The Jura Wines Nobody’s Telling You About

The Jura has become the darling of the wine world for its outsider status and rustic sous voile wines. But what of the more conventional ouillé style being adopted by some of the region's most influential producers? Jon Bonné on why they may be its future.

“Can we please tutoyer?” Celine Gormally asks. This is the French verb for using the informal “you,” the sort traded between friends, and soon enough I see why.

In one moment she’s cooking pasta for her three-year-old daughter, and the next she’s breastfeeding her ten-month-old daughter, all while putting a modest lunch on the table, pouring me a glass of her pét-nat gamay and answering my barrage of winemaking questions.

We’re at her kitchen table on a Sunday afternoon, in the sedate village of Passenans, where she and her husband Steve make their Les Dolomies wines. This is one of those outlier spots in the Jura, which is already one of the outlier regions of France—too far south to be bundled with more famous spots like Arbois and Pupillin and a bit too far north to be part of Château-Chalon, known for its sherry-like vins jaunes.

It’s her Boutonniers Chardonnay that brought me here—a wooly, honeyed wine made from vines dating to the 1950s in nearby Frontenay, a town tucked right between the region’s known villages, yet removed enough from its heart that newcomers like Celine and Steve can acquire a few parcels of their own (in their case with help from a nonprofit that helps farmers acquire land to work). Their chardonnay lands on more calcium-rich soils, and savagnin—the Jura’s other white grape—on “iridescent marl,” so named for its spectrum of colors produced by magnesium.

In the Jura, “traditional” often means that white wines are toughened and matured under a thin voile (veil) of yeast, similar to sherry, but with greater exposure to oxygen. This is true not only with vin jaune but all sorts of wines, a practice that largely came from work with the hearty local savagnin.

The Gormallys’ whites, however, are made in the ouillé (“filled up”) style, so called because the aging vessels are filled up and the wine protected from air. Anywhere else but the Jura, this would be obvious way to make wine. But in a region so rustic and unusual in its winemaking the decision presented its own sort of radical counter-reformation, its own normcore.

This is why the ouillé wines particularly caught my interest—not simply because, in a week of tasting my way through the Jura, they were some of the most compelling wines I tried. But also because they’re off-message: They’re not the sort of outsider wines that have brought the Jura so much interest lately.

What they don’t tell you, amid all the hype, is that that the ouillé whites may turn out to be the most enduring to be found in the Jura—not just from newcomers like Celine, but from long-established names like Pierre Overnoy, the unintentional godfather of the region’s modern success and a current sort of household god (he drives up in a battered Suzuki and greets me in work shorts) who adapted the practice early on. As well as the Labet family, located farther south in the region, who followed suit not long after.

So, when I scratch it a bit, the Gormallys’ path makes perfect sense.

But the question is: Can the Jura sustain its sudden brush with fame if its best wines become known for their terroir, rather than their technique? Fame, after all, has already met this particularly rural corner of France, equally well known for its Comté cheese and polyculture. Today, any intentionally serious wine list or wine shop must include the Jura, and the region’s charms are now so well cataloged that it’s become a punchline for wine Luddites.

This is why the ouillé wines particularly caught my interest—not simply because, in a week of tasting my way through the Jura, they were some of the most compelling wines I tried. But also because they’re off-message: Their winemaking is conventional, at least by the rest of the world’s standards. They’re not the sort of outsider wines that have brought the Jura so much interest lately.

In fact, they say more about the Jura’s kinship with another wine region that sits directly to the west, across the Bresse plain: Burgundy. The two aren’t twinsies, exactly, but the Jura’s soils are a slightly warped mirror of Burgundy’s: limestone and clay in varying configurations that can accommodate chardonnay as well as savagnin remarkably well.

As in Burgundy, the Jura sits on the remains of an ancient former sea, with all that limestone and clay from various periods: Bathonian, Bajocian, the lower Jurassic period known as the Liassic. But if Burgundy’s slope lifts up from the plains, the Jura nestles against the mountains that share its name, the result of more violent uplift. It is not a mountain region, despite what nearly everyone thinks. It sits just below one, as evidenced by all the steep escarpments. The terrain is less uniform than Burgundy’s, tucked into canyons and weaving along uneven slopes, helping to explain the historical use of a range of grapes.

Why, then, would making what’s sometimes called a “Burgundian” style of wine be so outré?

A visit to Julien Labet, one of the champions of the ouillé style, was in order. While Julien Labet’s parents made wines in the traditional style, it was Julien and his father who concluded as early as 1992 that the whites should be made more similarly to those across the plain, starting with his Fleurs Chardonnay, grown on a range of marls. That style brought Labet attention for being different in what was considered a recalcitrant, rustic wine area.

As with good Burgundies, most of the Labet wines come from specific parcels of old vines. Rather than be marked with the salty, savory tang of many Jura whites, wines like Les Champs Rouges (chardonnay from the 1960s on Bajocian limestone) and Varrons (a parcel with more clay) are fruity and almost creamy, with exuberant flavors from ripe apple fruit to exotic curry-leaf. For Julien, the radical move was to turn mainstream, mostly because the Jura’s conventional winemaking—which is to say, unconventional to the rest of us—was blurring its real potential.

“With the oxidative style, all the wine was looking similar after oxidation with the veil,” says Labet. “They all had that nutty taste, and didn’t have the personality they had before the veil.”

Overnoy had in fact reached the same conclusion, and as much as he has been deified for his spurning of sulfur as a preservative and his minimalism in the cellar, he also insists that the old ways didn’t frame the region well. “Some clients think that the taste of Jura terroir is the taste of oxidation,” he told me as he poured me a glass of his still very young 2005 Chardonnay. “They would say, ‘Oh, is this the terroir?’ And I would say, ‘No, It’s oxidized.’”

It’s in the Sud Revermont, the Jura’s southernmost area, that ouillé wines leave the strongest impression. This is an outer rim, not long ago considered to make “no exceptional wines,” but today it is the neighborhood that hosts both Labet and Ganevat, along with newer arrivals like Peggy Buronfosse and Domaine des Marnes Blanches. Sud Revermont, which is entitled only to the omnibus Côtes du Jura appellation, was largely overlooked in favor of places like Arbois and L’Etoile. But it brims with old parcels, like Sous le Monceau, where Buronfosse harvests savagnin vert planted in 1948, and new parcels on slopes that held vines decades ago, when the region’s fortunes were stronger.

Perhaps it’s because no one much cared about this area until recently that it became a little laboratory for ouillé—a style that doesn’t quite match either the Jura’s old traditions or its current outsider reputation. And a style that could be seen as mimicking the Burgundians, who have recently set their eyes on the Jura to no small amount of local concern.

Has that kept us from a more complete understanding of the Jura? Is there some risk that in making ouillé wines, the Jura stands to erase its own uniqueness and be just like everyone else?

If anything, I think it’s quite the opposite: It’s a lens to see just how good the terroir can be, without the deep imprint of the region’s old (and intrusive) winemaking. And increasingly, some of the Jura’s most successful and established personalities are coming around to this view.

Take Stephane Tissot, for example. Tissot is from an old Jura family (there are enough Tissots in the Jura to keep a genealogist busy for years) and has turned his family’s property into both one of the region’s most dynamic presences—biodynamics, amphorae, all the usual shiny things—as well as one of its bigger landholders, with more than 50 hectares.

His Tour de Curon parcel, planted to densely spaced, head-trained chardonnay on pure Bajocian limestone, yields a ripe, slightly waxy wine made in the ouillé style that would appeal to more than a few fans of Meursault. While his Bruyères Chardonnay, grown on Triassic limestone, would charm fans of the tighter, lemony style of Puligny-Montrachet. And yet they’re more savory and saline than their Burgundian cousins, their fruit and flavors a bit more generous.

As the hipster crush on the Jura ebbs, I’ll wager these are the wines that will be left standing.

Five Ouillé Wines to Try

2013 Bénédicte et Stephane Tissot “Les Bruyères” Arbois Chardonnay | $44
Tissot gets a finessed, almost lacy, wine out of this south-facing parcel of Triassic clay-limestone atop blue marl. The mineral aspect is nuanced, almost like talc. [Buy]

2013 Domaine Labet “En Chalasse” Côtes du Jura Chardonnay | $30
Julien Labet’s ouillé take on a 1954 parcel planted on Liassic clay. Intensely citric but also sweet—lime syrup, white flowers. So concentrated it’s almost chewy. [Buy]

2013 Buronfosse “Varrons” Côtes du Jura Chardonnay | $25
From one of the best-known parcels in the south, also used by Labet, this section planted in 1956. Exotic and plush with a fine-boned mineral presence to counter it. [Buy]

2013 Les Bottes Rouges “Léon” Arbois Chardonnay | $32
Jean-Baptiste Ménigoz apprenticed under Stéphane Tissot, and his own young label turns out an exceptional chardonnay from an old parcel once owned by Henri Maire, a sort of Robert Mondavi of the Jura. Luscious more than juicy. [Buy]

2012 Les Dolomies “Les Boutonniers” Côtes du Jura Chardonnay | $28
Something wonderfully forward about this bottling from the Gormallys—wool, musk and salted corn all add to the intrigue, with a lot of full, ripe flavors to match. [Buy]

Also look for: Domaine des Marnes Blanches, Domaine des Miroirs, Domaine de la Tournelle, Champ Divin and, of course, any bottles of Ganevat or Overnoy your friendly neighborhood narwhal has tucked away.