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Notes from a Jura tasting

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Notes from a recent tasting of the sometimes odd and often wonderful wines of the Jura. The region's vineyards run roughly parallel to those of Burgundy's côtes but lie about 80 km (50 miles) to the east-southeast. As tradition dictates, we tasted the reds before the whites. The vin jaunes were accompanied by slices of walnut bread with 18-month and 30-month raw milk Comté, which really brought out the best in the wines.

All prices are in Canadian dollars (C$1.00 = US$0.90 these days) and include sales taxes. Key: L3S stands for Les 3 Sommeliers, a private importer; LCC for LCC/Clos des vignes, another private importer; SAQ for the Société des alcools du Québec, the provincial liquor monopoly.

FLIGHT 1: REDS
Poulsard and Trousseau are the Jura's traditional red (some would say dark pink) varieties, though pinot noir has been gaining ground in recent years, especially in the southern part of the region. Poulsard wines are traditionally paired with the local charcuterie and smoked meats, trousseau wines with game.

>Poulsard 2003, Arbois-Pupillin, Domaine de la Renardière ($24.52, L3S)
Pale ruby, orangish toward the rim. Nose of red berries with mineral/earth notes and some green herbiness. Fluid and light on the palate yet not lacking intensity or savour. Not quite bone dry, the residual sugar providing a bit of roundness. Long, tart finish. Yum.

>Poulsard 2000, Les Bruyères, Arbois, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot ($32, LCC)
Medium red-maroon with ruby glints; by far the darkest wine of the tasting, leading some of us to guess it was one of the 2003s. Deeper, earthier nose of red fruit with hints of wood, dried herbs and merde. More fruit than in the other wines but heavier too and a bit flat despite the streaky acidity. Tannins light but raspy. Sourish finish. Overambitious?

>Poulsard 2002, Émmanuel Houillon, Arbois-Pupillin, Domaine Pierre Overnoy ($35.36, L3S)
Pale red core fading to an almost transparent orangish rim. Cloudy. Sour cherry, cranberry and a volatile aroma some pegged as green olives and others as mosquito repellent. Tart. Tannins light but present, especially on finish. Initially one-dimensional but opened to reveal good structure and balance. Quite long, with the olives really coming out on the finish.

>Trousseau 2003, Arbois-Pupillin, Domaine de la Renardière ($27.47, L3S)
Pale ruby, little orange, less cloudy. Nose of red fruit and merde. Light in the mouth with a fine tannic frame and bright acidity. Flavours dominated by red fruit and merde ("Yes, but it’s good s**t, Mrs. Prinski!"). Faint sweetness. A bit simple, though it gained complexity as it breathed.

FLIGHT 2: CHARDONNAY
>Chardonnay 2002, Côtes du Jura, Rolet Père et Fils ($21.60, SAQ)
Not particularly chardonnay nose of honey/caramel, minerals and a hint of "jaune." Rich and bright in the mouth. Oats, corn and some nutty-vanilla sweetness. Pleasant enough.

>Chardonnay 2004, Émmanuel Houillon, Arbois-Pupillin, Domaine Pierre Overnoy ($37.08, L3S)
Nose of wet oats and minerals with a dash of jaune nuttiness. Richer, sweeter, spicier, more up-front than the other wines in the flight. Jaune-ish note on the finish. Good length but ends rather abruptly.

>Chardonnay 2004, La Mailloche, Arbois, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot ($37.75, LCC)
Nose dominated by toasted sesame seed against a backdrop of yellow fruit and smoke/ash. Light on the attack, heavier on the finish. Brisk acidity. Oats and sesame seeds, hints of lemon and minerals with apple chiming in on the long finish. Pleasant if you can get past the sesame.

>Chardonnay 2004, Les Bruyères, Arbois, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot ($38.50, LCC)
Wonderfully complex bouquet, full of minerals, oats, tropical fruit, butter. Light and fleet on the palate but packed with fruit, especially of the tropical variety. Enlivening acidity, excellent balance and long minerally finish. Just lovely.

FLIGHT 3: SAVAGNIN
Savagnin, the Jura's flagship grape, is thought to be identical to the Traminer variety (and Alsace's gewurztraminer may be a musqué mutation). It is the only grape used to make the fino Sherry-like vin jaune. Regular savagnin has traditionally been vinified like vin jaune: aged in barrels and not topped up ("non ouillé"), creating a head space that allows the wine to oxidize and be covered by a veil of flor-like yeast, both of which give it a nutty/corny flavour. A few winemakers have begun making a new breed of savagnin wines that are not allowed to oxidize, which preserves their fresh grapey character.

>Arbois 2000, Cuvée Béthanie, Fruitière Vinicole d’Arbois ($22.80, SAQ)
A 60-40 blend of chardonnay and "jauned" savagnin. Acidic but balanced by a faint sweetness. Oats and preserved lemons with a dash of caramel and nuts. Long dry finish. Lacking some of the Tissot Savagnin’s breadth and depth but a fine wine, especially at the price.

>Traminer 2004, Arbois, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot ($27.60, LCC)
Savagnin vinified in vats and kept topped up ("ouillé") to prevent the yeasty veil and nutty jaune flavours from developing. Pale lemon yellow. Fresh nose of minerals, spice and herb flowers. Dry but rich and intensely white fruity with bracing acidity and a bitter almond finish. A bit simple, perhaps, but appealing in its vibrant purity.

>Savagnin 1998, Arbois, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot (2004 available @ $44.50, LCC)
Vinified in barrels and not topped-up, allowing the veil to develop and take the wine a step toward vin jaune. Slightly cloudy. Nose of corn, nuts, celery seed and caramel. Medium bodied with brisk but not sharp acidity. Mouth-filling but far from overpowering flavours (nuts, straw, hints of lemon and caramel). Dry but with a sweet edge from mid-palate through finish. A bit over the hill (1998 wasn’t a stellar vintage) but still enjoyable.

FLIGHT 4: VIN JAUNE
After conventional and malolactic fermentation, savagnin is transferred to old Burgundy barrels that are only partially filled. The barrels are stored in a well-ventilated "cellar" (which may, in fact, be above ground) subject to temperature fluctuations. A yeasty veil forms, protecting and flavouring the wine. After six years, the wine is racked and bottled in clavelins, squat 620-ml bottles (620 ml said to be the amount left from a litre of wine after six years in a barrel, the rest being lost to evaporation). The vin jaune selection process is rigorous and wine that doesn't make the grade is often sold as plain savagnin or blended with chardonnay.

>Vin jaune 1996, Arbois, Rolet Père et Fils ($69.00, SAQ)
Fresh, complex, deep, a noseful of herbs, spices, minerals, nuts, maple sap and caramel. Light but infinitely layered, complex and long. A complete wine.

>Vin jaune 1997, Arbois, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot ($75.00, SAQ)
Lovely nose: caramel, walnuts, corn silage. Drier than the Rolet, nutty and pleasant but lacking the other wine’s depth. Not particularly long.

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  1. Thank you for posting on these wines that I know little about. I'm amazed there are that many available in your market area. I've only tasted one Vin Jaune before, at a bistro in Paris a few years ago.

    In March we were driving from Beaune to Geneva through the Jura on a Sunday afternoon and stopped at a fromagerie to buy some cheese. I picked up a bottle of 1996 Vin Jaune Cotes du Jura by Caveau des Jacobins (Poligny) there as a souvenir. It wasn't that costly and I suspect that it might be more of a tourist bottle. The labeled alcohol is 14%. Would you know if these wines are fortified in the manner of a fino sherry? Are they considered to be ready to drink on bottling and release or will they benefit from age?

    P.S. And, yes, we bought some excellent Comte and the local blue cheese.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Melanie Wong

      >I'm amazed there are that many available in your market area.
      Well, as you might imagine, Quebec is pretty French friendly. That said, at least half of the wines in the tasting came from private importers and I had to do a lot of running around to collect them all. Also, I'd been waiting several months for the planets to align, i.e. for there to be enough wines of interest on the market to populate such a tasting.

      Re your Vin Jaune and related questions. The Caveau des Jacobins is a century-old coop located in Poligny. I've never tasted any of their wines but several Jura coops produce good juice (the Cuvée Béthanie in the tasting is a fine example). Côtes du Jura is the largest, most general appellation (as opposed to the commune of Arbois, for example, or the appellations of L'Étoile or, potentially finest of all, Château Chalon). All of which means your bottle is probably not going to be a top-drawer vin jaune or a candidate for long aging, despite coming from a very good vintage. My advice would be to open it in the next year or three and drink it with some Comté cheese and walnuts.

      The best vins jaunes can age for decades. And, no, unlike Sherry, they are not fortified. If I'm not mistaken, the only fortified "wine" made in the Jura is macvin, technically a vin de liqueur, which is made by arresting the fermentation of grape juice by adding marc -- the Jura equivalent of Pineau des Charentes and Floc de Gascogne.

      1. re: carswell

        Thank you for your thoughtful suggestions.

        Here's the fromagerie where I purchased the bottle -
        http://static.flickr.com/19/120499704...

        I just noted that the wrapping paper is labeled as Comté Marcel Petite.

        Here's what our car looked like on the ride to Geneva from Beaune -
        http://static.flickr.com/55/120557891...

        So, no room or time to shop for Jura wine.

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Today's (Aug. 2) NY Times Food section has an article on wines of the Jura, including Vin Jaune. I vaguely remember trying one long ago but not much about it. I'd love to find some around here (Bay Area) but so far I've had no luck.

          1. re: rootlesscosmo

            I haven't been looking for it, still don't recall ever seeing any.

    2. Here's a link to Asimov's article in the Times, still on the International Herald Tribune's site -
      http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/08/0...

      1 Reply
      1. re: Melanie Wong

        A fine article albeit one that generates conflicting emotions among us Juraphiles. Pleasure that the region we love is finally getting some attention by writers who matter. Dread that the exposure will create demand for these wines, pushing up prices and making them even harder to find.