The Jura is tiny. As a wine region, it accounts for a miniscule 0.2% of France’s annual production. The AOC color-blob map is less helpful here than it looks, since only a fraction of the allowable area is actually planted to vine—1,600 hectares or so. That’s a 1% drop in the bucket of Bordeaux’s 115,000 ha, 1/7th the size of Alsace, smaller, even, than a single appellation in the Loire dedicated to a single grape variety like Bourgueil, or Vouvray.
Tiny is important; it’s why the kaleidoscopic array of native grapes and idiosyncratically preserved local wine styles here is so striking. It’s also why the Jura is so often lumped in on wine lists or study guides with regions, like the Savoie or even Alsace, it doesn’t really have anything in common with. It just doesn’t take up enough space on its own.
If we’re going to compare the Jura to anything in order to understand it, better to try Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. The Côte d’Or and the Jura: two long slopes, running north-south, facing each other across an alluvial plain like closed parenthesis. (A little slope: interesting! Flat alluvial plains: boring!) Drive across the plain (its name is the Bresse) from Arbois and you can be anywhere in the Côte d’Or in about an hour. Both places: clay-limestone soils, forests on the plateau to your back, abbeys with their vineyards, pinot noir and chardonnay as mainstay varieties…
The Côte d’Or, with its unimpeachable classicism. The Jura, as though it’d gone through the looking-glass. Everything is bent just a little out of shape, just a little strange. One of these places gets weird.
First reason, big reason, is the ground beneath your feet.
The Côte d’Or’s sedimentary limestones, formed 170ish million years ago in the mid-Jurassic when it was the bottom of a shallow tropical sea swum by plesiosaurs, are stacked like a deck of cards on their eroded escarpment, all pretty uniform when it comes down to it, a game of subtle variation, the turn of a combe, the great hinge of Corton, genteel variations on a theme.
By the time we cross the plain, we’re standing on the birthplace of mountains. We’re still not that high up, actually—the typical elevation here is the barest smidge up from where Burgundy sits. The vines are all at the base of a plateau where you bring your cows for summer pasturage, the place where the true heights begin. But the mountain rising underneath takes that orderly deck of cards and turns it up on its side. You can walk tens of millions of years of geological time across just a few rows of vines, from the same brownish Bajocian marls as the Côte de Nuits to much older (and differently colored) marls from the late Triassic. (The firewall that marks the end of the Triassic and the Jurassic’s beginning was a mass extinction event 201.3 million years ago.) It’s why someone like Julien Labet is bottling like three dozen different cuvées, all sorted by marl color. Geology gets jumbled: there are blind valleys that twist and turn, outcroppings with star-shaped fossils, there’s even metamorphic schist.
In other words, we’re looking at a staggering diversity of soil and exposure, which is part of the reason why growers don’t stick to pinot.
The other part, though, is all about what didn’t happen. While the Côte d’Or’s fame mushroomed and its prize sites were named and recorded and it became inexorably identified with a single ‘noble’ variety, the Jura remained rural, isolated, unrationalized. It stayed in mixed agriculture, with grain and pasturage alongside vines. It was flotsam politically: part of Burgundy until Charles the Bold’s defeat by the French crown, then ceded to Austria, and passed via inheritance to the Habsburg kings of Spain (which is maybe why trousseau can be found in Galicia and the islands of Madeira?). It didn’t become fully part of France until 1678. The wine styles that make the Jura unique today aren’t by any means exclusive to it; they’re just archaic, and they died out in most other places that were able to transition into commercial regionhood.
So there are wines from grapes dried on straw mats, and still-sweet fermenting juice blended with brandy distilled from grape pomace. (Vin de paille, macvin.) As in Jerez in Andalucía, and on the west coast of Sardegna, and in Tokaj on the Hungarian–Slovakian border, they have a tradition of wines aged in a special cellar that nutures the formation of the voile, a veil of living yeast that protects the wine against oxidation and changes its character. (The yeast strains in these four regions that produce flor share a common ancestor in antiquity, from a fifth, unknown origin.) And because sometimes the veil breaks over the years the wine is aging in barrel, or is weak, and the wine oxidizes anyway, many of their everyday wines made from white grapes—the ones that aren’t the special wines called ‘yellow’ and aged under the veil for the better part of a decade (vin jaune)—are blends of failed oxidized white wine with fresher, direct-press white. (The euphemistic giveaway for these chimeras is the word “Tradition” on the label.)
It’s exceptional enough to find white wines made the way you’d expect (direct-press, fermented and then raised on the lees in barrel with regular topping-up to replace liquid lost to evaporation—you know, white Burgundy) that in the Jura they’re singled out by the word for that cellar maintenance: ouillé. (The distinct sub-region of the Sud Revermont, not exactly the Jura’s most prized, historically, might also be the place ouillé chardonnays and savagnins are most actively celebrated: think Ganevat, Labet, Buronfosse. And they can be stunning. Famously, Guillaume d’Angerville was blinded on a bottle of 2005 Tissot “Les Bruyéres”—ouillé chardonnay—in Paris, and was so struck by its Burgundian qualities that he ended up buying into the region. Sommeliers, be careful who you show wines to!)
The profusion and preservation of grape cultivars not found anywhere else, diverse and tricky to grow, is also part of this isolation and lack of economic rationalization. Chardonnay plantings are now starting to take the region over in order to fuel sparkling crémant production, but old exceptions still lurk everywhere: trousseau and poulsard in addition to pinot, the remarkable and ancient savagnin, not to mention nearly-extinct survivors like enfariné or béclan. In Rotalier, Jean-François Ganevat nurtures a little garden of 18+ varieties that fall outside of the AOC (I spy blauer portugeiser!), and Peggy & Jean-Pascal Buronfosse make a riotous field blend of a half dozen white & reds called “Se Kwa Sa?” Up in Poligny, young Valentin Morel planted a young vineyard of disease-resistant hybrids like rayon d’or and souvegnier gris that can grow without sprays or intervention in 2017 as an “act of voluntary resistance” against the phytochemical industry.
Even a vine like chardonnay has a spectrum of genetic profusion that tells you it’s been propagated here vegetatively (“stick a cutting in the ground”) for a long, long time: the aromatic & pink-skinned chardonnay rose and the red-stemmed & tropical melon à queue rouge are only the most eye-catching. This is a region with a wildly disproportionate degree of experimentation and genetic diversity.
That said, its meteoric ascent to cult fascination on distant shores is still an unlikely story. The wines of the Jura became totems in the New York wine scene in advance of the natural wine movement’s ascent back in the mid-aughts. They were badges of geekdom, or at least a shorthand for an adventurousness that was less common than it is now. (And for others, shorthand for a species of hipster-bashing that feels quaint these days.) The best way to realize just how peculiar this all was is to talk to French people about it and clock their complete mystification at foreigners’ fascination with this rural corner of their country. It’s as though in advance of a global ‘real spirits’ movement there was suddenly, in Copenhagen circa 2008, a run on ‘authentic Appalachian moonshine.’
Today, the dialectic has collapsed. Ganevat’s 2005 “Vignes de Mon Pére”, an ouillé savagnin aged 10 years in barrel, was given 100 points in 2016 by Luis Guttiérez at the Wine Advocate. Jean-François himself has since quietly sold the estate to a Russian billionaire (and friend, he says!). The tiny annual zero-zero production of neighbor and apprentice Kagami Kenjiro now trades for $1,000/bottle on the secondary market. Collectors hunt Overnoy poulsard and back-vintage Tissot pinot noir and stalk Labet email offers. Meanwhile, even as demand reaches a fever pitch for the Jura’s cult producers, the region remains just as tiny as ever. Tinier, in fact: annual losses to frost, hail, drought, and invasive species are mounting as climate change takes its toll. This fall’s harvest was an unmitigated disaster, with many growers left with nothing. The money shelled out by collectors who have to have a given bottle whatever the cost doesn’t make it back to the farmers themselves.
Increasingly, in its scarcity and pricing, the Jura’s future looks a lot like Burgundy’s, too.