A wine region that has really become popular the last couple of years here in Norway is the Jura. This long and winding department is about 80 km from north to south, situated on the border to Switzerland. The wine grows in areas 200 to 400 meters above sea level, but the Pre-Alpes, that Jura is a part of, stretch upwards to over 1200 meters. With Burgundy as a close neighbour one would be forgiven to think that the wine style is similar. But the climate is very different here and that makes its mark on the wines.
There are five approved grapes: Chardonnay, Savagnin, Poulsard, Trousseau and Pinot Noir. The region has few co-operatives, instead there are many family owned farms with long and rich traditions.
Last fall we were invited to the Jura to visit three winemakers and taste a few of the wines from this exiting and beautiful place. The first stop was the tiny village of Montaigu, just outside of Lons-le-Saunier, where Jean-Etienne Pignier from Domaine Pignier welcomed us with open arms. We first headed up to the press, about fifty meters from the cellar to have look at the new press they have just installed. On the way there Jean-Etienne talked about what makes this place so good for growing wine.
- The vineyards are in a small valley, we say it’s reculet. It’s a small valley that formed in the mountain millions and millions of years ago. It is a geological phenomenon that is special for Jura. During the last Ice Age a series of short, deep valleys were formed in these mighty mountains. In these valleys a unique micro climate has evolved that is ideal for growing the grapes they have here.
- So this is very typical of Jura?
- Yes it’s very typical. It’s very good for the vineyard. It’s very warm and no wind. And it’s not cold during the winter. So it’s very good for the vineyard.
We arrive at the press where Jean-Etienne’s brother Antoine has just finished checking on the fermentation process. The last grapes were picked just ten days ago so everything is quiet now after the most busy time of the year. The brothers proudly show of the new press.
- We cut the grapes with the hand obviously and we have two new press and we press very slowly. One press in the morning and one in the afternoon.
- Why the slow pressing? Is it to get more of the juices?
- Yes, more and better juice.
Domaine Pignier was certified Biodynamic in 2006 which means they maintain natural cover crops on alternate rows and plough the remaining rows using an inter-vine hoe. They prune their vines hard, and employ bud-pruning and green harvesting if necessary, giving an average yield of 1.9 TPA (33Hl/Ha) and fertilise their vines using manure-based compost containing biodynamic preparations.
A new addition is the egg-shaped tanks that they use for fermentation. The egg shape harkens back to the ancient vessels used to ferment wine originally. With no corners, the wine is free to circulate naturally during fermentation, and you can actually watch the wine move during this process of constant stirring. The shape also forces more of the cap to remain submerged, gleaning the utmost in fruit flavour and colour for your wine and reducing your need for "punch down".
Jean-Etienne opens the egg and lets us taste the grapes that are inside fermenting. The taste of the grape is quite intense, acidic and bitter. You can feel a little alcohol, but not a lot. There is a lot of flavour here. And the pip inside is also very special. It makes it more bitter.
We head back to the cellar and follow Jean-Etienne down an old staircase. We get the feeling that we are heading to a very special place and are not disappointed. At the end of the staircase a beautiful grand room opens to reveal the barrels, in different sizes, all laying in a room that looks more like a cathedral than any cellar I have been to. The roof high above us has a very gothic look and there is a reason for that.
- The cellar is from the 13th century built by Carthusian monks, Jean-Etienne explains.
And then he leaves us to wander a little for ourselves in this special place. We have seen some beautiful wine cellars in our time but this has to be one of the most beautiful we've ever seen. Since the 14th century there have only been two owners of this fantastic winery and cellar. 14 hectares cultivated first by monks and since the 18th century this family. The traditions has been kept alive and that is just fantastic. It is also a perfect place to learn a little more about the wines from Jura.
- The Jura product, for the white wine you have a flower wine and two wines with floor, Jean-Etienne tells us.
And that’s where Jura and the other wine regions differ. For, like Jean Etienne says, they make two different styles of wines here. One so called «flower wine» which is like a normal wine. And one so called “floor wine” that isn’t like anything we have tasted before.
- When we produce flower wines we top of every week, all the barrel, we have no air in the barrels and the wines are more like flower. When we want to have floor we don’t top of. Inside the wine barrel some of the wine evaporates, the angels share as it is called, and then there is a layer of yeast that forms on top of the wine and protects it. Then the wine is aged for up to three years. The layer of yeast on top og the wine gives the wine it’s very special flavour. It becomes, as they say in the wine world, oxidised. It has a bitter aftertaste that kind of reminds you of nuts or a nice Comté cheese. It gives the wines from Jura a very special character.
Before we leave Jean-Etienne opens a bottle of gold that his grandfather made. It’s in the floor style and from 1975.
It smells of ripe cheese, almost blue cheese. And the colour is dark, dark yellow, almost brown.
This is something special, it’s different, so completely different from other wines that you get to drink. It’s completely dry, no sweetness at all. And it has the character of old cheese. That’s what it tastes like. There is no fruit here. A beautiful intense acidity. It almost screams for some food.
We thank Jean-Etienne for his great hospitality and drive for 30 minutes to the fantastic village of Chateau Chalon. Perhaps the most beautiful village in all of France.
The most famous wine from Jura is the Vin Jaune. A very distinct and special wine they make all over the Jura but the most famous one they make here. We are on our way to meet Domaine Berthed-Bondet and find out what is the deal with Vin Jaune.
We are meet by Hélène, the daughter of winemakers Jean and Chantal. She has left the business life in Brussels to rather work with the family in the vineyard and who can blame her! It is truly a beautiful place to be, Chateau Chalon, but how are the wines? Hélène takes us down to the cellar, itself very nice, but all cellars will be a little bit small and ordinary after visiting the fantastic Domaine Pignier-cellar.
After a little walkabout Hélène explains a little bit more how the Vin Jaune is made.
- Vin Jaune is vinified as a classical white wine. But after that it is aged in barrels for a very long time, six years and three months’ minimum. So there is a minimum, but there is no maximum. We can wait ten years if we like, but six years is long enough. There is no toping up of the barrel during these years so al layer of yeast is formed on top of the wine after the angels have had their share. This it has in common with the floor wines, but the aging of the Vin Jaune is much longer. This way of making wine works only here in the Jura, because we have those special yeasts. Indeed, in any other region, if you make the similar experiment it will be bad.
And then one wonders how they came up with this?
- There are a few stories, Hélène explains. Somebody would have forgotten to top up the barrel and after a few years discovered the result. Or somebody went away to war and came back the wine was not toped up. There are a few stories, but nobody knows exactly. This way of making wine started in the middle ages so it’s forgotten.
We reluctantly leave Hélène and the beautiful Chateau Chalon and head north to Arbois, one of the biggest and most important appellations in the Jura. Here we are visiting Domaine Rijckaert a Domaine that was created in 1998 by Jean Rijckaert, a passionate Belgian who established himself as a wine producer in Burgundy in 1990. Nowadays, in addition to 4 ha in South Burgundy, the Domaine Rijckaert cultivates 5,5 ha of vineyards in the Jura, where Jean felt in love with the outstanding terroirs. Since 2013, Jean has decided to gradually pass the torch of his passion on to Florent Rouve and pass down the “savoir-faire” that have made the reputation of his wines: restricted yields, manual harvesting, slow and moderate pressings, indigenous floras, long wine aging, and...some precious secrets ! A careful and natural winemaking, which aims to express the typicality of the grape and the specificity of the terroir where it comes from.
And Florent also has a special way to ferment his wines. He ferments in the oak barrels and not in steel tanks like one usually does. But what does that do to the wines?
- I don’t want to give an oaky taste to my wines, Florent explains. But the wood is interesting because the contact between the wine and the lees are higher in the barrel than the tank, that’s the first point. - And the second point is that wood is living! That means the oxygen could pass across the wood and that helps the wine to have better structure.
It’s very special to see the barrels lying there without any siphon on. The air is just let out into the the free. And Florent doesn’t use yeast either.
- It’s natural yeast. I don’t use any yeast for my fermentation, so it’s spontaneous fermentation.
And it isn’t just the fermentation process the separates Florent from the rest of winemakers in Jura. Because he feels that the oxidative style, the one we call floor, stands in the way of the potential of the Jura-wines.
- From my point of view that is culture, more than typicity of terroir. My way to express the typicity is to express it in a fresher way.
We head out of the cellar to take in two of the vineyards that Domaine Rijckaert cultivates. The vineyards in Jura consist of mostly clay in the lowlands and limestone higher up. And in the vineyards Florent has found other elements that add flavour to the wines. He holds up a stone for us to inspect.
- We have a lot of fossils too. Because here in this area, I mean the Jura, two hundred million years ago, there was an ocean here. So, this soil is very typical of the Jura terroirs.
It’s late and we must be off. After visiting three vineyards and a car full of wine it’s time to taste the wines from these wonderful Domains. If you want to find out what we think about the wines, check out our story below. The tasting starts at 13 minutes and 23 seconds.