Passion Jura 2012

Tasting Event April 20, 2012

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A busy wine week ended with an exciting afternoon tasting the varied and expressive offerings from 29 domaines of the Jura. In a world of potentially bland "international style" wines, the Jura is refreshing, challenging and always fascinating. As Master Sommelier John Szabo tweeted:

Jura delivers today with a range of unique, antique flavours & bygone styles so old they're cutting edge. Great horizon expanders (Fri. 20 April, 19:35)

The most obvious sources of the Jura's unique wines are a combination of the indigenous grape varieties and the winemaking techniques. But at this and other tastings of Jura wines I have been struck by how many of the winemakers and vignerons mention their commitment to organic and biodynamic vineyard practices that underlie their winemaking. It is a total package, and there is a noticeable excitement and commitment that permeates the whole process.

Since it is a neighbour of Burgundy, you should not be surprised to find Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Jura. But the regional white grape of distinction is Savagnin, and the two red grapes of note are Poulsard (sometimes Ploussard) and Trousseau. Savagnin is a low-yielding aromatic white grape that now is grown mostly in the Jura. But to place it in context, the Oxford Companion to Wine notes both that Savagnin is actually Traminer, which used to be widely grown in Germany and central Europe, and that Gewürztraminer is a musqé (more aromatic) mutation of Traminer/Savagnin. Poulsard is a very thin-skinned red grape that makes fragrant, fruity and very pale transparent red wines. It is almost unknown outside of the Jura. Trousseau (also Bastardo in Portugal) is thicker skinned and darker coloured, in which I generally find berry flavours and an attractive savory element.

If you are new to the wines of Jura, the pleasures of trying unique grape varieties may be overwhelmed by the impact of winemaking techniques. The Jura is particularly known as a producer of oxidized white wines, ranging from those with a mild nutty character to full-blown sherry-like vin jaune.

When you taste through the wines from a single domaine that offers wines in most of the winemaking styles, you will likely begin with a Crémant du Jura, a traditional method sparkling wine. This will be followed by their red wines, then non-oxidized "floral" white wines, oxidized "traditional" white wines, and finally vin jaune. A number of the domaines also produce a sweet vin de paille (straw wine) and sweet fortified red wine Macvin du Jura, but I haven't yet taken the plunge to explore these last two styles.

cremantFruitière Vinicole d'Arbois Crémant du Jura (50% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir, 25% Poulsard)

As I have come to know these wines better over the last several years, this has all begun to fall into place. But the combination of a surprising diversity of styles along with strong vibrant aromas and flavours can create unease, if not panic, on your first tasting!

Rather than offering specific tasting notes I will give some general characteristics of the wines tasted. The Crémants du Jura were generally very well-made and attractive, mostly in a dry (brut) style. The base wine of those I sampled was generally Chardonnay, sometimes alone and sometimes with Pinot Noir, and mostly white but with a few rosés. I particularly enjoyed a rosé that included 25% Poulsard (picture at left), and a white from Domaine de la Pinte that contained 20% Savagnin blended with Chardonnay.

trousseauA Trousseau from Domaine Dugois

I found the Poulsard and Trousseau red wines quite attractive. As a general rule they seemed to have been matured in older oak, and maintained lots of fruit and acidity. The Trousseau tended to have a little more weight and tannins, and a savory and earthy component that nicely balanced the fruit.

Many of the domaines had a non-oxidized "floral" Chardonnay, and I sampled several fresh or floral Savagnins, though they are much more rare. To keep the wines from oxidizing, the barrels must be "topped up" with wine to replace losses due to evaporation, as is usually done with barrel-matured wines. Interestingly, a few of the wines that I was told were not oxidized showed (to me, at least) noticeable nutty and sherry-like notes, and I wondered if this was a result of less than assiduous topping up.(1)

Chardonnary2010 Chardonnay from Domaine Rijckaert

When the wines are fresh, they have the potential to rival good white Burgundy. Indeed I found one winery, Domaine Rijckaert, that only presented non-oxidized Chardonnays and Savagnins, and these were fresh, rich and powerful. I wasn't able to speak to the representative, but it turns out that the original domaine is in Burgundy (Macôn), and that the Jura wines from this domaine are very much in the spirit of Burgundy. So they were a bit of an outlier, but none the less interesting for that.

savagninThe "traditional" 2007 Montbief Savagnin Domaine Henri Maire

The "traditional" whites are kept in barrels longer without topping up, and oxidation is encouraged. At the tasting this category was most commonly Savagnin, but some Chardonnay-Savagnin blends, and some Chardonnays, appear to be made in this style. The 2007 Savagnin pictured on the right matured more than four years in barrels which were not topped up. While some of the primary fruit and floral characteristics of the wine remain, the complex aromas and flavours of roasted nuts, dried fruits and flowers caused by the oxidation are significant. Yet the wines remain fresh and acidic.

vinJauneTwo 2004 Vins Jaunes from Jean Bourdy. Note the 620 ml Clavelin bottles

In the end this winemaking path leads to vin jaune. These are Savagnin-only wines that have been matured for a minimum of six and one-quarter years in casks that are not topped up. To become vin jaune the wine must be "sous-voile" or under a veil of yeast, similar to the flor of sherry. The yeast, which develops over a period of a few years, slows down the oxidation process and helps protect the wine from volatile acidity. In vin jaune the primary fruit and floral components of the Savagnin have been subsumed into the powerful "sherried" notes of walnut and almond, curry spices and dried fruits, but again they retain a surprising freshness. In a previous tasting I noted that a 1952 Chateau-Challon from Jean Bourdy was still "bright and fresh".

Many of the winemakers and vignerons said that at least some of their wines are available in Quebec through the SAQ. It is very rare for Jura wines to be available through the LCBO, and this is a sad commentary on the Ontario system. To be sure, these are not mass-market wines, but somehow they need to be made available to consumers.

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(1) By chance I came across a discussion of the same point by Tom Stevenson, in The Sotheby's Wine Encylopedia (4th Ed, p. 225). He believes that oxidized wine that has been rejected as vin jaune is sometimes blended back into table wine, and it is this that causes the oxidized notes in wine that is supposed to be fresh. We certainly know that Savagnin can be matured without oxidation, both in the Jura and elsewhere.