form of Jura gastronomy. Ambitious restaurants not just in the region itself pay homage to the combination of vin jaune with poulet de bresse, Jura’s Comté cheese and walnuts. Although I would never dare say this in the region, this “yellow wine” is France’s answer to a bone-dry sherry. Jura winemakers would protest that the surface yeast that protects the wine while it ages for more than six years in partly filled old barrels is quite different from the flor yeast responsible for Fino and Manzanilla sherry in the bodegas of Andalucia. They might also point out that, unlike sherry producers, they deliberately aim to expose their vin jaune ingredients to varied conditions – temperature, draughts, humidity and so on – to add to the complexity of the final blend (as if it weren’t quite complex enough).

Jura’s big commercial success is light, fizzy Crémant du Jura made the same way as champagne but generally younger, cheaper – and simpler. According to Lorch, part of the reason for the recent marked improvement in the quality of still Jura Chardonnay is that the lighter, lesser wines go into Crémant, one of France’s best-value fizzes.

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com

Twitter @JancisRobinson

Jancis’s Jura picks

Notable absentees from the Jura producers who came to London included Ganevat, Houillon and Puffeney. All wines below are white.

● Most wines from André et Mireille Tissot

● Philippe Bornard, Les Marnes 2007 Côtes du Jura

● Jean Bourdy Savagnin 2007 Côtes du Jura

● Daniel Dugois 2005 Arbois Vin Jaune

● Julien Labet, Fleur de Savagnin 2011 Côtes du Jura

● Dom de Montbourgeau Savagnin 2009 L’Etoile

● Desiré-Petit, Typé Savagnin 2008 Arbois-Pupillin

● Dom de la Pinte 2006 Arbois

● Dom de la Renardière, Les Vianderies 2010 Arbois-Pupillin

● Rolet, Expression du Terroir 2007 Côtes du Jura and Arbois Vin Jaune 2005

● Jean-Louis Tissot Savagnin 2008 Arbois

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