This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by J Vineyards & Winery in California’s Russian River Valley. The cool climate around J Winery is similar to their native France, helping the grapes thrive. J makes highly acclaimed Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and a variety of sparkling wines with very happy grapes. To experience wine from J Vineyards & Winery, visit TheBarrelRoom.com.
On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers dives into the Jura, one of the smallest and coldest wine regions in France. Located along the French-Swiss border, the Jura is home to many cheeses and wine varieties, particularly vin jaune or “yellow wine.” Tune in for more.
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and I just found out that Google was initially called BackRub as a search engine. Imagine saying, “Dude, can you just BackRub that? Well, just BackRub it.”
What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair Podcasting Network, this is the “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers and I am the tastings director of VinePair, and that’s my name. OK, we’re going to get a little bit weird. No, it’s not weird at all. It’s a place called Jura. It’s a wine region in France that you may have heard of, but you need more information and that’s why we’re here. We’re talking about Jura wines. Get into it.
I remember where I was when I first sipped the wine called vin jaune, otherwise known as yellow wine. Yes, wine lovers, it’s another hue, but it’s OK because there’s only really one wine out there in the world, in one place, that does this thing called vin jaune. Again, I’m probably pronouncing it terribly. This is the Jura. The Jura is one of the most interesting, most isolated, and most — I don’t know where I’m going with this because the thing is that the Jura is one of the smallest wine regions in France.
It has, like, three AOCs and there’s some other stuff going on, which we’ll talk about. It’s the coldest region in France, yet they grow red and white wine grapes and make a very wide range of wines for a very small place. One of those wines is called vin jaune, which is called yellow wine, which we’re going to get into and it’s just very, very tied to the history of Jura. If you’re into wine and you have been for the past decade or so, you’ve probably seen what we on the American market went through — are going through, are in the process of, still kind of into it — wines from this place.
They just blew up out of nowhere for a few years. I sold some of the stuff when I had my wine shop. You might have heard the word Arbois. These wines are all over the United States, but the thing about Jura is that they’re not going to be easy to find. We’re going to talk about a larger appellation in the Jura and all that, but they’re not the easiest to find. There’s a very small amount.
It’s a small wine region and they’re here on the American market, but it’s a little bit scattered. The thing about this episode is, I want to get you right with Jura so that when you encounter it, you have all the information you need to grab it up because like, “Oh, wow, look! Jura, grab it now.” If you look on a map, you’ll see Burgundy and then just to the east of that, you’ll see this mountain range called the Jura Mountains.
Then east of that, you’re going to see a plain or lower-lying lands, and then you’re going to see the border of Switzerland and then the Alps. Imagine millions of years ago during the Triassic or Jurassic era — it’s one or the other, I’m not really sure — but imagine Burgundy and this other place called Jura was just one land. Then the Alps started forming, and as the Alps started forming, miles and miles away, more earth was being dragged towards the Alps.
At some point, an isolated sub-alpine mountain range was formed and split what is now Burgundy and what is now the Jura in half. This is that massif work we talked about in the Burgundy episode. The reason I bring this up is because that kind of chaotic soil we talk about in Burgundy — the same thing is happening over in Jura, just not as chaotic, a little more uniform. It’s still chaotic, but there are certain very specific soils that certain vines thrive in the Jura.
What’s really cool is, just like in Burgundy, you can literally cross a path and see a different soil type than when you were on the other side of the path. On one side of the path you’ll see limestone, you cross over the path and you’re in what they call blue marl, which is sort of a dampish, clay-like soil. I also mentioned this because Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were brought over from Burgundy over the Jura Mountains into what is now the Jura wine-producing region.
This land between Switzerland and the Jura Mountains is called the Revermont, and in this area on the slopes of the mountain and below is the wine region of Jura. In the wine region of Jura, there are four AOC wine appellations and three specific product appellations, meaning within these three appellations there are products being made that have rules attached to them as well. OK, a little foreshadowing of a lot going on there. In this area, less than 1 percent of the total vineyard acreage in France exists, less than 1 percent, and in this narrowish strip of land, there are five grape varieties that thrive.
We’ve talked about Pinot Noir, we’ve talked about Chardonnay, but then you have these native grapes. You have a red wine grape called Poulsard, otherwise known as Ploussard. You have a red wine grape called Trousseau. Then you have this very important white wine grape — we talked about it in the Burgundy episode, in the Pinot Noir episode — Savagnin, otherwise known as “nature” to the local winemakers of the area.
From these five grapes, the wines that are being made are red wine; white wine; rosé wine; Crémant, or sparkling wine; a wine called vin jaune, which is again the yellow wine, which we’ll talk about; a sweet wine; and a brandy. That’s a lot for a small wine region. With those five grapes and that list of different styles of wines, these are all made within three AOC appellations within the Jura.
Now the dessert wine, which is called vin de paille — I don’t know if I’m saying it correctly, but it means “straw wine,” meaning it’s dried out. The grapes are dried out and made into a dessert wine. Macvin is the other one known as the brandy, and then you have vin jaune, the yellow wine. These three products have their own rules, so you have three appellations making a wide range of wines, and then three of the products that can be made in the area from those grapes are AOC-protected.
You see where it’s getting a little bit wild here, isn’t it? Pinot Noir is — it’s here, but it’s Chardonnay that really took hold of the place where over 40 percent of the land under vine is actually Chardonnay.
Then you have their most planted red wine grape, Poulsard or Ploussard. These wines are spectacular. If you like Pinot Noir, you’d love Ploussard. It’s very soft and light but has a nice grip on the palate and it’s chewy. It’s a really awesome, light-bodied red wine. The Trousseau grape I also find very cool. It’s a little bit more herby; it’s not as soft and chewy and light — it’s light, but it has a little more of a concentration of fruit, and you can get a little bit of spicy notes from it.
Then the grape Savagnin is, when made into a dry white wine, very high-acid, lemon, and crispy. It’s one of those high-acid blending varieties we see around the world in France like in Southwest France and stuff like that.
What’s very interesting is, by the end of the 19th century, there are over — I’ve heard 20 or 40-plus different varieties being used in this wine region, but because of phylloxera and two world wars and some replantings, it’s almost as if the Jura got it right after all that heartbreak and terribleness. They decided that these are the five grapes that work here, and this is what we can do with them. It’s great because can you imagine all these wines being made from 40 different varieties? I’d just lose my mind.
Like many of these wine regions in France, you have the larger wine region that covers all of it. You have the first largest wine region in Jura called Côtes du Jura, côte being “hill” — the hills or the slopes of the Jura Mountains. This is the appellation where you can make all the different wines I talked about with all the grapes I’ve talked about. It’s like the catch-all appellation of the Jura. When it comes to the AOCs, the appellations in Jura, all the way to the north, you have this town called Arbois, A-R-B-I-O-S. It’s an old Celtic word, they think, that means fertile land, “ar” means fertile, and “bois” means land. Fun fact, this is the birthplace and home of Louis Pasteur, the dude who created the rabies vaccine but also had his observations on pasteurization. Pretty cool.
Arbois is the wine you’re going to see most often on the American market. You would think it would be the Côtes du Jura, which you will see around, but Arbois because it’s so big compared to the rest, there’s more distribution of these wines. Here you’re going to see Ploussard, Trousseau, and Savagnin. We’re going to see Savagnin done in its lemony, crispy still style. You’re going to see it in its vin jaune style, which again, I’m going to get into in a second.
Here, they also make yellow wine, they make straw wine, and they make Crémant or bubbly. Just so you know about Jura, Crémant has been — it is ramping up. The production of Crémant is ramping up pretty intensely in the Jura to the point where it’s one of the most common wines being made. We’re about to see a lot more of Crémant du Jura on the American market along with Arbois. It’s just south of Arbois where we get to a very small appellation called Château-Chalon. The reason why this is an appellation is that this is what is thought to be the birthplace of vin jaune or yellow wine. In this appellation, only yellow wine can be made, and it can only be made from the Savagnin variety. The appellation is named after a village on the top of this mountain, and it’s fortified. It looks really awesome. All these vines are on these slopes of these hills, and you can watch some videos of people climbing up these vineyards, and I’m like, “How do you harvest this stuff?” Oh, yes, by hand.
They harvest the Savagnin and make Savagnin wine — just regular wine, just make that wine. Then you put that wine into a barrel, but you only fill the barrel almost full, not totally full, and you put it into a room that’s highly ventilated so it can have these temperature fluctuations. At some point, a local yeast starts to form. It’s a film-forming yeast, and what happens is, as it grows on the surface of the wine, the barrel that’s not fully filled up, creates this grayish film over the wine. What this yeast does is, while the yeast is doing its work, it’s also protecting the wine from severe oxidation. This is some nature stuff that’s really awesome. It’s a very similar yeast strain to what you would get in sherry — we’re going to do a sherry episode.
There’s a yeast strain called flor, which is also a film-forming yeast, but this is just a different film-forming yeast. This wine must stay in this barrel untouched except for a couple of samples for six years. It’s thought that, or they say that, over a six-year period, the wine reduces to a certain amount, and they actually have a bottle that holds specifically 62 centiliters called a clavelin — I think it’s called a clavelin — and then they stamp “du Jura” on the actual bottle, like on the glass, kind of like in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. These wines can age for 50-plus years.
There’s actually a story I read where in 1994, a bottle of 1774 vin jaune was opened and it was tasting wonderfully. The thing is — it’s hard to explain. They call it yellow wine. It’s very oxidative, very dark in color, and it has this really unique aroma to it. It’s like a very savory, very intense oxidative wine. And in the early ’90s, they found a compound in this wine called soloton, S-O-L-O-T-O-N, and this is the compound that gives us a nice, mild curried spice aroma to the wines. It’s just a wild wine, and the thing about Jura — this is the home of Comté, the cheese, and the home of Morbier. These wines with that cheese, forget about it. Vin jaune can be made in other parts of the Jura, but it’s here where it was from where they make sure they have the rules in place. This is why it’s an appellation.
South of this small appellation is another small appellation called L’Étoile, which means “stars,” and there are a couple of theories about why that appellation is called that way. There is a certain kind of ancient fossil that looks like a star — that might be it, but also there are hills around the area that are in the formation of a star. Not sure, but it’s a really cool name. This is also a small population. Château-Chalon only has five winemakers in it, whereas L’Étoile only has 185 acres of vines at all, but this place is known for Crémant, where actually they have wines that are in the lower-lying areas — the more fertile areas they use for Crémant — and then they have the slopes where they harvest vines for their still wines, and when I say still wines, I mean white wines. There is no red wine permitted in this AOC. If anyone makes red wine here, it’s just called Côtes du Jura.
Crémant is very popular here; this is the Crémant headquarters of Jura, and it’s often going to be Savagnin, Chardonnay. They also make Savagnin Chardonnay blends for still wines. They also do the yellow wine here, and yes, there are some red wine grapes that often go into the Crémant, but again, they can make Ploussard. Because it’s there, it’s the most planted in the area, and then of course has to be called Côtes du Jura. That’s pretty much the Jura.
Now, those products I was talking about, Macvin and vin de paille, they’re wines you’re not going to — unless you’re in, like, New York or San Francisco, you’re really not going to see those wines distributed throughout the United States. If you get a chance to try them, they’re very cool. The Macvin is literally — it’s a wine-based brandy, but not really. It’s a brandy that’s been blended with just fermented grape juice, so it’s kind of a very grapey sweet liqueur if you will. They’re around. They’re really cool if you can try them, but it’s going to be hard to find.
The straw wine, again, can be made from all the grapes just like the Macvin, but it’s going to be hard to find. There’s just a good high-acid, sweet wine and these wines go so well with food. Every single wine from Jura, whether it’s red, white, rosé, yellow, straw, or brandy-fied, it doesn’t matter; all these wines go great with food in general. But this place, Jura, is so cold. The way that houses are built in Jura is in such a way that there’s a certain clapboard that is made from the forest — it’s a very forest-heavy place. These clapboards are put on houses so that the houses don’t get damp in the winter because it’s so cold. You can imagine the agriculture here is non-existent except for vines, so the food is very hardy and very meat-heavy, very cheese-heavy, and with these wines — oh, amazing.
I’ve never been to Jura. I’d love to go, but the reason I know the whole Comté cheese and vin jaune thing is, I was at my wine shop once and somebody came by and said, “I’m going to give you one of these experiences.” They brought a yellow wine and they brought some Comté and some Morbier, and we just sat and drank this crazy nutty curry spice, subtle curry spice wine with the cheese. Man, it was just an incredible experience.
That is Jura in a nutshell — a very wide range of wines. Go grab it. If you see something from Jura, it doesn’t matter what color it is, just grab the wine, try it, and hopefully, more of this stuff is further distributed throughout the United States, but if you find one, get your hands on it. Take a picture. Tag me, @VinePairKeith on Instagram. Let’s talk next week.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.
And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big old shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazingly wide spectrum of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wine. (Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast.) Whether you are new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. Visit TheBarrelRoom.com today to find your next favorite, where shipping is available.