Will the Real Jura Please Stand Up?

Over the last decade, the Jura has emerged as an impossibly hip antihero for a new era of wine consumption. But how much of the region's accepted narrative is actually true, and how much of it has been fabricated by our own blind adoration? Jon Bonné separates fact from fiction.

I had received warnings, repeatedly, about visiting Michel Gahier, even from his fellow Jura winemakers. Gahier could be cranky. Cross. He speaks so fast, they would say. You will never understand him.

Huh? One unusually hot Saturday, I found myself surveying Grands Vergers, his old parcel of Trousseau—the oldest vines date to 1931—and trying to locate this supposed mean side. I couldn’t. Gahier propped his hand against a post, looking a bit like a sportswriter on summer vacation, and talked of how he intends to keep working the soil with his three horses (“so long as my daughters enjoy it”), how cover crops should be native (“the earth chooses the plants it wants”).

Maybe he’s not exactly jovial. And yeah, he talks a bit fast, although even my rusty ear for French could follow. And, yes, his shirt is an agrarian call to arms: “Pas de blé, pas de pain!” (“No wheat, no bread!”)

But as I stood on that hillside in Montigny-lès-Arsures, just north of the major Jura town of Arbois, I felt no cold shoulder. In fact, Gahier’s visit was one of my most pleasant during my stay. Which is also to say that I found a sense of openness in relatively short supply in this remote and rural region of eastern France. The Jura has none of the pomposity of Bordeaux, or the hushed historic reverence that pervades Burgundy. But I’m not sure the region quite knows how to handle the limelight, or the world suddenly showing up at its vignerons’ doors.

The Jura has gone viral, as anyone who has read a wine article in the past decade will tell you, and virality is never a tidy process. It brings change in ways that are discordant, even jarring. It stands to blur our ability to see the Jura and its wines for what they are, rather than what we wish them to be. We have laid an outsized reverence upon it, as a wine region fighting the good fight against modernity. We have made it into an idyll, and its top talents into a little pantheon of household gods. In that reverence, we have created a narrative that doesn’t quite mesh with reality.

Ten years ago, the Jura was a blip, barely known except to a handful of connoisseurs and gonzo sommeliers, who were mostly entranced by its oxidative wines and long-lived vin jaune. Many of us loved the wines not only for how unusual they were, but also how good they could be. My own conversion took place in 2004, when Michael Wild presented me a taste of vin jaune over lunch at his Oakland restaurant, Bay Wolf. It was bizarre and exhilarating—and it made me want more.

A lot of people clearly had similar experiences. Its top wines, from Jacques Puffeney or Pierre Overnoy—two of the household gods in question—quickly showed up in the fashionable corners of Paris and Copenhagen and San Francisco, and then disappeared as early adopters snatched them up.

And so the weird became modish. Writers began portraying the wines as the “darlings” of “trendsetting sommeliers.” No less august a publication than the Wall Street Journal jumped into the fray, assuring its risk-averse readers that the wines, while “baffling” and “unconventional,” were “not all a wild ride.”

This happened, in part, because the Jura offered just the right narrative at just the right time—a wine antihero for an era when all the old benchmarks were being reconsidered. Yes, the wines were unconventional, but it was also the rare French wine region that hadn’t been indelibly marked by the footprint of big business. (No longer: This spring, the Boisset firm acquired the remnants of Henri Maire, once the Jura’s largest producer.) It was a useful taste of counterculture in a glass, and it ticked all the virtue boxes: organics and good farming, a fashionable sort of naturalist winemaking. And unlike, say, the southern Rhône, the Jura found its success almost entirely without the intervention of critics.

Some of the fixation on the Jura is just a modern-day reverb of the way postwar Americans swooned over much of rural France. At least that was my conclusion one day as I watched a farmer in the Sud Revermont drive his dented Citroën van down a dirt road, chased by his border collie. So charming. So quaint. Let’s buy a baguette.

Just one problem: This rebel narrative is essentially a convenient fiction. Even with its infusion of young blood, like Emilie and Alexis Porteret of Domaine des Bodines, the Jura is still a very traditional and often hidebound place. That alone isn’t unusual for a small wine region, and the modern tendency in wine is to idealize a lot of backwaters precisely because they’ve never hit the mainstream. But perhaps because the Jura’s wines are so unique, we’ve attributed an extreme cool factor to the region that it never really asked for—and one it can’t possibly live up to.

In fact, I think some of the fixation on the Jura is just a modern-day reverb of the way postwar Americans swooned over much of rural France. At least that was my conclusion one day as I watched a farmer in the Sud Revermont drive his dented Citroën van down a dirt road, chased by his border collie. So charming. So quaint. Let’s buy a baguette.

But it’s a more pragmatic place than a romantic one. The Jurassiens are flattered, of course, that their wines are the toast of New York or London. But when we talk about their charming pastoralism, in a Modern Farmer way, we reveal our urbanite tendency to fetishize the rural life. These are farmers, mostly concerned with making ends meet and harvesting a crop in a rainy place with cold continental winters.

Think of it, then, as France’s Vermont. While the region isn’t exactly poor, Franche-Comté’s per-capita GDP sits well below the national average. It’s sparsely populated and mostly free of tourists, and its economy beyond wine is modest—a lot of cows and Comté cheese. And despite the creation of Le Nez Dans Le Vert, a new group of organically-minded vignerons, perish any vision of a hippie paradise. The Jura is quite literally a conservative place, landing rather hard on the right in recent elections.

Which is to say: By imposing our liberal edginess on the Jura, I suspect, we have distorted its reality. And that has, as Joseph Campbell might tell you, generated one major byproduct of myth-making: a mountain of misunderstanding.

Mountain being a key word. One of the biggest distortions surrounding the Jura is to call its wines “mountain wines,” when in fact Jura vineyards are found just under the so-called “first plateau” of the Jura mountains, between 230 and 450 meters, essentially at the elevation of the Côte d’Or.

Another myth? That its oxidative style of winemaking, both for vin jaune and other white wines, is a defining trait. True, that’s a long tradition, and one virtually unique to the region. But it is also so deliberately old-fashioned that even many Jurassiens are frustrated by how those wines, rather than the fresher ouillé style, govern the region’s image.

For that matter, what about those ethereal Jurassic reds made of poulsard or trousseau, often portrayed as the antithesis of the extracted cult-wine overkill? It would be fun if the style was a philosophical statement, but in reality, those grapes have never been able to yield anything else. So when a critic called them “glorified rosé” not long ago, it was an unwittingly accurate compliment. In decades past, that’s precisely what they were; when the French talked of Arbois rosé, they were describing light red wines.

Perhaps the biggest misconception of all is that the Jura is somehow a discovery that we made, as though it was sitting out in the wilderness, waiting to be found. If anything, its popularity today is more a revival. The region was already well established when the French government unveiled its first appellations in 1936. Arbois AOC was listed right alongside Châteauneuf-du-Pape. And the revival, as it were, is a modest one. Currently the Jura sports just over 2,100 hectares in vine, a precipitous drop from a pre-phylloxera high in the 1890s of more than 20,000 hectares (but an improvement on the 1960s nadir, below 1,000). As vintners tell it, the valleys of the Sud Revermont area and villages like Passenans—a midway point between more famous spots like Château-Chalon and Arbois—once brimmed with vineyards.

Renewed interest, of course, brings inevitable change—and that might present the biggest challenge to this idealized view of the Jura that we’ve devised. Our reverence makes us incredibly resistant to that change, even if it could make the Jura a more interesting place. (We’re not the only ones; many Jurassiens are equally unsettled by the changes that sudden fame has brought.) And that’s only going to cause a lot of frustration, because change is coming, regardless of what we want.

Witness, for instance, the anger that surfaced this year among Jura lovers (and the Jurassiens, too) at the news that Puffeney, sometimes called the pope of Arbois, was retiring. There was frustration, of course, because Puffeney declined to take on an apprentice—as Overnoy, the Jura’s other icon, did with Emmanuel Houillon—which meant that one of the region’s greatest estates would cease to exist. But the real frustration came over who bought his holdings: Domaine du Pélican, a new property set up in 2012 by Guillaume d’Angerville, the prominent Volnay producer. It didn’t matter that D’Angerville went out of his way to embrace Jura culture, insisting for instance that Pélican farm biodynamically (whereas Puffeney wasn’t quite organic). Pélican became a lightning rod nonetheless: Burgundians snatching Puffeney’s legacy!

That recalcitrance can only damage a lot of opportunities for the Jura to improve itself, as even a stalwart like Michel Gahier would tell you. (When I asked about the Puffeney sale, he shrugged: “That’s business.”) The smartest of its loyalists are finding ways to bridge tradition and the new—like Stéphane Tissot, who still makes vin jaune but is also quietly incorporating things like amphorae in his cellar. Even Catherine Hannoun of Domaine de la Loue, who abandoned the Jura appellation because her wines (specifically, skin-fermented Savagnin) were considered too outré, wants to find a way to rejoin. They all love the Jura for what it is, rather than an idealistic view of what it once was.

And so it’s worth being careful about how we manifest our Jura fetish, because I suspect we’ve created a sort of Schrödinger’s-cat paradox: We love the Jura because it represents something unaltered, when our very fondness has already altered its path. If we truly want to appreciate the Jura, it may be necessary to let go of our idyllic, slightly fictional view of it, and consider it with clear eyes.

Six Wines from the Real Jura

These represent a continuity between older and newer generations, and a range of styles—a snapshot of the Jura today. In addition, keep an eye out for Domaine des Bodines, Domaine des Cavarodes, Peggy Buronfosse and perhaps Domaine Macle for a taste of rare Château-Chalon (a vin jaune appellation). And while it’s almost academic to mention, some of the lesser-known wines of Jean-François Ganevat, the region’s other cult figure, are worth hunting, particularly the Les Grands Teppes and Grusses en Billat Chardonnays, and the rare Cuvée Marguerite, from 1902 vines of local variety melon à queue rouge.

2013 Michel Gahier Grands Vergers Arbois Trousseau | $34
I’ve never quite understood why Gahier’s wines didn’t catch fire the way that Overnoy’s or Puffeney’s did. His reds are a perfect demonstration of that Jurassic ability to offer both depth and a weightlessness. The polished fruit here is deeply perfumed with sandalwood and citron oil, and shows a surprising chewiness to its texture given its relatively light body. Importer: Rosenthal Wine Merchant [Buy]

2014 André & Mireille Tissot (Bénédicte & Stéphane Tissot) DD Arbois Red | $28 
Stéphane Tissot, the closest the Jura might have to a big fish (he farms more than 50 acres), does many things well and is also one of the region’s biggest innovators. This mix of three key red grapes—poulsard, trousseau and pinot noir—may not have the gravitas of, say, his En Spois single-vineyard vin jaune, but it’s a joy, full of tart fruit and spiced up with fresh celery and caraway, and a bit of tannic bite. Importer: Camille Riviere Selection  [Buy]

2014 Domaine des Marnes Blanches En Jensillard Côtes du Jura Savagnin | $54
Pauline and Géraud Fromont are pioneering the next wave of the Sud Revermont (where Ganevat is located). Jensillard is from a 1960s planting of local cultivar savagnin muscaté, and while it has all that citric and leathery savagnin presence, there’s also a spicy gewürztraminer-like side. Utterly unique—a great specimen of non-oxidative savagnin. As an everyday choice, keep an eye out for their trousseau. Importer: Selection Massale [Buy]

2011 Domaine de la Loue Cuvée Raphaëlle Arbois Savagnin | $36
Hannoun macerates primarily savagnin for about 20 days, which makes Raphaëlle (named for her daughter) a style neither entirely of the Jura nor with reference elsewhere. It’s waxy and just slightly orange—think paraffin and tangerines—with a distinct weight and wintergreen freshness. Keep an eye out for the 2014, made from younger vines. Importer: Selection Massale [Buy]

2012 Champ Divin Zéro Dosage Crémant du Jura | $31
Jura winemakers often have too large a lineup of wines—everything from bubbles to fortified macvin. And so, while sparkling crémant is one of those remnants of Jura tradition, it can too often be an afterthought. Not so with Valerie and Fabrice Closset-Gaziaux, who farm biodynamically in the southern Jura. Their crémant (primarily from chardonnay) shows a depth many others lack—slightly salty, with a pleasing austerity. Importer: Sacred Thirst Selections [Buy]

2014 Domaine de la Tournelle L’Uva Arbosiana Arbois Rouge | $26
Evelyne and Pascal Clairet were among the previous generation of pioneers to settle in Arbois, and the Arbosiana is a proper modern successor to the Arbois rosé of old: Ploussard (aka poulsard) made via the carbonic maceration method found in Beaujolais, it’s full of tangy red fruit, with a rosehip bite. Importer: Jenny & Francois Selections [Buy]


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