The Jurassic toast

From the end of this week until the end of August, Britain’s wine lovers can take advantage of a new route to some of France’s best vineyards. Danube Wings will fly twice-weekly between the airstrip it cheekily calls “Cambridge (London)” and Dole in Franche-Comté, eastern France. Dole is 50 minutes by autoroute from Beaune, Burgundy’s historic wine capital, but the more adventurous might like to drive in the opposite direction, into the much less well known but increasingly fashionable vineyards of Jura. This is the region of lush farmland to which we owe the word “Jurassic”, Comté cheese and, until the late 19th century, vast quantities of wine, as much as was produced in Burgundy.

But the Jura vignoble was decimated by a combination of phylloxera, mildew, the first world war and the railways, which opened up the Languedoc as an alternative source of wine to city dwellers in northern France. By the 1960s there were fewer than 1,000 hectares of vines left. Milk and other fruits were much more valuable crops than grapes, and even today, there are only 2,000 hectares of Jura vineyard.

These wines are some of France’s most unusual. Chardonnay may be the region’s most-planted grape variety and a certain amount of light Pinot Noir is made, both contributing to some great-value fizz, but Jura can boast its own highly individual grape varieties. Poulsard makes vivacious, rose-scented reds. Trousseau’s deeper reds intriguingly combine pepper and violet scents. Most exciting of all is Trousseau’s progeny, Savagnin Blanc – identical to the heady Traminer, but capable in Jura of making extremely tense, long-lived, full-bodied dry whites as well as versions that are deliberately oxidised, more or less, to make “yellow wines”. The most extreme versions that qualify as vin jaune are aged for six years or more under a thin layer of surface yeasts in only partly filled casks to produce wines vaguely reminiscent of old fino sherry, but with a distinctly Jura/Savagnin orchard-like accent.

Australians are learning to love Savagnin Blanc. It turns out that, owing to some mislabelling in Spain, vine cuttings sold by Australian nurseries as the Galician variety Albariño were actually Savagnin. Perhaps they should study the current ways of Jura winemakers.

As a reaction to too many excessively flat, oxidised wines in the 1970s, Jura’s winemakers flirted with a more fruity, “international” style of Chardonnay in the last two decades of the 20th century. But this century has seen more daring experimentation with lightly oxidative styles and, especially, vineyard-designated Chardonnays designed to express the enormous variation in aspect, elevation and soil types found in Jura – arguably considerably more than in Burgundy, according to one of the region’s most effusive exponents, Stéphane Tissot, who runs Domaine André et Mireille Tissot with his wife, Bénédicte.

His catchphrase, “la vie est belle”, certainly seemed apt to me as he bounced me around the region’s hills and tracks in his dusty 4x4. He told me how his conversion to less intervention in the winery began when he worked at Brown Brothers in Australia in the early 1990s and found himself, in a completely different environment, adding exactly the same packet of yeast as his father did back home. By 2004, his 45 hectares of vines were biodynamic and are now officially certified.

“I spent five years studying wine in Beaune and learnt nothing – well, nothing I use here,” he told me, sweeping a thick arm over his rippling vines. In his family’s cool cellars on the edge of the village of Montigny-les-Arsures, where, as is the way in Jura, it can take a whole year to ferment his Chardonnay and Savagnin to dryness, he has all the most fashionable wine vessels: large, old oak casks, many from Chassin of Rully; an experimental wooden fermentation vat from Stockinger of Austria; and five clay amphorae.

For Tissot, Jura wines are riding the crest of a wave – and they have certainly taken off in North America, where a group of the region’s top winemakers have travelled en masse for the past four years, whipping up enthusiasm among wine media and sommeliers there. This year, a trip to China is in prospect. And when I plaintively asked the man in charge of generic promotion of Jura wines about the British market, so tantalisingly close now, I was told that it had already been conquered. I’m not so sure. Wines carrying the Jura appellations of Arbois, Côtes du Jura, L’Etoile and Château-Chalon are still rare in the UK in my experience, even though those of natural wine pioneer Pierre Overnoy and Ganevat can be found on some of our more adventurous wine lists.

Admittedly, the wines of Jacques Puffeney, the “pope of Jura” about to make his 50th vintage, have been imported into the UK by Vine Trail for some time. He seemed keener on letting his wines communicate than on being very voluble himself, but he did tell me that a bottle of 1714 vin jaune had recently sold for a fortune in Geneva, and that he never tastes his barrels of potential vin jaune. He just has their contents analysed every six months in order to decide which go into the final bottling.

Much more communicative was Bavarian Ludwig Bindernagel, once a Parisian architect but now custodian of three hectares of Jura vines and a handsome old townhouse that he runs as a guesthouse with his partner in the wine town of Poligny. “I have no merit as a winemaker,” he told me disarmingly, “I just have some good terroir.” Certainly his Chais du Vieux Bourg wines have a beguiling combination of wildness and fruit, and one of his Chardonnays has the irresistible name “Sous le Cerisiers” (Under the Cherry Trees) – so irresistible to New Yorkers, he told me incredulously, that he saw it on sale there for $120 a bottle. “Our wines sell more easily in New York than Paris,” he admitted.

He is hugely encouraged, however, by the wind of change currently blowing through the underground cellars and verdant vineyards of Jura. Every year sees the arrival of more aspiring vignerons, inspired by the potential of this gastronomically vital region – now within such easy reach of Cambridge (London).

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of

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